The Teachings of Jesus

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 9


Prayer is the very heart of religion. All that we have been studying of Jesus' conception of religion appears in his teaching about prayer. Here is the spirit of aspiration, of humility and dependence, of utter devotion and simple trust; and finally there is in prayer the true and necessary expression of that life of sonship which Jesus set forth as the one true life. Upon no subject did Jesus speak more fully and definitely than upon prayer, and to his words is added the witness of his own life in which prayer played so large a part.

Jesus Summoning Men To Pray

Encouraging Men to Pray.—Though Jesus spoke often of prayer, here, as always, his aim was practical; his interest was not in the theory of prayer. Prayer was the very breath of his own life; he knew the peace, the joy, the strength, that came with it. He saw men weak where they might be strong, anxious and full of cares where they might have peace. They did not pray. Some of them went through forms of prayer, but they did not know this life of trustful fellowship with God. And so that became his first task, to encourage men to pray. "Ask, and it shall be given you," he calls to men; "seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matthew 7. 7, 8). This was at the opening of his ministry; he brought the same encouragement to his disciples in the last days. They were in the midst of peril, facing an uncertain future and unknown tasks. If they could only have the strength of his own confidence in God nothing would be impossible. Have faith in God, he cries to them; there's not a mountain in your way that will not yield, if you only ask of God and trust in God. Even faith like a tiny grain of mustard seed will do that (Mark 11. 22-24).

Prayer and Trust.—That is the first need, not forms of prayer, not a doctrine of prayer, but simply that men shall pray. But such praying as Jesus means can come only on one condition: there must be trust in God. It is that trust, therefore, that Jesus tries to awaken. Men did not pray, because God seemed far away, and they thought he did not care. First of all he taught them to say, "Father." It was not the common Jewish use to speak thus to God. God was King and Lord and Euler rather than Father. Not once is that name used in address to God in the Psalms. But he who uses that name from his heart has already offered his prayer. That name holds the confidence that God is near and that he knows us each one and that he loves us. He who can say "Father" with his heart has already won strength and peace. "When we pray say, Father" (Luke 11. 2). "Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? . . . Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things" (Matthew 6. 31, 32). And then Jesus appeals, as so often, to their own experience. When your children ask for bread, do you give them a stone? Do you give them a serpent, when they ask for a fish? And yet you are but men, evil as compared with God. Shall not then your Father, who is all goodness and perfect love, give good things to those that ask them? (Matthew 7. 9-11).

The Nature Of Prayer

Fatherhood and Prayer.—This vision of God is not only our ground for prayer, but it is our guide in learning how to pray. It tells us first of all what prayer is. Prayer is talking with God; it is fellowship coming to speech. Not all prayer is that; there is prayer which is only a device for getting things from God. But that is what Christian prayer is, and it cannot be other than that, since fellowship is the law of the Christian life. This follows necessarily from Jesus' thought of Father and sonship; the Christian life is simply living with the Father the life of a son. Such a life must come to expression, and all such expression is prayer. Prayer, then, is something far broader than mere asking for things. We are likely to miss the right way if we begin, as is so often done, with the question, What may we ask for and how?

Pagan Prayer or Christian Trust?—We have already seen that into this fellowship with God, according to Jesus, there must enter desire, devotion, and trust; and all these belong to Christian prayer. It is in the lack of these that pagan prayer shows itself, and those remnants of paganism that we find sometimes in ourselves. It is paganism, for example, to think that God must first be cajoled or persuaded or wearied with our persistence before he will answer. Here belong the empty repetitions of which Jesus speaks, where men think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Over against this stands Christian trust. It begins with the assurance that God knows and that God cares; indeed, that he is eager to give us his good gifts. And it ends all prayer by gladly leaving every care and desire with the Father.

Devotion and Prayer.—Just as fundamental in Christian prayer is the spirit of devotion, or of utter surrender to God. If we put this first in life, as Jesus did, then it must underlie and condition all our praying. Here comes again the distinction between Christian prayer and pagan prayer. Pagan prayer seeks to bring God to its will; Christian prayer seeks to come to God's will. In Christian prayer we may ask for many things; but the end of that prayer will always be, "Thy will be done." But that is not all. "Thy will be done" does not simply come at the end to qualify; it stands at the beginning as the expression of our supreme desire. That is our first petition: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." We do not say it grudgingly, as those who yield at last after having beaten out our strength, like some captive bird, against the iron bars of hard necessity; we say it with joy and confidence that spring from Christian trust. The will of God is not the hard demand, it is the great gift. It is the highest good that can come to us. Back of it are the wisdom and infinite love of God. Eagerly and longingly we bring our own desires; but when we have waited in the presence of God's love we end by saying, "Thy will be done." As we grow in Christ's spirit, that comes more and more to the front, until at last the prayer that Christ taught becomes the supreme desire for our own life and for the world: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." In that prayer, we come to see, lie the purpose of God's love and the hope of the world.

