Prayer in the Word

The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26b-27)

When we hear the phrase “daily devotions,” one of the first things that we may think of are those little devotional booklets that many of us use on a daily basis. Most of these follow a similar pattern, with a quotation from Scripture followed by a brief homiletic reflection, then closing with a prayer. Such resources can serve a good purpose, and are readily available. We are used to such a pattern.

Ironically, when Martin Luther gave his advice on developing a biblical life of prayer, he did not use this familiar format. You might even say that he turned things completely around. In his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings (1539), Luther provided a simple format for approaching Scripture that reverses the familiar pattern we are used to. Luther described his own three-fold approach. In Latin, the terms he used were Oratio (praying), Meditatio (listening), and Tentatio (struggling).

For Luther, prayer was not an end, but the foundational place where our devotional life begins. As disciples, we call upon God to be the speaker. We ask him to open our ears, hearts, and minds to his Word. We begin by praying that “the Spirit himself would intercede for us,” as Scripture says, that what will follow would be God’s doing in us.

Only then do we approach the biblical text.  For Luther, to “meditate” on the text was not simply to learn about the text, as we might do in a Bible Study group. Neither is “meditation” simply what it is in eastern religions, where people center on their own inner mindfulness. Rather, for Luther, biblical meditation has to do with listening carefully to the words of Scripture, in the confidence that God is actually speaking to us.

Lastly, Luther described the final step: Tentatio. This word is a tough one to translate. It means to “struggle” or “wrestle with”– it can even be translated as “suffering.” Luther assumed that if God indeed is at work on us through his Word, such an experience will not necessarily be pleasant. Like a mighty Potter working raw clay, God pokes and prods us through his Word, squeezing and shaping us into the vessel of faith that he would have us be. We should expect this process to elicit “groanings” from us, just as Scripture promises.

It is this final piece that is Luther’s greatest insight into what a life of daily devotion is like, and it is central to our understanding of what makes discipleship “sacramental.” This is what Luther meant by “daily dying and rising in Christ” – to experience the crushing grasp of the law while at the same time being reformed and renewed by the gospel. This how God himself justifies and sanctifies each one of us in faith and makes us his disciples.

– Rev. Steven E. King