Work and Prayer (Luther)

For the Christian, there’s a balance between work and prayer.  We can’t just stay home and pray all day – there are chores to be done, jobs to do, food to make, dishes to wash, bills to pay, diapers to change, and so forth.  On the other hand, we can’t just work nonstop and never pray.  There’s a balance.  I appreciate how Gustaf Wingren (d. 2000) explained Luther’s balance of working and praying:

“Man’s work with external things as tools in various vocations [callings] and stations is in truth his co-operation with God.  In the church, man uses the Word and the sacraments.  In government he uses the sword and other weapons.  In the economic field, children are fed and nurtured through outward means.  Such created goods, intended to serve life, are reason, the mind, the senses, and all the powers of body and soul.  When there is something to be done, whatever it be, man is to make use of all these powers, just as he uses ax and saw to cut down a tree, and does not try to bring the tree down with his nose or a straw.”

“Turning to God in prayer for help, without using the external means God has given, is tempting God: It is the ‘praesumptio,’ superciliousness.

But not to turn to God in prayer for help in vocation [calling], when all outward available possibilities are exhausted, is to blaspheme God and treat his promises as lies.  It is ‘desperatio,’ unbelief.”

In other words, God has given us earthly means (or tools) to use.  In the church, the means God gave us are the Word and sacraments.  In the other realms of life, God gave us government, plows, hands, minds, computers, medicine, and so forth – things we can use to get our jobs done.  If we only pray and don’t work, we’re tempting God by ignoring the means he kindly gave us.  If we only work and don’t pray, we’re in the realm of unbelief, forgetting that God is the one who gives the means and blesses them as he sees fit.  Wingren continues:

“Faith moves between the two, between presumption and desperation; the hands labor, but the heart is passive and rests in God.  [Luther said] ‘These things ought always to be striven for and carried on in the church of God, that we may walk in the royal way and turn aside neither to the right nor the left.  We should neither doubt his promise nor tempt God by lightly esteeming or neglecting the means which God has ordained.'”  In this way work and prayer belong together.  He who does his work thoroughly can pray with power, for then he has a good conscience (p. 136-137).”

Gustaf Wingren, Luther On Vocation.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI