Martin Luther on Prayer in Life
Summary and Keywords
Martin Luther saw prayer as crucial to human life, a life created by the relationship to God. In this relationship God starts a conversation, communicating God’s words of law and promise. Prayer is a part of the human response to God’s speaking, a response itself shaped by the words of command and promise. Luther thought that God’s promise to hear prayer defines both the nature of God and the nature of the human relationship to God, as well as the human approach to life. Luther’s comments and instructions on prayer permeated his work. Luther sought to build an evangelical prayer practice that reflected the key insights of his theology: just as God redeems the unworthy human, so God promises to hear and respond to the one praying, despite his or her unworthiness. Humans respond to God’s actions in law and promise when they pray regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. Freedom in Christ sets humans free to use prayer practices that help them to do this.
Questions Springing out of Luther’s Context
Martin Luther sought to counter problematic medieval beliefs and address basic questions of his time concerning prayer. Why do we pray? Luther cited God’s command to pray and God’s promise to hear prayer as well as human need.1 Prayer is not a good work done for the purpose of earning merit before God but real conversation with God. To whom do we pray? We pray to God, not to saints, angels, or the Virgin Mary. God has promised to hear prayer; the others have not. For what do we pray? As Luther wrote in the Large Catechism (1529), we pray for “faith and the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments.”2 In many places he encouraged people to take all their needs to God. Will God hear and respond? God will hear because God has promised to hear. God’s willingness to hear and respond is not based on human worthiness. Luther was certain that if God did not intend to answer, he would not have commanded us to pray and promised to hear us. God’s answer may be something different from what we request. When do we pray? At regular times and in times of peril and distress. How do we pray? Luther thought the Lord’s Prayer was the finest prayer, but he also advocated prayers structured around parts of the catechism and biblical prayers. Who should pray? All people, not simply a religious or monastic class.
Prayer as Conversation and as Eschatological Battle
Luther saw prayer as both a communal and a personal matter. God’s people, both together and individually, find their lives shaped by the great conversation between God and humans. Luther’s catechisms illustrate this conversation, with God speaking first in law (Ten Commandments) and promise (creed) and humans responding in prayer (Lord’s Prayer).
This conversation takes place in the midst of existential and eschatological battle with the forces of evil. Prayer was necessary to this battle, as Luther wrote in 1532 to Valentine Hausmann:
You should call upon God and pray, especially at the time when you become aware of the terror. You should fall upon your knees and cry out to heaven…. Pray all the harder when you think it is to no purpose. You must learn to struggle until the terror lets up of its own accord. Do not simply remain passive, look on, and suffer whatever happens to you, for then your condition will get worse as time passes. You must pray powerfully, cry out against your terror, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer in a loud voice. Above all, you must take to heart that there is no doubt that your terror comes from the devil. God wants you to resist, and it is on this account that he allows this to happen. And you may be sure that he will hear fervent prayers and help.3
God as the Hearer of Prayer and the Generous Responder
Luther emphasized repeatedly that God has promised to hear prayer and will respond generously. In his Jonah commentary, Luther noted, “For God cannot resist helping him who cries to Him and implores Him. His divine goodness cannot hold aloof; it must help and lend an ear.”4 While commenting on Genesis 17, Luther noted that God always grants more than we ask for or are able to understand.5 Abraham is content to have Ishmael, the son of his maid, as his heir. But God gives Abraham a son through his wife, Sarah. For Luther, this story showed that God is generous—and God’s hearing of prayers even defines God’s identity. Referring to Ephesians 3:20, Luther remarked, “God’s title and true name is this, that He is a Hearer of prayers. But we … are called those who do not know how to pray or what to pray for.”6 Repeatedly he reminded his listeners that “we have a God who is able to give more than we understand or ask for.” Our failing capacity to grasp this is not a barrier, and even our failing words are not barriers, for “even though we do not know what we should ask for and how, nevertheless the Spirit of God, who dwells in the hearts of the godly, sighs and groans for us.”7 Luther cited James, John, and Augustine’s mother, Monica, as examples of people who did not know for what they prayed but who received far more.8
Prayer as Regular Practice: Morning and Evening; Mealtimes
Luther advocated frequent and daily prayer. As he wrote in the Large Catechism (1529), “Therefore from youth on we should form the habit of praying daily for our needs.”9 In 1535 Luther wrote A Simple Way to Pray10 for his barber. It contained much practical advice on prayer. Luther recommended that prayer
be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, ‘Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.’ Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.11
This echoes the advice given in his Small Catechism (1529), where Luther provided content and structure for a blessing or prayer “in the morning, as soon as you get out of bed” as well as a blessing “in the evening, when you go to bed.” He also provided prayers for use before and after meals.12 Luther knew that set times and habits of prayer could be helpful to the Christian.
Luther knew that prayer could take place at any time. Commenting on Abraham’s conversation with God in Genesis 15, Luther noted when prayer frequently happens:
It is characteristic of sublime trials to occupy hearts when they are alone. For this reason there is frequent mention in Holy Scripture of praying at night and in solitude. Affliction is the teacher of such praying. Thus because Abraham was occupied with these sad thoughts, he was unable to sleep. Therefore he got up and prayed; but while he is praying and feeling such great agitation within himself, God appears to him and converses with him in a friendly manner.13
Prayer as Shaping and Enabling the Active Life
For Luther, prayer never replaced action but rather enabled and included action. His morning blessing in the Small Catechism includes saying the Lord’s Prayer and a morning prayer. Then it continues “you are to go to your work joyfully.”14 Luther did not see the life of prayer as opposed to or precluding the life of action.
Luther did not think that prayer should be left to a special “praying” group of people, that is, monastics. Rather, prayer is embedded in the life of every Christian. The reality that God has promised to hear prayer and may change his revealed intentions in bodily matters here on the earth indicates a connection between God’s work and human work. It suggests that humans cooperate with God in shaping this world. For Luther, God wants humans to work on this earth through their callings, and God also wants to hear from humans about how those vocations might be lived out. Clearly, the faithful and creative engagement in one’s vocations is closely linked with a lively prayer attitude unafraid to ask God for anything, even what seems to contradict his will.
Prayer and the Life of the Church
Luther saw prayer as an integral part of the life of the church and its worship. Prayer is one of the seven signs of the church in On the Councils and the Church (1539), where Luther wrote, “The holy Christian people are externally recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God.”15 In Concerning the Order of Public Worship (1523), Luther noted, “Know first of all that a Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer.”16 Luther noted that after lesson and sermon “the congregation shall unite in giving thanks to God, in praising him, and in praying for the fruits of the Word, etc. For this, the Psalms should be used and some good responsories and antiphons.”17 In An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523), Luther commented on the prayers used in worship.18 While firmly rejecting the canon of the Mass, Luther translated, used, adapted, and wrote many collects and prayers for worship. In many places he admonished the church to pray. Luther also recognized and followed established seasonal rhythms in regard to prayer. In the late medieval era, Rogate Sunday and the following Rogation days were traditional times to preach on prayer.19 Luther followed this practice, using these sermons to give instruction in prayer. In a letter to Justus Jonas in 1542, Luther asked his church to pray, noting that “there is no news except that Satan is beginning to feel secure because we are slumbering and are slothful in prayer.” He later continued, “Admonish your church to pray earnestly, fervently, constantly.”20
Prayer for all That Sustains Life—and in Particular Circumstances
Luther believed we should pray for all our needs and particularly in all times of need. His explanation of the fourth petition, “Give us today our daily bread,” in his Small Catechism gives a glimpse of the things for which we may pray. Rejecting the medieval tradition that saw this petition as a request for the Lord’s Supper, Luther saw it instead as a request for everything that maintains and enhances life on the earth:
Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.21
The expansiveness of this explanation indicates that Luther thought all needs—however mundane, repetitive, and everyday—could and should be brought to God. In his Large Catechism he advocated:
Therefore from youth on we should form the habit of praying daily for our needs, whenever we are aware of anything that affects us or other people around us, such as preachers, magistrates, neighbors, and servants.22
Luther also recognized that prayer was an integral part of some activities in which the Christian engaged. Prayer (Oratio) was the first of the three steps (Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio) in studying the Bible (Preface to German Writings). Luther advised to “straightway despair of your reason and understanding” and instead “kneel down … and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.”23
Just as Luther advocated specificity in bringing human needs before God, he also advocated specificity in thanksgiving to God. Luther saw in Psalm 118 a “general statement of thanksgiving for all the kindnesses God daily and unceasingly showers on all, both good and evil.”24 While explicating verses 2 through 4 of that psalm, Luther became very specific in naming those things for which humans should give thanks: “temporal government and blessed peace,” “spiritual government, including priests, preachers, teachers, in short, the precious Word of God and the holy Christian Church,” and “the true assembly … the elect children of God and all the saints on earth.”25 Luther did not merely thank God in general for his goodness but named specifically how God’s goodness is manifested.
Prayer in Times of Need
In his Small Catechism Luther saw the second commandment as admonishing all humans to call upon God “in every time of need.”26 Repeatedly he urged his listeners and readers not to look at or consider their own worthiness but rather to base their prayers on God’s command to pray and promise to hear. “We pray after all because we are unworthy to pray” Luther noted in his 1519 Rogation sermon.27 So, too, in times of need, he sought to direct them away from any consideration of whether they deserved to be heard and to God’s explicit command to pray and sure promise to hear.
His letters give evidence of how often and in what circumstances he encouraged people to pray. Writing to his wife just days before he died, he admonished, “I beg you to pray and leave the worrying to God.”28 He encouraged a forthright statement of needs and requests. Writing to a despondent Elizabeth Agricola in 1527, Luther assured her:
Remember that Christ is near and bears your ills, for he has not forsaken you, as your flesh and blood make you imagine. Only call upon him earnestly and sincerely and you will be certain that he hears you, for you know that it is his way to help, strengthen, and comfort all who ask him. We too shall pray, and even now pray earnestly, that in his Son, Christ, God may be gracious to you and strengthen you.29
Consistent with his view that prayer depended on God’s command and promise, rather than on human worthiness, Luther encouraged people to pray for God’s deliverance even in circumstances where they knew they did not deserve it. In his Appeal for Prayer against the Turks (1541), Luther spent quite a bit of space telling his readers that they, in fact, deserved God’s judgment in the form of the Turks. Then he went on to tell them, also at length, that they had every right to call upon God for deliverance from the Turks.30
Prayer and Human Suffering
Luther thought prayer in times of suffering and distress absolutely crucial and a necessary exercise of faith. God wants to hear prayer, so much so that he sends events that drive people to pray. As Luther noted in his commentary on Psalm 118:
Let everyone know most assuredly and not doubt that God does not send him this distress to destroy him…. He wants to drive him to pray, to implore, to fight, to exercise his faith, to learn another aspect of God’s person than before, to accustom himself to do battle even with the devil and with sin, and by the grace of God to be victorious. Without this experience we could never learn the meaning of faith, the Word, Spirit, grace, sin, death, or the devil.31
A particularly compelling example of prayer in time of need comes from Luther’s commentary on Jonah (1525). Jonah had rebelled against God’s call and ended up in the belly of the fish. Jonah was, for all practical purposes, dead. In this situation of great spiritual and bodily need, Jonah started to pray. As Luther noted in his commentary on Jonah 2:
For there was nothing else to do in such need of both body and soul but cry out. Our desires, our powers are nothing, just as Jonah here called out in pressing need. No merit was present, for he had sinned very seriously against the Lord. And so the only thing to do was to cry out, to cry out “to the Lord.” For the Lord is the only one to whom we must flee as to a sacred anchor and the only safety on those occasions when we think that we are done for.32
Luther knew that the human tendency was not to pray to God but rather to remain sunk in despair and to seek another helper. Luther noted:
It is vain to lament and to bemoan your condition and to fret and to worry about your sad estate and to cast about for a helper. That will not extricate you from your woes; it will only drag you in deeper. Listen and hear what Jonah does.33
Prayer amidst suffering flees to God rather than from God. Luther knew that this is counterintuitive. The perception that God is angry prevents people from praying. Luther commented:
Nature is far more adept at fleeing from God when He is angry and when He punishes…. It always seeks help from other sources; it will have nothing of this God and cannot abide Him. Therefore human nature forever flees, and yet it does not escape but must thus remain condemned in wrath, sin, death, and hell. Here you can glimpse a goodly portion of hell.34
Notice that Luther defined hell as the situation of fleeing from God and refusing to call upon God. Calling on God is impossible. By nature humans cannot do what they should do—call upon God. They feel God’s anger and punishment and see God as an angry tyrant and enemy. But a drastic turn takes place: “Therefore when Jonah had advanced to the point of entreating God, he had gained the victory.”35 Jonah’s victory did not come when he was finally spit up from the belly of the fish; rather it came when he prayed. Luther drew this lesson:
And thus you, too, must be minded; thus you, too, must act. Do not cast your eyes down or take to your heels, but stand still, rise above this, and you will discover the truth of the verse (Ps. 118:5): “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me.” Take recourse to the Lord, yes, to the Lord, and to no other. Turn to the very One who is angry and punishes, and resort to no other. The Lord’s answer consists in this, that you will soon find your situation improved; you will soon perceive the wrath abating and the punishment lightened. God does not let you go unanswered so long as you can call upon Him, even if you can do no more than that.36
Luther also saw Jonah as an example not to be followed—as someone who delayed seeking help from God. Luther commented:
He, too consumed himself a long time with his distress before he resorted to prayer…. If he had not delayed, he would presumably have been delivered sooner. He also bids and teaches you not to emulate his example in this respect but he immediately states that he prayed and thus was granted deliverance.37
For Luther, the logic of prayer was different from human logic. We flee to the God who seems to us angry and vengeful, and there we find the attentive, merciful God. For Luther, prayer makes a difference—in the midst of suffering, it changes reality. Because God stands ready to help, Luther can say:
All depends on our calling and crying to Him. We dare not keep silent. Turn your gaze upward, raise your folded hands aloft, and pray forthwith: “come to my aid, God my Lord! Etc., “and you will immediately find relief. If you can cry and supplicate, then there is no longer any reason for worry to abide. Even hell would not be hell or would not remain hell if its occupants could cry and pray to God.38
Prayer Can Change God’s Revealed Intention in Bodily Matters
For Luther, the story of Lot fleeing the destruction of Sodom was instruction in how God changes to respond to human prayer.39 Genesis 19 describes angels seizing Lot and his family, taking them out of the city, and commanding them, “Flee for your life … flee to the hills, lest you be consumed.” Lot, however, pleads in verses 19 and 20 not to be sent to the hills but rather to a nearby city. “Let me escape there!” Lot’s request is granted. For Luther this story taught several points: God wants to be asked and wants to respond—and may change his intention. God does the will of the human who is asking, even though the human is unworthy. Prayer makes a difference. This story encourages prayer and not “murmuring.”
