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Prayer – Our Daily Bread

Often when we think about our need for prayer it relates to a particular request in our lives. As a church family, we will send out prayer requests for those who are ill or facing difficult circumstances. When there is a need in our church body, we’ll ask the people to pray. When we think about prayer, I believe it is fair to say that we’re most often thinking about this type of intercessory prayer. We are to pray for God to intercede and provide for our needs. When we are lacking in some capacity, we should ask God to fill that deficiency. This is a good type of prayer. But it isn’t the only type of prayer.

As Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, there is an order to that prayer. And intercessory prayers are not first in that order. First we are instructed to pray, “Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” This order rightly emphasizes and prioritizes that which is most important, God’s glory. We are often tempted to run to our needs, wants, and desires before we acknowledge the sufficiency and satisfaction that is found in God alone. Augustine noted in his Confessions, “He loves thee too little, who loves anything as well as thee which he does not love for thy sake.” Augustine is highlighting that if when we place things, even important things like our daily bread, before God then we are guilty of loving God too little. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see it as outright idolatry when we love the gifts of God more than God himself. But Augustine also notes that there is a proper order and place for desiring, loving, and praying for the things that God gives. We must cherish the gifts and blessings of God for God’s sake.

The early 17th century English poet, John Donne, captured a similar sentiment in his poem A Hymn to Christ. Donne’s spiritual life is hard to quantify. He was a Roman Catholic in the late 16th century England, when it was not popular to be Roman Catholic. He converted to Protestantism, but had lived a wild and promiscuous life. He eventually was converted and became a minister in the Church of England, serving at St. Paul’s in London. His early poetry was considered “pornographic” by contemporaries but his later works turned that love and amorousness toward God, much like the Song of Solomon. His A Hymn to Christ is an ode to God declaring his desire to separate from anything that might distract his heart from God. The final stanza reads, “Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All, / On whom those fainter beames of love did fall; / Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee / on Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.” Our “beames of love” often fall on “false mistresses” but we pray that they would be married to God only. Our loves and desires for the Creator and for the creation must be rightly ordered.

The second aspect of this fourth petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” is that we are to pray for things needful in this life. The matter of order does not eliminate or remove the reality that we need certain material things for life. Once rightly ordered, it is not only appropriate but required that we ask God for the material needs of our life. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me” (Prov 30:8). This is not a petition that can simply be spiritualized. This is a call to God for real, material, and tangible goods. The apostle John prays for Gaius in 3 John 2, “that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” It is good to pray for the prosperity of our souls and our bodies. We are not either bodies or souls, but we are bodies AND souls. And bodies need bread.

When Jesus taught us to pray for “bread” he meant all manner of food and livelihood. We are to ask God to give this to us. This implies that we do not already possess this bread, but that it is the possession of God. We ask because we cannot simply produce this bread on our own. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Ps 104:14, 15). We have no right to bread neither have we merited it, but God is gracious and generous, and he provides abundantly for us. We pray with full expectation that God will give us this bread. He is our Father and as our Father he will give what we need. “Which one of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9).

Lastly, we pray for our “daily” bread. Our prayers for those things needful in life are to be marked by a confident dependence on God. We should be good stewards of all entrusted to us. We should save, plan, and prepare for the future. But we must always do so in a way in which we express our trust not in savings accounts or storehouses, but in God’s consistent provision. We should pray satisfied with the present and unconcerned about tomorrow, because God will provide for tomorrow tomorrow. “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt 6:27). “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Ps 127:2). If we really grasp this, then anxiety and fear should melt away.

Prayer – Thy Will Be Done

The human tendency toward superstitions is strong. We often spiritualize objects, beliefs, and patterns without thinking. The professional athlete may be the most superstitious person today. Their routine and equipment can take on an almost religious devotion. Others cling to objects or talismans to protect them from wrong decisions or bad luck. Sometimes we can even make our devotional life into a superstitious pattern.

This is often the case because, as Dr. Scott Redd has noted, life is complex and confusing. Superstition simplifies this complexity into an input-output equation.[1] Do this and it will go well. Don’t do this and it will not. In this way we can pretend to have control. We can pretend to manage things beyond our control. But this sense of control is false.

As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the third petition in the Lord’s Prayer instructed them to pray for God’s will to be done. “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). This simple prayer is both an acknowledgement and request. It acknowledges that we need God to be in control. And it requests that God would bring his will to bear upon our lives. In a seemingly chaotic and confusing world, we need this prayer.

