The Lord's Prayer is short--but every word of it is laden with precious meaning. In its few petitions it covers the whole field of prayer. It is easy to repeat its sentences, but it is hard to say it through as a real prayer, for it means the consecration of our whole life to God, and the submission of will, affections, and service to him. The aim of these short studies, is to help in a devotional way, by calling attention to the meaning of the several petitions, which to often is lost to our thought because of our familiarity with the sacred words.
"After this Manner, Pray"
May we pray? The question is a very important one. There are some who tell us that we may not, that there is no ear to hear, no one anywhere who cares for us and who could do anything for us if he did care. A mere great Force at the center of things cannot hear the cries for human distress on the earth or answer them. If that is the only God there is, prayer is vain and nothing comes from it but mocking echoes!
If, we are Christians, we accept the teaching of Jesus Christ concerning God, and there is no doubt that we may pray. There is one who hears, and that one is our heavenly Father! This is the truest answer to all the perplexities about prayer, to all the questions that arise concerning it. God is our Father, and we are his children. If we accept this name as a definition of God and as indicating the relation God bears to us and we bear to him--there need be no further question whatever concerning the privilege or the benefit of prayer.
Jesus gave many teachings regarding prayer. The Lord's Prayer gathers these teachings together into an example in a few great sentences. This prayer seems to us very simple and easy--but like all of our Lord's words--its petitions are wide and deep, each one carrying an ocean of meaning.
For one thing, the Lord's Prayer teaches us that all Christians need to pray. Not to pray--is to cut ourselves off altogether from God, the source of all good, of all blessing, of all life. No doubt there are men who do not pray, and who yet seem to live on and to receive mercies and blessings from God. They pay him no honor, recognize him not as their Father. Nevertheless he is an infinite loser who does not pray. He is leaving out of his life all the best things. He is gathering the weeds and pebbles that lie at his feet--and missing the crowns which hang above him, ready to be taken and worn. He is missing the love, the companionship and the help of God, without which life in the end can be only a poor shriveled thing, to be cast out to perish.
The first thing one begins to do when one comes to one's self, when one has been born from above, is to pray. The Lord said of Saul, an moment ago a fierce persecutor, now a Christian, "Behold, he prays!" That was evidence enough that Saul was no longer a dangerous enemy, that he was now a Christian man.
Christ's teaching makes prayer very easy. We do not have journey far off to some temple of marble and gold--to talk with our Father. We do not have to learn a system of theology in order to be able to pray acceptably. It is not necessary for us to approach God in some magnificent way, with elaborate ceremonial, in order to be heard by him. We are to come in the simplest way.
"After this manner" does not mean saying always even the few words of the form of prayer which our Lord gave to us--but refers rather to the spirit of our praying. We are to pray as children--who are talking to their Father. This makes it easy. It is not hard for a child to tell a loving parent its needs, to open its heart and reveal its inner feelings and desires. The most timid child, who shrinks from strangers, feels no embarrassment in the mother's presence. As glorious as God is, overwhelming as is the majesty which burns about his throne--his children should never dread drawing near to him. We may come boldly to his throne--for it is a throne of grace and love.
The Lord's Prayer tells us what we should pray for. It is very brief--but its petitions are most comprehensive. We should study them in order to learn what we may bring to God in our prayer. We do not know what to pray for as we ought. In nothing else do we need the help of Christ, more than in making our requests of God. Ofttimes the things we think we need most sorely--are not by any means our deepest, most real needs.
A man was brought to Jesus to have his paralysis cured. That was the prayer which he and his friends made in coming; it was for this, that the four men who carried their helpless burden, manifested such earnestness, overcoming so many obstacles and hindrances; they thought that paralysis was the man's most pressing need. Jesus looked into the man's life and saw that he had another need greater than this--and first forgave his sins, afterwards curing has paralysis. Forgiveness is always a sorer need--than the healing of any sickness. We come to God continually with cries for the taking away of some trial or the supplying of some need. God looks at us and says, "My child, that is not what you need most to have done!" He then gives us, not what we have asked for--but what he sees we ought to have asked for.
We are apt, in our praying, to give more thought to the things that concern our physical life, than to those which concern our higher, spiritual interests. We tell God of our sicknesses, and ask him to heal them. We pray to him for our friends who are ill, and implore him to restore them. We bring to him the matter of our daily bread, especially if our food-supply is short or precarious. It is well that we should take everything to God. Nothing that concerns us--is too small to be put into a prayer. God hears even the sparrows when they cry for food. But these temporal things should not have the first place in our asking.
Whatever use our Lord meant us to make of the Lord's Prayer as a form of prayer, the order of its petitions is certainly intended to guide us in our approaches to our Father, telling us what to put first. Thus we are taught what are the most important things.
The first three requests, are for things that concern the honor of God--the hallowing of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will. We are half-way to the end, before there is a word about ourselves and our personal needs! Then only one of the three petitions which refer to our own needs applies to bodily needs, the other two being for forgiveness of sins, and deliverance in temptation. We are taught thus that the things of God should come first in our praying, not our own needs; and that among our personal needs the most serious are not things for our body but the taking away of our sins and our delivering from evil.
The same truth is taught in that wonderful summary of duty, in which our Lord says, "Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Our prayers are ever to be for the things of God--and then God himself will look after our earthly needs.
The Lord's Prayer calls us to reality and sincerity--when we appear before God. Perhaps there is more unreality in our praying, than we think there is. How many of us go over the same petitions every time we pray? Probably we have used the same forms for years, with almost the identical words. Is it possible that our needs never vary from day to day? Can it be that we never have any new needs arising from our new conditions and experiences? Then do we really desire all the things we put into our daily prayers? Or how much of what we say is mere rote--without any thinking? It is worth our while to ponder seriously of this matter. Words without sincere desires--are not prayers.
It would be well if we should sit down always before beginning to pray, and think carefully over our needs. What are our deepest needs, the things we should ask God to give us, or do for us just now, today? What are our heart's actual desires for others, for our close friends, for our neighbors, for the unsaved, the tempted, the suffering? If we could get a clear and definite answer to these questions, before we begin our supplications and intercessions, it would make our prayers more real. It would make them shorter than usual, no doubt--but one sentence burdened with a heart's cry--is dearer to God than an hour's rote repeating of words and phrases, with no deep yearnings and longings in them!
Indeed we have but a narrow and unworthy conception of prayer, if our only thought of it is, making requests of God. In human friendship it would be very strange, if there were never fellowship except when there were favors to ask, the one of the other. Love's sweetest hours, are those in which two hearts commune on themes dear to both--but in which neither has any request to make. The truest, loftiest prayer is one of communion, when we speak to God--and he speaks to us. The deepest answer we can have to our praying is not God's gifts, however precious these may be--but God himself--his love, his grace! The prayer that rises highest and is divinest--is that in which we lose ourselves in God, when God himself is all to us, filling us, inspiring our dull life with his own infinite blessedness.
The Lord's Prayer has its earnest warning against putting selfish and earthly desires first. We must confess that even into our praying, SELF is apt to creep in! Especially in our secret prayers, the tendency is to speak to our Father in the first person singular, our thoughts absorbed altogether in our own needs--to the exclusion of the needs of all others. This tendency is rebuked in the phrasing of this form of prayer, where we are taught to approach God as "Our Father," not "My Father," and to plead, "Give us our daily bread," "Forgive us our debts," "Deliver us from evil" We may not forget others--even when we bow alone before God. The last place in the world where we should carry our selfishness, is into God's presence when we pray to him!
No doubt, however, there is a sense in which we should pray much for ourselves, for the time shutting out every other person. Our fellowship with God must be individual. Yet in this personal part of our praying, there is need also of great watchfulness, lest we seek inferior things for ourselves--and not the things that are really best. Our desires are apt to gravitate earthward, and the danger is that we choose lower rather than higher things; that we plead to be saved from costly self-denials, rather than to receive the spiritual blessings which are folded up in self-denials; that we ask for worldly prosperity, rather than for greater likeness to Christ.
Perhaps it would be better if we would pray less than we do--that is, if ofttimes we should decline to choose at all for ourselves, or to make any definite requests, simply pleading with God to bless us as He sees fit; and referring especially all that concerns earthly things--to his wisdom and love.
A minister sat with a father and mother by the bed of a child, who was hovering between life and death. He was about to pray for the little sufferer, and turning to the parents he asked, "What shall we ask God to do?" After some moments, the father answered, with deep emotion: "I would not dare to choose. Leave it up to God!"
Would it not be better always in things of earthly interest--to leave the decision to God, letting him choose what it is best to do for us, or to give to us? We are not in this world to have ease and pleasure, to succeed in business, to do certain self-pleasing things--we are here to grow into strength and beauty of life and character, to accomplish the will of God, and to have that will wrought out in our own life.
Ofttimes the present must be sacrificed for the future, the earthly given up to gain the heavenly, pain endured for the sake of spiritual refining and enriching. If we are willing to have God choose for us, and to accept what he gives, we shall never fail to receive the best--perhaps not what worldlings would call the best--but always God's best. We know not what to pray for as we ought, and we had better leave it to God!
The truest prayer is ofttimes that in which we creep into the bosom of God--and rest there in silence. We do not know what to ask, and we dare not say even a word, lest it might be the wrong word; hence we simply wait before God in quietness and confidence. We know that our wise and heavenly Father knows best what to do--and we fully trust him.