Prayer, Part 2


Last time, in introducing the life of prayer we concentrated on the nature of prayer as conversation with God. And we said that our first interest and our primary goal in our own life of prayer is to be sure that our prayer is nothing less than real conversation with God. We know the temptation to allow it to be something much less, don’t we? Here is John Burton (1803-1877).

I often say my prayers,
But do I ever pray?
And do the wishes of my heart
Go with the words I say?

For words without the heart
The Lord will never hear;
Nor will he to those lips attend
Whose prayers are not sincere.

Lord teach me what I need,
And teach me how to pray;
And do not let me seek thy grace,
Not meaning what I say.

Now, I suspect there is some overstatement in that second verse: “For words without the heart, the Lord will never hear…” I suspect the Lord has heard many of our half-hearted prayers simply because he loves us and because he knows our frame. After all he justifies us through our half-hearted faith and sanctifies us by our half-hearted efforts at obedience. Still, that is no recommendation of half-heartedness or, worse, of words without the heart at all. We want our prayer to be better than that. God’s great mercy, his counting our little for a lot, is never to become an excuse for dilatory effort on our part. And, we said, the best antidote to prayer that is less than “earnest and familiar talking with God” is getting a grasp of the one to whom we are about to speak before we speak. Lewis put it this way: “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’” I’ve never forgotten these words from a sermon on prayer by Alexander Whyte.

"If, then, you would learn to pray to perfection, — that is to say, to pray with all that is within you, — never fail, never neglect, to do this. Never once shut your bodily eyes and bow your knees to begin to pray, without, at the same moment, opening the eyes of your imagination…. Do things like this, then, when you would be in the full spirit of prayer…. Let your imagination sweep up through the whole visible heavens, up to the heaven of heavens. Let her sweep and soar on her shining wing, up past sun, moon, and stars. Let her leave Orion and the Pleiades far behind her. And let her heart swell and beat as she says such things as these to herself: ‘He made all these things. He, whom I now seek. That is His sun. My Father made them all. My Mediator made them all to the glory of His father. And He is the heir of all things. Oh, to be at peace with the Almighty! … Oh, to be found among the sons and the daughters of God Almighty!" At another time, as you kneel down, flash, in a moment, — I still speak as a child, — the eyes of your heart back to Adam in his garden, and with the image of God still in all its glory upon him: and to Abraham over Sodom; and to Moses in the cleft of the rock; and to David in the night-watches; and to Jesus Christ all night on the mountain top — and your time will not be lost. For, by such a flash of your imagination, at such a moment, the spirit of grace and supplications will be put in complete possession of your whole soul…. never so much as say grace at table, however short time you have to say it in, without seeking Him: in the twinkling of an eye, be for one moment, if no more, with Him who spreads your table, and makes your cup to run over. In short, be sure to get a true sight and a true hold of God, in some way or other, before you begin either prayer or praise. Look for God, and look at God: till you can honestly say to Him, with Dr. Newman, a great genius and a great saint, that there are now, to you, two and two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings in the whole universe, yourself and your Creator. And, when once you begin to pray in that way, you will know it. Every prayer of yours like that will, ever after, leave its lasting mark upon you. You will not long remain the same man. Praying with the imagination all awake, and all employed — such praying will soon drink up your whole soul into itself. You will then ‘pray always.’ It will be to you by far the noblest and the most blessed of all your employments in this present world. You will pray ‘without ceasing.’ We shall have to drag you out of your closet by main force." [Lord Teach us to Pray, pp. 244-248]

Tonight I want once more to drive home this same point, this fundamental nature of true prayer, by considering the way the Lord himself answered the question: how should we  pray? Someone asked him that very question and he answered it directly. Surely we ought to pay careful attention to that answer. But what I want to show you is that what that answer amounts to is, once again, that prayer is to be real conversation with God.

Text: Matthew 6:5-15; (with your finger at Luke 11:1-4)

Text Comment

v.10     The first three petitions are really a three-fold petition for the glory of God, that is, one prayer in three parts. Therefore, the “on earth as it is in heaven” governs all three of the first three lines, not only “your will be done.”

v.13     Whether the word “evil” means evil in the moral sense or “the evil one,” that is, the Devil, cannot be determined with certainty because the spelling of the word in Greek is the same for the neuter and the masculine. Either meaning is possible, both make good sense, and the meaning, as Calvin reminds us, is nearly the same in either case. “Evil One” goes well with temptation in the previous line, but so does “evil” in the general sense; also “Evil One” is never found elsewhere in the Bible as a name for the Devil.

