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TEXT: I Thessalonians 5:17
SUBJECT: Luther on Prayer #2
Tonight, with God's blessing, we'll move on in the study we began last week: it's called Martin Luther on Prayer. Luther is a name you know. He was a German pastor who lived from 1483 to 1546. More than any other man, he was responsible for sparking the Reformation that did so much to recover the Gospel and to purify the Church. By any standard, Luther was a brilliant and versatile man: by himself he translated the whole Bible into German; he wrote more than fifty fat volumes of theology; he lectured daily and preached several times a week. He counseled the royal family and found time to write letters to ordinary Christians who needed his help.
One of these "ordinary Christians" was his barber, Peter Beskendorf. One day while cutting Luther's hair, he asked him, "Dr. Luther, how do you pray?" Beskendorf was a Christian and had prayed his whole life, but-like so many of us-he had a hard time keeping his prayer life consistent and fresh. He hoped the great Reformer would advise him.
Which he did, by writing him a long letter called, "A Simple Way to Pray, for a Good Friend". This is the booklet we're using to guide us in our study.
Last time, we looked at three rules for improving your prayer life. They are obvious to anyone who thinks about them, but how often do we think about them? And how well have we followed them? The rules are:
Have you done these things this week? If you have, I bet you're praying a little better than you did the week before. If you haven't, I urge you to start tonight or in the morning. Block off some time to pray: whether it's two hours or five minutes, block it off now and stick to it. Make prayer a priority and not just something you'll get around to if you've got nothing better to do. When the devil tries to distract you from your devotions, recognize his work for what it is-and resist it with all you've got!
Luther does not attach Bible verses to the rules, but surely you can see that they are Biblical-and quite doable. So if your prayer life is suffering from inconsistency and staleness, follow the rules and ask God to bless them to the betterment of your prayers.
That's enough review. Let's move on now to the new material. We looked at three rules last time and we'll add three more for tonight. They too are plain and simple-and easy to overlook!
The first rule for praying well is concentrate! Luther, writing to a barber, says,
"A good and clever barber must have his thoughts, eyes, and mind concentrated upon the razor and not forget where he is in his stroke and shave. If he keeps talking or looking around or thinking of something else, he is likely to cut the man's mouth or nose or even his throat! So anything that is to be done well ought to occupy the whole man. As the saying goes, `He who thinks of many things thinks of nothing'. How much more must prayer possess the whole heart if it is to be a good prayer".
Here Luther argues from the lesser to the greater-and it's a very effective way of making his point. Remember, barbers shave a customer-not with an electric shaver or a safety razor-but with a straight razor-a blade with an edge as sharp as it can be. If he's not paying attention to what he's doing, he's going to nick the man in the chair-or worse! Wandering thoughts and straight razors don't go together!
If shaving a man requires concentration, how much more attentive ought he to be when praying to God? Yet, in fact, men who are razor sharp at work are often duller than a butter knife in their devotions. People who can tell long, detailed stories bow their heads and can only ramble for half a minute. To do well at anything, you have to concentrate: smart kids flunk out of school because of their daydreaming, men who need to make a living lose job after job because they can't keep their mind on what they're doing.
Why are the prayer lives of good people so often unfocused? It seems to me that several things can be said here:
Shake free of legalism! The Bible commands us to pray without ceasing, but it nowhere specifies the time to pray. If a pastor or author or someone else has guilt-tripped you into praying when you're in no mood for it, ignore them and follow the Lord's plan for your life.
Are you a dead man first thing in the morning or late at night? If so, find a time you're fresher-and pray then.
Let me illustrate here with a bizarre story. When I was in Russia several years ago, I was invited to have dinner with a family. They were very nice people and their home was the finest I was in over there, but there was a problem: they left the TV on. I could not understand a word of what the programs were saying, yet-even so-I couldn't help peeking now and then.
If Russian TV disrupts my conversation, you can be sure that American TV (or Spanish if you watch that) disrupts your prayer life. Legalism says All TV is wrong. But that's not true. What is true, however is this: all TV is distracting. There's a time when distractions are good for us. But not when we're praying.
Let me offer some gentle advice here. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don't be the cause of others not being able to pray. Before turning on the set or playing the video games or putting on the stereo, ask if others mind.
One of the happiest times of prayer I ever had was driving to Modesto and back. On the way there, I praised the Lord for ninety minutes. On the way back, I interceded for myself and other people. Never has such a long and hot drive been such a blessing to my soul. Try it!
