In our series in Matthew at Christ Church, we were teaching on “True Spirituality” from Matthew 6:1-18. I mentioned a pamphlet that Martin Luther, the German reformer, wrote to his barber, Master Peter. It was an answer to a request for teaching on how to pray more authentically. Luther called it, A Simple Way To Pray: For a Friend. A shorter version was published by Walter Trobisch in the 1970’s under the title, Martin Luther’s Quiet Time! Here it is. (You can also find the original version on the web.)
Martin Luther had a barber. His name was Peter Beskendorf. One day Master Peter must have taken the liberty of asking his world-famous customer and doctor of theology, “Dr. Luther, how do you pray?”
And Martin Luther answered. It was not beneath him to write a long letter to his barber – a letter of forty printed pages! It was published in the spring of 1535 under the title A Simple Way to Pray, for a Good Friend.
It is a precious letter. Not only does it give us deep insight into Martin Luther’s personal spiritual life, but at the same time it is a classic example of counseling – competent spiritual counseling. Listen to this opening paragraph:
Dear Master Peter, I give you the best I have. I tell you how I pray myself. May our Lord God grant you and everyone to do it better.
This is Luther talking to his barber! This is counseling. Luther puts his counselee up and himself down. Humbly he stands under him and therefore “under-stands” him. He places himself in Peter’s world, and this enables him to pick up Master Peter where he is.
A good clever barber must have his thoughts, mind and eyes concentrated upon the razor and the beard 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 a man’s mouth or nose – or even his throat. So anything that is to be done well ought to occupy the whole man with all his faculties and members. As the saying goes: he who thinks of many things thinks of nothing and accomplishes no good. How much more must prayer possess the heart exclusively and completely if it is to be a good prayer!
Today we call this “empathy” – feeling how someone else feels his life. Here we have a good example of how this can be done in a letter. Do we in our day really appreciate the possibilities of counseling by personal correspondence?
At the same time, this paragraph contains deep comfort for all of us. Luther had the same difficulty in his prayer life as we have – lack of concentration. Here is the first help he offers:
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering: Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that. Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to naught.Luther knew that prayer can come to naught. He knew what it means to live through days of spiritual dryness. Again and again he shares without pretense his own struggle of being distracted by “foreign business and thoughts” and his often-experienced listlessness in praying. He says,
We have to watch out so that we may not get weaned from prayer by fooling ourselves that a certain job is more urgent, which it really isn’t – and finally we get sluggish, lazy, cold and weary. But the devil is neither sluggish nor lazy around us.
We feel “under-stood” as Master Peter must have felt “understood.” Who of us does not know periods when our quiet time has become an empty, meaningless duty, dreaded and even hated, but in any case boring. And boredom is the deadly enemy of the Holy Spirit.
What suggestions does Luther offer to help us escape from the kingdom of satanic coldness in order to experience anew the atmosphere of the Holy Spirit with its warmth and joy?
Luther believes in a period of “warming up.” The expressions “to warm up the heart” until it “comes to itself,” “feels like it,” “gets in the mood” occur several times in his letter. Actually the whole letter is nothing but detailed and practical instruction on how to “warm up the heart” before the Bible study starts, and it ends with the statement, “The one who is trained [in this warming-up practice] will well be able to use a chapter of Scripture as a lighter [Feuerzeug – the same word used in modern German for a pocket lighter] to kindle a fire in his heart.”
For such a “warming-up prayer,” the bodily posture seems to be important to Luther. Evidently he does not believe in sitting down. “Kneel down or stand up with folded hands and eyes towards the sky.” Then he warns, “Watch out that you don’t take too much upon yourself, lest your spirit get tired. A good prayer need not be long or drawn out, but rather it should be frequent and ardent.”
And its content? Your personal needs and concerns? Oh no! Luther answers: Start with the commandments! Luther prays the Ten Commandments! Not that he rattles them off one by one. As a former Catholic priest, he has a lot to say against “heaping up empty phrases” (Mt. 6:7), against chattering, babbling and prattling. He calls it zerklappern, which means literally “to rattle something to pieces.”
To avoid this danger Luther takes just one commandment at a time, “in order that my mind becomes as uncluttered as possible for prayer.” To formulate a free prayer in his own words, he shares with Master Peter his personal method:
Out of each commandment I make a garland of four twisted strands. That is, I take each commandment first as a teaching, which is what it actually is, and I reflect upon what our Lord God so earnestly requires of me here. Secondly, I make out of it a reason for thanksgiving. Thirdly, a confession and fourthly, a prayer petition.
Then Luther takes the trouble – and the time – to go through all ten commandments and to write out for his barber such a “garland of four twisted strands” as an example for each commandment. What a counselor!
For example, Luther writes the following about the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal”:
First I learn here that I shall not take my neighbor’s property nor possess it against his will, neither secretly nor openly; that I shall not be unfaithful or false in my bargaining, my service and work lest what I gain should belong to me only as a thief; but I shall earn my food with the sweat of my brow and shall eat my own bread with all those who are faithful. At the same time I shall help my neighbor so that his property is not taken away from him through such actions as mentioned above….
Secondly, I thank God for his faithfulness and goodness in that He has given me and all the world such a good teaching and through it protection and shelter. For unless He protects us, not one penny nor one bite of bread would remain in the house.
Thirdly, I confess my sin and ungratefulness, there where I have wronged someone and cheated him or where during my life, I was unfaithful in keeping my word.
Fourthly, I ask that God may give grace so that I and all the world might learn His commandment and think about it and improve. I pray that there may be less stealing, robbing, exploiting, embezzling and injustice. I also pray that such evils may soon end when the day of judgment comes. This is the goal to which the prayers of all Christians and of all creation are directed (Rom. 8:22).
This is praying according to Martin Luther. We see that it is not just petitioning, reciting and speaking. It is learning, meditating, searching and thus acquiring the perspective of eternity.
What next? When you are through with the commandments, Luther says, take the Lord’s Prayer and do the same thing. Take one petition at a time – and maybe one is enough for a day – and twist the four strands for your garland. Again he describes to Master Peter how he does it petition by petition.
In this context, Luther calls the Lord’s Prayer the “greatest martyr on earth, tortured and abused by everyone.” But when he prays it in his garland-way, he says, “I suck on it like a nursing baby and I drink and eat it like an aged man and can never become satisfied.”
And when he has “time and leisure,” after the Lord’s Prayer, Luther continues by taking up the Apostles’ Creed, statement by statement, praying it in the same way.
Concerning the “first article about creation,” Luther writes:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. First of all, if you allow it to happen, a great light shines here into your heart and teaches you in a few words something which could never be expressed in all languages, nor
described in many books, namely: what you are, where you come from, where heaven and earth come from. You are God’s creature, God’s making and work. This means by yourself and in yourself you are nothing – you can do nothing, know nothing and are not able to do anything. For what were you a thousand years ago? What was heaven and earth six thousand years ago? Absolutely nothing, just as that which will never be created is nothing. Therefore, everything you are, everything you know and everything you are able to do is God’s work, His creation, as you confess it here with your mouth. This is why you have nothing to boast about before God, except that you are nothing and that He is your creator and He is able to annihilate you at any time. Reason in itself does not arrive at such insight. Many learned people have tried to understand what heaven and earth, man and creature are. They have found nothing. Here however it says:
The creed teaches that God has created everything out of nothing. Here is the paradise of the soul where it may go for a walk in God’s creation. But it would take too long to write more about this.
Secondly, one should give thanks here that through God’s goodness we have been created out of nothing and we are kept alive daily out of nothing as a delicate creature which has body, soul, reason, five senses etc…. And He has made us lords over the earth, fish, the birds, the animals. This refers to Genesis 1, 2 and 3.
Thirdly, one should confess and be sorry about our unbelief and ungratefulness, because we have not thought about them nor really recognized them. So we have actually done worse than the animals who have no reason.
Fourthly, we should pray for the right and certain faith so that in the future we can seriously believe in the dear God and hold Him up as our Creator, as this article teaches.
It is obvious that Luther finds the Creed a helpful touchstone for meditation and for worship. These thoughts he shares with his barber may serve well as a model for our own.
At one point, however, Luther interrupts his explanation and shares with his counselee the following experience:
It often happens that I lose myself in such rich thoughts [literally, “that my thoughts go for a walk”] in one petition of the Lord’s Prayer and then I let all other six petitions go. When such rich good thoughts come, one should let the other prayers go and give room to these thoughts, listen to them in silence and by no means suppress them. For here the Holy Spirit himself is preaching and one word of His sermon is better than thousands of our own prayers. Therefore I have often learned more in one prayer than I could have obtained from much reading and thinking.
Thus we see that to Luther praying does not mean just talking. It also means being silent and listening. To him prayer is not a one-way road. It works both ways. Not only is he talking to God, but God is talking to him – and the latter is the most important part of prayer.
This is exactly what we should expect to happen in our Bible study – that God talks to us. Bible study is prayer. Therefore what Luther says about prayer can be applied to our Bible study and provide us with a tremendously helpful method for making a Bible passage meaningful to our personal life The suggestion is to proceed verse by verse and make out of each verse a garland of four twisted strands.
By changing the order a bit and putting that which God requires at the end, many Christians are enriched in their quiet time by asking themselves these four questions about a text:
1. What am I grateful for? (Thanksgiving) 2. What do I regret? (Confession) 3. What should I ask for? (Prayer concerns) 4. What shall I do? (Action)
Again let us heed Luther’s warning:
Don’t take too much upon yourself lest the spirit should get tired…. It is sufficient to grasp one part of a Bible verse or even half a part from which you can strike a spark in your heart … for [and this is one of the deepest insights Luther shares with his barber] the soul, if it is directed towards one single thing, may it be bad or good, 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. Such a dexterous, exquisite and mighty instrument is the soul or spirit.
Therefore the quantity of Bible verses one reads is not decisive. It may be more fruitful to take a passage of a few verses and shake each verse like the branches of a tree until some fruit falls down. This will change Bible study from a boring duty to an exciting adventure.
It is advisable to apply each question strictly to the text at first. What is in this text which makes me thankful? What is in this text which corrects me, challenges me to change and leads me to repentance? Which prayer concerns does the text – not by own wishes – offer me? What is in this text which causes me to take action?
An answer will not be found every time to all these questions. Often the answers are interlocked. That which calls me to repentance may become my main prayer concern for the day and even may call me to an action of restitution or apology.
On the other hand, while the text should be a feeder for our thoughts, it should not be a restriction or boundary line for them. In thinking through these questions again, we can extend them into the experiences of our daily life, thinking also of the small things which make us thankful – a day of sunshine, a friendly greeting, a beautiful flower or a good letter which we have received. We may think of something which we should not have said. People may come to our minds for whom we should pray especially on this day. In answering the fourth question, we can plan the schedule of the day ahead of us and thus discover a very practical answer to the problem with which so many Christians struggle in vain – the problem of how to find God’s guidance.
From Luther’s testimony in this letter, it is evident that he believed firmly that God would speak to him through his thoughts, when the “heart is warmed up” and “has come to
itself in the atmosphere of the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.” “The Spirit will and must grant this and will go on teaching in your heart if it is conformed to God’s Word and freed from foreign concerns and thoughts.”
However, he gives a practical advice to his friend which should not be forgotten. He tells Master Peter to have his quiet time with pen and paper at hand to note down what God tells him:
I repeat again what I said above when I talked to you about the Lord’s Prayer: If the Holy Spirit should come when these thoughts are in your mind and begin to preach to your heart, giving you rich and enlightened thoughts, then give Him the honor, let your preconceived ideas go, be quiet and listen to Him who can talk better than you; and note what He proclaims and write it down, so will you experience miracles as David says: “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps. 119:18).
Indeed, those who get used to the discipline of having their quiet time with a notebook are not likely ever to give it up. What makes our devotional life so unattractive and boring is the fact that each day, every one of us has just about the same kind of general, vague pious thoughts. This causes monotony. Our thoughts remain distant and abstract and do not come to grips with our concrete daily life. The writing down, as Luther suggests, is a form of the incarnation of God’s Word. It becomes tangible, visible and concrete. It forces us to be precise, definite and particular. Monotony is replaced by variety and surprise. Taking notes enables us also to check whether we have carried out what we planned in the morning. A Chinese proverb says, “The palest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.”
Writing down what God has told us is also a great help in sharing when meeting with our prayer partner – also for decision-making in marriage. My wife and I agree on the same text for daily Bible study. This is especially helpful in periods when we are separated. When we meet again we can read to each other what we have written down in our quiet times – and experience “wondrous things.”
It may take a little practice. Just as in preparing for a sports event, a warming-up is necessary in order to do one’s best, so also is a “warming-up training” of the heart indispensable for our spiritual life. Martin Luther uses precisely these terms. It takes training and practice to discern our own ideas from God’s thoughts. When you open the faucet in a new building, brownish liquid may come out at first. But if you have patience and let it run long enough, clear water will appear.
We can experience the same thing in our quiet time. If our praying changes from talking into being silent and our being silent changes into listening, the voice of the Good Shepherd will come through unequivocally, unambiguously and plainly.
The Spirit will and must grant this, if your heart is conformed to God’s Word.