There are slight differences between Matthew’s account and Luke’s. Luke’s begins more simply and intimately: “Father.” Matthew’s version is more formal and assumes a corporate setting: “Our Father in heaven.” The difference between the two versions of the prayer that you will have noticed most often is that Matthew’s version has us praying “Forgive our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” while Luke has us praying “forgive our sins,” translated in some versions, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is why some Christians are used to saying “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, other are used to saying “trespasses.”

You will also notice that the Lord’s model prayer lacks the doxology with which we are accustomed to ending it: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen.” These words are omitted from modern translations of the Bible because they are omitted from modern editions of the Greek New Testament. The editors of those Greek testaments omit the words because they are missing in the best and earliest Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke and from the earliest commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer by church fathers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian. It is pretty clear that the familiar ending of the Lord’s Prayer was not in Matthew or Luke’s original.

What seems to have happened is this. In Jesus’ day it would have been accepted form to conclude such a prayer with such a doxology. The Jews would have concluded their prayers with such a formula of praise to God and so Jesus would have as well in all probability. Indeed, as one scholar puts it, “in Palestinian practice it would have been unthinkable that a prayer would end with the word temptation,” as it does in Luke. [Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, 106] So when the Lord’s Prayer was said it would have been concluded with a doxology even though the Lord had not added it to his model prayer in Matthew and Luke. That was the universal custom. Everyone would have understood that the prayer would have had an appropriate ending. In due course the most familiar form of that doxology made its way into the Greek manuscripts themselves, perhaps having been written in the margin first. So, while these words were not in Matthew or Luke’s original Gospel, they are very like the words that would have completed this prayer when it was actually said in early Christian worship.

One more matter of introduction. It is clear that the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer. That is, it is paradigm or example of a proper prayer and was not intended to be the very form of words the Lord expected us always or even primarily to use in our address to him. The Lord was never intending us simply to repeat these words verbatim. Interestingly, by the time the Didache was written, an early Christian document dated from the later first century to the middle second century, so very early, Christians were being advised to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, probably as with some Jewish prayers in the morning, at mid-day, and in the evening. But there is no evidence that the Lord intended us to use his prayer in that way.

  1. First in Matthew 6:9 we read that the Lord said that we are to pray thus. The sense of the adverb seems to be in a manner like this or similar to this.
  2. The fact that we have two forms of the Lord’s Prayer and they don’t agree precisely is further evidence that the prayer was a model, not the precise form of words needing to be said.
  3. Further, we do not find the prayer anywhere else in the NT as being recited by a Christian or by the church together. In fact nowhere in the Bible do we find a believer reciting a prayer, though we have, of course, many examples of prayers in the Bible. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with the use of written prayers, that is, saying yourself prayers that were written by someone else and, even, prayers that were written by someone else about circumstances in his or her own life. Many of the psalms are such prayers, written by individuals out of the cauldron of their own experience, and yet the ancient church turned them into prayers for general use; Jesus used them himself; and Christians have used them ever since. In Letters to Malcolm Lewis speaks of some woman who was a collector of prayers for her own use. Her whole prayer life depended upon “what we may call ‘ready-made’ prayers – prayers written by other people.” Lewis found nothing wrong with her practice because she was, after all, a praying woman and that is what matters. It was the right method for her, even if it wasn’t for him. [10-11] Prayer is an art, not a science and here as everywhere else in the Christian life we will find a great variety among Christians.

 

There is nothing inappropriate in reciting the prayer, of course. As a model prayer it is surely a proper prayer and as one that came from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself it understandably has a special authority in the mind and heart of the church.

Now, what is noteworthy about the prayer the Lord Jesus taught us to pray is that nothing in it is new or distinctive. It is similar to, indeed it is in some lines nearly a verbatim repetition of the Jewish prayers of the period. Any scribe or Pharisee listening to Jesus teach his disciples how to pray would simply have nodded his head. Of course, that is how one is to pray. From the “Our Father in heaven” to the Qaddish at the end of the synagogue service – “Hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will; may he establish his kingdom during your life, even speedily and soon…” – to “Do not bring me into the power of a sin, a temptation, a shame” [B.Berak 60b], the petitions would have been thoroughly familiar to a Jewish audience and completely uncontroversial. There was a Jewish saying to the effect that “That prayer in which no mention is made of the kingdom of God is not a prayer.” [StrB, i, 419] Rabbi Eliezer was asked, “What is the shortest prayer?” He replied, “Do your will in heaven and grant quietness of spirit to those who fear you on earth.” [Ibid, 419-420] I could go on. But take the point. There is nothing innovative in this prayer; it is a typical Jewish prayer.

We can draw interesting and important conclusions from this fact.

