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"How to Pray"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on August 11, 2019
By Dr. Oswald Hoffmann, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Romans 8:26

Lord Jesus, teach us how to pray, as You prayed in the darkest and also the brightest moments. Give us Your Spirit, that in all confidence, we may pray to Your Father, and ours too by faith in You, talking to God as dear children talk to their dear father. In all our wants and needs, in times when we need to ask, and times when we need to praise You, oh Lord. Teach us to pray in Your saving Name. Amen.

Prayer is healthy. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is pleasing to God. People who pray are admired by others. Even though some may make fun of them because they pray, and others even despise them because they pray. It offends some people to be told that they ought to pray. They feel that prayer is a sign of weakness. It offends their souls to be told or even to think that a person cannot solve problems on his own.

Or that God can do something for someone which he cannot do on his own. When the crunch comes, some of those people who do not think much about prayer wish they could pray. How often haven't I been asked by people either personally or by letter, please pray for me. There's nothing wrong about asking someone to pray for you. But it cannot be a substitute for praying yourself.

Asking God to help you, or to give you something you need very much, offering thanks to Him for the help and strength He has given you—there's no substitute for learning how to pray yourself. Doesn't all of that come naturally to us? No, it does not. The only One in the history of the world to whom prayer came altogether naturally was Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

He prayed to His Father all the time. He called God "Father," and He spoke to Him as a son speaks to his father. One time He would ask and another time He would thank. One time He would pray for Himself, and at other times He would pray for someone else. He was always praying because it came naturally to Him. The disciples of Jesus Christ were so impressed with His prayers that they asked Him one day, "Teach us how to pray."

For a beginner, He gave them the prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." That prayer was the beginning, not the end. We always have to keep on learning how to pray.

I admire people who can get up and pray with deep understanding of the human condition and bring to God things that all of us have on our hearts at that moment, or all the time. Prayer is a great gift. That gift comes from God Himself. I've noticed that the gift of prayer comes with faith in Jesus Christ. That's the beginning. Faith takes Christ for what He is, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

It takes Christ as the real Person He is, dying for the sins of the world, and living again to be the Lord of heaven and earth. Faith calls Jesus Christ both brother and Lord. It takes Him at His word: "Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you." Faith in Christ is the beginning of prayer.

People who have learned how to pray are learning all the time. They never feel that they have reached the ultimate. St. Paul said that he was always learning from the Spirit of God how to pray. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness," he said. "For we do not know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." The Spirit of God Himself lives in the hearts of people who have genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

The Spirit of God speaks to God the Father from the heart of faith that God gives to people out of His grace, out of the goodness of His heart: His warm feeling of forgiveness, and His earnest wish to bless His people. It takes that kind of faith to pray. It takes faith to learn how to pray. People with faith don't argue about prayer. They do not complain that their prayers are not answered right away.

They don't imagine that the beauty of their prayers is a particular influence on God. The beauty of prayer comes from the Spirit, trusting the goodness of God. Very often in some very tough situations, prayer wells up in the hearts of people who have learned how real and genuine the Spirit of God is, reaching out in the Name and in the stead of Jesus Christ Himself.

Comforting people and strengthening people, just as if Jesus Christ were right here doing the same thing Himself. Prayer begins with faith in Jesus Christ, and it grows by the power of the Spirit, with the experience of faith in Jesus Christ. You can see how really personal prayer is. It's a part of you, if it is prayer at all. It's not just what you say, but what you feel.

Sometimes you wish you could express exactly what you feel. At times you're so far down that you don't know how to say what you feel, or you're so broken up that you're not able to say anything at all. St. Paul said, "That's the time to pray." The Spirit comes to help you, weak as you are. For we do not know how we ought to pray, the Spirit Himself pleads with God for us, in groans that words cannot express.

Some of the greatest prayers I've heard in my lifetime came from people who did not have a great command of the language. Some of them had never been asked before to pray in public. They'd always prayed out of the privacy of their heart. Then words came tumbling out, simple words, powerful words, forged in the burning furnace of human experience. It's a great experience that can truly be called "spiritual."

The spiritual is not separated from life; it is a part of life. It's the Spirit of God Himself working mightily in the hearts of people, even helping them to pray. Because nobody can pray without Him. Without the Holy Spirit, we don't have a prayer. You've heard of people in such desperate circumstances that they've said, "We didn't have a prayer." That meant there wasn't any escape out of their predicament.

There was just nowhere to turn. That's when God is at His best. When we don't know where to turn, that's when prayer begins with faith in God that He knows where to turn. It's what we learn from God in His Son Jesus Christ. If you want to know why Jesus Christ came at all, this is it. He came to die for our sins, for which we cannot atone. We might like to, but we cannot.