What is God’s will? Only man, created in the image of God, can know God’s will. The rest of creation is unaware of God’s will. This will was intuitively and clearly known by man because it was imprinted upon him. But in the fall everything became corrupted and distorted. Man’s alienation from God created a rift or division between him and God. Pharaoh expressed the sentiment of every sinner’s heart, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice…I do not know the LORD” (Ex 5:2). Man began to rule his life according to his own lusts and desires. He declared himself to be his own master. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

But when a person is converted, his own will becomes “burdensome and grievous to himself.” He realizes that he no longer follows and lives by God’s will, but his heart is changed such that he desires to follow it. “Since he knows that both he and all other men are unworthy, impotent, and incapable of this, and that such obedience is a gracious gift of God, he therefore avails himself of prayer and prays in humility, ‘Thy will be done.’”[2]

When theologians speak of God’s will, they typically speak about two aspects of it; God’s decretal will and his preceptive will. God’s decretal will is also known as his sovereign, secret, or hidden will. This is the will of God by which all things ordained by God come to pass. God chooses to permit all things that happen. There is no thing that occurs outside of God’s sovereign gaze. Anything that happens, happens because God has willed it to be so. This is not what is prayed for in the third petition.

The second aspect is God’s preceptive will, that is his revealed will. God has made certain parts of his will known to us by revealing them through his Word. It is God’s will that we worship only God, that we do not commit adultery, that we be holy, that we repent of sin. We know this through God’s Word and our conscience because the law has been written on our hearts. This revealed will informs us as to what God would have us do. While we cannot thwart God’s decretal will, we can thwart his preceptive will. God allows or permits our sin because he will use it for good purposes. We have the power to violate his preceptive will, but not the authority. We are morally culpable when we break it.

This is why we must pray for God’s will to be done. It is not for his decretal will. That will happen regardless. We pray for his preceptive will to be done. And for it to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven the power and even the very presence of sin is gone. “Alas! How defective are we in our obedience here! How far we fall short! We cannot write a copy of holiness without blotting. Our holy things are blemished like the moon, which, when it shines brightest, has a dark spot in it; but in heaven we shall do God’s will perfectly, as the angels in glory.” We long for the day when we see the holiness of the kingdom of God fully bear upon all that is broken and fallen in this world, especially in our own lives. So we pray for “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

[1] Scott Redd, “Don’t Be a Superstitious Christian,” TGC – The Gospel Coalition, accessed September 6, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dont-be-a-superstitious-christian.

[2] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.524.

Prayer – Thy Kingdom Come

The second petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “Thy kingdom come.” Looking at this short petition we can see three quick points. First, God is King. Second, as King he has a kingdom which is differentiated from the way things are now. Third, we are praying for God’s kingdom to be realized in the midst of this present other kingdom.

God is King. It is most proper to say that God is not only a king, as if he were one of a number of kings who each have a right and title to some sphere, but rather to say that God is THE King. All that is and all that ever will be has come into existence because of one reason, and one reason only. God spoke it into existence. There is nothing that exists that finds its existence apart from God’s creative word. As Creator God reigns supreme over all things. “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron 29:11).  He is the King. There may be others who claim a right or title to some authority or kingship, but they are always of a lesser magnitude and order. Psalm 95:3 says, “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” Thomas Watson notes, “Other kings have royal and sumptuous apparel to make them appear glorious to beholders, but all their magnificence is borrowed; God is clothed with his own majesty; his own glorious essence is instead of royal robes, and ‘he hath girded himself with strength.’”[1] God is King.

As King, God possesses a magnificent kingdom. There have been a number of different ways that various commentators have understood God’s kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer. Thomas Watson understood a two-fold kingdom, the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of grace is exercised in the hearts of people. The kingdom of glory is when that kingdom is translated into the whole earth. “The kingdom of grace is glory in the seed, and the kingdom of glory is grace in the flower.”[2] Wilhemus À Brakel understood a three-fold kingdom. A kingdom is defined as a “populace united under a leader.”[3] There is a kingdom of power. This encompasses all things in creation because ultimately, all things are under the sovereign control of God as King. There is a kingdom of glory. This encompasses all the heavenly creatures, like angels and the elect who have passed into heaven. Third is a kingdom of grace. This encompasses all of those who are part of the invisible Church on earth. They are true believers and converted persons. John Calvin in his Institutes only addresses one aspect of God’s kingdom. “God reigns where men, both by denial of themselves and by contempt of the world and of earthly life, pledge themselves to his righteousness in order to aspire to a heavenly life.”[4]

Even in the diversity of views on how the Lord’s Prayer presents God’s Kingdom, there are clear commonalities. Primarily, it is to see God as reigning directly and supremely upon all creation and all creation properly and faithfully responding to his reign and rule. This comes out in the third aspect of this petition, thy Kingdom come. It is understood that there is a difference between the current state of affairs in the world and the way in which God’s kingdom will ultimately manifest itself. Our prayer is that God’s kingdom will come and replace the current “domain of darkness” (Col 1:13). We long to see the Church, the kingdom of all the elect, to grow. The Westminster Larger Catechism #191 acknowledges that we are “under the dominion of sin and Satan” and our prayer is to be delivered. We long to see that kingdom destroyed and “the gospel propagated through the world.” We also pray for the fullness of the church to be brought in and “furnished with all the gospel officers and ordinances” with which Christ has gifted her. We pray for people to repent of their sins and to turn to Christ by faith. And we long for the time of Christ’s second coming.

There is coming a day when Christ will consummate the Kingdom of God. He will sit upon his throne. We will see his name written on his robe and thigh, “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). Satan will be overthrown and his kingdom will be no more (Rev 20:10). And Christ will “make all things new” (Rev 21:5) as he rules and reigns from his great throne. When we pray the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we need to know that we are asking God for some very big things. We dare not pray this prayer lightly. But if we long to see the penalty, power, and presence of sin finally destroyed, and all of creation renewed, then we should faithfully pray this petition.

[1] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 54.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.508.

[4] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.20.42.

Prayer – Hallowed Be Thy Name

“Hallowed” is not a word we use much. Outside of the Lord’s Prayer, it is likely that you never use it. There is only one instance I can think of where I might routinely use this word. The alma mater of the University of Tennessee (my alma mater) is sung at the end of every halftime performance of the marching band. It begins: On a Hallowed hill in Tennessee / Like Beacon shining bright / The stately walls of old U.T. / Rise glorious to the sight. The central building of UT’s campus sits atop “The Hill,” as it is known in Knoxville. As the heart of the campus, it is considered by the song, and faithful alumni, as “hallowed.” But other than that, “hallowed” is a largely unused word in my vocabulary.

So what does it mean to “hallow” the name of the Lord? To hallow, strictly speaking, is to set apart from the common use for a sacred use. It’s probably a little too strong of a word for a campus building. Thomas Watson defines it this way, “we pray that God’s name may shine forth gloriously, and that it may be honored and sanctified by us, in the whole course and tenor of our lives.”[1] It is to give God the highest honor and veneration. It is to acknowledge the sacredness of his name and to render unto him all the glory that his name deserves.

The object of our hallowing is the Lord’s name. By his name it is meant God’s essence. David calls upon the “name of the God of Jacob” to protect his people (Ps 20:1). By “name” David means the essence and being of God. Also by name it is meant that term by which God may be known. One of the first questions we ask someone when we meet them is, “What is your name?” Why do we ask this first? It is because that term is how we will know them, how we refer to them, and how we remember them. God is known for his attributes; his wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, truth, and whatsoever he is pleased to make himself known by. But when we speak of those attributes, in order to not simply speak in the abstract, we attribute them to God by labeling them with his name. God is wise. The Lord is powerful. Jesus is holy. So we pray for the name, that is, the essence of God and how God is known, to be hallowed. And that by hallowing his name, he would “prevent and remove atheism, ignorance, idolatry, profaneness, and whatsoever is dishonorable to him” (WLC 190).

This is the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer. It is first not only in order but also in importance. All the other petitions in the Lord’s Prayer have an end date. There will come a day when we cease to pray for the Lord’s kingdom to come, because one day it will come. There will come a day when we cease to pray for our daily bread, because one day there will be no more want. There will come a day when we cease to pray for forgiveness of sins, because one day we will be freed from the very presence of sin. There will come a day when we cease to pray for temptations to end, because one day there will be no more temptation. Every petition of the Lord’s Prayer will one day be fully realized and no longer necessary, except for the first. There will never come a day, even after thousands of thousand years, when we have exhausted the need to hallow the name of the Lord. An eternity of making God’s name shine gloriously will never satisfy the honor due to our great God.

