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When you Pray
The passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount,” published as Second Edition in 1976 by Inter-Varsity Press.
WE return now to a consideration of our Lord’s teaching concerning prayer. In Matthew 6, you remember, we have our Lord’s treatment of the whole question of Christian piety. He divides up the subject into three sections which really cover the whole of our righteousness or religious living. First of all comes the question of almsgiving---our charity towards others, then the question of prayer and our relationship to God, and finally the question of personal discipline which He considers under the general heading of fasting. We have already considered those three aspects of the religious life, or the life of piety, separately; and when considering the subject of prayer, we said that we would return again to a study of what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer. For our Lord clearly found it necessary not only to warn His followers against certain dangers in connection with prayer, but also to give them positive instruction.
He has already warned them, you remember, not to be as the hypocrites, who pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners in order to be seen of men. He has told them that vain repetitions in and of themselves have no value, and that the mere bulk or quantity of prayer will produce no special benefit. He has also told them that they must pray in secret, and that they must never be concerned about men or what men might think of them, but that what is vital and essential in this matter of prayer is not only that they should shut out other people, but that they should shut themselves in with God, and concentrate upon Him and their relationship to Him. But, as we have said, He clearly feels that a general warning is not sufficient, and that His disciples need more detailed instruction. So He goes on to say, ‘After this manner therefore pray ye’, and He proceeds to give them this instruction with regard to the method of prayer.
We are face to face here with one of the most vital subjects in connection with our Christian life. Prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul. Man is at his greatest and highest when, upon his knees, he comes face to face with God. Not that we desire to indulge in vain comparisons. Almsgiving is excellent; it is a noble activity, and the man who feels led, and who responds to the leading, thus to help his fellow-men in this world is a good man. Again, fasting in various forms is a very high and noble activity. The man of the world knows nothing about this, nor about self-discipline. He just yields to every impulse, gives himself over to lust and passion, and lives more or less like an animal in a mere mechanical response to the instincts that are within him. He knows nothing about discipline. The man who disciplines himself stands out and has the mark of greatness upon him; it is a great thing for a man to discipline his life at all times, and occasionally to take exceptional measures for his spiritual good.
These things, however, pale into insignificance when you look at a man engaged in prayer. When a man is speaking to God he is at his very acme. It is the highest activity of the human soul, and therefore it is at the same time the ultimate test of a man’s true spiritual condition. There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life. Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer. It is not so difficult to give alms---the natural man knows something about that, and you can have a true spirit of philanthropy in people who are not Christian at all. Some seem to be born with a generous nature and spirit, and to such almsgiving is not essentially difficult. The same applies also to the question of self-discipline---refraining from certain things and taking up particular duties and tasks. God knows it is very much easier to preach like this from a pulpit than it is to pray. Prayer is undoubtedly the ultimate test, because a man can speak to others with greater ease than he can speak to God. Ultimately, therefore, a man discovers the real condition of his spiritual life when he examines himself in private, when he is alone with God. We saw in chapter 2 that the real danger for a man who leads a congregation in a public act of prayer is that he may be addressing the congregation rather than God. But when we are alone in the presence of God that is no longer possible. And have we not all known what it is to find that, somehow, we have less to say to God when we are alone than when we are in the presence of others? It should not be so; but it often is. So that it is when we have left the realm of activities and outward dealings with other people, and are alone with God, that we really know where we stand in a spiritual sense. It is not only the highest activity of the soul, it is the ultimate test of our true spiritual condition.
Another way of putting that is this. You will find that the outstanding characteristic of all the most saintly people the world has ever known has been that they have not only spent much time in private prayer, but have also delighted in it. We cannot read the life of any saint without finding that that has been true of him. The more saintly the person, the more time such a person spends in conversation with God. Thus it is a vital and all-important matter. And surely there is a greater need for guidance at this point than at any other.
This has been true in the experience of God’s people throughout the centuries. We find it recorded in the Gospels that John the Baptist had been teaching his disciples to pray. They obviously had felt the need of instruction, and they had asked him for instruction and guidance. And John had taught them how to pray. Our Lord’s disciples felt exactly the same need. They came to Him one afternoon and said, in effect, ‘John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray; Lord, teach us how to pray.’ Undoubtedly the desire arose in their hearts because they were conscious of this kind of natural, instinctive, initial difficulty of which we are all aware; but it must also have been greatly increased when they watched His own prayer life. They saw how He would arise ‘a great while before dawn’ and go up into the mountains to pray, and how He would spend whole nights in prayer. And sometimes, I have no doubt, they said to themselves: ‘What does He talk about? What does He do?’ They may also have thought, ‘I find after a few minutes in prayer that I come to the end of my words. What is it that enables Him to be drawn out in prayer? What is it that leads to this ease and abandonment?’ ‘Lord’, they said, ‘teach us how to pray.’ They meant by this that they would like to be able to pray as He prayed. ‘We wish we knew God as You know Him. Teach us how to pray.’ Have you ever felt that? Have you ever felt dissatisfied with your prayer life, and longed to know more and more what it is truly to pray? If you have, it is an encouraging sign.
There is no question but that this is our greatest need. More and more we miss the very greatest blessings in the Christian life because we do not know how to pray aright. We need instruction in every respect with regard to this matter. We need to be taught how to pray, and we need to be taught what to pray for. It is because it covers these two things in a most amazing and wonderful manner that we must spend some time in a consideration of what has become known amongst us as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. It is a perfect synopsis of our Lord’s instruction on how to pray, and what to pray for.
Now I must make it quite clear at this point that that is all I propose to do. The subject of prayer is a very great and large one, which might indeed engage us for a long time. However, we must not allow it to do so because we are actually working our way through the Sermon on the Mount, and therefore it would be wrong to digress over-much on this one particular question. All I intend to do is to explain our Lord’s teaching in this prayer, and I am not going to do even that in any great detail. I simply intend to underline and emphasize what seem to me to be the great central principles which our Lord was obviously anxious to inculcate.
There are certain general matters with regard to this prayer that certainly need a word or two of comment. ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, as we call it, has often been the subject of much controversy. There are many people who, for various reasons, refuse to recite it in an act of public worship. There are some who seem to object to it on doctrinal grounds, and who feel that it belongs to the realm of law rather than of grace, and that it has nothing to do with Christian people. They stumble over the petition with regard to the forgiveness of sins. We shall deal with that in detail when we come to it, but I am simply mentioning now certain of the preliminary difficulties that various friends experience. They say that forgiveness here seems to be conditional upon our forgiving, and that, they maintain, is law not grace, and so on. It is necessary therefore that we should make a number of preliminary observations.
The first is that this prayer is undoubtedly a pattern prayer. The very way in which our Lord introduces it indicates that. ‘After this manner therefore pray ye.’ Now, says our Lord in effect, when you come to pray to God, this is the kind of way in which you are to pray. And the amazing and extraordinary thing about it is that it really covers everything in principle. There is a sense in which you can never add to the Lord’s Prayer; nothing is left out. That does not mean, of course, that when we pray we are simply to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and stop at that, for that is obviously something that was not true of our Lord Himself. As we have already seen, He spent whole nights in prayer; many times He arose a great while before day and prayed for hours. You always find in the lives of the saints that they have spent hours in prayer. John Wesley used to say he held a very poor view of any Christian who did not pray for at least four hours every day.
To say that this prayer is all-inclusive, and is a perfect summary, simply means, therefore, that it really does contain all the principles. We might say that what we have in the Lord’s Prayer is a kind of skeleton. Take, for instance, this act of preaching. I have certain notes before me; I have not a complete sermon. I merely have headings---the principles which are to be emphasized. But I do not stop at a mere enunciation of principles; I expound and work them out. That is the way in which we should regard the Lord’s Prayer. The principles are all here and you cannot add to them. You can take the longest prayer that has ever been offered by a saint, and you will find that it can all be reduced to these principles. There will be no additional principle whatsoever. Take that great prayer of our Lord’s which is recorded in John 17---our Lord’s High Priestly prayer. If you analyse it in terms of principles, you will find that it can be reduced to the principles of this model prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer covers everything; and all we do is to take these principles and employ and expand them and base our every petition upon them. That is the way in which it is to be approached. And as you look at it in that way, I think you will agree with St. Augustine and Martin Luther and many other saints who have said that there is nothing more wonderful in the entire Bible than the Lord’s Prayer. The economy, the way in which He summarizes it all, and has reduced everything to but a few sentences, is something that surely proclaims the fact that the speaker is none other than the very Son of God Himself.
Let us go on to another observation, which is one that we have been emphasizing right through our consideration of this Sermon. It is that this prayer is obviously meant not only for the disciples, but for all Christians in all places and at all times. When we were dealing with the Beatitudes we constantly repeated that they are applicable to every Christian. The Sermon on the Mount was not meant only for the disciples at that time and for the Jews in some coming kingdom age; it is meant for Christian people now and at all times, and has always been applicable. Exactly as we have had to judge ourselves by the teaching of the fifth chapter with respect to the relationship of the Christian to the law, so we come face to face with this prayer, and with what our Lord says in this matter: ‘After this manner therefore pray ye.’ He speaks to us today exactly as He spoke to the people who were about Him at that particular times. Indeed, as we have already seen, unless our prayer corresponds to this particular pattern and form, it is not true prayer.
There may be questions in the minds of many with regard to reciting the Lord’s Prayer as an act of public worship. That is a point for legitimate debate, a point for legitimate difference of opinion. It seems to me, however, that we can never remind ourselves too frequently of this particular form; and, for myself, I have always been comforted by this thought, that whatever I may forget in my own private prayers, as long as I pray the Lord’s Prayer I have at any rate covered all the principles. On condition, of course, that I am not merely mechanically repeating the words, but am really praying from my heart and with my mind and with my whole being.
The next point is that there are some people in trouble about the Lord’s Prayer because it does not say ‘for Christ’s sake’, or because it is not offered specifically in Christ’s name. They say that it cannot be a prayer for Christian people because Christians should always pray in the name of Christ. The answer to this is, of course, that our Lord, as we have seen, was simply laying down principles which must always govern man’s relationship to God. He was not concerned to say everything about that relationship at this point. But He was concerned to say this; that whoever comes into the presence of God must always realize these things. Later on in His life and teaching He will teach them explicitly about praying in His name. But it is surely clear that even in the Lord’s Prayer, praying in Christ’s name is implicit. No man can truly say ‘Our Father which art in heaven’, save one who knows the Lord Jesus Christ and who is in Christ. So it is implicit even at the very beginning. But, in any case, that does not affect the principles which our Lord teaches here so plainly.
Concerning the particular difficulty with regard to forgiveness, we shall deal with that in detail when we come to that petition in our consideration of the prayer.
Let us then sum up our general remarks by repeating that there is nothing more exalted, and more elevating, than this wonderful prayer which the Lord Jesus Christ taught His people. Let us also remember that He taught it, not that they might just repeat it mechanically for the rest of their lives, but rather that they should say to themselves, ‘Now there are certain things I must always remember when I pray. I must not rush into prayer; I must not start speaking at once without considering what I am doing. I must not merely be led by some impulse and feeling. There are certain things I must always bear in mind. Here are the headings for my prayer; here is the skeleton which I have to clothe; these are the lines along which I must proceed.’ I trust therefore that none of us will think that it is the hall-mark of true Evangelicalism to speak rather disparagingly of the Lord’s Prayer. I trust also that none of us will be guilty of that spiritual pride, not to say arrogance, which refuses to recite the Lord’s Prayer with others. Let us rather realize that our Lord here was really telling these people how He Himself prayed, that that was His own method, that these were the things He always had in mind, and that therefore we can never do anything greater or higher than to pray along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer. We shall never exceed this prayer if we pray truly, so we must never dismiss it as legalism, and imagine that because we are in the dispensation of grace we have gone beyond that. We shall find as we analyse this prayer that it is full of grace. Indeed the law of God was full of grace, as we have already seen. Our Lord has been expounding the law of Moses and has shown that, when spiritually understood, it is full of the grace of God, and that no man can understand it truly unless he has the grace of God in his heart.
Let us now look briefly at this subject of how to pray and what to pray for. With regard to the first matter we remind ourselves again of the vital importance of the right approach, for this is the key to the understanding of successful prayer. People so often say, ‘You know, I prayed and prayed but nothing happened. I did not seem to find peace. I did not seem to get any satisfaction out of it.’ Most of their trouble is due to the fact that their approach to prayer has been wrong, that somehow or other they did not realize what they were doing. We tend to be so self-centred in our prayers that when we drop on our knees before God, we think only about ourselves and our troubles and perplexities. We start talking about them at once, and of course nothing happens. According to our Lord’s teaching here we should not expect anything to happen. That is not the way to approach God. We must pause before we speak in prayer.
The great teachers of the spiritual life throughout the centuries, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, have been agreed about this, that the first step in prayer has always been what they call ‘Recollection’. There is a sense in which every man when he begins to pray to God should put his hand upon his mouth. That was the whole trouble with Job. In his wretchedness he had been talking a great deal. He felt that God had not been dealing kindly with him, and he, Job, had been expressing his feelings freely. But when, towards the end of the book, God began to deal with him at close quarters, when He began to reveal and manifest Himself to him, what did Job do? There was only one thing for him to do. He said, ‘Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.’ And, strange as it may seem to you, you start praying by saying nothing; you recollect what you are about to do.
I know the difficulty in this. We are but human, and we are pressed by the urgency of our position, the cares, the anxieties, the troubles, the anguish of mind, the bleeding heart, whatever it is. And we are so full of this that, like children, we start speaking at once. But if you want to make contact with God, and if you want to feel His everlasting arms about you, put your hand upon your mouth for a moment. Recollection! Just stop for a moment and remind yourself of what you are about to do. We can put it in a phrase. Do you know that the essence of true prayer is found in the two words in verse 9, ‘Our Father’? I suggest that if you can say from your heart, whatever your condition, ‘My Father’, in a sense your prayer is already answered. It is just this realization of our relationship to God that we so sadly lack.
Perhaps we can put it in another way like this. There are people who believe it is a good thing to pray because it always does us good. They adduce various psychological reasons. That of course is not prayer as the Bible understands it. Prayer means speaking to God, forgetting ourselves, and realizing His presence. Then again, there are others, and sometimes I think they would claim for themselves an unusual degree of spirituality, who rather think that the hallmark of true prayer life, of ease and facility in prayer, is that one’s prayer should be very brief and pointed, and one should just simply make a particular request. That is something which is not true of the teaching of the Bible concerning prayer. Take any of the great prayers which are recorded in the Old Testament or in the New. None of them is what we might call this ‘business-like’ kind of prayer which simply makes a petition known to God and then ends. Every prayer recorded in the Bible starts with invocation. It does not matter how desperate the circumstance; it does not matter what the particular quandary might be in which those who pray find themselves. Invariably they start with this worship, this adoration, this invocation.
We have a great and wonderful example of this in the ninth chapter of Daniel. There the prophet, in terrible perplexity, prays to God. But he does not start immediately with his petition; he starts by praising God. A perplexed Jeremiah does the same thing. Confronted by the demand that he should buy a plot of land in a seemingly doomed country, Jeremiah could not understand it; it seemed all wrong to him. But he does not rush into the presence of God for this one matter; he starts by worshipping God. And so you will find it in all the recorded prayers. Indeed, you even get it in the great High-Priestly prayer of our Lord Himself which is recorded in John 17. You remember also how Paul put it in writing to the Philippians. He says, ‘in nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God’ (Philippians 4:6, RV). That is the order. We must always start with invocation, before we even begin to think of petition; and here it is once and for ever put to us so perfectly in this model prayer.
It would take too long to expound as I should like the meaning of this statement, ‘Our Father’. Let me put it like this, therefore, in what may appear to be a dogmatic form. It is only those who are true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who can say, ‘Our Father’. It is only the people of whom the Beatitudes are true who can say with any confidence, ‘Our Father’. Now I know that this is an unpopular doctrine today, but it is the doctrine of the Bible. The world today believes in the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. That is not found in the Bible. It was our Lord who said to certain religious Jews that they were ‘of their father the devil’, and not children of Abraham, not children of God. It is only to ‘as many as receive him’ that He gives the right (the authority) ‘to become the sons of God’.
‘But,’ says someone, ‘what did Paul mean when he said, “we are also his offspring”? Does not that mean we are all His children and He is the universal Father?’ Well, if you analyse this passage, you will find that Paul is speaking there, in Acts 17, of God as the Creator of all things and all people, that God in that sense has given life and being to everybody throughout the world. But that is not the meaning of God as Father in the sense in which Paul uses it elsewhere of believers, nor the sense in which, as we have seen, our Lord Himself uses it. The Bible draws a very sharp distinction between those who belong to God and those who do not. You notice it in the Lord’s High Priestly prayer in John 17:9. He said, ‘I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.’ It is an utter, absolute distinction; it is only those who are in the Lord Jesus Christ who are truly the children of God. We become the children of God only by adoption. We are born ‘the children of wrath’, ‘the children of the devil’, ‘the children of this world’; and we have to be taken out of that realm and translated into another realm before we become the children of God. But if we truly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we are adopted into God’s family, and we receive ‘the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father’.
The man of the world does not like this doctrine. He says we are all the children of God; and yet in his heart he has a hatred towards God, and when, in desperation, he prays to God he has no confidence that he is speaking to his Father. He feels God is someone who has set Himself against him. He talks about the Fatherhood of God, but he has not received the Spirit of adoption. It is only the one who is in Christ who knows this.
So when our Lord says, ‘Our Father’, He is obviously thinking of Christian people, and that is why I say that this is a Christian prayer. A man may say, ‘Our Father’, but the question is, is he conscious of it, does he believe and experience it? The ultimate test of every man’s profession is that he can say with confidence and with assurance, ‘My Father’, ‘My God’. Is God your God? Do you know Him really as your Father? And when you come to Him in prayer, have you that sense of coming to your Father? That is the way to start, says our Lord, to realize that you have become a child of God because of what He has done for you through the Lord Jesus Christ. That is implicit in this teaching of Christ. He suggests and anticipates all that He was going to do for us, all He was going to make possible for His own. They did not understand it yet. Nevertheless, He says, that is the way to pray, that is how I pray, and you are going to pray like this.
You notice, however, that He adds immediately, ‘Which art in heaven’. This is a most wonderful thing---‘Our Father which art in heaven.’ These two phrases must always be taken together, for this very good reason. Our ideas of fatherhood have often become very debased and have always, therefore, to be corrected. Do you notice how often the apostle Paul in his Epistles uses a most striking phrase? He talks about the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. That is most significant. It is simply calling attention to what our Lord says at this point. ‘Our Father.’ Yes; but because of our debased conception of fatherhood, He hastens to say, ‘Our Father which art in heaven’, the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. That is the kind of Father we have.
But there are many people in this world, alas, to whom the idea of fatherhood is not one of love. Imagine a little boy who is the son of a father who is a drunkard and a wife-beater, and who is nothing but a cruel beast. That little boy knows nothing in life but constant and undeserved thrashings and kickings. He sees his father spend all his money on himself and his lust, while he himself has to starve. That is his idea of fatherhood. If you tell him that God is his Father, and leave it at that, it is not very helpful, and it is not very kind. The poor boy of necessity has a wrong idea of fatherhood. That is his notion of a father, a man who behaves like that. So our human, sinful notions of fatherhood need constant correction.
Our Lord says, ‘Our Father which art in heaven;’ and Paul says ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Anyone like Christ, says Paul in effect, must have a wonderful Father, and, thank God, God is such a Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is vital when we pray to God, and call Him our Father, that we should remind ourselves that He is ‘our Father which is in heaven’, that we should remind ourselves of His majesty and of His greatness and of His almighty power. When in your weakness and your utter humiliation you drop on your knees before God, in your anguish of mind and heart, remember that He knows all about you. The Scripture says, ‘all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ Remember, also, that if sometimes you rush into the presence of God and want something for yourself, or are praying for forgiveness for a sin you have committed, God has seen and knows all about it. It is not surprising that, when he wrote Psalm 51, David said in the anguish of his heart, ’Thou desirest truth in the inward parts.’ If you want to be blessed of God you have to be absolutely honest, you have to realize He knows everything, and that there is nothing hidden from Him. Remember also that He has all power to punish, and all power to bless. He is able to save, He is able to destroy. Indeed, as the wise man who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes put it, it is vital when we pray to God that we should remember that ‘He is in heaven and we are upon the earth’.
Then remember His holiness and His justice, His utter, absolute righteousness. Let us remember, says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that whenever we approach Him we must do so ‘with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’.
That is the way to pray, says Christ, take these two things together, never separate these two truths. Remember that you are approaching the almighty, eternal, ever-blessed holy God. But remember also that that God, in Christ, has become your Father, who not only knows all about you in the sense that He is omniscient, He knows all about you also in the sense that a father knows all about his child. He knows what is good for the child. Put these two things together. God in His almightiness is looking at you with a holy love and knows your every need. He hears your every sigh and loves you with an everlasting love. He desires nothing so much as your blessing, your happiness, your joy and your prosperity. Then remember this, that He ‘is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’. As your ‘Father which is in heaven’ He is much more anxious to bless you than you are to be blessed. There is also no limit to His almighty power. He can bless you with all the blessings of heaven. He has put them all in Christ, and put you into Christ. So your life can be enriched with all the glory and riches of the grace of God Himself.
That is the way to pray. Before you begin to make any petition, before you begin to ask even for your daily bread, before you ask for anything, just realize that you, such as you are, are in the presence of such a Being, your Father which is in heaven, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘My God.’‘My Father.’ (361-372)
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