Luther’s Advice: Concentrate When You Pray

Martin Luther’s mighty prayer life is legendary. He is supposed to have said this famous statement: ‘I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.’ That is not advice that regularly crops up in the ‘Professional Growth’ or ‘Personal Success’ genres.

Despite our ready admittance that prayer is among the most important things we can do with our time, I have not met a Christian who is satisfied with their prayer life. I confess that I have always found prayer difficult, and not least because I have a propensity to get distracted very easily (something my wife finds irritating five minutes after she’s requested help with something).

When Luther’s barber, Master Peter (the one responsible for that hair) asked for some advice on prayer, Luther wrote a kind of open letter called A Simple Way to Pray. In it he urges a readiness and eagerness to pray, writing, ‘It is of great importance that the heart be made ready and eager for prayer… What else is it but tempting God when your mouth babbles and the mind wanders to other thoughts?’

He gives an example of a priest praying in Latin, getting distracted with every other line, and you don’t need a word of Latin to recognise what’s happening:

Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Farmhand, did you unhitch the horses? Domine ad adjuvandum me fastina. Maid, go out and milk the cow. Gloria patti et filio et spiritui sancto. Hurry up, boy, I wish the ague [malaria] would take you!

For Luther, it is a regret that he had prayed many hours of these worthless and ‘blasphemous’ prayers. And so he goes on to offer this simple yet priceless advice:

So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, ‘Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus’—‘He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’ How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!

It seems to me that learning to do this well — to pray with concentration and focus — requires a good deal of self-knowledge. I recall reading (or hearing?) John Piper speak of his habit of turning to Jonathan Edwards first thing in the morning to warm his heart before he opens the Bible and prays. Martin Lloyd-Jones would often speak of the need to know oneself; what helps you? what lifts your mood? Perhaps you pray best after meditating on Scripture, or whilst walking the dog, or in your attic.

If knowing yourself is the first step, the second is surely making decisions and sticking to them. I think many of us fail to pray because we have not decisively answered the simple questions like where? when? how? I know for myself that I must make clear plans and even write them down, because I rarely find myself spontaneously drawn to focussed prayer.

Look again at Jesus. ‘And rising very early in the morning, while it wasstill dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1.35). I take comfort from the inference that even Jesus needed to take quite decisive steps to get rid of distractions. How much more do you and I?

This post first appeared over at Think Theology.

A Note to the Skinflints and the Slackhands

One of the great advantages of being in a church is that you may well know lots of useful people, people who know how to do stuff. I have friends who can write contracts, fix radiators, and mend fences. And since they’re called to love me, they can do it at a discount, right?

In a video course called Biblical Finance, Doug Wilson gets onto the subject of Honest Work and makes a few challenging remarks in his typically humorous way.

Honest work means that you don’t take advantage of other people just because they’re in the family of God. And it’s really amazing how the carnal heart works on this. ‘Oh, our cat’s sick, and this veterinarian goes to our church. Maybe we’ll go to him, and maybe he’ll give us a deal because we go to the same church. Maybe he’ll give us 10% off… Or maybe I can get it for free if I hit him up at the fellowship hour and tell him what’s wrong with my cat.’

Or you find out that somebody’s a doctor at the fellowship hour at church, and you want to show them your rash.

Don’t take advantage of your brothers.

Instead of going to the vet with your sick cat thinking ‘Maybe he’ll take 10% off because I’m a brother’, you need to be thinking, ‘Maybe I should add 10% to whatever he bills me. Maybe I should add 10% because he’s a brother.’

If you’re trying to use the brotherhood of God as a way of getting from people, your thinking is all wrong. Look at every Christian business opportunity… as a way to bless them above and beyond, instead of looking for ways for them to bless you above and beyond.

Now, there is a kind of grace in receiving a gift, including services offered at a reduced rate. So we don’t have to assume that the vet isn’t allowed to offer you a discount, or that the doctor won’t take a sneak peak at that rash and offer a word of advice. But the point is that the onus is on you to honour them, and not vice versa.

In fact, Paul does (sort of) make the same point.

Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6.2)

Here the roles are reversed, but the principle is the same. He’s saying that if you’re employed by a fellow Christian you should work even harder as a service to them simply because they are Christian. But the bigger point, or the underlying principle, is this: don’t take liberties with a brother as though he owes you. Rather, consider how to serve him even better, whether by your generosity or your hard work.

This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.

Discipleship as Craft Knowledge

If you read this blog [referring to where this was first posted], chances are you’re a more cerebral type. You like reading in general. You probably own a library. And you probably like listening to podcasts, as well as reading other blogs. You’re an advocate for reading ‘dead guys’, and you’ve quoted CS Lewis on the importance of reading a healthy ratio of old books. When Al Mohler memorably challenges us that ‘Leaders Are Readers’ you’re ready to stand up and wave your hand and shout Hallelujah, except that you’re an introvert and it feels odd to do something like that.

I am deeply convinced about the importance of reading in personal growth. I will never cease to be amazed at the grace of God to me and my family by taking hold of my dad, from a dirt-poor home with divorced parents in Bootle, Liverpool, and turning him into a reader of theology after he got saved in his teens. This all led to a transformation that not only changed his life (and earned the nickname ‘Banner-of-Truth Haslam’), but had a trickle down effect by totally altering his entire worldview, and so enabling him to be a wonderful husband, father, and pastor. Being surrounded by books from a young age, I too grew in my enjoyment of reading and I’m often dropping books into people’s hands when I think it will be helpful. So while I want to wholly endorse books (and podcasts and blogs) as a means to growth, we should also quickly acknowledge that there is something deficient about a book as a teacher. Why?

Learning is imitative. We are born to imitate, and we imbibe most of our presuppositions, cultural biases, modes of behaviour, and of course the very words we speak, through imitation.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Jesus’ method of building his church was to establish his teaching and his way of life among a small band of men. He was setting a new way of thinking, a new culture, and as has often been pointed out, he didn’t write anything down.

The obvious rebuttal is that the Bible itself is a book, written (in a sense) by Jesus; it is all red letters. And yet, even within that book, the pattern we’re encouraged to follow is this: watch and learn from others.

‘I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church’ (1 Corinthians 4.16-17).

‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11.1).

Despite the unspeakable privilege of having God’s word and God’s Spirit the fact remains that there is a type of learning that only happens (or happens most effectively) through imitation, and often unconscious imitation at that.

This goes part way to explaining how movements take off and break new ground. A culture develops and leaders imitate one another, so that while a movement may be headed by one great pioneering mind, there is also a lifting affect on everyone around them. To take a longer view, learning-through-imitation also explains why certain countries have a rich, centuries-old heritage of innovation and invention and creativity. Michael Horton puts it well:

Excellence cannot be cultivated by lone rangers. We may remember some of the great scientists, artists, and philanthropists in history. But they would never have acquired their knowledge or skills apart from being formed by a community of expertise over time. Standards of excellence in each of these fields are not something that each person invents or even votes on. Rather, they evolve over generations through countless negotiations, failures, and successes.1

He’s right. Excellence in any given field can take generations to produce. We often only get stand-out men and women in history because they are part of a culture of imitation and learning.

Here’s Matthew Crawford making a similar point in a recent interview:

Matthew Crawford: Let’s take a different example: scientific practice, and scientific apprenticeship. It’s inherently progressive, it’s about discovery of a new. But how does that happen? I’m convinced by [the philosopher and scientist] Michael Polanyi. He found that scientific knowledge is really best understood as a species of craft knowledge, in a sense that knowing is a skill and it’s a skill that you have to learn, and you have to learn it from particular people, within a kind of mentorship.

What that means is that as a beginning scientist you have to submit to authority, the authority of your teachers. You don’t fully understand why one does things this way rather than that way. It’s in the course of doing it that you begin to get habituated into the characteristic judgment of a competent scientist. That element of personal involvement is absolutely necessary.

Brian Dijkema: Right, you talk about the movement of a practice of science that resulted when emigrés left Europe for America during the war. They brought the expertise, they became the masters who travelled from Europe to the United States and that is how American science progressed.

Matthew Crawford: Right. It was the Manhattan project. Polanyi points out that there were other countries that had plenty of money for research and they had access to all the same textbooks. But the practice of scientific enquiry hadn’t yet taken root. Science and all knowledge are passed on from one generation to another through personal contact. And what he was worried about it is the fact that if you break that train of transmission it only takes one generation for a lot of knowhow to be lost forever. He talks about how we, with all the techniques of modern science, can’t reproduce a Stradivarius violin.

We could multiply examples of this ‘craft knowledge’ or learning in community to explain so many extraordinary things in history: the building of the pyramids, the development of philosophy in the academies of Ancient Greece, the techniques used to hunt narwhals from canoes in the Arctic or sperm whales in the Pacific.

And all of this leads me to think about the church. Every church has a culture, and disciples are made automatically in that culture; discipleship is passing on craft knowledge. Further, every eldership team has a culture, and when new guys are brought in they imbibe so much that is unspoken about how to lead and pastor a church. This principle can work negatively where poisonous ways of thinking and doing persist within a church or eldership. But of course, this principle works powerfully in our favour when we see people beginning to flourish and grow because, without even realising it, they start to imitate those around them just by being near them.

The implications are endless, but as a pastor I’m particularly interested in the way men can be trained for pastoral ministry by imitating other pastors. So, although I attended a seminary and would advocate for the importance of a theological education, I suspect that most of our practical knowledge is learned from the people we hang out with.

This is not to say that we only learn by imitation. We can still go beyond our peers and the people we learned from, otherwise knowledge would never develop and grow, even in communities. However, it takes a special kind of pioneering mind to consistently break out of the mould in which they were formed. And this is where learning from books can slingshot a person beyond their immediate cultural environment. But since most of us are not those special kinds of pioneers, but instead rather simple people, we will get most of our learning by imitation. Turning this around, let me ask a question: If you’re a pastor, how are you offering opportunities for young men to imitate you and your eldership team? Are there unordained guys sat in the room when you have elders meetings? Are they able to come and pray with you in the morning? Are they able to study and plan and lead with you?

It seems to me that in an age in which we are moving away from person-on-person interaction towards online relationships and learning, understanding imitation has never been more important. If we neglect this, then so much good practice will simply be forgotten.

All of this speaks so powerfully into the genius of the church, of God’s plan to form a community. Here’s Horton again:

This is why Christ places us in a local expression of his visible body. Especially as Americans we think that we can figure things out on our own. We are only a “do-it-yourself” guide, seminar, or mouse click away from mastering whatever we want to do or be. However, in any field, excellence requires discipline — submitting to a community that cultivates expertise. Discipline requires disciples, just as craftsmanship requires apprentices. Much wisdom for this discipleship may be found in the community’s accumulated resources. However, books will not be sufficient. In the church today, we do not need more conferences, more programs, and more celebrities. We need more churches where the Spirit is immersing sinners into Christ day by day, a living communion of the saints, where we cannot simply jump to our favourite chapter or Google our momentary interest.2

1. Michael Horton, Ordinary, p.34
2. Ibid. p.35

This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.

Some Advice on Reading a Little More

I’m not a fast reader. But I’ve definitely improved over the years. Perhaps a few of the things I’ve learned will help…

Concentration in Reading

The most important thing is to concentrate and think when you read. If you’re thinking, then you’re learning. If you’re learning, then you’re growing. But if your thoughts are distracted and broken, your reading won’t profit you very much. Some ways to stay focussed:

1. Turn off your phone (obviously). I am embarrassingly prone to distraction and diversion. This self-knowledge is helpful when I want to read because I know that I can’t get anywhere if my notifications are on. Apparently, like pavlovian dogs, we get addicted to the ‘ping ping’ of trigger and reward as our phones seduce us to check what’s happening. You can sidestep that temptation by simply turning off your notifications, since you probably don’t need them anyway.

2. Set a deadline for when you’re going to stop. This is by far the most effective technique I’ve ever discovered for concentrating on the task in hand. That deadline might be a timer, or a set number of pages. Either way, if you know when you’re going to finish you’re far less likely to fritter your time away.

3. Make sure you enjoy what you’re reading. More on this below, but it is obviously the case that we will concentrate on things we find interesting and enjoyable. I have often made the dumb error of jumping into books that I found boring and then attempting to wade through, getting little benefit from them.

(By the way, subjects become more interesting the more general knowledge you have about them. For example, a book about Calvin’s theology is going to be a lot more interesting when you’ve already got a good idea of Reformation history. Start with the general and work to the particular, and always in that order. When you have your bearings with a subject, the details become a lot more interesting.)

4. If you have to read something you don’t enjoy, refer to (2) above. We don’t always get to read the stuff that scintillates, and sometimes you know you need to read something for a project or for personal growth that is not easy or particularly enjoyable. As with so many things in life, this is best accomplished by breaking it down into measurable units (e.g. a set number of pages per day) or working against the clock (e.g. I’ll read for 20 minutes and then I’m stopping).

