The WORD

7“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 6:7–8). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 

But the Christian’s prayer is easy, and it does not cause hard work. For it proceeds in faith on the basis of the promise of God, and it presents its need from the heart. Faith quickly gets through telling what it wants; indeed, it does so with a sigh that the heart utters and that words can neither attain nor express. As Paul says (Rom. 8:26), “the Spirit prays.” And because He knows that God is listening to Him, He has no need of such everlasting twaddle. That is how the saints prayed in the Scriptures, like Elijah, Elisha, David, and others—with brief but strong and powerful words. This is evident in the Psalter, where there is hardly a single psalm that has a prayer more than five or six verses long. Therefore the ancient fathers have said correctly that many long prayers are not the way. They recommend short, fervent prayers, where one sighs toward heaven with a word or two, as is often quite possible in the midst of reading, writing, or doing some other task.

But the others, who make it nothing but a work of drudgery, can never pray with gladness or with devotion. They are glad when they are finally through with their babbling. And so it must be. Where there is no faith and no feeling of need in a petition, there the heart cannot be involved either. But where the heart is not involved and the body has to do all the work, there it becomes difficult drudgery. This is evident even in physical work. How difficult and dreary it is for the person who is doing something unwillingly! But on the other hand, if the heart is cheerful and willing, then it does not even notice the work. So it is here, too: the man who is serious in his intentions and takes pleasure in prayer neither knows nor feels any toil and trouble; he simply looks at his need, and he has finished singing or praying the words before he has a chance to turn around. In other words, prayers ought to be brief, frequent, and intense. For God does not ask how much and how long you have prayed, but how good the prayer is and whether it proceeds from the heart.

Therefore Christ says now: “Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask for it.” It is as if He would say: “What are you up to? Do you suppose that you will talk Him down with your long babbling and make Him give you what you need? There is no need for you to persuade Him with your words or to give Him detailed instructions; for He knows beforehand what you need, even better than you do yourself.” If you came before a prince or a judge who knew your case better than you could describe it to him and tried to give him a long-winded account of it, he would have a perfect right to laugh at you or, more likely, to become displeased with you. Indeed, as St. Paul says (Rom. 8:26), “We do not know how we are to pray.” Therefore when He hears us, whatever He gives us is something in excess of our understanding or our hopes. Sometimes He lets us go on asking for something which He does not give right away, or perhaps does not give at all, knowing very well what is necessary and useful for us and what is not. We ourselves do not see this, but finally we have to admit that it would not have been good for us if He had done His giving on the basis of our petition. Therefore we must not go into a long harangue to give Him instructions or prescriptions about what He should do for us and how He should do it. He intends to give in such a way that His name might be hallowed, His kingdom extended, and His will advanced.

But you may say: “Since He knows and sees all our needs better than we do ourselves, why does He let us bring our petitions and present our need, instead of giving it to us without our petitioning? After all, He freely gives the whole world so much good every day, like the sun, the rain, crops and money, body and life, for which no one asks Him or thanks Him. He knows that no one can get along for a single day without light, food, and drink. Then why does He tell us to ask for these things?”

The reason He commands it is, of course, not in order to have us make our prayers an instruction to Him as to what He ought to give us, but in order to have us acknowledge and confess that He is already bestowing many blessings upon us and that He can and will give us still more. By our praying, therefore, we are instructing ourselves more than we are Him. It makes me turn around so that I do not proceed as do the ungodly, neither acknowledging this nor thanking Him for it. When my heart is turned to Him and awakened this way, then I praise Him, thank Him, take refuge with Him in my need, and expect help from Him. As a consequence of all this, I learn more and more to acknowledge what kind of God He is. Because I seek and knock at His door (Matt. 7:7), He takes pleasure in giving me ever more generous gifts. You see, that is how a genuine petitioner proceeds. He is not like those other useless babblers, who prattle a great deal but who never recognize all this. He knows that what he has is a gift of God, and from his heart he says: “Lord, I know that of myself I can neither produce nor preserve a piece of my daily bread; nor can I defend myself against any kind of need or misfortune. Therefore I shall look to Thee for it and request it from Thee, since Thou dost command me this way and dost promise to give it to me, Thou who dost anticipate my every thought and sympathize with my every need.”

You see, a prayer that acknowledges this truly pleases God. It is the truest, highest, and most precious worship which we can render to Him; for it gives Him the glory that is due Him. The others do not do this. Like pigs, they grab all the gifts of God and devour them. They take over one country or city or house after another. They never consider whether they should be paying attention to God. Meanwhile they lay claim to holiness, with their many loud tones and noises in church. But a Christian heart is one that learns from the Word of God that everything we have is from God and nothing is from ourselves. Such a heart accepts all this in faith and practices it, learning to look to Him for everything and to expect it from Him. In this way praying teaches us to recognize who we are and who God is, and to learn what we need and where we are to look for it and find it. The result of this is an excellent, perfect, and sensible man, one who can maintain the right relationship to all things.

Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 21, pp. 143–145). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.