He died for us all that we might turn to God. He atoned for all our sins that we might have confidence in God—enough confidence to turn to Him and to pray to Him. Indeed, He promised His Spirit to all, with such confidence in Him that they would turn to God. The Spirit of God lives in the hearts of God's people—members of His family by faith in Jesus Christ.

Not one of us has the power to believe in Jesus Christ all by himself. Not one of us has the power to pray to God all by himself. It is always that weakness, that inability, that hesitancy, that fear that He will not listen, or that nagging worry that He doesn't care. We don't have a prayer with all of our weakness. But God is never without a prayer.

The Spirit of God is in constant touch: Himself pleading with God for people like us, even in those moments when we are unable to pray. He pleads with groans like ours, too deep for words even to express. St. Paul said, "God who sees into the hearts of men knows what the thought of the Spirit is, for the Spirit pleads with God on behalf of His people, and in accordance with His will."

Someone has said prayer is more from the Spirit than to the Spirit. How to pray? With the Spirit of God in your heart, weak as you are. Pray to God right now. You may not have said a word, but you want to belong. That comes from the Spirit of God. It's His work in you, and it's His word from God to you. As one poet has put it, "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire uttered or unexpressed. The motion of a hidden fire that trembles in the breast."

That fire is the Spirit of God Himself. You may not know how to pray, but the Spirit of God knows how. What you don't deserve, God gives. The sins for which you cannot atone, God forgives. The confidence in God you would like to have, which has always seemed a little bit beyond your grasp, begins to live with the faith in Christ that the Spirit of God gives. When faith lives, prayer begins deep down inside, often deeper than words could possibly express.

I wish I could tell you how often I have prayed with people who are sick. They're always grateful to have someone come and pray with them. It's a time when people often feel that God is far away, because they've not been able to bring themselves to pray. They needed to hear what the Spirit has to say. I just prayed with them in ordinary words, as I would be glad to have somebody pray with me when I become ill.

The gap was closed and God was there, as He was all the time. The Spirit Himself searches our hearts and comes up with a prayer that reaches out and touches both the healer and the healed. Remember, my friend, that it's God who heals. He has all kinds of ways to heal, but only He brings healing to the world. He loves; you can see that in His Son. He forgives; you could see that in His Son. He gives life. You can see that in His Son. You can see everything in His Son Jesus Christ, who promised His Spirit and keeps His promise, even to you. We're so performance oriented, and so ego-centered that often we see prayer as a human work, which becomes effective when we have the right thoughts, the right words, the right desires, and even the right way of folding our hands.

We imagine that somehow we must be worthy and willing. We're all human. We all have weaknesses. We all need the Spirit with His strength. We need to come as we are, as those who do not know how to pray and always have to learn again how to pray. Thank God that the Spirit helps you in your weakness. It's the Spirit of Christ who became weak and was crucified in all His weakness.

People who learn how to pray have learned this great secret: when I am weak then am I strong. When I come in all my weakness with confidence in God, that He's strong to help, then and then only have I learned how to pray. Don't go around bragging about what you did with your prayer. That's not how to pray. Accept the goodness of God, and quit bragging about yourself. Accept the strength of God and quit thinking or acting as if God helps you because you are so great or so good. Live the life of faith in God, that is willing to take no for an answer. Have every confidence that God knows best. That's how to live, really to live and that's how to pray.

I guess, you can see that the Lord and His apostles did not give us a whole lot of suggestions, or a big bunch of gimmicks on how to pray. People have done that. Some hints are helpful, and some are not. How to pray, when it comes right down to it, have faith in God, be guided by the Word of God, and let the power of the Spirit of God come through, right from the heartbreak of life, where the Spirit of God does His work as only He can. The Spirit of God is for people who don't have a prayer without the grace of God.

He's for those who pray: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" The Spirit of God comes at a time like that. To such He comes, pleading with God in groans and sighs that words are unable to express. How to pray? As Jesus Christ Himself prayed, with confidence in His Father. He's your Father too, by faith in Jesus Christ. Have confidence that God can help and will help—confidence that God forgives and gives life; confidence in God that everything will work out just fine.

