Martin Luther on Prayer

No doubt we will hear a fair bit about Martin Luther in the coming months, but I don’t think he’s featured too much on Gentle Reformation so far, so perhaps I can share a few notes I recently came across on some points Luther made about prayer.

  1. Prayer is a duty

Luther understood prayer first and foremost as a duty, because God has commanded us to do it. It’s more than a duty, of course, but it is not less. The third commandment not only forbids us from using God’s name in an empty and meaningless way – it also requires us to praise the holy name of God and call upon it all our needs. Prayer is just as clearly and solemnly commanded as having no other gods, not murdering or stealing, and we need to have a greater sense of that than we do. Luther wrote, ‘From fact that prayer is so urgently commanded, we ought to conclude that we should by no means despise our prayers, but rather prize them highly.’ Even more strongly, Luther declared, ‘He who does not pray should know that he is no Christian and does not belong in the kingdom of God.’

I wonder do we take this reason seriously? My generation and younger (I’m 42) don’t have much time for duty by and large. People like to do what they want and not what they are told they have to do. But I wonder if that isn’t that quite a modern notion – a luxury that previous generations knew nothing of. I’m not for a moment suggesting (or rather, Luther isn’t) that duty is the only factor in our praying, but on those days when we have little or no desire to pray, surely this consideration should be enough to bring us to our knees: the Lord commands it.

  1. Prayer is the hardest work of all

Luther calls prayer ‘A labour above all labours, since he who prays must wage a mighty warfare against the doubt and murmuring excited by the faintheartedness and unworthiness we feel within us.’ Haven’t you found that to be true? Yet isn’t it puzzling on one level that prayer should be so challenging. After all, it doesn’t require any special equipment; you don’t have to go to a special place at a certain time of the day to do it; you don’t need another person to do it; you don’t need special training; you don’t need to speak out loud or get into a particular position to do it. You can pray sitting in an armchair in your living room or even lying in your bed (though I’m not suggesting that’s the best position in which to pray!). So why should it be so difficult? It can only be because of the spiritual battle going on behind the physical scenes.

Luther knew better than most of us just how spiritually demanding it was to pray – that it was even more laborious than preaching or performing other official duties in the church. He wrote, ‘When we are preaching the Word, we are more passive than active; God is speaking through us, and our teaching is his work.’

  1. Prayer is calling upon God’s name

Luther defined prayer as calling on God’s holy name. ‘To speak to God means to pray; this is indeed a great glory that the high majesty of heaven should stoop to us poor worms and permit us to open our mouths to him…’ Prayer is a duty, but it is also such an incredible privilege. Has familiarity with this privilege bred contempt? Have we lost our sense of wonder that we ‘poor worms’ are able to approach the King of kings and speak to him freely?

  1. The Motive of prayer

Why should we pray? As we’ve seen, Luther said first because it is our duty – the Lord strictly requires us to pray. Second, because of his promise, in which he declares that he will hear us. Third, because of our need and misery ‘which burden lies so heavily on our shoulders that we have to carry it to God immediately and pour it out before him.’ Tim Keller speaks of a time some years ago when he and his wife were passing through a particularly difficult trial and came to realise their utter and constant dependence on God. They compared their need to pray each day to the need to take a pill which was essential for health and life to continue. If you had to take a certain pill every day at 5pm or you would die, you would make absolutely certain that nothing ever prevented you taking that medication. How much more important is it that we pray each day – otherwise we will flounder spiritually. Every day we have praise to offer, sins to confess, thanksgivings to bring and supplications to ask.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray.