Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“…The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought…” (Rom. 8:26, ESV).
“Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).
According to the Apostle Paul, we don’t know what to pray for; we don’t even know how to pray. We must be taught, and we must learn. Does that surprise you?
It doesn’t surprise me one bit! As your pastor, I probably receive more questions about prayer than I do about any other topic in the Bible. For example, “What should I pray about?” “How do I know that God hears me?” “How will I recognize his answer?” I have come to realize that many of God’s people feel ill-equipped and unready when it comes to prayer. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked somebody to pray aloud in a church meeting, and they meekly bow out, saying that they’re not comfortable praying in a group. But when I was growing up in Pentecostal churches, praying was never a problem! Everybody thought it was “okay to pray.” Lutherans, however, tend to be a little bit shy.
Truly, we do not know what to pray for as we ought. And that is why Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). And Jesus gladly did:
“Pray then like this:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:9-13).
We do not know how to pray, so the Lord Jesus gives us his own prayer. If we would learn how to pray and what to pray, we must begin here. Regarding the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther writes that it “is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves” (LC III, 22). Why? Because Jesus was the one who first spoke it.
As a former monk, Luther deeply understood the life of prayer. So when his barber asked him for advice on prayer, Luther wrote him a lengthy letter—really a booklet—titled “A Simple Way to Pray.” Luther’s letter was, of course, spiritual and pastoral, but also immeasurably practical. Start and end the day in prayer. Pray when you think of it, not later (or the time of prayer may be forgotten or put off). Meditate on the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Apostles’ Creed, thinking and praying on each phrase—and not worrying if you don’t make it to the end. And “Finally mark this: Say the Amen in every case emphatically, without doubting that God in his grace is certainly giving ear and saying yes to your prayer.” The Hebrew word amen literally means “I believe.” It is a confession of faith in God’s ability and willingness to answer prayer.
And yet I am aware that some people resist any kind of written or memorized prayers—even the Lord’s Prayer—considering them pedestrian and elementary at best, perhaps even unspiritual. But why should we despise written prayers, especially when God has given them to us in his written Word? The Lord’s Prayer is the most important, to be sure. “There is no nobler prayer to be found on earth…” (LC III, 23). The Lord’s Prayer retunes the desires of our hearts so that we carry out God’s commands and ask for the very gifts he promises to grant us: his presence (by his name), his kingdom, his good and gracious will, our daily bread, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation and fellowship with other people, help in the time of trial, and deliverance from evil. If you don’t know what to pray for, start there!
And what about the entire Book of Psalms, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the prayerbook of the Bible”? The Psalms capture the entire breadth and depth of human emotion and experience: praise, lament, complaints, and wisdom. I intentionally make the Psalms the center of my prayer life—as did David, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and many other wonderful saints before us. If you don’t know how to pray, then pray the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. They cover the entire depth and breadth of human experience. And the more you pray the Psalms, then very gradually, bit by bit, the language of Scripture will begin to pepper your personal prayers. You will pray like the psalmists. It will not happen overnight, but you will make the joyful discovery of praying the prayers of God’s people through the centuries.
Yes, the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer are written prayers. All the better if they become memorized prayers so that you can repeat them continuously by heart! And there are many other excellent written prayers too: Luther’s morning and evening prayers, the Litany in our new hymnal (LSB, pp. 288-89), and many of the prayers in various Christian devotional books. Are we so small-minded that we would put God in a box and limit the Spirit, claiming that he cannot inspire our hearts and minds through excellent, written prayers? If indeed that is our attitude, then we still have much to learn about prayer! And very often, the best way to learn is to mimic and echo the words of other pray-ers who are wiser and more experienced in prayer than we. Only then will we be able to pour out our hearts before the Lord in words that ring right and true (Ps. 62:8). “O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth Thy praise!” (Ps. 51:15, KJV).
We do not know what to pray for as we ought, and so we must learn. The Spirit helps us in our weakness. He intercedes with groanings too deep for words. And yet he also inspires the very Word of God that teaches us how to pray. And so our prayer must attend the love and study of Holy Scripture. “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…” (Eph. 6:18). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Pray with right motive (Jas. 4:1-3). Pray what you mean, and mean what you pray (Jas. 1:6-8). Pray in secret, not to make a scene (Matt. 6:5-6). Pray in a simple and straightforward way—not with “many words” (Matt. 6:7). Pray when you are sick or suffering (Jas. 5:13-16). Pray for pastors and missionaries, “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored…” (2 Thess. 3:1; cf. Col. 4:3). Pray for your leaders—“for kings and all who are in high positions”—even, and especially, the ones you don’t like (1 Tim. 2:2)! Pray for your enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 23:34). And finally, simply pray for everyone—“all people” (1 Tim. 2:1). Pray in Jesus’ name (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-26). Always pray, and never lose heart (Luke 18:1).
Are you overwhelmed yet? Is that enough of a lesson in prayer for one day? Sometimes it seems like too much for me to understand and put into practice. When you make a study of prayer in Scripture, you are quickly overwhelmed. No wonder that the Lord comes and asks the sleepy disciples, “Could you not tarry with me for one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). No, Lord, I couldn’t. I’m too tired, too weary, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Forgive me, Lord! And teach us to pray.
And that is why “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). The Good News is that even though we do not know what to pray for, God most certainly does! And so “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” (Rom. 8:26-27). When we don’t know what to say in prayer, our groans and sighs become a kind of prayer, and then the Spirit himself prays for us and with us. He fills in the blanks and edits out the foolish requests. And not only the Holy Spirit, but Christ himself “who is at the right hand of God…, indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). Even now, as we speak, Jesus is up in heaven praying for us. And because he is our Great High Priest, he never stops praying for us, “since he always lives to make intercession for [us]” (Heb. 7:25). Jesus and the Spirit are praying for you. Few things give me greater comfort than knowing I do not pray alone. In the mystery of the Trinity, God himself prays with me and for me, hears me, and answers me!
This is the wonderful promise of prayer: God hears us and answers us for the sake of Jesus Christ, his Son, who bled and died and rose again for us and the forgiveness of our sins. God commands us to pray, and he only commands what he promises to give already in Christ Jesus. That is the privilege we have as the King’s kids. We cry out to “Abba, Father!” in prayer, and he hears us (cp. Rom. 8:15). And we, his adopted children through the new birth of Baptism, eagerly await his response:
“We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:23-25).
Someday all our waiting will turn into waking reality. Faith will become sight, and our hope will turn to joy when God answers every prayer. Until that day: Lord, remember us in your kingdom, and teach us to pray. In the name of the Father of and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.