One day, while working on an article for our synod’s monthly publication, listening to tracks I was working on, and browsing my Twitter-feed (my wife would remind me here that nobody can actually multitask, they only do said tasks terribly and all at once), I saw Pope Francis tweet this out…
Pope Francis seems to be suggesting that our prayers will reflect the patterns and rhythms of our lives. Do you agree with the Pope’s statement about prayer? (Are his tweets considered infallible? Hmm…) I don’t know if I am representing his intent correctly in my above statement, but it spurred me on to do a little work with a topic that I find difficult to understand at times:
What is prayer? How should we pray? These questions and more I don’t know that I could answer particularly well.
I do, however, like the answers of two…*ahem*… ‘seasoned’ theologians that I enjoy reading: Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Martin Luther. They offer a wonderful depth of understanding regarding prayer, and what Scripture has to say about it. In Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, and in The Large Catechism respectively, I’ve found their words helpful. Bonhoeffer says,
“Lord, Teach us to Pray!
So spoke the disciples to Jesus. In making this request, they confessed that they were not able to pray on their own, that they had to learn to pray. The phrase ‘learning to pray’ sounds strange to us. If the heart does not overflow and begin to pray by itself, we say, it will never ‘learn’ to pray. But it is a dangerous error, surely very 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. And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty. No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ.” (Psalms: Prayer-Book of the Bible, p.5, emphasis mine.)
Here, Bonhoeffer turns what seems to be the most common understanding of prayer on its head; it is not simply pouring out your heart to God. According to Bonhoeffer, it is firstly “to find the way to God” in order to, secondly, “speak with Him.” He adds, “whether the heart is full [to be poured out] or empty.” So how do you find the way to God? How do you speak with Him? In good Lutheran understanding [and certainly proper Christian understanding], finding your way to God occurs rather when God finds His way to your dead in, and enslaved to, sinful self, and calls you forth to new glorious life like Jesus did Lazarus. Only after this has happened–only through Jesus Christ–can that person pray and be heard in his or her prayer. Bonhoeffer expresses this as he continues…
“The disciples want to pray, but they do not know how to do it… Only in Jesus Christ are we able to pray, and with Him we also know that we shall be heard. And so we must learn to pray. The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father…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 speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer.” (Psalms: Prayer-Book of the Bible, p.5-6, emphasis mine.)
Paul teaches us in Romans 10 that faith comes by hearing the Word. This is how Jesus calls us forth from death to life, like He did Lazarus. It is when God finds us and gives us this gift of faith, by grace, that we’ve “found our way to God” and we thereby also have the very [W]ords with which to pray to Him.
That was pretty wordy, but I pray you’re able to follow! To pray and be heard is itself a gift from God, like His gift of faith and salvation.
Now, bringing it all together are the words of Jesus in John 14:13-14; “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”
If prayer is a gift, Jesus has described it as quite an extravagant one!
I don’t know about you, but my anything in Christ’s name is a long list, and not necessarily a list Jesus had in mind. Even though, in Christ, we have the gift of being considered Saints, we are still Sinners! How do we work against our sinful tendency to misuse the privilege of prayer? Does asking for anything in Jesus’ name mean that studio equipment I really want, a new car, or to never experience difficulty in life? Does this glorify God the Father in God the Son?
How do we properly, as Jesus said, ask for something, anything, in His name? Well…
Enter Luther, ‘my man’ (*Denzel Washington voice…*).
Martin Luther, in the Large Catechism, introduces “The Lords Prayer” by explaining prayer with the Second of the 10 Commandments. He says,
“It is our duty to pray because God has commanded it. We were told in the Second Commandment, ‘You shall not take God’s name in vain.’ Thereby we are required to praise the holy name and pray or call upon it in every need. For to call upon it is nothing else than to pray… This God requires of us; he has not left it to our choice… By invocation and prayer the name of God is glorified and used to good purpose.” (LC, Lord’s Prayer, ¶5-8, emphasis mine.)
Considering this, does asking for anything in Christ’s name mean I can ask to never suffer, while playing with my new studio equipment, in a new Lamborghini? Would that glorify God the Father in God the Son? Would that use God’s name to good purpose?
No. That would be calling upon His name incorrectly–taking His name in vain, using it for selfish gain, thereby lying about Him. Because what glorifies God the Father’s name? Me never suffering and having a new car? A couple chapters earlier, in John’s Gospel, Jesus prays that the Father’s name be glorified. God the Father audibly answers Him saying He “has glorified” His name, and He “will glorify it” again. In the context of this passage, God’s name being glorified again meant Jesus was to be raised up onto the cross to die for sin.
Calling upon God’s name rightly means, according to Luther, seeking His grace and mercy again and again, as offered through Jesus lifted up onto the cross. As we well know, this is inseparable from trusting in God alone to be our God, the First Commandment. Luther defines trust in God as “looking to Him for all good” and fleeing to Him in “every time of need.” Furthermore, he puts forth the Lord’s Prayer as a gift of God to us and the means by which this can be done. In other words, prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer, are a gift to the Christian to help in correct daily trust and praise of God.
“In seven successive articles or petitions are comprehended all the needs that continually beset us, each one so great that it should impel us to keep praying for it all our lives.” (LC, Lord’s Prayer, ¶34)
How often do I trust that which is not God to be my God? How often do I look to that which is not God for all good, for provision and protection in every need? How often do we act this out, seeking and calling upon those things instead of God?
This is nothing else than sin, and the wages of sin is death.
I desperately need the mercy and grace that God would have me trust in and pray to Him for, through Jesus. How is this delivered to us? God’s Word, the person of Jesus Christ.
Maybe that is how we should pray.
For those waiting for the solid application part of this post: there it is. Pray God’s own Word. There are no better words to say! The disciples learned to pray by doing this and, as Luther said, were given seven successive article in which every need, including God’s mercy and grace for our sins, are comprehended. God’s Word in its entirety has a lot to say. Application part two: maybe we can spend more time in that Word to continue to learn, as children continue to learn how they should speak, how we should pray.
So, do you agree with the Pope’s tweet about prayer?
I think I do. I might say it this way though: We learn how to pray, just as we do to speak and listen: with God’s own Word.
I find myself more and more not simply praying whatever comes to my mind, or whatever I feel in the moment, but rather praying the Lord’s Prayer, and then hearing His Word to me in Scripture. God knows our needs, and those of the neighbours we pray for, better than we do, and in Christ we’re given good words to say and the assurance that God hears them. I struggle with prayer, and I don’t believe I have the monopoly on what God’s Word means, but I do believe this is how I, and perhaps we, should pray, and I believe it is yet one more wonderful gift from God to His people.
by pastor nick.