Prayer and Desire.—The thought of devotion has already brought us to the thought of desire. Prayer springs from man's need; it is the want of man that drives him to the feet of God. The broadest meaning of prayer is fellowship with the Divine, but within that fellowship there is always desire. It may be material and even selfish: the prayer for harvests, for health, for vengeance upon one's foes; or it may be the noble prayer of a Paul, ready to be accursed himself if only Israel might be saved. Christian prayer is not the giving up of desire, but only its transformation. We may ask for too many things, we never ask for too much. It is rather more desire that we need, not less, higher aspirations for ourselves and larger prayers for others. Jesus' words of Matthew 7. 7, 8 are like another beatitude, a blessing on those that ask; they belong indeed beside that fourth beatitude: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."

The Praying of Jesus.—There is no study of prayer that is more suggestive than the study of the praying of Jesus. Prayer was no incident for him, but a deep and constant need. The great epochs or crises of his life are marked by special prayer. He prays at his baptism and ere he begins his work (Luke 3. 81; 5. 16). He prays before choosing the twelve, before the announcement of his Messiahship, and before he turns toward the last journey the goal of which was the cross (Luke 6. 12; 9. 18; 9. 28). His last night on earth was a night spent in prayer, while his companions slept in exhaustion (Mark 14. 32). But quite aside from such special occasions, prayer seems to have been the constant atmosphere of his life. It is easy for him at any time to lift his heart to God (Matthew 11. 25).

Paul Sabatier on Prayer.—Sabatier well expresses this idea of prayer in his life of Saint Francis of Assisi. "To pray is to talk with God, to lift ourselves up to him, to converse with him that he may come down to us. It is an act of meditation, of reflection, which presupposes the effort of all that is most personal in us. Looked at in this sense, prayer is the mother of all liberty and freedom.

"With Saint Francis, as with Jesus, prayer has this character of effort which makes of it the greatest moral act. . . . For him, as for his Master, the end of prayer is communion with the heavenly Father, the accord of the divine with the human; or, rattier, it is man who puts forth his strength to do the work of God, not saying to him a mere passive, resigned, powerless, 'Thy will be done/ but courageously raising his head: 'Behold me, Lord, I delight to do thy will."

"But it is not without difficulty that the soul unites itself to God, or, if one prefers, that it finds itself. A prayer ends at last in divine communion only when it began by a struggle. The patriarch of Israel had already divined this: The God who passes by tells his name only to those who stop him and do him violence to learn it. He learns only after long hours of conflict."

What To Pray For, And How

The Prayer of Faith.—And now we are ready for the question: What may we ask for, and what may we expect? The words of Jesus seem absolute and without condition: "Ask, and ye shall receive. All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Matthew 7. 7; Mark 11. 24). Let us recall first the method of Jesus' teaching, remembering that he was not a theologian with exact definitions, but a preacher trying to stir men to life. We shall see the need, then, of taking Jesus' teachings as a whole. We find first that Jesus demands faith. Faith, we have seen, means more with Jesus than believing, or taking things as true; it is a personal trust and surrender. Its object is always God. But faith in God is very different from faith in our prayers. Faith in one's prayers is pagan; it looks upon prayer as a means of compelling God. Faith in God is Christian. But such faith does not insist upon its petition. If we really trust God we shall want his will rather than our wish (see Luke 22. 42; 2 Corinthians 12. 7-10).

In Jesus' Name.—The spirit of forgiveness is another condition in praying, especially in obtaining the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 6. 12-15; Mark 11. 25). That follows of necessity. Forgiveness means being received into fellowship by God; but an unforgiving spirit makes such a fellowship impossible. And this brings us to the main point. It is Christian prayer we are talking about, the prayer of a child of God; and it is to his disciples that Jesus holds forth these promises. Such prayer must be in the spirit of Christ. It is this truth that is brought out in the fourth Gospel where the promise is made to those who ask in Christ's name (John 14. 13, 14; 15. 16; 16. 23, 24, 26). Now, "in Jesus' name" is not a magical phrase by which we compel an answer; it means asking in the spirit of Christ, which is the spirit of devotion to God's will (Luke 22. 42). Thus praying, there is no interest that we may not bring to God: business, health, family, future, all. A father will be interested in everything that belongs to his child.

