Transforming prayer

Prayer offers the power and wisdom needed to meet today's challenges. But how does the pastor experience and teach genuine spirituality?

James R. Kilmer, PhD, a retired minister, lives in Spangle, Washington, United States.

Current popular interest in prayer and meditation shows that there exists a great yearning for spiritual experience and meaning among today’s youth. At the same time, many are turning dangerously to various forms of Eastern meditation in the name of Christianity. Christian spirituality offers the joy, tranquility, and power that today’s world seeks, but Satan places his most effective snares close to the genuine.

Prayer and meditation offer the power and wisdom needed to meet today’s challenges. But how does the pastor experience and teach genuine spirituality? How does one keep from crossing dangerous boundaries? How does the pastor find time for empowering dialogue with God when overwhelmed by so many demanding human challenges? What is the proper balance between prayer, Bible study, and ministry?

The Protestant Reformation took place amid a flood of spiritual chaos, but prayer broke through strong barriers. Karl Barth says, “The Reformation appears to us as a great whole: a labor of research, thinking, preaching, discussion, polemic, and organization. But it was more than all that. From what we know, it was also an act of continuous prayer.”1 Speaking of the Reformers, he writes, “It was not by the brilliance of their virtues, wisdom, or piety that He (God) accomplished His work with them. It was by prayer.”2 Martin Luther also attributed the success of the Reformation to prayer.3

The Protestant Reformation was also a watershed that separated between true and false forms of spirituality. Men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others were spiritual giants. They struggled with challenges similar to ours; yet they found a solid anchor in Scripture that empowered their prayers and guided them through bold attacks against faith. A brief look at their experience and teaching concerning prayer will prove insightful as we face today’s tide of evil.

You think society is corrupt today

When the elector of Saxony (Germany) surveyed the religious scene in 1527, he observed a muddle of ignorance and moral decadence.

Many of the monks and priests who joined the Reformed movement were ignorant of Scripture. A number were living in “wild wedlock,” others had married and then abandoned their families. One report declared that all but 10 out of 200 clergymen were living in open fornication. Some congregations complained that their pastors made alcoholic beverages during the week and explained the art on Sunday, others that their ministers were seen too often in the gambling dens and beer chambers.4

Martin Luther’s friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon was deeply moved by this. He penned, “My heart bleeds when I regard this misery. Often when we have completed the visitation of a place, I go to one side and pour forth my distress in tears.”5

Prior to this, Melanchthon seemed to depend more upon intellectual thought than prayer. The survey helped him to realize his need for greater dependence upon God.6 In an essay on prayer (1543) Melanchthon wrote, “That we may know our need of God’s help we should reflect upon our enormous inadequacy . . . Surely all wise men are amazed that human beings are by nature so strong yet so weak.”7

Joy in the battle

Prayer and meditation are not only the source of power but also of joy and comfort. Gerard Groote (1340–1384) laid the foundation for the devotional life. Writing of Groote, Albert Hyma reports, “It was his habit to withdraw himself several times a day from the busy life of the outer world for prayer, surrendering himself wholly to God, saying: ‘Here I am Lord; teach me to do thy will, make mine conform to thine.’”8 There were times when he was conscious of contact between himself and God and his “soul would leap with joy. Songs of thanksgiving would escape from his fervent lips, for at such moments, that wonderful peace promised by Christ would settle upon him.”9

Labor to enter into rest

Pastors should realize seeking spiritual renewal has never been easy. Martin Luther regarded prayer as “The hardest work of all . . . a labor above all labors, since he who prays must wage a mighty warfare against the doubt and murmuring excited by the faintheartedness and unworthiness we all feel within us.”10

Luther spent up to three hours in prayer and meditation in the evenings.11 He wrote, “Whatever good may be done is done and brought about by prayer ... against force there is no help but prayer alone.”12

A research project in 1995 indicated that those who built their day on a firm foundation of prayer, meditation, and Bible study enjoyed the ministry, experienced transformation in the lives of their members and were less subject to pastoral burnout than were those who gave primary attention to solving problems.13

The Reformers and the mystics

One mystic, St. Theresa, is said to have had such an encounter with God that she did not need Jesus to be a Mediator.

Karl Barth, on the other hand, characterizes Luther’s prayers as distinctly different than that of the mystics:

“Luther’s vigorous, healthy, and cheerful type of devotion forms the opposite pole to Teresa’s art of mystical prayer. . . . His freedom from medieval mysticism springing out of neo-Platonism, and his exclusive relationship to biblical religion, gave rise to a creative renewal of the prophetic and primitively Christian type of prayer.”14

Intellectual versus subjective wisdom

The Reformers combined prayer and meditation with Bible study. Yet they recognized prayer as a source of wisdom beyond mere factual knowledge.

