Learning to Pray

What is prayer?

According to Holy Scripture, prayer is a result of the Christian’s being made right with God through Jesus Christ. Thus we describe prayer a part of the Christian’s sanctification, that is, part of the Christian’s life in Christ. Therefore, prayer always flows from justifying faith–that is, trust in Christ that he is the Savior through whose life and death we have the full and free forgiveness of all our sins. When God gives us the gift of faith and trust in him, it is then that we are led to want to pray to the true and living God. Prayer is always a fruit of faith, never a cause of faith.

[Dr. A. L. Barry, Let Us Pray: A Study of Prayer and the Devotional Life (The Office of the President, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 1998), p. 13.]


“Lord, Teach Us to Pray!”

So spoke the disciples to Jesus. In making this request, they confessed that they were not able to pray on their own, that they had to learn to pray. The phrase “learning to pray” sounds strange to us. If the heart does not overflow and begin to pray by itself, we say, it will never “learn” to pray. But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings—all of which the heart can do by itself—with prayer. And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty. No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ.

The disciples want to pray, but they do not know how to do it. That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to, to have to be speechless before God, to discover that every call to him dies within itself, that heart and mouth speak an absurd language which God does not want to hear. In this need we seek out men who are able to help us, who know something about prayer. If one among us who is able to pray would only take the other along in his prayer, if we could pray along with him, then we could be helped! Certainly experienced Christians can help us in this way a great deal. But they can do it only through him who must himself help them, and to whom they direct us if they are true teachers in prayer, namely through Jesus Christ. If he takes us with him in his prayer, if we are privileged to pray along with him, if he lets us accompany him on his way to God and teaches us to pray, then we are free from the agony of prayerlessness. But that is precisely what Jesus Christ wants to do. He wants to pray with us and to have us pray with him, so that we may be confident and glad that God hears us. When our will wholeheartedly enters into the prayer of Christ, then we pray correctly. Only in Jesus Christ are we able to pray, and with him we also know that we shall be heard.

And so we must learn to pray. The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken to us and speaks to us. By means of the speech of the Father in heaven his children learn to speak with him. Repeating God’s own words after him, we begin to pray to him. We ought to speak to God and he wants to hear us, not in the false and confused speech of our heart, but in the clear and pure speech which God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.

God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer. For here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words which come from God become, then, the steps on which we find our way to God.

[Excerpt from Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer copyright © 1974 Fortress Press admin. Augsburg Fortress. Reproduced by permission. No further reproduction allowed without written permission of Augsburg Fortress.]