Cutting Hair and Saying Prayers: Luther on When, How, and What to Prayer

Reading Time: 4 mins

When Luther's barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked him how to pray, Luther wrote him an open letter that has become a classic expression of the "when, how, and what" of prayer. It is as instructive today as when it was first penned it in 1535.

In an open letter, A Simple Way to Pray, Martin Luther addresses the concern his friend and barber, Peter Beskendorf, has regarding prayer. Luther’s letter is as instructive to us today as it was when he penned it in 1535. He covers three big questions we all have about prayer: when to pray, how to pray, and what to pray.

When to Pray

Luther never takes for granted his reader’s knowledge about prayer. He writes as if we need to learn it all—and rightly so. Dietrich Bonhoeffer picks this up later when he writes, “It is a dangerous error, surely widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings—all of which the heart can do by itself—with prayer.”

We rightly assume we must learn to pray, but our assumption falls short. We eye the content or the “what” of our prayer. In doing so we skip over the equally important “when” and “how” of prayer. Luther’s letter never does.

He begins with when to pray. He writes “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).” Luther’s first encouragement is to pray when we’re under attack by our old self and the devil. Sometimes this attack is obvious. Other times, it's as subtle as when we feel unenthused about our prayers.

He goes on to add, “It is good to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night.” Luther knows how distractible the flesh is. We always have pressing business to attend to, whether it’s caring for our children; carrying out a vital morning routine; or, for many more of us, checking what the internet has to say about this, that, or the other.

Luther does not mean we should only pray at those times. He would have our prayers punctuate our day. He encourages frequent prayer, “because one must unceasingly guard against sin and wrongdoing.” Luther never forgets how eager the devil is for us to pass on prayer, especially when we’re under his attack.

How to Pray

When Luther talks about how to pray, he means more than posture. He does mention that one could kneel or stand with hands folded and eyes toward heaven. But more importantly, Luther reiterates in several places the need for our hearts to “be made ready and eager for prayer.” The heart is “warmed and inclined toward prayer” by meditating on and reciting the word of God. In this way, Luther teaches that our prayer is a response to God first speaking to us.

In order to meditate on and recite God’s word, Luther encourages us first to limit distractions. We can follow his example by going to our rooms “or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled.” Luther also recognizes that we may not have a lengthy time to give to prayer. He repeats himself in numerous places when he instructs, “as time permits” or “if I have the time and opportunity.”

He calls for us to be focused in our prayers. He encourages the reader not to take on too much, to limit our words and avoid “idle chatter and prattle.” At one point he writes, “a good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent.”

Above all, Luther would prefer we listen for the Holy Spirit’s preaching in our prayers. Even at the expense of our usual order of prayer. He writes, “It may happen occasionally that I may get lost among so many ideas in one petition that I forego the other six. If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.”

What to Pray

Luther spends the bulk of his letter discussing what to pray. Implicitly in his letter, Luther teaches that God's word is the content of our prayers.

Again following Luther’s lead, Bonheoffer says it explicitly: “The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken to us and speaks to us. By means of the speech of the Father in heaven his children learn to speak with him. Repeating God’s own words after him, we begin to pray to him.” God’s word not only spurs on our prayer, God’s word makes up our prayer.

Luther mentions other parts of Scripture, such as the Psalms and the words of Paul, but he organizes his prayers and the instruction of his letter around the basics of God’s word: the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus taught; the Ten Commandments which God himself wrote down and gave to his people on Mount Sinai; and the Apostles’ Creed, the oldest, faithful summary of God’s word.

In organizing himself this way, Luther teaches us to pray nothing more than the Catechism. To pray the Catechism is to pray God’s word. As the Formula of Concord confesses, the Catechism is the “Bible of the laity, in which everything is summarized that is treated in detail in Holy Scripture and that is necessary for a Christian to know for salvation” (FC Ep Summary 5; K-W 487).

John Pless points out that “the Catechism provides both the categories and contours of our theology.” He later writes, “the texts of the Catechism serve to anchor the praying Christian in God’s word.” As the Catechism provides the categories and contours of our theology, it also provides the content and configuration of our prayers.

Ultimately, the when, how, and what of prayer can be summarized by Luther’s teaching on the word “Amen.” “Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; This I know as a certainty and a truth.’ That is what Amen means.”

We say, “Amen,” trusting that God, in his mercy and grace, will rescue us from the attacks of the old self and the devil, both of which make us cool and joyless in prayer. We say, “Amen,” in response to the words God has first spoken to us. And, we say, “Amen,” affirming that the words we spoke to God, which he taught us to speak, are true and will be heard because as Paul writes, God “remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13).

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