Prayer: example and encouragement
This article is based on a message first given by David Couchman at Winsor Mission, Southampton on Sunday 27th February 2005. It may be reproduced in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.
At one level, we find it easy to pray: when we are in trouble, it is a natural thing to do. But at another level, we find prayer quite difficult, don't we?
We are not alone in this! It seems clear that Jesus's followers also found that prayer did not come naturally, and they wanted some help.
In those days, Jewish people used a lot of standard prayers where they repeated the same words every day - just as people in some church traditions still do today.
John the Baptist had obviously taught his followers some standard prayers. Then when Jesus' followers see him praying, they ask 'Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.' I think they expected Jesus to give them a standard prayer.
But instead, Jesus gives them an example of what to pray for, and he gives them an encouragement to pray. Let's look briefly at both of these:
Jesus' example - verses 2-4
He gives them an example of what to pray for.
Now, we have all heard the Lord's Prayer many many times before. There are a couple of things we can do with it that are not helpful:
One is just to repeat the words over and over, so that they become mindless and meaningless. They become something you can say on auto-pilot, while you are thinking about something else. Jesus did not intend us to use this prayer like that.
The other is to ignore it completely. When we come to God in prayer, we just pray about whatever comes into our heads - whatever concerns us most at the moment. There is nothing wrong with this, but Jesus shows us a different way.
What Jesus is doing here is giving us a pattern for our prayers. He is telling us what it is important for us to pray about.
The very first word of the prayer is 'Father...' If we are followers of Christ, God is our heavenly Father. He cares about us, and he loves us. Jesus is going to say more about this later. But we just need to notice right now that when we come to God in prayer, it depends on us having a relationship to him through Christ.
Calling God 'Father' does not mean that we come to him in a casual way, as a sort of 'grand-dad in the sky.' We come to God with respect and awe because he is great and powerful and wise and good.
You will notice that there are two groups of prayers here: the first two things are about God - his name being hallowed, his kingdom coming. The last three things are about us and our needs.
Praying for God's name to be hallowed, and for his kingdom to come, comes first - before we pray for our own needs.
This challenges us: when we pray, what are our priorities?
There is an ancient Jewish prayer, called the Kaddish. It was used at the end of services in the synagogue. It goes like this:
Exalted and hallowed be his great name
in the world which he created according to his will.
May he let his kingdom rule
in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime
of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon.
You can see that Jesus' prayer is very much like this traditional Jewish prayer.
We are so familiar with these words that we can just take it for granted we know what they mean. But do we really know? What does it mean to ask God for his name to be hallowed?
In the Bible, God's name is not just a name. It represents who God is. So the prayer is: 'May you be hallowed.'
The basic meaning of the word hallowed is 'to set apart.' 'May you be set apart.' But God already is set apart from everything that pollutes us. So what exactly is the prayer for? It is asking that people will see and respect God's uniqueness and purity - that people will see that God is special and God is separate. And it is a prayer that God himself will do this. So if we put it into modern words, it would be something like: 'Make people respect you.'
The second prayer is 'May your kingdom come.' Again, we are so familiar with the words that we just take it for granted we know what it means. But do we? God already rules the world, so what does it mean to ask for his kingdom to come?
It is praying for that day when God's kingdom will come in visible power and glory - when everyone will see him reigning on the earth, as he already does in heaven.
But although this is the main point of the prayer, it also includes praying for those things here and now that advance God's kingdom - the work of those who tell people about Christ and seek to bring people to faith in Christ, for our friends who are not yet followers of Christ to come to faith in him...
Do we pray for people to respect God, and for his kingdom to come?
Then there are three prayers for our own needs:
The first, 'give us each day our daily bread,' is simply a prayer that God will meet our practical needs - for food and clothes. It is talking about needs, not wants. The key idea is that it is OK to ask God for the things we need.
George Muller, who lived about a hundred years ago, was famous for running a very large children's home, and he depended on God to provide all his needs, and the children's needs
One time, there was no food for breakfast. A small girl whose father was a friend of Muller was visiting the home. Muller took her hand and said, 'Come and see what our Father will do.' In the dining room, tables were set with empty plates and empty mugs. There was no food in the kitchen, and there was no money in the home's account.
Muller prayed, 'Dear Father, we thank you for what you are going to give us to eat.' There was a knock at the door. When they opened it, there stood the local baker.
'Mr. Muller,' he said, 'I couldn't sleep last night. Somehow I felt you had no bread for breakfast, so I got up at 2 o'clock and baked fresh bread. Here it is.'
Moments later, there was another knock at the door. It was the milkman. His cart had broken down in front of the orphanage. He said he would like to give the children the milk so he could empty the cart and repair it.
Our Father meets our needs.
Then 'Forgive us our sins.'
You sometimes hear people say that followers of Christ can to grow to such a point spiritually that we will not commit sins. But Jesus clearly says that we are going to have to carry on asking God to forgive us, because we will carry on doing things that need forgiving.
This is the only one of the prayer points that has anything added to it: 'for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.'
It is so easy to say, and so difficult to do.
I think it was C S Lewis who once said
Everyone thinks forgiveness is a wonderful idea... until they have something to forgive.
What is Jesus getting at here? Well, look at this story in Matthew chapter 18 verses 1-25:
Then Peter came to him and asked, 'Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?'
'No!' Jesus replied, 'seventy times seven!'
'For this reason, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn't pay, so the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. But the man fell down before the king and begged him, 'Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.' Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.'
'But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. 'Be patient and I will pay it,' he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full.'
'When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him what had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?' Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny.'
'That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.'
When someone has done me wrong and I am angry with them, I need to see how much I have offended God - like the first debtor in the story who owes a huge amount
I need to see how small the other person's offence against me is by comparison - like the second debtor, who only owes some small amount.
And I need to see how freely God has forgiven me, because of Christ
Then what happens when someone else has sinned against me - someone owes me? Will I forgive them, or not?
If I will not forgive them, this is a sign that I have not seen how much I need to be forgiven.
We need to become forgiving people.
Then finally, 'lead us not into temptation . 'This is a prayer for spiritual protection.
Although we ask God to forgive us when we do fall, we also ask him to help us not to fall in the first place. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 13)
One small but important thing to notice: The Lord's Prayer says ' Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation.' Jesus intended this prayer to be used by groups of Christians praying together, not just by individuals. It has a focus on us being together as a community of his people. We often overlook this.
So Jesus gives us an example of what to pray for: pray that God will make people honour him, and that his kingdom will come; pray that he will supply our needs, forgive our sins, and keep us out of trouble spiritually.
Jesus' encouragement - verses 5-13
(a) The friend at midnight, verses 5-8
On one of my trips to India, I was invited to preach in one of the largest churches in Bangalore. I was told that the services were fairly informal, so I wore an open-necked shirt and casual trousers. When I arrived, I found half a dozen bishops and other dignitaries, all dressed in their full regalia of pomp and circumstance. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it! I did not even have a tie in my pocket! So I preached as I was, with this row of bishops sitting behind me on the platform.
What is the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you? The sort of thing that left you wishing you could just die, or be instantly transported to Mongolia? The man in this story is in this kind of embarrassing fix.
In their culture, taking good care of guests was a strong requirement (as it still is in many eastern cultures today). So when the visitor turns up late and unexpectedly, the host is honour-bound to put a meal in front of him.
But he does not have any food. They have already eaten that day's supply. Each family baked bread each day for its own needs.They did not have shops that were open 24/7.
So in his embarrassment and shame, he goes to his neighbour and friend, and asks him to lend him some bread.
In a small middle-eastern village everyone knew each other. Many of the people were related. So if the host was shamed, it was an embarrassment for the whole village. So once again, the man's relationship to his neighbour is central in this story. He is not going to a stranger - to someone who does not know him. He is going to a friend.
In those days, most houses were small - people lived in a single room, and the whole family slept on the same mat.
So the man comes knocking in the middle of the night, and the reply is, 'don't be a nuisance. We're all locked up and the kids are in bed.' (verse 7)
Though he won't get up and give him the bread because he's his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (verse 8)
Jesus is telling this story is to teach us how we should come to God when we pray. Jesus is not saying that God is like this grumpy neighbour. He is saying that we should be like the man who needs the bread. He asks boldly, in the middle of the night, and he does not care whether it's convenient or not.
We might think that God is so big that he is not interested in us, or that he is so busy running the world that we should not bother him with our little problems. But Jesus says God is not like that.God is our father. Jesus encourages us to pray boldly. God loves to be asked. That is the point of this story.
(b) Ask and it will be given, verses 9-10
Jesus gives us a general rule here. He is not saying three different things, when he says 'ask, seek, knock.' He is saying the same thing three ways:
- Ask and you will receive - for everyone who asks receives
- Seek and you will find - for everyone who seeks finds
- Knock, and the door will be opened to you. To him who knocks, the door will be opened.
You see, we can be over-spiritual about prayer. Have you ever heard someone say 'Don't come to God with a shopping list when you pray. Well, why not? God loves to be asked.
What about when we pray and nothing happens? Jesus seems to be saying here that God will always answer our prayers. He'll always give us what we ask for.
We need to put these words in the context of what comes next:
(c) How much more... verses 11-13
We pray to God because we have a relationship with him. That is why back in verse 2, Jesus says we come to God our Father, and in verse 5, he talks about the man who calls on his friend for help. And here, he says, 'which of you fathers...'
In these verses, Jesus gives a graphic picture of how we can expect God to give us the good things we need. He says
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion?
In other words, even human fathers give their children good things rather than harmful things. God will do the same for us.
My children might come to me and ask for something that they think would be good, but I know would not be good. Would I give it to them? Of course not.
He says 'if you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts... ' Jesus is not trying to make a point here. He just mentions it in passing, and he says that we are evil. He did not believe that people are basically good, and we have just been messed up by our parents or the education system or society.
'How much more...' It is an argument from something less to something greater. If a grumpy neighbour will give his friend what he needs because of his boldness... if you evil earthly fathers will give your children what is good for them... how much more will your Father in heaven...'
We expect him to say 'give good things...' In fact, in Matthew's version of the prayer, that is what Jesus says. But here in Luke, he says '...give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.' Surely, the point is that the Holy Spirit is the best gift God has for us, and he is what we need most.
If we are followers of Jesus Christ, God is our heavenly father - he cares for us.
Jesus gives us an example, or pattern of what to pray for: for God to be honoured, and for his kingdom to come, as well as for our own needs - to be fed, to be forgiven, to be protected.
Jesus gives us an encouragement to come to God boldly and confidently, because God loves to be asked, and he intends to answer our prayers, and give us the good things we need.
What about you? Will you give time to pray this week? Even just a few minutes each day can make a huge difference to your life.
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