The Model for Prayer.
The year was 1969. I was looking forward to graduating from high-school in the spring of the year. My social life centered on the high-school music programs and my church youth group. Like many high-school aged youth, I was just beginning to come to terms with my identity that bridged these two, quite variant, worlds. I was also coming to terms with my faith and my relationship with the LORD as I used my guitar to lead music for children and youth both in my church and in its associated youth camps. This period was the peak of the Vietnam-era Cultural Revolution that swept America, ushering in a generation that, like emerging children, pushed at every one of societyís boundaries. I was intensely interested in my faith, and I was also intensely interested in pop music, particularly that American pop-folk music that I could play with my guitar. Consequently, it is not surprising that I was more than aware of the career of a singer named Janis Joplin. One of the last songs she wrote, just prior to her death by a heroin overdose, was a prayer. Many of our Boomer generation may remember her gravely voice as she over-pronunciated her words in her South Texas accent,
Oh Lord, wonít you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, wonít you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Oh Lord, wonít you buy me a color TV ?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, wonít you buy me a color TV ?
Oh Lord, wonít you buy me a night on the town ?
Iím counting on you, Lord, please donít let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, wonít you buy me a night on the town ?
There were probably few in that day that gave much consideration to the theological import of this prayer, though this poem that Janis put to music caused me to really think about how we pray. I did not agree with her anti-American, anti-war stance, and I also did not find myself quite agreeing with her theology. Her words speak volumes of how those without sincere faith in God approach Him. Hers may also be an example of how the faithful also might often consider the purpose and context of prayer. Janis' prayer really contains only one of the elements of prayer, though important: that of petition. Treating God like a great Santa Claus, she asks for three gifts that are not dissimilar to those things that many people desire. The Mercedes Benz is a metaphor for social acceptance and respect, lifting her to a higher position among her peers. The TV is a tool that will bring her riches. The night on the town is her metaphor for an experience of happiness. Like the legendary Genie in a bottle, many see God as the improbable source of the blessings of this life. The primary context of prayer is often like that of Janis Joplin as we take to Him a list of the things that we want, often without the wisdom to discern His will for us, and how our desires may or may not be in agreement with that will.
However, even Joplin's prayer may be more in line with true prayer than that which was practiced by the religious community in ancient Israel. For them, prayer was a repetitive and meaningless recitation that was performed in order to demonstrate humility and righteousness. We still find this form of prayer practiced around the world in many of its pagan religions. How are we to pray? Christian disciples today seek to know how to pray, just as Jesus' disciples sought the same. They witnessed the content and character of the prayers of both John the Baptist and of Jesus. Their prayers were not like those recited in the temple.
When my wife and I were visiting in Belarus, one of the former republics of the USSR, we were gathered with a family and their friends when the host asked us to pray. After I led them in a prayer, they all appeared astonished. They were expecting to hear a recitation of some prayer from some religious book. What they heard was like that heard by the ancients when expected recitation was replaced by a simple, and personal, conversation. This piqued an interest by them that further opened the door for us to share the message of God's grace with them.
The power and importance of prayer in the Christian life can not be understated. If one were to attempt to ascertain the most important activity in the Christian life, the conclusion would probably be that of the conduct of prayer. It is through prayer that one communicates with God, and without that avenue of communication, one would be significantly cut off from their perception and understanding of the power and presence of God. Time spent in prayer is time spent in submission to God, with an attitude of acceptance of His own will over our own.
- Prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God,
- clarifies our acceptance of who He is,
- and gives us an opportunity to communicate with God in our own words, and in our own way.
To live a Christian life without prayer would be like growing up as an only child in a family and never speaking or communicating in any way with a parent or guardian. Just as the child is dependent upon the adult for care, guidance, and training, Christians are dependent upon God for the same. Just as a newborn baby would physically die without the physical care of an adult, that same baby is doomed to die spiritually, experiencing eternal separation from God, without the spiritual care and nurturing that God provides. Just as the continued growth of the child involves communication with those who are training and nurturing him/her, the young Christian is dependent upon God for the same training and nurture.
We experience prayer expressed in many different ways. Since God holds the attribute of omniscience, He knows our thoughts, words, attitudes, etc. Consequently, we can speak to God through any means that serves to form our message. For some, prayer is "cerebral". That is, their predominant form of prayer is through thoughts ... speaking to God through their thoughts as they go through their daily routine. For some, prayer is primarily "vocal". That is, they are most comfortable voicing prayers aloud. We also experience corporate prayer where an individual is called upon to voice a spoken prayer as he/she represents himself and others in a group of believers. "How" we pray is probably not as much an issue of our personal process as it is of our personal theology. Prayer always expresses the theology of the one praying and just as every individual is unique, the process of prayer for each individual can be unique. Consequently, Jesus often spoke of prayer as he taught His disciples. Luke, chapter 11 begins with Jesus' teaching of a model prayer, one that vocalizes Christian theology and introduces many of the primary thoughts and attitudes that are appropriate components of any communication with God.
Over the years of Christian history, this model prayer, the Lord's Prayer, has tended to be recited verbatim, usually from the King James translation that is presented in Matthew 6:9-13. While the intent is not that the prayer be repeated thoughtlessly (Matt 6:7), the realization is that by common repetition, one can lose sight of the prayer's true purpose. As we look at the prayer that is presented in Luke's account, we see some variations in the grammar and vocabulary, as well as in the location where the prayer is presented. In Matthew, the model prayer is presented as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Also, parallelism that is present in the Matthew account is both rhythmic and lyrical in its Aramaic form, indicating that by the time of Matthew's presentation of the prayer, it had become poetic in its presentation. In Luke, the prayer is presented at the end of Jesus' ministry, prior to his entrance into Jerusalem where He experienced the Passion. It is evident that by these variations, Jesus' teaching on prayer was continual, and was concerned with understanding its content, not with rote memorization. The model prayer is a guide to what is an appropriate and comprehensive set of subjects and requests that speak to the one praying, formulate and stabilize the theology of the prayer, and enable the one praying to express some of the deepest personal and theological issues possible.
1. THE ELEMENTS OF PRAYER
And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, ...
If any Christian ever feels that he/she is so close to God that regular prayer is unnecessary, a good look at the life of Jesus might be instructive. We find that Jesus, the Messiah, the eternal Christ, who was one with the Godhead of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, spent much time in dedicated prayer. When He prayed, He spoke to the Father in a form of open and direct communication, not as a ritual set of recitations as was the form of the pagan religious community. His prayers were spontaneous and personal, communicating as one would do with anyone with whom He had a close, personal relationship. To the religious establishment, prayers were repeated in obedience to the law. To Jesus, prayer was a normal part of the relationship He has with His Father. Like so many other theological issues that stood in stark contrast to the religious establishment, the essence of prayer, the most essential component of the Christian's relationship to God, was also a radical change to current thought.
... when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.
The restoration of prayer to its original intent, seen expressed in the Old Testament through patriarchs such as Daniel and David, required instruction for these who had seen prayer reduced to a religious ritual. The disciples, and many others in the community around Jerusalem, had seen the same dynamic form of prayer in the life of John the Baptist. Just as many said of Jesus, "how can you forgive sins?," many would critically argue, "how can you speak to God?" They had seen the nature of John's prayers, and knew of how he taught this new practice to his disciples. Seeing the importance of prayer in Jesus' life, the disciples desired this for themselves. We may not often stop and think of the radical change that John and Jesus brought to the nature of prayer in first-century Israel.
b. PRAYER SUBMITS TO GOD AS OUR FATHER
And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, ...
Though not as evident in the English translations, the word used for "when" is significant. The Greek form utilizes a tense that involves a continuous action. The idea presented is that the practice of prayer is a natural and continual experience. The implication is that one will already be in an attitude of prayer, so as one enters this communication with God, here is the way to do it. This differed significantly from the traditional dogma that required the recitation of prayers at certain times of the day. This tradition ran deep, and its practice continued both in Judaism and in Islam: a religion that traces its roots to ancient Judaism. Jesus teaches that prayer is not something that scheduled for recitation, but is rather a spontaneous, intimate, and personal communication with God that is not encumbered by the rituals of religion.
Our Father which art in heaven, ...
Clearly, God the Father is the recipient of the prayer. Jesus teaches that those who love the Lord have direct access to God through prayer. No mediator is necessary. Though some would teach that people are not worthy to approach God, necessitating an intermediary such as a priest or apostle, Jesus taught that no such intermediary is necessary. All Christians are priests in that they have access to God in prayer. Their relationship with God is to be similar to that of a child to his/her father. The term is both intimate and respectful. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and used the word "Abba," the endearing form of the name that a child uses for it's father. Though translated, pater, in the Greek, an English rendition of "Dad" or "Daddy" is roughly equivalent. This practice by Jesus drives home the close nature of the relationship between Himself and God the Father. Though "Daddy" is probably an inappropriate expression for all but Jesus Himself, we can, through this Aramaic form, get a better idea of the intimacy of relationship that is extended to Christians.
The God we pray to is clearly identified as the One and True God, the God of heaven and eternity. God competes with mankind for allegiance. Man seeks many gods, but there is only one true God, the God to whom the prayer is addressed.
c. PRAYER RESPECTS GOD AS OUR LORD
Hallowed be thy name. ....
We do not typically consider the word "name" in today's culture in the same manner in which it was understood in the ancient near east. We apply a name as a label by which something or someone is identified. In ancient culture, the word that is translated "name" meant much more. The name represents all of the characteristics and authority of the one named. When one considers the Name of God, one considers the whole of who He is. Consequently, to call on the name of Jesus refers to accepting who He is in His entire authority and person. Consequently, this statement in the prayer brings to attention an agreement that God, in all of who He is, is to be worshipped. God is to be regarded with profound respect and awe. Furthermore, "hallowed" is used to translate a word that is universal rather than personal. The word is a call for all to revere God in worship and adoration. By so doing, the nature of the relationship with man and God is clarified. Man is not God. Man is profoundly submitted to the One awesome God who loves us enough to hear our prayers.
d. PRAYER AGREES WITH GOD'S PURPOSES
Thy kingdom come. ...
The bulk of Jesus' teaching involved truths concerning the kingdom of God. Jesus said that he would destroy the temple and restore it in three days (John 2:19), and that He did. When Jesus was resurrected, the heart of the Christian became the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. This statement in the model prayer recognizes that God's kingdom has come, and uses the continuing tense when it calls for His kingdom to continually come. That is, it is the desire of the one in prayer that God's kingdom would continue to take control in his/her own life and in the life of others. It is the desire of God that all people would be saved from the consequence of their sin, and so it is an agreed desire on the part of the prayer that God's kingdom would continue to come to all people. It is the prayer's desire that it is God's will that is the authority of this earth rather than man's.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
Secular humanism, rationalism, and the secular cults of today would all argue that man is the authority over creation. It is the intelligence of man to which the earth is subject, and man has the consequent authority and responsibility to reign over this earth in a beneficent manner. However, a Christian understands that God is the authority over all the earth, and it is His will that is sought rather than the will of man.
e. PRAYER ACKNOWLEDGES GOD'S PROVISION
Give us day by day our daily bread.
Such a statement acknowledges that God is the provider of our basic, immediate, needs. Note that the request is not made for the granting of needs past the single day. The person who is sustained by God's daily provision lives today in peace and with faith and confidence in tomorrow. Though all Christians are called upon to work (2 Thess. 3:10) and not depend upon others for our daily needs, God is still the ultimate provider whether needs are met through the sweat of one's brow or through the grace of another.
f. PRAYER ACKNOWLEDGES GOD'S FORGIVENESS
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. ...
Just as we acknowledge who God is, express our desire for Him and for the provision of our needs, our need for forgiveness is also recognized. Without forgiveness there is no remission of sin, and one is subject to the condemnation that sin brings (Rom. 6:23). A relationship with God is only possible when one has turned to God and received forgiveness. Unfortunately, as imperfect people who are immersed in a more imperfect world, sin is always a part of each person's life. This statement acknowledges the sin problem and its persistence. Each time we approach God we come with a litany of events where we have fallen short of God's measure of perfection. Without God's grace we are doomed. Therefore, we have the opportunity to confess our sins before a graceful and loving God who is faithful to forgive.
Just as we have received forgiveness from God, we are to practice the forgiveness of others, and just as we are to approach God in a repentance from all sin and receiving His grace, that same grace is to be extended to others. Each time we approach God, we should do so with a willingness and commitment to forgive others in the same love and grace by which our own forgiveness was received. Christians who refuse to forgive others carry that unforgiveness as a sin-baggage that only festers into anger and bitterness, driving a wedge between the one who is embittered and the object of that anger. God desires no such separation from those who love Him, and desires that people extend the same grace and love to one another. Probably one of the most frequent sermons (or homilies) brought to a congregation prior to the Eucharist (Lord's Supper) will at some point address the need to come before God AFTER forgiving those of whom we have held attitudes of unforgiveness (1 Cor. 11:27).
We need help from God in this area of forgiveness. We do not have the power to obtain God's forgiveness for ourselves, and we often find it difficult to forgive others. This statement in the prayer acknowledges both needs and seeks God for solution.
g. PRAYER SUBMITS TO GOD'S GUIDANCE
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
If we follow God's lead, He will not lead us into sin (James 1:13). Consequently, this is not a request of God that He will not lead us to sin. Another literal, and correct, way of understanding this phrase is a simple request that God will lead us away from temptation. For most people, this is probably a great need. Temptation is that force that entices one to sin. The request here is that God would help us to avoid participation in sinful acts. However, immersed in a sinful world, even the most devout believer will find it literally impossible to avoid all sin. We need deliverance from the power that sin has to ravage and destroy. We are defenseless against the wiles of Satan unless the Holy Spirit is empowered in our lives. When confronted by the Holy Spirit, Satan is entirely impotent. It is though His power that we are delivered from Evil. This prayer recognizes this fact and leans on it in a dependency upon God for such deliverance.
Though Luke's presentation of the model prayer is less detailed than that presented by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, this model contains the features of the prayer that one can employ. We see praise and adoration, supplication (asking needs), addressing the need for forgiveness, and the desire to live a life that is godly. The application of such a prayer does not necessitate its vain repetition, but rather, a prayer that is raised to God may contain each of the elements found in this model.
2. GOD'S RESPONSE TO PRAYER
a. GOD ALWAYS ANSWERS
And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; 6For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? 7And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. 8I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.
Will God respond to our prayers?
Jesus answers with a parable that is contained only in Luke's gospel. Jesus' parables were stories that contained elements of the local culture, using well-understood principles to explain spiritual truth. Our culture is quite variant from that of the ancient near east, and some of the import of this parable might be lost without some explanation. Just as people do today, they often traveled from one area of the country to another for a variety of reasons. However, there were few places for one to eat or to bed down at night. Consequently, it was normal to depend upon the hospitality of strangers. If one were to need shelter and food, it was customary to simply ask for it from those along the way, and to be refused was considered an insult. Because of the nature of the inability to provide such needs any other way, their culture depended upon this tradition. The need to fulfill this cultural requirement was so great that if one did not have the resources to meet the need of the traveler, it was expected that the resources would be found by the host in the house of another. The illustration that Jesus gives is that of a traveler who comes upon the home of a stranger while on his journey. He arrives in the middle of the night at the home of one who does not have the bread to serve him. The host will then go to the home of a friend to seek bread, a friend who, with his family, is asleep. To answer the door is difficult and inconvenient. The family is probably all huddled together on the same mat. To answer the door would result in the waking of his family. However, the man will answer the door, not because the one at the door is a friend, but because it is the right thing to do.
