Forms of Prayer. --The Lord's Prayer; Its Occasion and Import. --Encouragements to Prayer; God Gives no Stone for Bread.
We take up now a subject akin to that of which we have just treated, without implying (what, indeed, is of no importance) a chronological connexion between them.

We have seen that one thing which surprised the Pharisees was that Christ did not lay stress upon outward prayers. He had not, like John the Baptist, prescribed forms of prayer for his disciples. In this respect, as well as others, their religious life was to develope itself from within. From intercourse with Christ, and intuition of his life, they were to learn how to pray. The mind which he imparted was to make prayer indispensable to them, and to teach them how to pray aright.

On a certain occasion, the desire arose in their hearts, from beholding him pray, to be able to pray as he did; and one of them asked, "Lord, teach us how to pray, as John also taught his disciples." [363]

Christ replied that they were not, in their prayers, to use "many words," and to repeat details to God, who knew all their wants before they could be uttered. And then, in a prayer framed in the spirit of this injunction, he gave them a vivid illustration of the nature of Christian prayer, as referring to the one thing needful, and incorporating every thing else with that. As prayer is no isolated thing in Christianity, but springs from the ground of the whole spiritual life, so this prayer, which forms a complete and organic whole, comprehends within itself the entire peculiar essence of Christianity.

"Our Father who art in Heaven." [364] The form of the invocation corresponds to the nature of the Christian stand-point; our Father because Christ has made us his children. We address God thus, not as individuals, but, in the fellowship of Christ, as members of a community which He has placed in this relation to the common Father. Side by side with this consciousness of communion as children goes that of our distance as creatures; the God that dwells in his children is the God above the world (so that Christianity is equally far from Pantheism and Deism). " Our Father -- in heaven" -- that the soul may soar in prayer from earth to heaven, with the living and abiding consciousness that earth and heaven are no more kept asunder. To this; indeed, the substance of the whole prayer tends.

"Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven." While the Christian, dwelling on earth, where sin reigns, prays to the Father in heaven, he longs that earth may be completely reconciled to heaven, and become wholly an organ of its revelations. And this is nothing else but the coming of the kingdom of God centre of all Christian life, and the object of all Christian desire, the three positive prayers first given directly refer. The special prayer, "Thy kingdom come," is guarded against the possibly carnal and worldly interpretation (to which the disciples were at that time inclined) by the one which precedes ("Hallowed be thy name"), and the one which follows ("Thy will be done"). The Holy One is to be acknowledged and worshipped by all, according to His holy nature and His holy name; [365] not by a nakedly abstract knowledge and confession thereof, but by a life allied to Him. This "hallowing" of the name of God implies the "coming of his kingdom," and this last is further developed in the prayer that "his will may be realized on earth, as it is in the communion of perfect spirits." The kingdom will have come when the will of men is made perfectly at one with the will of God, and to accomplish this is the very aim of the atonement. Among all rational intelligences, the one common essence of the kingdom of God is the doing his will, and thus hallowing his name.

"Give us, day by day, our daily bread." The positive prayers for the supply of Divine wants are followed by one (and only one) for the supply of human wants; in regard to which, also, the disciple of Christ must cherish an abiding consciousness of dependence on the Heavenly Father. It is not the tendency of Christianity to stifle or suppress the wants of our earthly nature, but to hallow them by referring them to God; at the same time keeping them in their proper sphere of subordination to the higher interests of the soul.

"And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us." The first negative prayers correspond to the first positive ones. Conscious of a manifold sinfulness, which, so long as it remains, hinders the full developement of the kingdom of God within them, the disciples of Christ pray for forgiveness of past sins, originating in the reaction of the old evil nature. But they cannot pray for this, with conscious need of pardon, without a disposition, at the same time, to forgive the wrongs which others have done to themselves; only thus can their prayer be sincere, only thus can they expect it to be answered. The Christian's constant sense of the need of God's pardoning grace for himself necessarily gives tone to his conduct towards his fellows.

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The prayer for pardon of past sins is followed by one for deliverance in the future. The word "temptation" has a two-fold meaning in Scripture, expressing either outward trials of Christian faith and virtue, or an inward point of contact for outward incitements, caused by the strife of the sinful principle with the life of God in the soul; and the question may be asked, which of the two -- the objective or subjective temptation -- is referred to in the prayer. Certainly Christ could not have intended that his disciples should pray for exemption from external conflicts and sufferings; for these are inseparable from the calling of soldiers of the kingdom in this world, and essential for the confirmation of Christian faith and virtue, and for culture in the Christian life; and He himself told them that such trials would become the salt of their interior life. But, on the other hand, the prayer cannot be confined to purely subjective temptations; for Christ could not have presupposed that God would do any thing so contradictory to His own holiness as to lead men into temptation in this sense. A combination of the two appears to be the true idea of the prayer: "Lead us not into such situations as will form for us, in our weakness, incitements to sin;" thus laying it down as a rule of life for Christians not to put themselves, self-confidently, in such situations, but to avoid them as far as duty will allow. But every thing depends upon deliverance from the internal incitement to sin; and hence, necessarily, the concluding clause of the petition, "Deliver us from inward temptation by the power of the Evil One." Confiding, in the struggle with evil, upon the power of God, we need not fear such outward temptations as are unavoidable.

Thus the prayer accurately defines the relation of the Christian to God. The disciple of Christ, ever called to struggle against evil. which finds a point of contact in his inward nature, cannot fight this battle in his own strength, but always stands in need of the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The prayer holds the fundamental truths of Christian faith before the religious consciousness, in their essential connexion with each other -- God, revealed in Christ, who redeems man, formed after his image, yet estranged from him by sin; who imparts to him that Divine life which is to be led on by him to its consummation through manifold strifes against the Power of Evil.

It appears, therefore, that Christ did not intend by "the Lord's Prayer" to prescribe a standing form of prayer to his disciples, but to set vividly before their minds the peculiar nature of Christian prayer, in opposition to heathen; and, accordingly, he followed it up by urging them to present their wants to their Heavenly Father with the most undoubting confidence (Luke, xi., 5-13). By a comparison drawn from the ordinary relations of life, he teaches that if our prayers should not appear to be immediately answered, we must only persevere the more earnestly (v.5-8); and then impresses the thought that God cannot deny the anxious longings of his children (9, 10).

Here, also, the internal character of Christian prayer is strongly contrasted with the pagan outward conception of the exercise. Even the "seeking," the longing of the soul, that turns with a deep sense of need to God, is prayer already; indeed, there is no Christian prayer without such a feeling. The comparison that follows (v.11-13) glances (like the Lord's Prayer) from the relation of child and parent on earth to that of the children of God to their Father in heaven -- a comparison opposed, in the highest conceivable degrees, to all Pantheistical and Deistical notions of the relations between God and creation. "If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone (in shape resembling the loaf)? or, if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? or, if he ask an egg, will he offer a scorpion? And how should your Heavenly Father, [366] of whose perfect love all human affection is but a darkened image, mock the necessities of his children by withholding from their longing hearts the Holy Ghost, which alone can satisfy the hunger of their spirits?" Here, again, as in the Lord's Prayer, the main objects of Christian prayer are shown to be spiritual; the giving of the Holy Ghost, the one chief good of the Christian, includes all other gifts. [367]


[362] Luke, xi.

[363] We follow Luke, xi. The passage in Matt., vi., 7-16, appears foreign to the original organism of the Sermon on the Mount, in which prayer, fasting, &c., were treated especially in contrast with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. As that longer discourse was made a repertory for Christ's sayings, in which they were arranged according to their affinities, so perhaps it was with this. We may certainly conclude that Christ would not have sketched such a prayer for the disciples without a special occasion for it; for the wish to lay down forms of prayer was, as we have seen, remote from his spirit and object. But we cannot think it possible [with some] that Christ uttered this prayer as appropriate for himself, and that the disciples adopted it for that reason; it had no fitness to his position: he, at least, could not have prayed for the pardon of his sins. The occasion given by Luke was a very appropriate one; the form was drawn out by Christ at the request of the disciples. It was probable, moreover, from the nature of the case, that Christ, who did not wish to prescribe standing forms of prayer, would make use of such an occasion to explain further the nature of prayer itself [as he does in Luke, xi., 5-13]. In the Sermon on the Mount, also (Matt., vii., 7), a passage similar [to Luke, xi., 9] is found; and Matt., vi., 7, perhaps contains the beginning of Christ's reply to his disciples' request on the subject.

[364] In the shorter form of the prayer given in Luke, the words hemon and "ho en tois ouranois are omitted. It is probable that the original form of the prayer is that given by Matthew. Luke is more accurate in giving the chronological and historical connexion of Christ's discourses, but Matthew gives the discourses themselves more in full.

[365] In Hebrew and Hellenistic usage, the name expresses the outward self-revelation of the thing; the image of the thing, as such, or in some defined relation. Where the Occidentalist would use the idea, the Orientalist, in his vividly intuitive language, puts the name. The sense then is, "God is to be hallowed as God the common Father."

[366] The words "pateer ho ex ouranou," Luke, xi., 13, plainly point to the invocation in the Lord's Prayer.

[367] Cf. the indefinite agatha, in Matt., vii., 11, generalized from the domata agatha in the first clause of the verse. The "Holy Ghost" answers definitely to the point of comparison the nourishment of the soul, as bread is to the body.

section 138 the parable of
Top of Page
Top of Page