So we pray “hallowed be thy name.” It is an acknowledgement that we have an “utter inability and indisposition” in ourselves to honor God aright (WLC 190). We pray this asking God that by his grace, we might be enabled and moved to hallow his name. And then we pray that our lives will live out this prayer. We pray that we would esteem him highly and honor the Lord. We do this by professing his name in the assembly of the saints. We should think highly and well of God. We are to fully trust in his name (Ps 33:21). We should hold God’s name in highest reverence and only speak his name in appropriate ways (Neh 9:5, Ex 20:7). We hallow the name of the Lord when we observe and keep the Sabbath. It is the worship he has prescribed, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified” (Lev 10:3). We are to obey God. It seems simple, but it is crucial. When we, as Christians, disobey God’s Law, we dishonor his name. But “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). We are to praise him. And we hallow the name of the Lord when we stand for his truth. Thomas Watson notes, “much of God’s glory lies in his truths…we have not a richer jewel to entrust him with than our souls, nor has he a greater jewel to entrust us with than his truths.”[2] We are to contend and strive for the truth because “contending for the truth brings great revenues to heaven’s exchequer; and hallows God’s name.”[3]

So let us remember, as we pray, that what we do to hallow the name of the Lord will be credited to the Lord’s ledger and will last for eternity. All else we may do, however great the world’s applause, will fade away. May our prayers lead us to ask, “will this bring honor to God’s name?” And if we cannot answer this affirmatively, would God’s grace enable us to cast it aside.

[1] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 38.

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid.

Prayer – Who Art in Heaven

One of the earliest Children’s Catechism questions that my kids learned is “Q: Where is God? A: God is everywhere.” This helpful bit of theology has become very helpful for me when answering some of their questions or assuring them when they are afraid. When thunder rumbles and they are fearful, I can remind them, “Where is God?” “God is everywhere.” “So is God here with you right now?” “Yes.” “So, you don’t have to be afraid, do you?” “No, because God is with me.” Sometimes it really is that simple. But does this contradict what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer?

Jesus instructed his disciples, “Pray then like this: Our Father, who art in heaven” (Matt 6:9, emphasis mine). Jesus seems to locate the Father in heaven. We know this must be right because Jesus said it…but is it right? Is Jesus saying that God is “up there” and not, necessarily, “down here.” Does this mean God is not everywhere? John Calvin in his Institutes helpfully clarifies, “From this we are not immediately to reason that [the Father] is bound, shut up, and surrounded, by the circumference of heaven, as by a barred enclosure. For Solomon confesses that the heaven of heavens cannot contain him [1 Kings 8:27].”[1] The passage in 1 Kings reads in part, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you.” Clearly, Jesus instructing us to pray “Our Father who art in heaven” does not mean that God ceases to be everywhere. God is not limited by being “in heaven.” But we are saying something very important about God the Father by testifying that he is, in fact, “in heaven.” What are we saying about God by saying he is “in heaven”?

Thomas Watson notes that this phrase means that we are to “raise our minds in prayer above the earth.”[2] Our understanding of the world, our needs, our desires, and the generosity of God are to ascend beyond those things which merely appear before our eyes. By praying that God is “in heaven” we are acknowledging that reality is bigger than our earthly experience of it. Calvin adds, “wherever our senses comprehend anything they commonly attach it to that place, God is set beyond all place, so that when we would seek him we must rise above all perception of body and soul.”[3] The Dutch theologian Wilhelmus À Brakel concurs, “It causes us to view God as the infinite One; as most majestic, glorious, omnipotent, and invisible; and as the One who dwells in inapproachable light. Both the nature and disposition of the saints teach them to view God as such in prayer, with a lifting up of the heart and eye on high (without thinking of a locality) unto God as being invisible and all-seeing.”[4]

This phrase also signifies to us that God the Father is sovereign. The Psalmist declares, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps 115:3). He sits above all things and his reign extends down below over all things. God holds the universe together and controls all things by his might. Calvin continues, “Therefore it is as if he had been said to be of infinite greatness or loftiness, of incomprehensible essence, of boundless might, and of everlasting immortality.”[5]

The greatness of God is revealed to us and declared by us when we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven.” The wonder of this becomes pronounced when we see this greatness, majesty, and loftiness connected with the intimacy and love of God as our Father. In this opening to prayer, Jesus instructs us to hold in perfect tension a God who is our compassionate and loving Father, all the while he is also the awesome and fearful King of the universe. À Brakel summarizes:

The word “Father” gives liberty to lay before and to unveil to God, as Father, in an intimate manner our needs and desires – and to pray for their fulfillment. And, lest we lose our reverence and awe due to such intimacy, we must add to this the awe-inspiring expression, “which art in heaven.” However, lest we be fearful to approach due to our awe for his lofty majesty, we add the word “Father” to it. Filial freedom and reverence must go hand in hand.[6]

We have the privilege to go in prayer to a God who is both our Father and who stands as the majestic King and Ruler of all space and time. When you lay your requests at the feet of God, you lay them at the feet of the One who is able and willing to give you your heart’s greatest desire.

[1] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.20.40.

[2] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 31.

[3] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.40.

[4] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.490.

[5] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.40.

[6] Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols., 3.491.

Prayer – Our Father

Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. He gave them a prayer that can be recited or used as a pattern for prayer. CS Lewis remarked that whether we use the specific words or allow those words to be a pattern for prayer is irrelevant, for the words are but “anchors” or the “movement of the conductor’s baton, not the music.”[1] This understanding of the use of the Lord’s Prayer is also seen in the Westminster Larger Catechism #187.

The Lord’s Prayer consists of three parts; a preface, petitions, and a conclusion (WLC #188). The opening words of the preface is of great importance. Jesus instructs his disciples to address the almighty and sovereign King of the Universe as “Our Father.” There is an intimacy and closeness in this address that was heretofore unknown. But through Christ, the blessings of God as our Father have been opened to believers. The opening of the preface teaches us that our prayer is to be addressed directly to God alone, our prayer is to be made with great reverence, and our prayer is to be made with great intimacy.

Prayer requires that we address someone for something which we wish to obtain. Jesus instructs us that God alone is the only appropriate recipient of our prayers. Only God can provide what we wish to receive. He is the only one worthy of our worship and our adoration. He is the only fountain from which our blessings flow. It is from His gracious hand that we receive anything and everything. Thomas Watson makes an important point regarding the persons of the Trinity.

“Though the Father only be named in the Lord’s prayer, the other two persons are not excluded. The Father is mentioned because he is first in order; but the Son and the Holy Ghost are included because they are the same in essence. As all the three persons subsist in one Godhead, so, in our prayer, though we name but one Person, we must pray to all.”[2]

But prayer to anyone or anything else, be they angels, saints, or the virgin Mary, is simply idolatry.

Jesus’ instruction to pray to “Our Father” leads us to come to prayer in great reverence. Our Father is the “Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:9). He is perfect. He is wise. He is loving. He is rich beyond measure. He is eternal. We are to honor our Father with a reverential fear. Seeing God as our Father should lead us to proclaim what is great about God and to refrain from doing what displeases him. We should display his excellencies. And we should reject what defames him. We should know that what we do reflects and resembles our Father to others. We must rightly bear his image. With this in mind, our prayers are transformed with great reverence.

But our prayers are not only made to “Our Father” with great reverence. They are also made with great intimacy. It would have been appropriate if Jesus had instructed his disciples to pray to “Our Great and High King” or “Our Glorious Judge” or “The Omnipotent Creator and Ruler of All.” These are appropriate titles for God. But Jesus gives us a different title to use, “Our Father.” This is, as the Puritan Thomas Watson puts it, “an expression of love and condescension…the name Father carries mercy in it.”[3] As we come to the Almighty in prayer, we do so as his children, adopted by grace. We come to a gracious and generous Father who desires to give his children good things. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11).

We not only address God as “Father” but as “Our Father.” The personal possessive pronoun is of tremendous significance. By creation, God has made all things. All people are created by God (Acts 17:28, Mal 2:10). By this pronoun, Jesus teaches that only those who know God as adopted, regenerated, and believing children of God can call upon him in prayer. An unconverted person is not a child of God in this way, and thus cannot address God as “Our Father.” Even if he were to use this term, it offers no comfort or liberty because he is ultimately a “child of wrath” (Eph 2:3). But the believer in Christ can with confidence pray “Our Father” and “express his faith that God is his portion, that he is permitted to address Him as Father, is a member of the family of God, and has communion with all the saints.”[4]

[1] C. S Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer: Reflections on the Intimate Dialogue between Man and God (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1992), 11.

[2] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.488.

Prayer – The Lord’s Prayer

In our survey of prayer, we have touched upon the variety of prayers throughout the Old Testament, from the earliest prayers in Genesis and Exodus to the prayers of the prophets, as well as the Psalms. We then looked at the importance of the church’s contribution to our understanding of prayer. Our reading of Scripture, however, never happens in a vacuum and is always informed by the historic and catholic reading of the Church. This prompted a dash through the writings of the Fathers of the church. From the early church, looking at Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine, to the creeds and confessions of the 16th and 17th century to the Puritans and even to 20th century writers, like CS Lewis, we looked at what the Church has historically said about prayer. With centuries of wisdom and reflection upon the Scriptures, the Church has consistently affirmed prayer to be a vital and necessary means of grace in the life of the Christian. Prayer takes many forms and shapes but is always a way in which we are able to “offer up our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (WSC #98).