Does Jesus Teach Importunity?

Two Parables.—There are two parables of Jesus which have usually been interpreted in a way that does not agree with what has been said so far. The first is the parable of the unwilling friend (Luke 11. 5-13). Roused one night at midnight, a man heard a persistent calling at his door. It was a friend of his who declared that he must have some bread for unexpected guests. That was going a little too far, even for a friend, and the man at first refused. But the petitioner kept up his noise and what the man within would not do for friendship's sake, he did at last just to get quiet and sleep again. The second parable is that of the unjust judge (Luke 18. 1-8). Here was .a man that had neither fear of God nor regard for what men said. What difference, then, did it make to him that a certain poor widow was in distress and wanted her case adjudicated. But his own comfort did concern him, and so he secured justice for her at last simply because her persistence had made life a burden to him. Are we not taught here, it is said, the need of importunity in prayer, the fact that God will grant men their requests if they are but persistent?

Wrong Meanings and Right.—This interpretation, however, will not stand scrutiny, for it involves a comparing of God with the unwilling friend and the unjust judge. Is God's love so straitened that it needs our importunity to secure an answer? Or must our importunity persuade God to do what is right? The real argument of Jesus is quite simple and it points just the other way. You men lack in faith and fail to pray, Jesus would say, because you do not thoroughly believe that God will answer. But look about you. Even men that are not good yield to men's entreaties, like this unjust judge or this man so provoked at having his whole household disturbed at midnight. If such imperfect and even wicked men will grant what others ask, will not your Father, who is all goodness and love, give what his children cry for? Like the reference to earthly fathers and their children, there is here a fine encouragement to trust in God and to pray.

The Lord's Prayer

The Perfect Prayer.—In simple but beautiful form the Lord's Prayer sets forth concretely the idea of Jesus. Brief though it is, this prayer covers the great needs of man. Here all selfishness and anxiety have disappeared, and instead is an atmosphere of reverent trust and perfect peace. Comparing Matthew 6. 9-13 with Luke 11. 2-4, we note considerable difference in the two forms in which the prayer has come down to us. We note also that the Revised Version omits the words "thine is the kingdom," etc. It will be seen, however, that the two accounts agree in the most important portions.

What It Contains.—The opening words recognize both the love and the holiness of God. The word Father speaks of God's love and man's trust; "hallowed be thy name" is not so much a petition as a word of reverence and adoration. And so the prayer begins, as every prayer should, with the confident heart and the bowed soul. The first two petitions mean the same; "thy will be done" is but an explanation of "thy kingdom come." The great surrender to God comes before a single personal request is raised; and yet it is far more than passive surrender, for here is the highest good of him who prays and the great goal for all life. Now follow three detailed petitions, which belong together. These, too, are not mere petitions; they are at the same time a glad confession of dependence and a humble acknowledgment of thanks. The simple words cover by suggestion the whole of life. The daily bread represents all material interests. Jesus draws no line to separate material from spiritual; the whole life belongs to God, and God cares for the whole life. "Forgive us" stands for all spiritual gifts and interests; for forgiveness with Jesus means the whole grace and mercy of God coming into a man's life. Looking back, a man asks for pardon; looking forward, there comes the desire to be freed from sin. And so the man asks for guidance, that he may not be tempted beyond strength, and for deliverance when the temptation comes: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver." In all this prayer there is nothing selfish and nothing particularistic. It is as high as heaven, for it puts God's rule first; it is as broad as human kind, for it says "our," not "mine."

Directions For Study

The Scripture passages: Matthew 6. 5-15; 7. 7-11; Mark 11. 22-25; Luke 11. 5-13; 18. 1-8.

After reading these passages, write down in order all the references to prayer in the life of Jesus that you can recall. Where does Jesus speak of praying for others? Where do we read of his giving thanks?

Study each section of the preceding discussion, having in mind, first, the Scripture passages just read; second, the life of Jesus as giving illustration of these truths.

This lesson is full of practical help. Ask yourself what this study should mean for your own life.

Show how Jesus' conception of God as Father determines each point in this teaching on prayer: the encouragement to pray, the nature of prayer, what to ask for and how.