At the end of the year, spiritual inventory. Take stock of ourselves. Take stock of our church. If there is anything I desire for myself individually, and our church to grow in is prayer. If there is anything I feel less equipped to teach is prayer. I struggle with prayer. I always have. It’s not for time - I have a job that literally gives me time to pray. It’s not for space - this church has a prayer room with prayer books. And yet every year, every day it is a struggle. And as I’ve spoken with many of you, I’m not alone. Some of you are so very busy. Some of you mom’s with small kids are like, prayer? Time alone with God, yeah right. Some of you are teenagers and kids who were never taught to pray. And we’re not alone.
The church is hungry to be taught to pray. Sometimes this is explicitly expressed through surveys of church members; for example, a 2005 Lifeway survey found that “The need for more ongoing, passionate prayer in both personal and church life” was the number 1 issue facing todays church. You can see this also in the books we buy as evangelicals. Here are the books just in my church library. Every few years a book on prayer, and sometimes they are terrible unscriptural books, becomes a sensational bestseller, out selling even the most famous works of fiction. We’re so desperate to learn how to pray we turn to any guru no matter how unscriptural the book is. The prayer of Jabez, The Circle Maker, Jesus Calling are but a few of these unscripted books that promise more out of prayer. We are hungry to learn to pray and there is no shortage of methods and counsel and yet we still are unlearning. The North America church - our church, lacks the spiritual power and zeal, for we know not how to pray. And yet it seems we also are not alone in this, that Christians throughout the ages have needed clear instruction to pray, and not only the Christians throughs he ages, but specifically the followers of Jesus himself. For in Luke 11 we read:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread, 4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
No over the next series we will look closer at the Lord’s prayer itself, but this week I want to focus in only on verse 1, the request of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It was Howard Hendricks who, several years ago in a message at a pastor’s conference, called our attention to the fact that if we were to open our Bibles and read starting with Matthew and were to read through John we would never find an instance where the disciples asked, “Lord teach us how to witness,” or “teach us how to perform miracles,” or “teach us how to teach.” But in this passage, we do find one of the disciples asking, “Lord, teach us to pray . . .”
Learning to pray is the desire of one who sees Christ
Notice the circumstance from which the disciples request arose: Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished. the disciples had just witnessed Jesus undergoing his own prayer session. Now prayer is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Luke - this is already the sixth time in the gospel that Jesus is noted as praying.
Jesus praying at his baptism: Luke 3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus praying at the beginning of his growing ministry: Luke 5:15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
Jesus praying all night before selecting his apostles: Luke 6:12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.
Jesus praying before asking his disciples whom they thought He was: Luke 9:18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
Jesus praying on the mountain in preparation for his exodus: Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
And so it seems that His disciples had often witnessed Jesus withdrawing to pray, especially before our during highly intense periods of ministry and life. They saw Jesus make prayer a priority, often leaving crowds and work to spend time with the father. They saw Jesus make prayer a refuge of solitude, going away to be alone with the father.
Although some of them had seen Jesus’ divinity unveiled in the transfiguration when his glory was revealed, it was his humanity that inspired them to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. They saw him as a man of prayer. And seeing him inspired within them that same desire to pray, to know the Father as he knew the Father.
Now there is a command to pray. The greatest command is to love our Lord our God with all our heart soul and might, devoted to the Lord; and to love the Lord we must call upon the Lord.
The second greatest commandment is like it: to love our neighbour as ourselves. Same said to the people: 1 Sam 12:23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.
And so in our ignorance and failure to pray we actually have the gospel in front of us. A command to commune with God in prayer, yet our inability to do so thus demonstrates ourselves to be lawbreakers unworthy of the grace of God. We are condemned in our prayerlessness, for prayerlessness is Godlessness. Yet into our prayerlessness, Christ appears. He prays in perfect communion with God, for He is God himself, yet he prays as a man in our place and on our behalf and teaches us to pray. And through his life He continued to pray with greater and greater urgency and intensity even unto death on the cross on our behalf to crush sin once and for all and bring us into the presence of God. Through his death, resurrection and ascension to the father, Jesus both bore the curse of our prayerlessness even while opening up a new and immediate access to the Father. And so the person who truly sees Jesus, in all of his mediatorial work, desire to pray and to know the Father as he prayed and knows the Father.
Learning to pray requires the humility of one who knows he knows nothing
One thing that always amazes me about these men asking Jesus to teach them to pray is that they are all mature Jewish men. They were not like us secular Canadians; they should have been well-trained in how to pray. Yet for all their training in prayer they had fallen into three traps that we do still today, and Jesus will address each of these three traps in his teaching on prayer. John MacArthur and William Barclay have helpfully painted a picture of what prayer
Ritualization: The Jews developed prayers for every object and occasion, including light, darkness, fire, rain, the new moon, travel, good news, and bad news. I’m sure their original intent was to bring every aspect of their lives into God’s presence, but they undermined that noble goal by compartmentalizing the prayers. They prayed up to 18 formalized prayers every day.
The wording and forms of prayer were set, and they were then simply read or repeated from memory. Prayers easily became a routine, semiconscious religious exercise, able to be recited without any mental or passionate involvement by the individual. Prayer was heavy on long, flowery descriptions of God and benedictions, but rarely were any personal requests made.
Long-windedness: Other religious leaders esteemed long prayers, believing that a prayer’s sanctity and effectiveness were in direct proportion to its length. Jesus warned of the scribes who, “for appearance’s sake offer long prayers” (Mark 12:40). One of the Jews’ worst faults was adopting the pagan religions’ practice of meaningless repetition, just as the prophets of Baal in their contest with Elijah “called on the name of Baal from morning until noon,” even raving “until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice” (1 Kings 18:26, 29). Hour after hour they repeated the same phrase, trying by the quantity of their words and the intensity with which they were spoken to make their god hear and respond. Jesus’s introduction to his instruction in prayer in the Gospel of Matthew directly rebukes this sort of aimless prayer: Matt. 6:7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Pride: While the other faults are not necessarily wrong in themselves, having simply been carried to extremes and used in meaningless ways, the desire to use prayer as an opportunity to parade one’s spirituality before men is intrinsically evil because it both originates in and is intended to satisfy pride. The motive of sinful self-glory is the ultimate perversion of prayer. It robs prayer of its primary purpose—to glorify God (John 14:13).
In order to learn how to pray, the disciples first needed to know that they knew nothing. They had to unlearn a lot.
When learning to pray, it is important to come like a child. And here also is the gospel, you don’t need to come with perfect words and perfect prayer, come messy, come like a child. Come and learn to pray, come with a heart ready to learn. If you’re bad at prayer, be bad at prayer. If you’re slow to learn, be slow to learn.
Learning to pray requires us to trust and follow the Lord’s instruction
The disciples did not ask and then turn away to distraction while the Lord, answered. To ask is to await the answer with undivided attention. Asking the question does indeed take a certain measure of humility, but to receive the answer takes another level of humility, the humility to dedicate oneself to whatever the instructor teaches.
And the Lord’s prayer indeed calls us to a level of humility. We are quick to set aside the Lord’s prayer to quickly for a couple of reasons:
- First, it is short and easily memorable. Some despise the simplicity of the instruction. Surely prayer must go beyond these few dozen words. As I noted earlier, we, like the rabbis of old want flowery language and extravagant prayers, even though Jesus explicitly warned us of going on and on like the Gentiles. I remember when I first read the Didache, and early church manual outside of the Bible, and there is an instruction in the Didache that each Christian should pray the Lord’s prayer 3 times a day. I thought, really? That’s it? That doesn’t seem like a sophisticated enough prayer life. Prayer should be more personal, more emotional, more lengthy. Now as we unpack the Lord’s Prayer, I hope you will find that while the prayer is short and memorable, it is not lacking in depth.
- And that’s the second thing (and I’d say one of the main points): The Lord’s prayer is not seemingly too filled with emotion and experience. It doesn’t seem to promise an encounter with God. This is very important to us in our feelings and experience driven age. Again as we unpack the Lord’s Prayer, I hope you will find that while the prayer is short and memorable, it is not lacking in depth.
- And third, others despise the depth of the instruction and choose to merely mutter the Lord’s prayer in recitation. This we must be wary of.
We should not despise the simplicity of Christ’s instruction, nor mutter the words in mere recitation, but thank God for the simplicity and the depths His Son has taught us in prayer. For some of us that means that we should come in humility like a child, following Christ’s instruction word by word. I was visiting a family in our church, one of the ones with really little kids, and the father did something I’d never seen. When the infant wanted a piece of desert, the father understood what the infant needed and placing his face right up next to his son’s , he said each word slowly and clearly, pausing after each word, giving the child an opportunity to echo back to him the proper way to ask. The son did not shrink back from his father’s instruction, but responded to the closeness of his father’s face and looked him right in the eye and said each word back to him just as clearly as his father had done before him.
This is what the Lord Jesus is doing for us as he models and teaches us how to pray. And this is what we wish to learn together in this series, to humbly receive from our Lord how we might better honour him, love him, know him. Martin Luther wrote of praying the Lord’s Prayer:
To this day I suckle at the Lord's Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord's Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot, of it! In a word, the Lord's Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use
That quotation is from a short 11-page letter that Martin Luther write to his barber of all people, a man named Peter Beskendorf. Beskendorf had observed that Luther would spend two to three hours daily in prayer, and the good barber, who himself struggled in prayer, was interested in learning Luther’s secret. And so Luther wrote him a letter that we now know as “A Simple Way to Pray”, an 11 page book explaining his practice, and how Luther centred his prayer life upon the Lord’s Prayer. Over the next few months, we’ll be using Luther’s book, as well as some other writings, as a guide as we learn how to pray following the model and the method Jesus has given us.