A New Year’s Lesson from The Prayer Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Edwin Crayton/Opinion

I am almost certain it is no surprise to you that the history books tell us that on December 5, 1955, African Americans began a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama that lasted a little more than a year. What these books often do not mention is that after about a year of the struggle, the leader, a very young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found himself sinking into a pit of despair. And why not? The boycott had taken a long time. The hard-hearted white power structure in Montgomery was not yielding to the demands of blacks who only sought equal seating with white people on the city’s public buses. Because of the boycott, people were having to walk torturous distances to work or any other place they went. (Imagine the scores of sore feet.) This was a war. Today the goal of simply allowing blacks to sit anywhere on a bus might seem ridiculously modest to most of us. But in the south in the year 1955 anything that challenged white supremacy was considered radical, was usually illegal and could often also be deadly. In fact, one particularly brutal day in 1956, King had received death threats. That night as the boycott dragged on, Dr. King found himself sitting alone in his kitchen. As he almost always did in times of frustration, sorrow or confusion, he opened up his heart to God in a sincere prayer. Like Moses had many ages before, he sought divine help with the burden of leading people against a cruel Egyptian like system designed to crush and destroy blacks physically, morally and spiritually. He reminded God that he was down here “trying to do your will”. He admitted he was losing his courage and becoming weak. He earnestly prayed for help and strength. King said he heard a response that reminded him that he was to stand up for justice and righteousness. In that moment, he found the strength to carry on. This incident has been retold many times. But what it reveals is how Dr. King relied on prayer to help make it through the challenges of leading a dangerous, bitter battle. It also showed that like all of us, he experienced times of weakness and vulnerability. The Bible says, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Martin Luther, the great German theologian was supposed to have said,” A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need”. In his hour of despair, King turned to God Almighty. In time of need, who and what do you and I turn to?

Like all of us, King prayed asking for help. But he did something else that we can all learn from: he yielded to God to make the final decision. In other words, he was willing to allow God to lead and to have his way. Jesus himself prayed this way. He prayed “Not my will, but your will be done.” If Jesus, being son of God can do this, certainly we must do it too. In fact, it is a requirement he made of us. In the prayer he gave us, it says, “thy will be done” (Matthew Chapter 6).

One more incident from King’s life displays this spirit of surrendering to God’s will. One year during the movement as Easter approached, he was leading a protest. If he continued, he would miss the opportunity to preach the Easter sermon at his church. A big event for any pastor. Advisors urged him to halt the protest and get back to church. But according to one account I have heard, King quietly slipped away from his advisors and entered another room of his hotel suite and emerged wearing blue jeans—a sign that he was going to skip the service and continue the protest. No one really knows what happened inside that room. But I believe he was praying in there. And that he let God decide. Hence, he emerged wearing the garment of protest: jeans.

This concept of letting God decide for us is foreign to many of us today. We love and crave control. Our technology, our media and our world promise to keep us in charge of every step of the way. Yet, a key characteristic of the Christian character is the ability to humbly submit to the will of God over our own will. As we enter the new year and celebrate King’s birthday, this is something to keep in mind. And I would like to suggest a little of a challenge here for each of us. What if we were to for at least one year, yield to God’s will? At the very least at the end of each and every prayer.

One year of surrender. About like a strong diet. Except we’d be fasting not from food, but from having things our way all the time. One year of praying every prayer by ending each saying as Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but thine (your) will be done. Asking that God’s will be done does not mean we will never get what we want. But what it does do is show trust in his ability to decide what is best. This father really does know best.

Dr. King did it. At his weakest, most human points. With all his human flaws. And yet, the world is the better for that choice. Why would it be any different for the rest of us?

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6