One of the remarkable consistencies in looking through the history of the church’s writing on prayer is the special place of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). Nearly every work written on prayer ends up coming back to the Lord’s Prayer. The early church fathers wrote to define prayer, broadly, and then came back around to the Lord’s Prayer. The vast majority of Reformed Confessions, for example, explain prayer broadly and then give an exposition on the Lord’s Prayer. The general pattern in writing on prayer seems to be 1) explain what prayer is, 2) expound on the Lord’s Prayer. We will follow suit.

The Lord’s Prayer is the pattern of prayer given by Jesus for his disciples. Luke records that the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Apparently, the disciples had been watching Jesus pray. And they had been watching John’s disciples pray. And there was something that seemed to be lacking in their prayer practices. The noticed a certain deficiency. We have much to learn here if we are willing to see it. We should examine our prayer practices and see where we are deficient. I’ve never met a Christian who said their prayer life is more than it ought to be. I’ve never met a faithful Christian who says they pray too much, or too long, or with too much fervor. But I have met plenty of Christians who will quietly admit the opposite (and even more who won’t admit that, though it is true).

These disciples, after acknowledging their deficiencies, did what any Christian should do in a similar circumstance. They asked Jesus to help. Matthew Henry notes that this simple request “is itself a good prayer, and a very needful one, for it is a hard thing to pray well and it is Jesus Christ only that can teach us, by his word and Spirit, how to pray.”[1] What a comfort it should be to us that faithful saints like the disciples and Matthew Henry are no different from you and I in finding prayer difficult, and that Jesus Christ hears our pleas for help in prayer and answers them.

Jesus answers their request by telling them, “Pray then like this:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed by your name.

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts,

As we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13, ESV).

This answer to the disciples’ question about prayer has become known as The Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps this form looks a little different than what you may have grown up with (assuming you grew up reciting the Lord’s Prayer in English). The 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is the most standard Protestant form, using “trespasses” instead of “debts,” and is identical to the Roman Catholic form, except the RC version excludes the final doxology. The differences in the wording is no major issue, though, because there are differences between how Matthew and Luke record this prayer. While it can be prayed verbatim, the Gospels seem to affirm that it is a pattern of prayer. We should not get tied up in words but rather understand the content. And that is what countless church fathers have done in expounding on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Over the next several weeks, we will go through the Lord’s Prayer petition by petition and examine the content of this prayer. My hope is that this will serve as an encouragement and a prompt in your personal prayers. Our prayers need help and Jesus has answered our need.

[1] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1860.

Prayer – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was a British writer, professor, and thinker. He is well known for his creative works The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and The Screwtape Letters. He is also well known for some of his non-fiction Christian writings, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Lewis is celebrated as one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Simply put, he was brilliant. But Lewis was not a pastor or a theologian, so he does not write like one. He is not bound by the same obligations and vows that would guide a minister, nor was he trained as a theologian. So his theology is somewhat disjointed. There is no underlying tradition that serves as a binder for all his writings. You will not find much exegetical work through the Biblical text; wrestling with the meaning of the Scriptures. Instead, you’ll find a brilliant man who carefully ponders the meaning and wonder of God. C.S. Lewis wrote between the two poles of cold rationalism and deep romanticism.[1] He managed to hold these two in a workable tension. As a consequence, there are times that he writes and I find myself thinking, “I don’t think anyone has ever said this more clearly.” And other times I find myself scratching my head wondering, “Where in the world did this come from?”

