Prayer: A Simple Method

You are a pastor in a small city.  You’ve known your barber for almost twenty years.  One day while he trims he asks for help in prayer.  He, like many others, struggles in that area.  So, you decide to go home and write a brief thirty-four page guide for him.  You even incorporate your friend in the work.  Encouraging attentiveness in prayer you write, “So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting.” Once finished you decide to publish the work and it’s ready for popular consumption by the early part of the year.  Now, your friend and others have help.

What you just read is fact and not fiction. Peter Beskendorf, Martin Luther’s barber asked this very question.  In response, Luther wrote a brief book titled A Simple Way to Pray. It’s a little gem.  And it is exactly what you would expect from the pen of Luther, nothing more and nothing less. For example, in Luther’s pithy way he warns us not to become lax and lazy with regard to prayer because “the devil who besets us is not lazy or careless.”[1]

Luther also gives the sort of advice that you don’t hear very often today.  For instance, he says, “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly.” He goes on to explain exactly what he means. As firmly as his amen, Luther says, “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.’  This is what Amen means.”[2] I wonder how many of us need that simple but profound instruction.

But Luther does more than give encouragements and terse sound bites.  His simple way is nothing less than a way to pray. So, let me simply walk you through his method.  First, we are to remember what we are doing.  We are praying to God. Therefore, you are to kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think as briefly as possible.[3]  And what is more, we are to pray without ceasing.  For Luther, this apostolic injunction meant everything from private devotion to the community gathered for prayer to corporate worship.

Second, Luther believed that the Lord’s Prayer was an excellent model for prayer.  In fact, said Luther, had the Lord known a better prayer he would have taught us that one as well![4]  That being the case, it’s not surprising to find that Luther’s method is grounded in the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, Luther would take each part of the Lord’s Prayer and pray through it. For example, after “Hallowed be thy name,” Luther said you might pray for the destruction “of abominations, idolatry, and heresy of the Turk, the pope, and all false teachers and fanatics who wrongly use thy name…”[5] Of course, some of these applications are culturally conditioned but you get the idea.  And Luther encourages us to work through the entire prayer line by line praying as we go.

Third, Luther is not concerned that we say set prayers even his prayers!  Simple recitation would be chatter and prattle.  Luther’s desire is for our “heart to be stirred and guided concerning the thoughts which ought to be comprehended in the Lord’s Prayer.”[6]  Luther’s counsel is helpful at just this point. He says, “I do not bind myself to such words or syllables, but say my prayers in one fashion today, in another tomorrow, depending upon my mood and feeling.  I stay however, as nearly as I can, with the same general thoughts and ideas.”[7]  But neither is Luther a slave to the form.  According to Luther, the Spirit may lead him through one petition only before drawing his prayer to a close.

More might be said according to Luther’s method but this sums it up.  But allow me one point of application.  Luther’s little book was published early in 1535 and by Easter of the same year tragedy befell Peter the barber.  He was invited to the home of his son-in-law, Dietrich, for a happy celebration the Saturday before Easter. Dietrich, an army veteran, boasted of having the art of making himself invulnerable to any wound.  At that moment, Peter, presumably intoxicated, plunged a knife into Dietrich to test his boast. The stab was fatal.[8]

After his explanation of how to use the Lord’s Prayer Luther said, “To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill.”[9]  Peter was exiled instead of executed for his act only because Luther and others spoke on his behalf.  I wonder if Peter took Luther’s simple method with him into exile.  If not, he certainly should have.   

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 43, Devotional Writings II (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1968), 194.

[2] Ibid., 198.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Cf.  200. “It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me.”

[5] Ibid., 195.

[6] Ibid., 198.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 191.

[9] Ibid., 200.


Jeffrey Stivason