If you’re like me, you often struggle with prayer. Maybe you struggle with finding the time, or choosing to make the time. Maybe you struggle with what to say.
Peter Beskendorf, a barber in Wittenberg, had a similar problem. But by God’s providence, he happened to be Martin Luther’s barber. Knowing the Reformer’s reputation as a serious prayer warrior, Peter asked Luther for prayer advice. Luther’s response was to write a short book on the subject: A Simple Way to Pray.1
In this book, Luther details his own method of prayer: pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed.
First, when I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little Psalter, hurry to my room, or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled and, as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.2
After that, he would begin to expand on the petitions of the Prayer based on current situations and the teaching in his Small Catechism. Here’s the example he gives of praying “Hallowed Be Your Name”:
Yes, Lord God, dear Father, hallowed be Your name, both in us and throughout the whole world. Destroy and root out the abominations, idolatry, and heresy of all false teachers and fanatics who wrongly use Your name and in scandalous ways take it in vain and horribly blaspheme it. They insistently boast that they teach Your Word and the laws of the church, though they really use the devil’s deceit and trickery in Your name to wretchedly seduce many poor souls throughout the world, even killing and shedding much innocent blood, and in such persecution they believe that they render You a divine service.
Dear Lord God, convert and restrain them. Convert those who are still to be converted that they with us and we with them may hallow and praise Your name, both with true and pure doctrine and with a good and holy life. Restrain those who are unwilling to be converted so that they be forced to cease from misusing, defiling, and dishonoring Your holy name and from misleading the poor people. Amen.3
If he had time after finishing the Prayer, Luther would move on to the Ten Commandments. He took them as “a school text, songbook, penitential book, and prayer book.” In other words, he would take each commandment and ask four questions of it:
- What does it teach?
- How should I thank God?
- What sins do I need to confess?
- For what should I ask?
He would then pray those ideas to God. I won’t cite an example here because they’re too long for a citation. Assuming he still had time, he would do the same thing with the Apostles’ Creed, splitting them into three parts “corresponding to the three Persons of the divine majesty” as follows:
- We believe in God, the Father Almighty, etc.
- And in Jesus Christ, etc.
- We believe in the Holy Spirit, etc.
Luther added that one could use this fourfold method of prayer for any part of Scripture. “With practice, one can take the Ten Commandments on one day, a psalm or chapter of Holy Scripture the next day, and use them as flint and steel to kindle a flame in the heart.” I’ve personally used this method with my church’s memory verses, or even catechism questions.
In giving this advice, however, Luther added that we should not do so much that we get overwhelmed and weary. Frequent prayer, rather than lengthy prayer, is the goal. “It is enough to consider one section or half a section, which kindles a fire in the heart.” As such, I usually do one commandment and one part of the Creed in a day — assuming I get through the Prayer in the first place. There’s no requirement to do so.
Finally, and most importantly, Luther advised to leave room for the Holy Spirit to direct our hearts and minds in prayer rather than be inflexibly glued to the form:
[I]f in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honor Him by letting go of this written scheme; be still and listen to Him who can do better than you can. Remember what He says and note it well, and you will behold wondrous things in the law of God (see Psalm 119:18).
I pray that this article has helped to kindle a fire in your heart. It has in mine! If you want to read more about Luther’s simple way to pray, you can find the book online for free. Alternatively, you can find the edition I’ve cited throughout this article in a book written by Archie Parrish, where he provides a lot of extra information on Luther’s prayer life.
1 Luther would later change the title to The Way to Pray.
2 Archie Parrish, A Simple Way to Pray: The Wisdom of Martin Luther on Prayer, 5th ed. (Marietta: Serve International, 2009), Kindle edition.
3 Luther found ways to pray for the conversion of his enemies in most of the petitions. Given Luther’s fiery reputation, that surprised me when I first read the book, but maybe it shouldn’t have. He was very concerned with the saving of souls.