One of the last works of C.S. Lewis to be published was Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. This work is a collection of 22 letters written to a fictional friend named Malcolm. In Letters to Malcolm Lewis records half of a dialogue about prayer. He had always wanted to write a book on prayer, but felt ill-equipped to do so. So this letter format allowed him to record his reflections without the authority of a theologian. C.S. Lewis scholar Marjorie Lamp Mead highlights a few themes in the book:

…prayer is more than something we do. It is a relationship into which we are invited. We learn that what we say to God and how we say it are of only secondary importance. Prayer involves an unveiling. In prayer we let God see our true self as we make our deepest longings known to God. Further, through prayer, we are invited to participate with God as privileged partners in his divine work in the world.[2]

Though he will address primarily private prayer, the first letter addresses the nature of public worship and corporate prayers. Primarily, Lewis objects to the idea of novelty in public worship. It isn’t that Lewis believes there should be nothing new in public worship. But novelty requires constant change. Lewis would prefer to have one set form that he could get used to so that his attention is on God and not the form. Novelty “fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is different from worshiping…. A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant.” (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 4) He also notes in Letter 2 that “the more ‘up to date’ the book is (i.e. The Common Book of Prayer), the sooner it will be dated” (Lewis, p. 12). There is much wisdom in that.

Written prayers have great value, but for Lewis were secondary. Any words in prayer, whether written or spontaneous, are only “anchors.” The original author of the words is irrelevant because the one praying must actually mean the words prayed regardless of their source. We can mindlessly and thoughtlessly pray our own words every bit as much as the words of a printed prayer.

Lewis spends a good deal of the book trying to understand why we pray if God already knows everything. And why we are to make petitionary prayer if God is sovereign. The answer is that in prayer we are “unveiled” before God. Prayer is our making ourselves known to God. It isn’t that God could not see us before, but prayer is our assent to that intimacy. “The change is in us” (Lewis, p. 21). In Letter 10, Lewis notes that the remarkable aspect of petitionary prayer is not that God grants what we request. The remarkable aspect is that God considers or hears our request. The importance does not lay in the receiving but in the asking (Lewis, p. 52).

One final note about Lewis’ Letters, Lewis addresses the very real problem of the “irksomeness” of prayer. “Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome” (Lewis, p. 113). He is describing the universal reality that we often fail to pray. We are slow to begin, quick to stop, and delighted to finish. The problem, of course, is sin. We fail to grasp the transcendence of prayer and God. Our minds are too bound to the practical. We need to light our eyes up to Heaven and consider the joys therein. “Joy is the serious business of Heaven” (Lewis, p. 93). There is a place for duty, but our prayers should flow frequently from delight.

 

[1] “The Key to C.S. Lewis by Gene Edward Veith,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed July 20, 2017, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/key-cs-lewis/.

[2] Marjorie Lamp Mead, “Letters to Malcolm: Chielfly on Prayer, Study Guide” (The CS Lewis Institute, 2011), 1, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/2855.

Prayer – John Bunyan

John Bunyan was a Baptist Puritan pastor in 17th century England. He is most well-known as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It being one of the most published books in all the English language. He was a nonconformist pastor, meaning he did not conform to the governance and practices of the Church of England, specifically the Book of Common Prayer. In fact, Bunyan rejected all fixed forms of prayers. He understood the Lord’s Prayer to only be a pattern that was to be followed but definitely not a form to be used. Bunyan’s work I Will Pray With the Spirit and With the Understanding Also was composed while in jail for being a nonconformist.

Bunyan had been imprisoned for not using the forms set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, so it is not surprising that this work expounds on the true nature of prayer and how it ought to be employed in the life of the believer. He particularly highlights that prayer is to be “in the Spirit,” by which Bunyan meant that it is to be extemporaneous. For Bunyan a prepared prayer was ipso facto not a heart-felt or spiritual prayer. It must be admitted that Bunyan’s views on prayer were profoundly shaped by his particular circumstances in 17th century England. But this view was not universal among Puritans or even nonconformists. The Westminster Divines, for example, note in Larger Catechism 187 that the Lord’s Prayer is a pattern “but may also be used as a prayer.” Nevertheless, Bunyan’s work on prayer clearly seeks to remain faithful to God’s Word as it explains how man is to speak with the Almighty God.[1]

Bunyan defines prayer as “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength or assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”[2] In this Bunyan lists seven things that are a part of prayer: 1) it is sincere, 2) it is sensible, 3) it is an affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, 4) it is by the strength or assistance of the Holy Spirit, 5) it is for such things as God has promised, 6) it is for the good of the church, and 7) it is with submission to the will of God.

Prayer is to be sincere. Jeremiah writes, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13). Sincerity is honesty and integrity before the Lord. It is being the same person in prayer as you are in public. It is not lip-service for men but the words of the heart before God.

Prayer is to be sensible. It is not a babbling or prating of meaningless noises. It is to express a sense of the want of mercy and a sense of the mercy received. It is an articulation of the feeling of the heart.

