When do you pray? Our prayer probably occurs in both “scheduled” and “unscheduled ways.” The unscheduled prayer may be the ongoing conversation we have with God during different times in the day. It may be the prayer offered up in the face of a difficult situation or when we learn about the pressing need in the life of another person. It may be nothing more than the sigh of the Spirit interceding “with groaning too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). All of these prayers illustrate what Paul told the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
At the same time, the people of God have always also prayed in a “scheduled way.” They have prayed in a set pattern that ordered their day around God. We read in Daniel 6:10, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” The Psalmist says, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and He hears my voice” (Psalm 55:17). There is evidence that God’s Old Testament people prayed in the evening and morning in a way that corresponded to the daily temple sacrifices that took place at that time. The Psalmist writes, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” (Psalm 141:2).
The pattern of prayer at set times continued in New Testament and then into the early Church. We learn about the events preceding Peter’s visit to Cornelius: “The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour [12:00 p.m.] to pray” (Acts 10:9). We also hear, “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour [3:00 p.m.]” (Acts 3:1).
The biblical examples of prayer in the evening and morning, and at the third, sixth and ninth hours (9:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.) gave rise by the end of the fourth century A.D. to what Robert Taft calls the “classic system of Christian daily prayer: obligatory prayer at the beginning and end of each day, with prayer highly recommended also at the third, sixth and ninth hours, and at night.”
Prayer at set times has always resonated with God’s people because it intentionally orders life around God. Prayer puts the First Commandment into practice. We show that we fear, love and trust in God above all things when we turn to Him in prayer. A set pattern of prayer structures our life around a framework of regularly turning to God. It continually reminds us about the place God is to have in our life. As Robert Taft observes: “Those who accomplish the most work are usually those that keep to a schedule, that lead a reasonably regular life. The same is true in the spiritual life. Those who pray at the same time every day are the ones who pray every day. Otherwise things of the spirit often get lost in the shuffle of our other more mundane but seemingly more pressing daily obligations.”
Prayer at regular times is very much a part of Lutheran piety. The Daily Prayers section of the Small Catechism provides instruction for prayer in the morning when we get up and in the evening when we go to bed (and thus it reflects the ancient tradition of prayer at the beginning and ending of each day). It also directs us to pray before and after meals.
The pattern of prayer set forth in the Small Catechism is a basic model for prayer in the life of the Christian. And then building on this, it is beneficial to include other times for prayer into the daily schedule following the model of prayer at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day. It may not be practical to pray at these specific times. Instead, we can consider if there are other intervals and times in the day that would work. The goal is to set up a regular pattern of prayer that orders our daily life around God. On occasion, circumstances will prevent us from praying at our normal time. When this happens, we should not be troubled. Instead, we know that other Christians are also praying and return to prayer at the next point in our life when the time arrives. Prayer at set times is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a discipline lived in the freedom of the Gospel. There are no laws, but instead there are opportunities to shape our daily lives in ways that turn us towards Christ.