How to Pray

In a recent sermon on Knowing God Through Prayer, I mentioned the time-tested, historic Christian prayer form called Lectio Divina. I wanted to post some more about this pattern for prayer because 1) I have found it personally helpful and 2) it’s been practiced by key Christian leaders from every age of church history. (See the end of this post for Martin Luther’s practice of Lectio Divina.)

As I summarized in the sermon, Lectio Divina (“sacred reading”) has four basic parts: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

Step 1: Reading. But not just any kind of reading. Lectio thrives on a slow, thoughtful reading of Scripture. It could also be called “spiritual reading” – the goal is to encounter God in the text and hear it as His word, right now, to me. This contrasts with two other types of biblical reading:

  • Systematic Reading (“reading broadly”): I often suggest that every Christian should strive to read through the entire Bible once per year. The point of this kind of reading is to simply be formed by the story of Scripture, and to gradually, over time, grow in familiarity and comprehension. The goal of systematic reading is for the Bible to become “your book” – one you know intimately and personally and exhaustively.
  • Exegetical Reading (“reading narrowly”): this is classic, in-depth Bible study that seeks to exegete a passage using original language tools, commentaries, and other helps. The goal of exegetical reading is to discover and summarize the original meaning of a text and explain its application for modern-day hearers.

Step 2: Meditation. Biblical meditation does not require yoga or hallucinogenic drugs, and it should not be confused with Eastern or New-Age practice. I like the definition once offered by my friend Darrin Patrick: “listening to what God has said in order to discern what God is saying.” The Hebrew word (siah) could be translated “muttering” or “babbling” – the idea is to ruminate or “chew on” what God has said, turning it over in the mind. In the meditation step of Lectio Divina, we walk around a biblical text or idea, pondering it from various angles and considering its application to our lives. This will likely lead us to adoration (worshiping God for his being and character) and confession (acknowledging the ways our lives do not line up with his will).

Step 3: Speaking. As we ponder Scripture, adoring God and confessing our own sin, we quite naturally turn toward expressing our thoughts, concerns, and requests to God. This step of Lectio Divina is the most natural place to use a prayer journal or prayer list to intercede for family members, friends, and acquaintances. I often find myself praying on behalf of others the same text of Scripture I’ve just been pondering.

Step 4: Contemplation. This step really isn’t a step; it’s more of a longing and a hope. We can’t demand that God “show up.” We can’t control His presence. We can simply wait on him in adoring silence, opening ourselves to communion with him.

When I talk about Lectio Divina, I inevitably get frowns from fretting fundamentalists who suspect that such a practice – especially when titled in Latin – must be papal in its disposition. So to ease their consciences, I appeal to Martin Luther’s famous letter to his barber, the formal title of which is: How One Should Pray, for Master Peter the Barber. The following quotes are taken directly from this work.

With practice one can take the Ten Commandments on one day, a psalm or chapter of Holy Scripture the next day, and use them as flint and steel to kindle a flame in the heart… 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.

Notice that Luther has followed the first 3 steps of Lectio Divina: he begins with one of the Ten Commandments (reading); he ponders its instruction so that it moves him to thanksgiving/adoration (meditation); and then he turns it into a prayer (speaking). It’s helpful to hear him relate exactly how he does this:

I do so in thoughts or words such as these: ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me’ [Exodus 20:2-3]. Here I earnestly consider that God expects and teaches me to trust him sincerely in all things and that it is his most earnest purpose to be my God. I must think of him in this way at the risk of losing eternal salvation. My heart must not build upon anything else or trust in any other thing, be it wealth, prestige, wisdom, might, piety, or anything else.

Second, I give thanks for his infinite compassion by which he has come to me in such a fatherly way and, unasked, unbidden, and unmerited, has offered to be my God, to care for me, and to be my comfort, guardian, help, and strength in every time of need. We poor mortals have sought so many gods and would have to seek them still if he did not enable us to hear him openly tell us in our own language that he intends to be our God. How could we ever – in all eternity – thank him enough!

Third, I confess and acknowledge my great sin and ingratitude for having so shamefully despised such sublime teachings and such a precious gift throughout my whole life, and for having fearfully provoked his wrath by countless acts of idolatry. I repent of these and ask for his grace.

Fourth, I pray and say: ‘O my God and Lord, help me by thy grace to learn and understand thy commandments more fully every day and to live by them in sincere confidence. Preserve my heart so that I shall never again become forgetful and ungrateful, that I may never seek after other gods or other consolation on earth or in any creature, but cling truly and solely to thee, my only God. Amen, dear Lord God and Father. Amen.’

What about the final step of Lectio Divina – contemplation? Surely this is mystical nonsense intended for monks and nuns? On the contrary, the good Dr. Luther directs us to this end as well:

You should also know that I do not want you to recite all these words in your prayer. That would make it nothing but idle chatter and prattle, read word for word out of a book as were the rosaries… 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… If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us, we ought to make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.

Comprehending and beginning to practice the four steps of Lectio Divina is fairly simple; the bigger challenge is making this practice a regular discipline. Luther is no novice when it comes to the difficulty of prayer – and the importance of making it a priority in one’s daily schedule. He counsels:

It is a good thing to let 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.

I trust that the pattern of Lectio Divina, as well as these thoughts from Luther, will give you some practical help in the daily discipline of prayer. And next time we meet for corporate prayer, let’s remember to heed this final word from Luther: “A good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent.”

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  1. Bob,
    I greatly appreciated some of the references and resources on prayer you have shared. I have begun reading several of them. As I continue to understand how prayer deepens my understanding of some of the mystery of God and how he interacts with us, it is indeed amazing. Sometimes in ways not known to us until much later. I hope that the practice of spending time alone with God utilizing different prayer techniques and approaches broadens our hearts and spirits, and deepens our love for him. Thanks so much.

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