Prayer is to be affectionate. Prayer in Scripture is often painted in very vivid colors. “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps 42:1). “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2). Prayer is a pouring out of the heart and soul before the Lord.

Prayer is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our hearts are dead and rock-hard before the Spirit quickens them. Without the enlivening presence of the Spirit in our prayers, they are but a form of godliness without the content.

Prayer is for such things as God has promised. “Prayer is only true when it is within the compass of God’s Word; it is blasphemy, or at best vain babbling, when the petition is unrelated to the Book.”[3] The Spirit must enliven and guide the heart to pray, but that will always happen through the working of the Word.

Prayer is for the good of the church. By this Bunyan means that prayer is meant for the honor of God, the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the benefit of the people. “For God, and Christ, and his people are so linked together that if the good of the one be prayed for, the others must need be included.”[4]

Finally, prayer is to submit to God’s will. Jesus taught, “Thy will be done” (Matt 6:10). The people must approach the Almighty God in humility, trusting God’s goodness and kindness. But prayers that are put up in the Spirit and guided by God’s Word will be in accordance with God’s will.

[1] John Bunyan, John Bunyan, and John Bunyan, Prayer (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 5.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

Prayer – Matthew Henry

When the Old Testament Professor O. Palmer Robertson was teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, he began to become known for his deep and powerful public prayers. The students inquired of Dr. Robertson in how they could learn to pray like him. Beside the cultivation of a habit of regular private prayer, he recommended one book: Matthew Henry’s Method for Prayer.[1]

Matthew Henry was a Puritan who is best known for the well-used and highly regarded Commentary on the Whole Bible. He began writing his commentary in 1704 and it was left incomplete when he died in 1714. His colleagues and students completed the work based on his notes and writings. Henry spent the vast majority of his career as a pastor in Chester, England before spending his final two years at a church in London. In 1712, two months before he moved to London, Henry completed his book on prayer. It is the culmination of a full lifetime of preaching and teaching the Scriptures in the context of pastoral ministry. In this book Henry gives an outline of biblical prayer under six headings: Adoration, Confession, Petition, Thanksgiving, Intercession, and Conclusion. Each of these headings is followed by a pattern of prayer taken almost exclusively from Scripture.

Ligon Duncan notes in the forward to this book, “Resorting to a more Scriptural pattern of prayer may be a simple (but profound) answer to many problems in our practice of prayer. Praying Scripturally will teach us what prayer is, even while we do it.”[2] I don’t know that I’ve met a Christian who is completely satisfied with his prayer life. Learning and implementing Henry’s Method for Prayer would be a benefit to every Christian.

Henry notes in the preface to this book that “Prayer is a principal branch of religious worship, which we are moved to by the very light of nature, and obliged to by some of its fundamental laws.”[3] Everyone prays. Everyone gives homage and respect to whatever or whomever they view as god. “Those that live without prayer, live without God in the world.”[4] But this doesn’t define what prayer is. It merely acknowledges that everyone, in some shape, form, or fashion, prays. Henry continues, “Prayer is the solemn and religious offering up of devout acknowledgements and desires to God, or a sincere representation of holy affections, with a design to give unto God the glory due unto his Name thereby, and to obtain from him promised favors, and both through our Mediator.”[5] Prayer is offering up our desires to God, giving him the glory due him, and a means by which we obtain his promises to us. And all of this is accomplished through the one Mediator between God and men, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The headings in A Method for Prayer lead the Christian to pray in this manner. We are to offer up our praise and adoration of God. We confess our sin to him. We petition God and ask him to intercede in the events of our lives. And we give thanksgiving for all the things he has provided. And we are conclude our prayers with doxologies and acknowledgements of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his will through our prayers. In our prayers we bring all of ourselves to God. “It is desirable that our prayers should be copious and full; our burdens, cares, and wants are many, so are our sins and mercies. The promises are numerous and very rich, our God gives liberally, and has bid us open our mouths wide, and he will fill them, will satisfy them with good things.”[6]

The instruction that Henry gives through A Method for Prayer is that we should constantly and consistently turn to prayer as the guide for our prayers. “If the heart be full of its good matter, it may make the tongue as the pen of a ready Writer.”[7] God’s Word supplies us the whole range of emotion and the full spectrum of our needs and desires. Praying the Scriptures is simply being used by God as the instrument of his change in the world by proclaiming and declaring what he has already proclaimed and declared. Our prayers are one of the means by which God has chosen to make his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

[1] Matthew Henry and J. Ligon Duncan, A Method for Prayer. (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1994), 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 16.