Reading More

While I don’t think a vague sense of ‘more’ is a particularly great goal in reading, most of us look around at all the books we wish we had read, and we want to read more because there’s so much wealth in them. These things might help:

1. Keep track of what you’ve read. We tend to make progress in those things we measure. If you step on the bathroom scales every day you’ll begin eating less and losing weight (or so I’m told). Simply keeping a list of what you’ve read, and maybe counting up your total at the end of the year, will serve as a strong motivator to keep working at this.

2. Set a goal for what you want to read. Goals help. If you decide in advance how many books you want to read over the next year you’ll probably read more, even if you don’t achieve your goal. So, set something realistic. A book a month? A book a week? And, if you’re really keen to work through particular books then make sure they’re on a list that’s attached to this goal.

3. Don’t try to memorise your books. If you’re fretting about getting the most out of a book, and anxious that you will forget things, then you’ll read very slowly, and you’ll forget things. Somewhere in Wordsmithy, Doug Wilson talks about reading until your brain creaks. The aim isn’t to memorise what you’ve read, but rather to read so much that some of it sticks. Wilson uses the analogy of a forest floor covered in leaves; you want to lay those leaves on thick and allow it all to turn into mulch in your head. I heard recently that our memories are designed for recognition rather than recall. (That may have come out of some bogus book on evolutionary theory for all I know, but it’s true if you think about it.) Just try recalling the details of a friend’s face; it’s much easier to recognise a friend than to recall their features from memory. So it is with reading. The more you read, the more you will develop instincts and ways of thinking, and you’ll learn to recognise truth when you see it. Even if you can’t remember all the facts, the principles and ideas will stick.

4. Use all the available moments you can find. On the one hand, it’s very sensible to establish some kind of routine where you read regularly in the same place at the same time. Could you read before you sleep? Could you read on your commute? How about in your lunch break? Perhaps there’s a moment’s calm just after you’ve put the kids to bed? On the other hand, routines don’t always work so well (depending on your lifestyle), so you probably need to carry a book with you wherever you go and jump in when you can. Kindles are brilliant for this.

What to Do When You Get Stuck

If you find you haven’t picked up a book for a while then check if one of these problems is at the root.

1. Are you reading something you don’t enjoy? Sometimes we have to read for work, but if you are just pushing your way through a book because you feel you ought to, and all along you’re not enjoying it, then this is likely to make you stop reading altogether. I remember David Field, one of my lecturers at college, saying that books are like conversations: they’re not all equally interesting or equally helpful, so feel free to drop in and out of them as you please.

2. Are you indulging in too much entertainment? The book has a hard time competing with the screen (TV, internet, smart phone) because it isn’t designed to give instant gratification. If you’re not reading there’s a strong likelihood you’re opting for the easy, mind-numbing options. So, set yourself some limits for TV. Delete the Facebook app off your phone. Put down the rubbish paper on your commute and bring a book instead (at least for one direction of the journey). Do whatever it takes not to waste your life on these things.

3. Are you scared of books? Books can be intimidating, especially if you’ve tried and failed many times. I’d say this: get some books that are short and sweet and start racking up the book count. It will help you get more confident with reading. Also, you could try reading something totally addictive like the Hunger Games trilogy, or some Jack Reacher novels. They won’t help you grow as a person, but they will give you a restored appetite for reading in general, and then you can start digging into some more nonfiction.

Iceberg pastors

When you’re a pastor, from time-to-time people will ask you, ‘What do you do during the week?’ It’s an excellent question (but not usually for the reasons people ask it).

There are no job descriptions for pastoral ministry in the New Testament. There are directives and pointers that feed into the picture of what pastoral work looks like. But generally speaking I’d say that how a pastor spends his time is usually more influenced by a whole range of other factors — personality, church culture, theological heritage, character, and context.

For me, it is a matter of constant adjustments and course corrections. I doubt I shall ever be satisfied that I can confidently tell you what a pastor should do during the week, and that’s partly because there simply cannot be a universal job description for this calling.

But there is one rule that I think ought to underpin every pastor’s understanding of his calling, which is that he needs to be an iceberg. What do I mean? Simply this: that whatever public ministry he engages in (that bit above the surface) needs to be built upon a lifetime of preparation, growth, character, learning, and reliance on God (the mass under the surface). Public prayers ought to be a taste of how he prays in private. Preaching ought to be the cream scraped off the top of his brain.

Sometimes I sick a little into my mouth when I think about the cult of celebrity and entertainment that has built up around so much of pastoral ministry and church life, and the concurrent consumerist approach of the average churchgoer. If Andrew Wilson is right, and we’re heading into winter, one benefit we can look forward to is the death of such things in the church. Winter will not tolerate palm trees and piña coladas. Winter will give birth to bigger icebergs.