When one came to the door of a friend in the middle of the night, he knew that he will not be refused. Likewise when one approaches the door of God in prayer, God always answers. He is faithful and reliable, and even as a man will answer the call of a friend, the God who loves those who come to Him will never turn away those who come to him.
b. GOD ALWAYS PROVIDES
And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. 10For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 11If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? 12Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? 13If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
Jesus explains the parable with a simple, rational, argument. The door of God's heart is always open to those who love Him. God will listen to the prayers of the faithful, and will always be responsive. We must also understand that God will never do anything that is contrary to His own nature, so His response to prayers will always be similarly characteristic with His nature. Therefore, if we pray with a desire for something that is contrary to His will, His answer will not be supportive. However, He still will answer. God loves those who love Him and cares for them much like a father cares for a child, but with an even deeper and more enduring love. Just as a father would never give a beloved child something that would produce harm or injury, God's response to His children will always be that which is edifying and provisional. Furthermore, God's wisdom so far exceeds that of men that He knows how to give what is best needed by those who ask. God's answer to prayer may not always be what we expect or want, but we can know that it is always the response that is best for us.
Prayer is one of the most important activities of the Christian life. Many would probably argue that prayer is the most important activity a Christian can engage in. God desires the prayers of His children, and will always be responsive to them. The prayers can be spontaneous, personal, and communicate just as one would communicate face-to-face with the God who loves them. Prayer is not, as the religious establishment holds, a liturgy of vain repetition. Such prayers are no more useful than pagan chants and incantations. Prayer comes from a heart that loves God, is open to His will, and seeks to communicate with Him at an intimate level.
3. A MODEL FOR PRAYER, A.C.T.S.
If we remember the word, ACTS, we can remember how to apply it as an acronym to help us pray as each letter represents one of the elements of prayer.
A. Adoration. As we sincerely recognize our awesome Father in heaven, it is easy to spontaneously express words of adoration and praise.
C. Confession. God calls upon us to confess our sins before Him, seeking His forgiveness as we also forgive others.
T. Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for, and giving thanks to God for what He has done in our lives is appropriate.
S. Supplication. Jesus' model prayer reminds us that God desires us to ask for that which we need and desire. Supplication is the act of taking our needs to God in prayer.
4. PRAYER GROWS OUT OF A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.
Finally, as we pray, we should always remember that God always responds to prayer as He responds to us in all things: in the center of His will, not ours. Jesus said, "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13). Asking "in Jesus name" refers to asking within the context of all of who Jesus is. When we ask in "Jesus name" we are bringing our own will into agreement with God's will. In the same sermon Jesus also said, "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you" (John 15:7) This statement also communicates how important it is that we pray in God's will, and to do so necessitates a close and abiding relationship with the LORD. If our prayer life seems to lack power and direction we might look first to how deeply we have chosen to abide in Christ. We might also look at how deeply His word abides in us. This deep abiding is essential for us to experience the power and joy of the Christian experience, and so it is essential for us to also experience that power in prayer.
God is always waiting upon the prayers of the faithful. Let each of us, as we consider our relationship with God, seek to find new and spontaneous ways to keep God "in the loop," as we go through each day in an attitude of prayer, ready to speak to Him and listen to Him as we go through the bustle of the day. It may also be useful to make a point to find some quiet times when prayer can be expressed away from the distractions of the day's activities. Jesus describes a model of prayer that provides some of the elements of what we might communicate as the prayer begins. However, God looks for the desires of your heart, and even through this model, those desires can be lifted in prayer.
Let us not fall short in our expression of prayer, a marvelous gift of God.