  1. First, the Lord is, in effect, confirming the teaching concerning prayer that we are given in the rest of the Bible.

 

The Lord’s Prayer is a set of petitions and expressions that can be found in similar form many times elsewhere in the Bible. How often do we read in the Psalms about ascribing to the Lord the glory due his name? How often do the godly express a desire that God’s will be done or that they themselves would do his will. Think of David in Psalm 40:8: “I desire to do your will, O my God…” Think of Agur’s prayer in Proverbs 30:8: “give me only my daily bread.” Prayers for forgiveness are to be found everywhere in Holy Scripture as you know.

So, in effect, the Lord is telling us to practice the life of prayer as we have been taught to practice it in the Word of God. The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer themselves are conventional summaries of the entire Bible’s teaching about prayer.

  1. Second, the Lord is linking the life of prayer from the ancient history of God’s people to that of the believers of the new epoch.

 

In some ways it is surprising; it is certainly striking that the Lord does not add anything new to the model prayer he gives his disciples. His arrival has not changed the nature of prayer. They still are to address their Father; they are to ask for the same things God’s people have always asked for, and so on. One implication of the Lord’s Prayer is that the prayers of Abraham and Joseph, of Moses and Joshua, of David and Jeremiah were Christian prayers.

  1. But, third, and most importantly the Lord is making it perfectly clear that the problem with the prayers of the scribes and Pharisees was not that they had a completely wrong idea of what to say to God. The problem was not in the form of words they used. The problem was the heart with which they prayed those words, the spirit in which they uttered them and their want of true faith and love.

 

Remember, Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is part of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the Lord’s exposition of the righteousness that he requires of his disciples. He is expounding the main thought: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of God.” He has already described the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees in respect to their outward and superficial understanding of God’s law and in respect to the selfish and vain motives with which they performed acts of charity and public prayer.

Just before giving his disciples this model prayer he has said that it is what is done in secret, it is what is done in the heart that tells the tale in regard to prayer. And that is why I read vv. 14 and 15. In context those verses complete a kind of inclusio with the verses that precede the Lord’s prayer. He said in those verses that we shouldn’t pray with a view to being admired by others for our spirituality. Nor should we pray in some rote and mindless way as if God didn’t know what was in our hearts, as if he were some kind of ANE idol who could be bought with small gifts and services. Then follows the model prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer, quite typical of Jewish prayers.

And then we have these verses about the state of our hearts in prayer. The Lord jumps back to one of the petitions of his model prayer, the fifth, and reminds us that we cannot expect to be heard when we ask for forgiveness if we are not extending it to others ourselves. In the nature of the case, the Lord says, the spirit open to receive love is the spirit open to bestowing love. Or, put it this way: you can’t really ask the Lord to forgive you, if you are unwilling to forgive someone else. Why? Because that is tantamount to an admission that you don’t take your own forgiveness seriously; you have no sense of what a great thing it is for God to forgive your sins; you are taking God and his mercy for granted. In such a prayer, you are, like the Pharisees and scribes, a hypocrite, asking for forgiveness as if you cared about forgiveness but treating another in such a way as to make perfectly clear you don’t care about forgiveness at all.

A prayer for the hallowing of God’s name by someone who shows no interest in holiness himself is not sincere. The prayer of the vindictive for forgiveness is a mockery, like the prayer of a man for his daily bread who is, in his business, attempting to corner the market on wheat. People who have no heart for God who pray this prayer cannot pray it but to their judgment. Imagine Thomas Jefferson encouraging James Madison, his Secretary of State, to pray for the death of Patrick Henry! Whatever such a prayer would be, it could not in the nature of the case be a real conversation with Almighty God! No one could dare ask God such a thing who knew anything about God. The Lord’s prayer is a prayer, to be sure; but it is also a vow, a promise to undertake according to the prayer. Someone has said that “while prayer is the day’s best beginning it must not be like the handsome title-page of a worthless book.”
[Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, 28]

It is important for us to remember in what context the Lord taught us this prayer. It was as part of his teaching of what constitutes a truly righteous life: not a perfect life, mind you; but a genuinely righteous one: humility, gratitude to God, a real desire for what is pleasing to God, a hunger and thirst to reflect the glory and goodness of God in one’s life. The Lord Jesus is commending that way of life, that state of mind and heart to us as the precondition of true prayer. It was precisely this state of mind and heart that was lacking in the prayers of the Pharisees. They knew the right words to say and they said them. But they were not really having a conversation with God. Their prayer was not earnest and familiar talking with God. One cannot say to God, one can never say to God what was in fact in the Pharisee’s heart.