What does this mean in practice? It means that in amongst the many and varied jobs that need to get done in church life, a pastor must carve out time to grow, and that is part of his job.

Weirdly enough, I think a lot of pastors actually feel guilty if they pray or read on the job. I’ve often heard people reason down these lines: if your church members have to pray and read the Bible outside of their working hours, you should too, otherwise you can’t keep encouraging them to do it. That’s fine in so far as you (the pastor) need to be working hard and not be the slackest member in your church. But it’s also stupid because giving yourself to the word and prayer is your job: it’s literally the one thing we ought to all agree that you’re paid to do. The rest is more or less up for grabs.

The tragedy is that often the models and priorities of church life today do not favour the pastor-iceberg. As a result, most pastors will be tempted to fill up their week with a lot of work that doesn’t allow them to grow deep in God. This is a constant war ground for the pastor’s heart. Here are two brief applications:

1. Church members, you must realise that your pastor is called to give himself to the word and prayer (see Acts 6). There are a lot of things you might like him to be that are not part of his calling.

2. Pastors, if you are feeling stretched thin, weak in faith, over-worked, under-inspired, neglectful of the things that feed your spirit, and altogether too lightweight, then take some time to rethink your priorities and your planning. If wise productivity is all about putting in the big blocks first, then let your growth in God be the first thing you plan for.

This post first appeared over at Think Theology.

Keller’s Powerful Spiritual Diagnostic

I’ve recently finished reading Tim Keller’s new book on prayer, and it is truly outstanding. But there was one section that stood out as one of the most helpful things I’ve read on prayer and the spiritual life for a very long time. It’s towards the end of the book and Keller is seeking to leave us with some parting thoughts and motivations to actually commit to prayer (as one friend of mine recently commented, it’s far easier to read a book on prayer than to pray). Keller gives us this spiritual diagnostic to help you understand your experiences of prayer, and give you hope to keep going:

I often ask Christians to evaluate their situation with regard to prayer by using a metaphor. Imagine that your soul is a boat, a boat with both oars and a sail. In this case here are four questions:

Are you “sailing”? Sailing means you are living the Christian life with the wind at your back. God is real to your heart. You often feel his love. You see prayers being answered. When studying the Bible, you regularly see remarkable things and you sense him speaking to you. You sense people around you being influenced by the Spirit through you.

Are you “rowing”? Rowing means you are finding prayer and Bible reading to be more a duty than a delight. God often (though not always) seems distant, and the sense of his presence is fairly rare. You don’t see many of your prayers being answered. You may be struggling with doubts about God and yourself. Yet despite all this, you refuse self-pity or the self-righteous pride that assumes you know better than God how your life should go. You continue to read the Bible and pray regularly, you attend worship and reach out and serve people despite the inner spiritual dryness.

Are you “drifting”? Drifting means that you are experiencing all the conditions of rowing—spiritual dryness and difficulties in life. But in response, instead of rowing, you are letting yourself drift. You don’t feel like approaching and obeying God, so you don’t pray or read. You give in to the self-centeredness that naturally comes when you feel sorry for yourself, and you drift into self-indulgent behaviors to comfort yourself, whether it be escape eating and sleeping, sexual practices, or whatever else.

Are you “sinking”? Eventually your boat, your soul, will drift away from the shipping lanes, as it were—and truly lose any forward motion in the Christian life. The numbness of heart can become hardness because you give in to thoughts of self-pity and resentment. If some major difficulty or trouble were to come into your life, it would be possible to abandon your faith and identity as a Christian altogether.

In this metaphor we see that there are some things we are responsible for, such as using the means of grace—the Bible, prayer, and church participation—in a disciplined way. There are many other things we do not have much control over—such as how well the circumstances in our lives are going as well as our emotions. If you pray, worship, and obey despite negative circumstances and feelings, you won’t be drifting, and when the winds come up again, you will move ahead swiftly. On the other hand, if you do not apply the means of grace, you will at best be drifting, and if storms come into your life, you might be in danger of sinking.

In any case—pray no matter what. Praying is rowing, and sometimes it is like rowing in the dark—you won’t feel that you are making any progress at all. Yet you are, and when the winds rise again, and they surely will, you will sail again before them.

Prayer, Timothy Keller, p.259-260

This post first appeared over at the Grace London blog.