It is no surprise that many pastors are unsatisfied with the way they pray. I think some of this dissatisfaction is due to unrealistic (unbiblical?) expectations, and some more of it is due to a desire to be "pressing on" toward more faithfulness (Phil 3:12). When asked if we are satisfied with our prayer lives, are we going to answer as though we think we have arrived?
When we think of prayer, most of us probably think of an extended period of time before God. Jesus did pray all night on at least one occasion (Luke 6:12), but the night Jesus spent in prayer came before the day on which he chose the 12 apostles (6:13–16), an extraordinary day in Jesus’ life. What did he do on the ordinary days?
It seems that Jesus and Paul lived in a religious culture that was much more liturgical than the world most contemporary protestants inhabit. Given that Jesus was an observant Jew who was welcomed into the local synagogue, David Instone-Brewer observes that Jesus most likely prayed the 18 Benedictions three times a day (Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament: Prayer and Agriculture, 115). The rabbis of Jesus’ day instructed people to pray these 18 benedictions morning, afternoon, and evening (ibid., 52). In addition to this, the Shema was to be recited morning and evening (ibid., 42). It appears that the Shema was not limited to Deuteronomy 6:4 but consisted of Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41.
Thus, growing up faithful Jews, Jesus and Paul probably would have recited the Shema twice daily and the 18 Benedictions thrice. Instone-Brewer even argues that the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9–13) is an abstract of the 18 Benedictions. Further, he notes that the Lord’s Prayer was prayed in the early church the way the 18 benedictions were prayed in Judaism—it was used as an outline for longer prayers, it was prayed three times a day, and it was prayed standing (ibid., 55).
On the basis of these observations, one of Martin Luther’s suggestions comes to mind: "In the morning, when you rise . . . . kneeling or standing, say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. . . . In the evening, when you retire . . . . kneeling or standing, say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. . . . Then quickly lie down and sleep in peace" (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 490–91).
This pattern of praying the Lord’s Prayer thrice daily should not take the form of a thoughtless incantation. We often recite the Lord’s Prayer that way, but Jesus explicitly warns his disciples against falling into the repetition of empty phrases (Matt 6:7–9). Perhaps it would be a good idea to think through the words of the Lord’s Prayer and put them in your own words in an effort to avoid mindless chatter. As for the Apostles’ Creed, in our postmodern age the recitation of this ancient confession strikes me as a healthy way to forge a living connection with Christians throughout the world and across the ages.
Be freed from the false guilt that you don’t spend an hour in prayer each morning. There will be times when you pray for extended periods—watch out for pride on those days! But don’t feel bad that your toddlers (or whatever your responsibilities are) keep you from getting to it every day.
May the Lord help us follow Paul as he followed Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), and may that bear fruit in our day as it did in Luther’s!