Groote said, “When Christ enters with His sweet conversation then the wisdom from heaven will fill that human temple with the peace which passes all understanding.”15

Brokering says that Luther’s interpretations were “rooted and strengthened and nourished in prayer.” He says that “doctrine was the topic for each of his prayers”; and that “A creedal statement was always in need of meditation and devotion. It was no end in itself.”16 Luther did, however, recognize a supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit beyond mere human reason. He says he has often learned more in one prayer than he could have gotten out of much reading and writing.17

Prayer was also the chief exercise of faith. Luther saw faith as an appropriation of Christ’s righteousness by repeating “Jesus died for me.” This appropriation was objective assurance apart from depending upon divine feeling or good works for assurance, which Luther considered to be heretical.18 His primacy for objective faith, however, did not exclude the necessity for the petitioner to experience assurance.

In his instruction to Peter the Barber concerning prayer, he tells Peter, “And do not give up praying until you have said or thought: ‘Well, I surely know that this prayer is heard of God. This is what ‘Amen’ means.”19

Regarding faith and reason, Melanchthon says, “One may develop meekness, temperance, and other virtues by the use of reason, but faith comes only from a divine revelation of God’s love for man.”20 “Natural reason does not know whether God loves man, whether God hears our prayers. Natural reason does not know the Mediator Christ and the promises of God.”21

Continuing in the tradition of the Reformer s who found prayer a source of wisdom and power, Calvin bathed his theology in prayer. R. D. Loggie qualifies this faith as a “firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us.” This is not simply an empirical knowledge, but the “knowing” that Paul refers to in Ephesians 3 and in the final verses of Romans 8. Calvin clarifies, “We do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only as outside ourselves, . . . rather we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.”22

Cutting through the tangle of time

Where does today’s pastor find time for the kind of prayer and meditation that empowered the reformers?

Computer meditation. Why not use computers as a devotional tool? Try writing emails to God. Luther’s time of prayer consisted primarily of meditation on Scripture and correlating it with the situation of the times.23 Most of Luther’s written works were products of this kind of prayer and meditation on Scripture.

As one pours out one’s heart to God in writing, one can quickly access multiple translations of the Bible, commentaries, and inspired writings accessible on the Internet. These can be copied and pasted into “letters” that become a spiritual diary. Re-reading such a spiritual diary often renews devotion. Appropriate portions from one’s spiritual diary may be emailed to meet specific needs of members in the congregation. The diary also becomes a seedbed for sermons.

Some stay in prayer contact with members through an “e-prayer network.” Members with Internet access can print prayer requests and pass them on to those who do not have computers.

Nature. Combine outdoor exercise with devotions. Sermon thoughts may come together while hiking or riding a bicycle. I enjoy going to a hill not far from my home, spending time talking to God with green fields and valleys stretched out below.

CDs and tapes in the car. The Bible and inspirational books are available on tape or CDs. While listening in the car, these can flood the soul with Spirit filled devotion much more than talk shows and news.

Implications for pastors today

As pastors, we either take forceful action in our devotional life or suffer defeat. The Lord will uphold our efforts if we follow the example of the Reformers and apostles.

Ministers will experience blessings if they make prayer and meditation a number one priority. Clear understanding of Scripture is dependent upon divine illumination, which takes place through an encounter with God by meditating on His Word and asking for wisdom. Sermons, counseling, and leadership should be the product of this form of prayer. Our prayer and meditation should be followed by complete dedication to the truth as it is in Jesus, by obedience to His Word, and actions that carry out our petitions. Then we can expect true reformation and the triumph of the kingdom of Christ as predicted in His Word.


1 Karl Barth, Prayer According to the Catechism of the Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 146.

2 Ibid., 29.

3 Martin Luther, introduction to the Large Catechism, as quoted in Karl Barth, Prayer.

4 Clyde Manschreck, Melanchthon the Quiet Reformer (New York: Abingdon Press, 1958), 137.

5 Ibid.

6 Clyde Manschreck, “Melanchthon and Prayer,” Archive of Reformation History, 51 (1960): 148.

7 Ibid., 149, quoting Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 10:21: 955.

8 R. Rier de Muiden, Scriptum, 6, 7, cited by Albert Hyma, The Christian Renaissance (New York: The Century Co.,
1924), 21.

9 P. Horn, Vita Gerardi Magni, 365, cited by Hyma, Renaissance, 21.

10 Sr. Deanna Marie Carr, A Consideration of the Meaning of Prayer in the Life of Martin Luther, Concordia, vol. 42, 622.

11 Friedrick Heiler, Prayer, a Study in the History and Psychology of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932),

12 Ewald M. Plass, compiled, What Luther Says (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1094.

13 James R. Kilmer, “Stop the Burnout, Enjoy the Ministry,” Ministry, June 1996, 19.

14 Karl Barth, Prayer, 130.

15 G. Groote, Sermo Se Paupertate, 438, cited by Albert Hyma, The Christian Renaissance, 21.

16 Herbert F. Brokering, preface to Luther’s Prayers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1967).

17 Ibid., 40.

18 Bengt R. Hoffman, Luther and the Mystics, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), 29.

19 Brokering, Luther’s Prayers, 40.

20 Manschreck, “Prayer,” 150.

21 Ibid.

22 R. D. Loggie, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Prayer,” The Hartford Quarterly, 5 (Winter 1965), 70.

23 Gustav K. Wiencke, Devotional Writings II, vol. 43 Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 198.


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James R. Kilmer, PhD, a retired minister, lives in Spangle, Washington, United States.

November 2010

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