So, I say again, the great emphasis of the Bible’s teaching on prayer falls not first on what is to be said to God but in the way in which it is said, the state of mind and heart, the motive behind the prayer. If one is lifting his or her heart to God in faith, gratitude, and love the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful expression of agreement with God and submission to his will, of dependence upon God and a desire to please him. If one is offering this prayer to fill the box or check the square; with a thought to getting the religious task done so that one may move on to more interesting things, then the Lord’s Prayer is something else again.

Prayer is a struggle; we have already admitted this. The Bible makes no bones about this. But, if it is a struggle, let us be sure that we are struggling after the right thing. What we are to struggle to offer to God is a sincere and personal and honest prayer. If we are having difficulty forgiving someone, then real prayer, the prayer that God hears and that pleases him, is the prayer in which that struggle is acknowledged and in which God’s help is sought. This is our temptation and we are to admit it and ask God to deliver us from it. If we are struggling with the fact that God’s will seems very clearly not to be what we had so hoped it would be, then a real conversation with our heavenly Father will get to that fact very quickly in the conversation. We will tell the Lord our struggle because we want him to help us – whether that help comes in the form of the blessing we seek or in the form of a more submissive heart.

You may have had the experience of talking to someone who while speaking to you is obviously thinking about something else. Or you yourself have had to speak to someone when your mind is elsewhere. You have to hold up your end of a conversation when you really have little interest in what the other person is saying. This sometimes happens in my conversations with my wife. She has finished saying something and I have to ask her what it was she just said. My mind was elsewhere. Whatever that was, in that moment, it was not a real conversation.

And that is the Lord’s point, made chiefly by sandwiching his model prayer between the verses that precede it and follow it. Pray as you have been taught to pray in Holy Scripture. Pray for the things that believers ought to pray for. But, whatever you say be sure you are really saying it to God. Be sure you are not simply uttering words, but having a conversation with God. And if you know who God is and what God is, that will change your prayer dramatically. It will keep you from saying some things and force you to say others.

To say this about prayer, of course, is discouraging to Christians. I am fully aware of that. We all know how hard it is to catch a sight of God and to keep him in our mind’s eye as we pray. We know how easy it is to utter words that we hardly or scarcely mean. But the whole Christian life is hard in just this same way: saying what you mean and meaning what you say; really believing and then acting on one’s beliefs.  Remember, the Lord knows our frame. The Holy Spirit prays alongside us to make our prayers more effective. He wouldn’t do that if we didn’t need the help! Christ himself is praying for us. He wouldn’t do that if our prayers were sufficient. We don’t need to worry about the Lord hearing us. We need simply to concentrate on offering him ourselves, our minds and hearts, when we pray. We won’t do that perfectly, but we can do it really. And the Lord Jesus is telling us that is what matters most to him. So say to yourself, I’d rather spoil a thousand prayers than not pray and in every one of my prayers let it at least be true that some, if not all, of what I say to my heavenly Father I really say to him!

Think of the magnificent pictures of prayer we are given in the Bible: Jacob wrestling with the Lord at Peniel; Hannah pouring out her heart for a child and David pleading with God for the life of his infant son; the widow pestering the judge for justice; the tax-collector beating his breast and pleading for mercy from God; the Lord himself in Gethsemane praying in anguish for his life. That is prayer. The person, the whole self is in it and they are speaking directly to God from their souls. That is what we are to be after for ourselves; that and nothing less.

Samuel Rutherford wrote a letter to a man who is otherwise little known. Andrew Bonar, the editor of the best edition of Rutherford’s Letters imagines that he must have been an educated man because of what Rutherford said to him in the letter he wrote. In that letter he make the remark that “Words are but the accidents of prayer.” Rutherford was one of the most accomplished scholars of his day. He was using the term “accident” in its philosophical use. An accident is something that is not of the essence of a thing. A tree may have leaves of one shape or another, or of one color or another, or the tree may be of one height or another. The shape of the leaves, their color, the height of the tree, none of these things is what makes it a tree. They are accidents not the essence of the tree. Well, said Rutherford, words are but the accidents of prayer. They are not the essential thing. And that is what the Lord seems to be saying to us as well.

The essence of a true prayer is the openness to a real conversation with God, a desire to speak to him and no other, a sense of dependence upon him that leads us to speak, trust in him that leads us to believe he will hear us. That is what makes a prayer a true prayer. When those things are present, you have a conversation with the Living God. That is the essence of prayer.

I noticed this morning once again that when petitions are offered from the microphone in the balcony I can almost immediately identify the speaker. Each person’s voice is so distinctive; it cannot be mistaken for another. That is a wonderful demonstration of God’s genius. Everyone’s voice is unique. But turn it around. Your maker, the maker of your voice knows that voice. He knows immediately who is speaking to him. He knows you and is ready to hear what you have to say. He wants you to talk to him!