So, according to Dr. Luther, if you want to pray better, concentrate. The next rule is closely connected to it.
On this point, Luther breaks with the Puritan model.
"Watch out that you don't take too much upon yourself, lest your spirit get tired. The soul, if directed toward one single thing, and if it is really serious about it, can think more in one moment than the tongue can speak in ten hours and the pen can write in ten days".
Many pastors put their people in bondage (or try to, at least)! They tell them to pray more, more, more, and more. They hold up the examples of John Wesley and George Whitefield and others, who prayed four, five, six hours a day. The people try it, can't even make an hour (most of the time) and feel like a failure or wonder if they're saved at all.
Please understand: I am not against long prayers as such. No one thinks more of the Puritans than I do. But I don't think their model is the most Biblical one. If you read the prayers in the Bible, you'll see they're all short. Not any of them would take more than five or ten minutes to thoughtfully pray. Most of them could be offered in a minute or two. How long does the Model Prayer take to recite? And it's the prayer we're to model ours on.
It's true that our Lord prayed long hours at times. But how often He did it is not easy to say. It's also true that the Bible says to "Pray without ceasing", but this just means never give up praying, even when the results are not what you hoped they would be.
If concentration is key to good praying, then, it seems to me, that it would be better to pray short prayers several times a day instead of one or two longer ones. If you can concentrate for four hours a day-God bless you! Keep it up! But if you can't keep your mind from swimming for that long, pray for two minutes at a time, or five or ten or fifteen minutes now and then.
This kind of praying-short and attentive-- will keep you in touch with God and will keep your prayers focused and warm.
I used to get a bulletin from a church not far from here. It urges people to come to the prayer meeting and says that over 400 names will be read each week. Four hundred! If each request were prayed for for one minute, the prayer meeting would go till nearly two o'clock in the morning! If they broke up the list into maybe fifty parts, the people could pray much better than they do now. You can pray for eight things a lot better than for 400!
I like to pray one day for my family; another day for the church; another day for the lost, for revival, and for other things. When special needs occur, of course, I get off schedule and pray for them! By doing this, I keep from wearing myself out praying the same things over and over and over!
If you want to pray better-Luther says-pray short prayers several times a day.
WATCH YOUR POSTURE
Luther's third rule may well surprise you-or even offend you. But I think it's a good one: keep an eye on your posture!
"Kneel down or stand up with folded hands and eyes toward the sky".
The Bible does not command any particular posture for prayer. Judging by it's example, it seems to be a matter of liberty: men knelt in prayer, stood with eyes uplifted, raised their hands, looked down, beat their breasts, and fell on the ground.
But Luther is on to something here: posture says something about your state of mind and it also helps to produce that state of mind. When you see a boy slumping down in his seat at school, do you think he's eager to learn? It's possible, but, more likely, he's got a bad attitude. He could say he can hear as well with his shoulder blades on the seat as he can sitting bolt upright, but do you really think so? No, posture both reveals and contributes to one's state of mind.
If prayer is serious business, we ought to put our bodies in such a way that we can conduct serious business. Praying in bed is good in its own way, but it makes me sleepy. If it has the same effect on you, maybe you ought to find a better way to hold yourself when you pray.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis touched on the same issue. Screwtape is a senior demon advising a younger devil on how to get people to stop praying. He says, in Letter IV,
"They should be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls".
Our bodies affect our souls. If you don't believe that, try to pray while doing the lambada. You can't do it-not reverently, I mean. Why not? There's nothing inherently wrong with thrusting your hips back and forth, is there? No, there isn't. Not inherently. But those movements mean something to us. And it's not devout thoughts they bring to mind!
We must be careful here to not fall into legalism. If you pray best in bed, by all means do it. But if lying down makes you sleepy, just remember that sleepiness and prayer make strange bedfellows! Whenever possible, hold yourself in a reverent posture-and use the same one-when you pray and, over time, you'll pray better.
SUMMARY AND CLOSE
There you have it: Martin Luther on prayer. If your prayer life is thriving, thank the Lord and keep up the good work! But, if you're struggling to pray consistently and warmly, maybe you've got something to learn from Dr. Luther. Maybe your problem is not an appalling sin in your life, but something much easier to cure. Concentrate harder, pray short prayers, and remember your body is related to your soul, and therefore, where you are and how you're holding yourself affect your prayer life.
With God's help, the rules will help you do what the Lord wants you to do-and what you want to do, too: "Pray without ceasing".
Now go do it. And the Holy Spirit be with you. For Christ's sake. Amen.
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