A Basic Structure for Christian Prayer

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As a congregation, we’ve spoken a few times together about prayer. In doing so, as often happens, people often wonder two things: How do I pray, and what ought I pray about? To the first point, I will say the following: We need not reinvent the wheel; the church has a great treasure for us all in the liturgy of the church. To the second point, let the Psalms and Scriptures guide the content of your prayers. Let these treas­ures be your guide. But, in saying this maybe you are asking, “What do you mean that we have a tre­asure in the liturgy and psalms?” well, in a very simple way, let me paint you to a few specifics: the Baptismal invocation; the psalter; the apostle’s creed; the Lord’s prayer.

I – The Baptismal Invocation

Baptism is the end of our earthly life in the sinful flesh. Romans 6 says that all who are baptized into Christ in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit have died with Christ to the world. Yet, at the same time, in Baptism, we are born anew in the Life of Christ, arising as new men from the death to Sin. Thus, any time we wish to speak to God in prayer, we would do well to think on Baptism and what it means that we are dead to sin and alive to God through Baptism. As Dr. Luther teaches in the Small Catechism, begin every day, and end every day with the words of your baptismal reality: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In so doing, remember that you are dead to sin but alive to God. Thus, whenever you pray, it is also fitting start with these words, asking God to put to death again the sinful flesh and to strengthen us in the new life of Christ.

II – The Psalms and Scriptures

Once we have remembered this great fact that we are dead to world but alive to God it is of great help for us to turn to the Scriptures, for in them God tells us what we ought to pray for. If, for example, you were to read in the Old Testament that God was angered over some kind of sin, then pray at the end of your reading that God would help those who live in this kind of sin to repent. Or, if you were to read about how God saved a Gentile like Ruth or Rahab, then give thanks that he has also called you, a gentile by ancestry, to saving faith, and then pray that missionaries would be sent out to those who do not know Christ. These are, of course, only examples of some potential points of prayer based on readings from Scripture.

Now, if that seems too abstract, then turn to the Book of Psalms, which are themselves prayers. Not only are the psalms themselves prayers, but they are usually prayers which God’s people, like King David, wrote in the midst of very specific circumstances, both bad and good. Read the psalms then and let these scriptural prayers guide your own words. To aid you in this, many Bibles and Psalters (a little book containing only the Book of Psalms) often contain a list of specific topics or circumstances addressed in each psalm. For example, if you are troubled by sins, you may wish to pray Psalm 51, which was David’s prayer for forgiveness. If you are joyful, however, you may wish to pray Psalm 150. Or, if you are asking God for wisdom, pray a portion of Psalm 119. Truly, the Psalms cover nearly every circumstance in life, and so let these prayers be your constant source of words to pray. After all, God himself has given them to you to pray.

III – The Creed

Just as on Sundays we begin with the invocation, and then read the Scriptures and psalms, so we also confess our faith. On Sundays, we pray (yes, pray!) the Nicene Creed, where we consider in great detail the works and nature of God. However, at smaller services and in our daily lives we ponder the same God in a simpler way, instead using the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the creed of all the Baptized. The Creed, in many ways, reminds and teaches us the content of our faith, and in prayerfully confessing it, we should ponder and pray that God would enlighten our hearts and minds to believe and understand what it means to say, for example, “I believe in God, the Father,” or, “I believe in the life everlasting.” Pondering these words and seeking for God’s wisdom to live in light of them is also a kind prayer.

IV – The Lord’s Prayer

Finally, just as we pray in church the words which our Lord Jesus taught us, so we should always hold these words in our hearts and minds during our daily lives. Indeed, I say ‘always,’ because this prayer captures in a simple way the content of every prayer which the Church prays. Even when we find ourselves lacking words, the Lord’s Prayer contains, at its heart, every experience of all humankind. Our dear Dr. Luther said that he would sometimes pray only the first words and be given an entire day’s worth of things to pray about! So, if as you pray, your soul is led to contemplate what it means for us to “Hallow,” or to keep God’s name holy, or simply what it means for us to confess that God is holy, then let those words guide your prayer at that time. Pray for God to help you keep his name holy; pray that all Christians would live holy lives; pray that God would grant you the Holy Spirit to guide you in contemplation of holiness. This same point could be made concerning any petition in this the highest of prayers.

V – Conclusion

In summary, let the life we share as the Church be a guide to how you should pray when outside the public gathering. Begin with the invocation, leaving the world behind, then consider the Psalms, and the Scriptures, and the Creed, and then pray on what these things address. Finally, let Jesus’s own prayer guide you and inform your own prayers. If still you would like very specific topics for your prayers, I have included a little pattern of weekly prayer to help guide your thoughts. This weekly topic list is from the Oremus: A Lutheran Breviary by Rev. David Kind:

Monday – One’s own occupation and vocation in life; One’s fellow workers; Family; Friends

Tuesday – Enemies; Schismatics; Heathen

Wednesday – The impenitent and those who neglect their faith

Thursday – The Church, her institutions, and pastors and other church workers

Friday – The suffering, the sick, the persecuted, and the dying

Saturday – Your nation, your rulers and magistrates, and the whole world

Sunday – For the needs of the local congregation to which you belong

Now, may God grant you the peace which surpasses all understanding.