For we know that in all things, God works for good to those who love Him, those whom He has called according to His wonderful purpose. If God is for us who can be against us? He did not even keep back His own Son but offered Him up for us all. He gave us His Son. Will He not also freely give us all things? Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble or hardship, or persecution, or hunger, or poverty, or danger, or death? No! In all these things, we have complete victory through Him who loved us. For I am certain that nothing can separate us from His love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers. Neither the present nor the future. Neither the world above nor the world below. There's nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God, which is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

How to pray? Why as Jesus prayed, who lived and died, and rose again for all of us, that the power of His Spirit whom He sends might live in the hearts of His people. Lord, teach us so to pray. Amen.

Reflections for August 11, 2019

Title: How to Pray

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and we just heard a classic message from Dr. Oswald Hoffmann, first heard in 1979, "How to Pray." I'm Mark Eischer, here in the studio once again with our Speaker, Dr. Michael Ziegler. Dr. Ziegler, what struck you about this message today?

Mike Ziegler: Right at the end there, I heard something that I have long heard about Dr. Hoffmann, was how he used his Bible. A gentleman once told me that Dr. Hoffmann had said to him, "Here. Would you hold my Bible?" He passed the Bible over, and he opened it up. It was the Greek text of the Bible, and that's how Dr. Hoffmann did it. He would translate directly from the Greek. He was so skilled in the languages.

So, in that last passage, when he was quoting Romans 8. He didn't mention the chapter and verse, but right at the end there, that was Romans 8, about having neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation. You could tell he's not ... there's no translation published that's exactly like what he was doing. I think he's translating directly out of the Greek there.

Mark Eischer: Okay. Did you also pick up some other things about the way he approached prayer that kind of revealed maybe a framework underneath it?

Mike Ziegler: I did, and he didn't mention it specifically, but it sounds a lot like the way Martin Luther talked about prayer. Prayer is not something that exists on its own, but happens in the framework of the Christian life. So there's struggle, and there's meditation on God's Word, and there's prayer. The three go together like three legs on a stool, and there's three Latin words that Luther used: oratio and meditatio and tentatio. That just means prayer, meditation on the Word, and struggle. You could hear that in Dr. Hoffmann's sermon.

Mark Eischer: So that became kind of the bones of the message, and then he would elaborate on that.

Mike Ziegler: I think so. So if you remember things he said with regard to that struggle, he said that prayer's not natural. It only came natural to one Person, and it's difficult for us. We always have to keep learning to pray. It's a struggle.

He had this great line about it being forged in the furnace of human experience. And then later, at the end, he talked about being willing to take "no" for an answer from God. That's what it means to pray, is it arises out of this struggle.

So there's the tentatio, the struggle part, and then there's the meditatio, the meditation on the Word, the chewing on the Word. You heard him say that prayer is always guided by the Word—Jesus, of course, being the Word made flesh. We go to Him. We ask Him, "Teach us to pray, Lord. Show us how to pray." He's the only One for whom prayer came naturally, the Word made flesh.

You see this the way even Jesus used the Psalms as His prayer book and how the church has long used the Word of God to guide and shape our prayers. Sometimes people do this with our hymn book, realizing that many of the hymns that have been written have been inspired by the Word of God, but they also come to us as prayers.

Michael Ziegler: So that's how prayer comes, through this struggle, through meditation on the Word, and then he had a really nice definition of prayer there at the end—that prayer comes from faith in God. It is an expression of faith in God. It's guided by the Word, and you've got to let the Spirit of God come through, right from the heartbreak of life. I think those were the bones of the sermon, as you said.

Mark Eischer: Have you seen examples of prayer at work in your own experience in the parish?

Mike Ziegler: I have. I think of a prayer service, a service of healing, we did for a young woman in our congregation who is probably in her 30s and mother of two younger children who was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. To see the congregation come and pray for her ... she sat in a chair, and many people came and prayed for her: family members, elders of our congregation, men and women and children.

To see the church gather around her and pray ... she's doing well. The treatments, as far as I know, everything has gone well. But it's not so much that the prayers worked in a crass sort of way, but to see the church come together around a sister in Christ and to pray for her, and trusting that God will answer, He knows best. That was a powerful moment for me.

Another instance recently is seeing the value of having regular times to pray, especially as a family or as a household. And this is also good for being a witness. So this is what happened. We had our neighbor over, and she doesn't attend church regularly. I don't think she attends church at all, but it was right at the end of the night, and our kids were going to bed. They said, "Well, it's time to do our prayers."

So my wife very gently invited her in and said, "You want to come and go through our devotions with us?" And she did, she participated. So I think that's the importance of regular times for prayer, whether as a household or as an individual.

Mark Eischer: Next week, we're going to be continuing this tradition of using the month of August as a time to reach into the past and carry that forward into the future, as we feature a message from Dr. Dale Meyer.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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