For Luther, this story showed that God wants to be asked to act and wants to respond to those asking. Luther described prayer as “highly necessary” and urged his listeners not to be fooled by the “evil temptation that we think that even without our prayer God will give us what we need, and that since He knows what benefits us most, there is no need of prayer.”40 Luther made clear that Lot’s prayer changed God’s plan and intention and urged his listeners to note this carefully but at the same time not to “debate about the secret change of God’s will.”41 After quoting Psalm 145:19, “The Lord fulfills the desire of all who fear Him,” Luther reminded his listeners of the story of Joshua praying and commanding the sun to stand still:
But what is the reason? No other than that God does the will of those who fear Him and subordinates His will to ours, provided we continue to fear Him. Moreover, here the text states clearly enough that it is God’s will that Lot should not remain in any part of the region. But God changes this will because Lot fears God and prays.42
Luther gave several examples from scripture to show that “God allows Himself to be prevailed upon and subordinates his will to ours.”43
For Luther this led to these questions: “Why, then, are we so remiss in regard to prayer? Why are we without faith to such an extent and so fainthearted, as though our prayer amounted to nothing?”44 Luther emphasized this point. He noted that “we have been taught not only by the promises but also by the examples—that God wants to disregard His own will and do ours.”45 For Luther what was most important here was not the abstract theological point, that is, that God changes his will because of prayer. Most important was the story’s concrete encouragement to pray: “Thus this account rouses and spurs us on to prayer in all our dangers, since God wants to do what we want, provided that we humbly prostrate ourselves before Him and pray.”46
Luther returned several times to the theme that we can pray and ask God for a different result, even though we are terrified by our unworthiness and therefore hesitant to pray. Reminding his listeners that Lot, too, was unworthy, he summarized:
Therefore let it be enough for us that we have been called to faith through the Word, have been taught by the Word of God, and for this reason are part of the church, which has the definite command to pray. Consequently, you should not look at your unworthiness; you should look at God’s command and not debate whether you are worthy or not. But you should hold fast the promise that the Lord wants to do the will of those who fear Him.47
This whole matter of God’s being willing to change his intention is a two-edged sword. Do humans really want God to change his intention? What exactly might be changed? In a postil sermon for Maundy Thursday, Luther addressed these questions.48 Commenting on Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luther distinguished between bodily matters and other matters. In matters that are not bodily matters—that God keep us in his word, save us, forgive us our sins, and give us the Holy Spirit and eternal life—God’s will is already known and certain. God wants all humans to be saved; he wants all humans to recognize their sin and believe in forgiveness through Christ. We know and believe that he wants these.
But humans cannot have the same certainty as to what God’s will is in bodily matters. We do not know whether God wants us to experience sickness, poverty, and other trials and whether those serve God’s honor and a person’s salvation. For that reason, ask for God’s help but leave it to God’s will whether he wants to help immediately. Prayer in this situation is not in vain, for if God does not help immediately, he will strengthen the heart and give grace and patience so that one may endure it and finally overcome it—as the example of Christ teaches. God did not take this cup away from Christ but sent him an angel to strengthen him. Luther assures his listeners: “So it will also happen with you, even if God would delay or deny his help.”49 Luther recognizes here that God may choose to change his will—or he may choose not to change it.
So, Luther advocated, cry to the Father as Christ cries to the Father. Do it in total confidence that God wants to help his children. But just as Christ asks the Father to take this cup from him, just as Christ expects good things from his Father and yet adds, “Not my will, rather your will be done,” so also we should humble ourselves and not insist on our will. We should rather leave it to God whether he wants us to remain in misery longer and bear it patiently just as Christ did here.
Some prayers are not answered—but even then we know God’s care. In his lectures on Deuteronomy,50 published first in 1525, Luther used the story of Moses to teach about prayer that is seemingly “not heard” or “not answered.” In Deuteronomy 3:24–25 Moses’s people were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. Moses wanted to cross the Jordan and see the land. Moses’s request was not granted. Instead, God tells him to go to the top of Pisgah and look over the Jordan but also tells him, “You shall not cross over this Jordan.” Finally, God tells him to encourage and strengthen Joshua. Luther wondered why Moses’s prayer was not heard “since it is likely that he prayed in the Spirit?” and responded:
This is written for our example and consolation. For even though the Lord does not hear him and this causes Moses to realize that He is angry with him, as he says here, nevertheless He does not desert him; He commands him to climb the mountain and view the land, and to give orders to Joshua. 51
Luther saw this lesson in the story “Let us in no wise doubt that we are favored by, and dear to God; and let us grasp at the favor beneath the wrath, lest we lose heart.”52 Moses is not heard, that is, his request is not granted. Yet Luther acknowledges that Moses is heard and that beneath God’s wrath toward Moses lies favor. In the midst of God’s rejection of our requests, humans are to have confidence that they are favored by God and dear to God.
Forms of Prayer
Luther made clear that he considered the Lord’s Prayer the very best of all prayers. He expressed his high opinion of the Lord’s Prayer many times. In An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen (1519) he wrote:
Since our Lord is the author of this prayer, it is without a doubt the most sublime, the loftiest, and the most excellent. If he, the good and faithful Teacher, had known a better one, he would surely have taught us that too.53
In his Large Catechism (1529) he commented, “There is no nobler prayer to be found on earth, for it has the powerful testimony that God loves to hear it.” 54
Luther recommended the use of catechetical elements to structure prayers and shape content. In his 1535 letter to his barber, Luther reported his own prayer practice and gave concrete advice on what should precede prayer and be contained in prayer. He reported that he said “the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and … some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms” before beginning the Lord’s Prayer.55 Luther focused, in particular, on the three chief parts of the catechism—Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s Prayer—to shape prayers. He described how he used the Ten Commandments in this regard:
I take one part after another and free myself as much as possible from distractions in order to pray. I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.56
Luther included similar advice for praying the Apostles’ Creed. He thought of each article as leading to instruction, thanksgiving, confession, and prayer. But he also warned against using too many words:
Take care, however, not to undertake all of this or so much that one becomes weary in spirit. Likewise, a good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent. It is enough to consider one section or half a section which kindles a fire in the heart.57
Luther often cited biblical examples to teach the form and content of prayer and remind his listeners that God does indeed answer. In On War against the Turk (1529) he wrote:
In exhorting to prayer we must also introduce words and examples from the Scriptures which show how strong and mighty a man’s prayer has sometimes been; for example, Elijah’s prayer which St. James praises [Jas. 5:17]; the prayers of Elisha and other prophets; of kings David, Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jesias, Hezekiah, etc.; the story of how God promised Abraham that he would spare the land of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of five righteous men. For the prayer of a righteous man can do much if it be persistent, St. James says in his Epistle [Jas. 5:16].58
Luther used biblical models to suggest structures for prayer. Commenting on Lot’s request while fleeing Sodom (Gen. 19:17–22), Luther gave a short lesson on how to structure a prayer. The three parts of Lot’s petition showed “all the requirements of a good prayer.”
The first requirement of a good prayer is that it give thanks to God and recall in the heart and in words the benefits you have received from God…. In the rules of rhetoric this is called gaining good will, which is best brought about by praise and giving thanks.
In the second place, there is either the complaint or the mention of the need. Lot says: “I am in the greatest dangers if I go up into the hills…”
In the third place, Lot states what he wants granted to him. He says: “I shall flee to the city which is close at hand, and there I shall be saved.” Moreover, he enlarges on this request in an excellent manner by giving particulars.59
Prayer to God the Father
Luther’s explanation of the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven,” emphasizes the relationship to God as that between children and a loving Father:
With these words God wants to entice us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.60
Luther used Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane to offer a lesson on how to address God. Christ prays, “My father, if it is possible, so take this cup from me, but not my will, rather your will be done.” This, declared Luther, is the proper form of prayer in times of temptation and misery. Despite the fact that we see only God’s anger and death, we still see him as our Father who loves us and protects us. For that reason we hope to be delivered from this situation. Just as Christ cries to his Father, so also should we. We are, through faith in Christ, also God’s children and heirs. “For that reason we should not only use these words in our prayer but also trust with our hearts that he, as a father, is kindly inclined to us and will not let us, his children, suffer want.”61 To doubt this, to carry the thought in our hearts that God is not our Father and does not care for us, is to dishonor God and to take his proper name—Father—from him.
Prayer as Blunt and Honest Talk
Luther, commenting on Genesis 18, where Abraham petitions God to spare Sodom, praised the boldness of Abraham’s prayer. First, Abraham asks God to save it for the sake of fifty righteous men—but then continues talking with God, bargaining with God, until God agrees to save the city for the sake of ten righteous men. Luther called it a “foolish prayer,”62 but he also called it a praiseworthy prayer and praised Abraham for pleading for others. He also called the prayer “forceful and impulsive,” “as if Abraham wanted to compel God to forgive,”63 and “bold.”64
In his commentary on Psalm 118:5 (“Out of my distress I called on the Lord: the Lord answered me and set me free”), Luther called for bold and honest talk and even involved the entire body in praying:
We read: “I called upon the Lord.” You must learn to call. Do not sit by yourself or lie on a couch, hanging and shaking your head. Do not destroy yourself with your own thoughts by worrying. Do not strive and struggle to free yourself, and do not brood on your wretchedness, suffering, and misery. Say to yourself: “Come on, you lazy bum; down on your knees, and lift your eyes and hands toward heaven!” Read a psalm or the Our Father, call on God, and tearfully lay your troubles before Him. Mourn and pray, as this verse teaches…. Likewise Ps. 141:2: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” Here you learn that praying, reciting your troubles, and lifting up your hands are sacrifices most pleasing to God.65
Luther praised Lot’s honest disagreement and forthright request to God after fleeing Sodom and contrasted it to “murmuring.” Luther described “murmuring” in this way: “It is murmuring, however, when we have been offended by a perplexing situation and ask God why He does this or that in such a manner.” In such a situation we should not be asking God why he is doing something, but rather “if anything in His actions offends us, we must pray.” Luther pointed his listeners away from contemplating or questioning—or even being overawed by—the mysteries of God and rather encouraged them into active interaction with God—interaction that may include pleading with God and boldly asking God to change his revealed intention. Luther called on his listeners to “direct our attention to promises and examples like those recorded here about Lot. For these things were not written for Lot’s sake; they were written for our sakes.”66
Luther’s Writings on Prayer
Prayer and teaching prayer are crucial and consistent themes in Luther’s work. His writings focused not on providing prayer texts but rather on an approach to prayer centered on God’s command to pray and promise to hear. Luther made comments on prayer in many types of writings: sermons; lectures and commentaries on books of the Bible (such as Jonah and Genesis); his Personal Prayer Book (1522); his catechisms (1529); A Simple Way to Pray (1535), written for his barber; letters; and even polemical pieces, such as On War against the Turk (1529). Luther’s writings on prayer extend from very early in his career as a reformer to the end. Some of his writings on prayer became very popular. The 1517 sermons on the Lord’s Prayer67 appeared at least twenty-three times between 1518 and 1525 in places such as Basel, Leipzig, Wittenberg, Augsburg, and Hamburg.68 Multiple editions of Luther’s works on prayer show that they achieved public resonance. His 1519 sermon On Rogationtide Prayer and Procession69 was reprinted thirteen times between 1519 and 1523 alone. Luther’s Betbuechlein (Personal Prayer Book) was printed seventeen times between 1522 and 1525 and at least forty-four times total by the end of the century.70 Even Appeal for Prayer against the Turks (1541) was reprinted ten times in 1541–1542.71 Any consideration of Luther’s impact in his own time must include a consideration of his writings on prayer.
Implications of Luther’s Emphases around Prayer
Luther’s teachings have implications for our understandings of God, of human life, and of our relationship with God. God’s hearing of prayer defines the very nature of God as both a hearer of prayers and a generous God. For Luther, prayer reveals what kind of God we have—a God who hears prayer. Many have recognized Luther’s emphasis on the God who both commands and promises, a speaking, active God. But Luther makes clear that this God is not involved in one-sided lecturing. Christian faith involves not only listening but also talking—asking, complaining to, beseeching God. This is the conversation of relationship. God continually invites and drives us to prayer.
God’s hearing of prayer defines the very nature of God as a generous God, one who gives undeserved gifts. God hears because God has promised to hear, not because humans are worthy of a hearing. This, of courses parallels Luther’s reformation breakthrough—God saves humans because God has promised to save, not because humans have made themselves worthy of such salvation.
God’s hearing of prayer further defines God as one who is willing to change his revealed intention to accommodate human need and petition. This listening God, this God who hears prayer and who (as said earlier) changes his intentions to respond to prayer, is very different from other conceptions of God prominent in culture or in Christianity. The Deist (clockmaker) God does not bend down to hear human petitions and change his intentions to respond to them. Another concept of God—as one who has charted out all human events in advance—also is contradicted by Luther’s teaching of the God who listens to and responds to prayer.
Honest Talk from and about Life
Luther’s teaching on prayer not only tells us what kind of God we have, it also allows honest talk about life. While much of Western society seeks incessantly to see the bright side of life, this may result in denying real need, anxiety, fear, and despair. Luther taught that in our prayers we can admit our deepest needs. Communal prayer may express hopes, fears, joys, and anxieties of groups. Personal prayer is an opportunity to speak needs to God that may not be spoken to anyone else. Prayer is an opportunity to be honest and authentic about our needs and our lives.
Human Suffering and Prayer
Luther’s views on prayer also shape his view of human suffering. Human suffering is reframed as an opportunity for prayer, an opportunity to recognize God’s goodness, and an opportunity to change reality. Divine goodness is sometimes hidden from humans as they suffer. Luther’s teaching on prayer offers a God who responds to human suffering. Rather than debate the whys of human suffering, Luther acknowledges the reality of suffering and the reality that people perceive that God is involved as a judging, punishing, and/or indifferent power. In the midst of this, Luther urges the one suffering to flee to, not from, God. Suffering humans find an attentive, merciful God. Luther’s view of the God who hears suffering humans and responds to their needs does not sugarcoat suffering but sees it in a different light. Even when it seems that prayers are not answered, humans know God’s care.
Prayer makes a difference—it may change God, human reality, how we see ourselves, and how we see others. Humans are no longer autonomous individuals, but rather those who are in relationship to the power that rules the universe, a power that is ready to hear and help. Luther both challenges and consoles. He asks bluntly why humans do not pray more and pray more boldly. He also assures his listeners that their prayers are surely heard, even if it does not appear so.
Luther believed in a God who speaks and listens, encouraging honest dialogue. Luther paints a picture of a God bending down to speak with and to hear humans. Luther’s God may choose to change his intentions in order to accommodate human requests. God even actively seeks human input. In the future, those reading Luther will need to consider how Luther’s views on prayer affect his view of God and the work of Christ, his theological anthropology, and his theology of the cross.
Review of the Literature
Interest in Luther on prayer has increased in recent years, but the quantity of literature still remains relatively small when compared with that on other topics in Luther studies. A classic study by Paul Althaus (the elder)72 surveyed the prayer books of many authors in the 16th century and pointed out that Luther’s contribution to the literature of prayer in the 16th century was not the creation of new prayer texts but rather in his approach to prayer. Unfortunately, this work did not spark scholarship on prayer when it was published.
In the final decades of the 20th century, interest in Luther on prayer increased. Frieder Schulz produced an important reference work that attempts to offer a complete list of the texts of Luther’s prayers and also traces their use in prayer books of the 16th and later centuries. Rudolf Damerau73 produced a two-volume study, looking at the medieval background and Luther’s own development, offering both general observations and specific attention to Luther’s commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer. One of the few works in English is Martin Lehmann’s short book Luther and Prayer.74 Albrecht Peters devoted an entire volume in his commentary on Luther’s catechisms to Luther’s work on the Lord’s Prayer, examining each petition separately.75 A number of articles and chapters76 have appeared in the past few decades. A recent book-length consideration is Matthias Mikoteit’s thorough examination of prayer in Luther’s third Psalm lectures.77
Many works, not qualifying as academic works and too numerous to mention, have tried to use Luther’s writings on prayer as devotional aids for today. This is an area that offers rich possibilities for future historical and systematic research.
Bayer, Oswald. “Promise and Prayer.” In Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:
Brecht, Martin. “‘Und willst das Beten von uns han’: Zum Gebet und seine Praxis bei Martin Luther.” In Die frühe Reformation in Deutschland als Umbruch. Edited by Bernd Moeller, 268–288. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1998.Find this resource:
Brown, Christopher Boyd. “Devotional Life in Hymns, Liturgy, Music, and Prayer.” In Lutheran Ecclesiastical Culture, 1550–1675, 205–258. Brill, 2008.Find this resource:
Ebeling, Gerhard. “Beten als Wahrnehmen der Wirklichkeit des Menschen, wie Luther es Lehrte und Lebte.” Lutherjahrbuch 66 (1999): 151–166.Find this resource:
Haemig, Mary Jane. “Jehoshaphat and His Prayer among Sixteenth-Century Lutherans.” Church History 73 (September 2004): 522–535.Find this resource:
Haemig, Mary Jane. “Prayer as Talking Back to God in Luther’s Genesis Lectures.” Lutheran Quarterly, n.s. 23 (2009): 270–295.Find this resource:
Haemig, Mary Jane. “Praying amidst Life’s Perils: How Luther Used Biblical Examples to Teach Prayer.” Seminary Ridge Review 13.2 (Spring 2011): 25–40.Find this resource:
Haemig, Mary Jane. “Practical Advice on Prayer from Martin Luther.” Word & World 35.1 (Winter 2015): 22–30.Find this resource:
Lehmann, Martin. Luther and Prayer. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern, 1985.Find this resource:
Mikoteit, Matthias. Theologie und Gebet bei Luther: Untersuchungen zur Psalmenvorlesung 1532–1535. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.Find this resource:
Peters, Albrecht. Commentary on Luther’s Catechism: Lord’s Prayer. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2011.Find this resource:
Schulz, Frieder. Die Gebete Luthers: Edition, Bibliographie und Wirkungsgeschichte. Gütersloh: Mohn, 1976.Find this resource:
Tappert, Theodore G., ed. and trans. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1955.Find this resource:
Vajta, Vilmos. “Luther als Beter.” In Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526 bis 1546: Festgabe zu seinem 500. Geburtstag. Edited by Helmar Junghans. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983.Find this resource:
Wengert, Timothy. “Luther on Prayer in the Large Catechism.” In The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert, 171–197. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.Find this resource:
Wertelius, Gunnar. Oratio Continua: Das Verhältnis zwischen Glaube und Gebet in der Theologie Martin Luthers. Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerup, 1970.Find this resource:
(1.) Kolb, Robert, and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress 2000), 441–443. Hereafter cited as BC. All citations to the Large Catechism and Small Catechism are to this edition.
(2.) BC 440–441.
(3.) Theodore G. Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1955), 121.
(4.) LW 19:71.
(5.) LW 3:157; WA 42:661.
(6.) LW 3:158; WA 42:661.
(7.) LW 3:159; WA 42:662.
(8.) LW 3:159; WA 42:662.
(9.) BC 444.
(10.) LW 43:193–211; WA 38:358–375.
(11.) LW 43:193; WA 38:359.
(12.) BC 363–364.
(13.) LW 3:17–18; WA 42:561.
(14.) BC 363.
(15.) LW 41:164; WA 50:641.
(16.) LW 53:11; WA 12:35.
(17.) LW 53:12; WA 12:36.
(18.) LW 53:19–40; WA 12:204–220.
(19.) See the discussion of Luther’s Rogation sermons in Oswald Bayer, chap. 16 in Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 346–354.
(20.) Tappert, Luther, 49, 50.
(21.) BC 357.
(22.) BC 444.
(23.) LW 34:285; WA 50:659.
(24.) LW 14:47; WA 31/I:68.
(25.) LW 14:51–56; WA 31/I:76–87.
(26.) BC 352.
(27.) LW 42:89; WA 2:176.
(28.) Tappert, Luther, 108.
(29.) Tappert, Luther, 82.
(30.) LW 43:219–241; WA 51, 585–625.
(31.) LW 14:60; WA 31/I:95.
(32.) LW 19:16–17; WA 13:249.
(33.) LW 19:71; WA 19:222.
(34.) LW 19:71–72; WA 19:222–223.
(35.) LW 19:72; WA 19:223.
(36.) LW 19:72; WA 19:223.
(37.) LW 19:71; WA 19:222.
(38.) LW 19:71; WA 19:222.
(39.) LW 3:289–292; WA 43:81–84.
(40.) LW 3:288; WA 43:81.
(41.) LW 3:289; WA 43:82.
(47.) LW 3:291; WA 43:83–84.
(48.) WA 52:740–742.
(49.) WA 52:742. “Also soll es mit dir auch gehen, ob gleych Got mit der hilff verziehen oder auszbleyben würde.”
(50.) LW 9; WA 14:497–744.
(51.) LW 9:42; WA 14:579.
(52.) LW 9:42; WA 14:579.
(53.) LW 42:21; WA 2:82.
(54.) BC 443.
(55.) LW 43:193–194; WA 38:358–359.
(56.) LW 43:200; WA 38:364–365.
(57.) LW 43:209; WA 38:372–373.
(58.) LW 46, 173–174; WA 30/II:119–120.
(59.) LW 3:287–289; WA 43:81–82.
(60.) BC 356.
(61.) WA 52:740.
(62.) LW 3:234; WA 43:43.
(63.) LW 3:235; WA 43:43.
(64.) LW 3:235; WA 43:44.
(65.) LW 14:60; WA 31/I:95–96.
(66.) LW 3:291–292.
(67.) An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen, LW 42:15–81; Auslegung deutsch des Vaterunsers, WA 2:74, 80–130.
(68.) Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des XVI. Jahrhunderts (VD 16), vol. 12, L4046–4068 (Munich, Germany: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek; Wolfenbüttel, Germany: Herzog August Bibliothek; and Stuttgart, Germany: Hiersemann, 1983–).
(69.) LW 42:83–93; Ein Sermon von dem Gebet und Prozession in der Kreuzwoche, WA 2:172, 175–179; VD 16, L6325–L6339.
(70.) Personal Prayer Book, WA 43:11–45; Betbüchlein, WA 10/II:375–406; VD 16, L4081–L4124.
(71.) LW 43:231–241; Vermahnung zum Gebet wider den Türken, WA 51:577, 585–625; VD 16, L1934–1943.
(72.) Paul Althaus (the elder), “Zur Charakteristik der evangelischen Gebetsliteratur im Reformationsjahrhundert,” in Forschungen zur Evangelischen Gebetsliteratu (Gütersloh, Germany, 1927); repr., Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1966), 1–142.
(73.) Rudolf Damerau, Luthers Gebetslehre, 2 vols. (Marburg, Germany: Im Selbstverlag, 1975–1977).
(74.) Martin Lehmann, Luther and Prayer (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern, 1985).
(75.) Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechism: Lord’s Prayer (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2011); and Kommentar zu Luthers Katechismen, vol. 3, Das Vaterunser (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992).
(76.) See references to Bayer, Brecht, Brown, Ebeling, Haemig, Vajta, and Wengert under Further Reading. See also Christoph Burger, “Luthers Gebetsvorschlag für Herzog Johann Friedrich von Sachsen: Zur Bedeutung des Gebets in christlicher Theologie und zu Luthers Wertschätzung des Gebets,” in Oratio: Das Gebet in patristischer und reformatorischer Sicht, eds. Emidio Campi, Leif Grane, and Adolf Martin Ritter (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999), 185–196.
(77.) Matthias Mikoteit, Theologie und Gebet bei Luther: Untersuchungen zur Psalmenvorlesung 1532–1535 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004).