A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: The Christian way of prayer.
If the praying of Pharisees was hypocritical and that of the pagans mechanical, then the praying of Christians must be real – sincere as opposed to hypocritical, thoughtful as opposed to mechanical. Jesus intends our minds and hearts to be involved in what we are saying. Then prayer is seen in its true light – not as a meaningless repetition of words, nor as a means to our own glorification, but as a true communion with our heavenly Father.
The so-called ‘Lord’s Prayer’ was given by Jesus as a model of what genuine Christian prayer is like. According to Matthew he gave it as a pattern to copy (*Pray then like this*), according to Luke as a form to use (11:2, ‘When you pray, say…’). We are not obliged to choose, however, for we can both use the prayer as it stands and also model our own praying upon it.
The essential difference between pharisaic, pagan and Christian praying lies in the kind of God we pray to. Other Gods may like mechanical incantations; but not the living and true God revealed by Jesus Christ. Jesus told us to address him as (literally) ‘our Father in the heavens’. This implies first that he is personal, as much ‘he’ as I am ‘I’. He may indeed be, in C.S.Lewis’s well-known phrase, ‘beyond personality’; he is certainly not less. One of the reasons for rejecting the attempts of modern radical theologians to reconstruct the doctrine of God is that they depersonalise him. The concept of God as ‘the ground of our (human) being’ is simply not compatible with the notion of his divine fatherhood. God is just as personal as we are, in fact more so. Secondly, he is loving. He is not an ogre who terrifies us with hideous cruelty, nor the kind of father we sometimes read or hear about – autocrat, playboy, drunkard – but he himself fulfils the ideal of fatherhood in his loving care for his children. Thirdly, he is powerful. He is not only good but great. The words ‘in the heavens’ denote not the place of his abode so much as the authority and power at his command as the creator and ruler of all things. Thus he combines fatherly love with heavenly power, and what his love directs his power is able to perform.
In telling us to address God as ‘our Father in heaven’, the concern of Jesus is not with protocol (teaching us the correct etiquette in approaching the Deity) but with truth (that we may come to him in the right frame of mind). It is always wise, before we pray, to spend time deliberately recalling who he is. Only then shall we come to our loving Father in heaven with appropriate humility, devotion and confidence.
Further when we have taken time and trouble to orientate ourselves toward God and recollect what manner of God he is, our personal, loving, powerful Father, then the content of our prayers will be radically affected in two ways. First, God’s concerns will be given priority … (‘your name, your kingdom …, your will …’). Secondly, our own needs, though demoted to second place, will yet be comprehensively committed to him (‘Give us …, forgive us …, deliver us …’). Everybody knows that the Lord’s prayer is in these two parts, concerned first with the glory of God and then with the needs of man, but I think Calvin was the first commentator to suggest a parallel with the ten commandments. For they also are divided in two and express the same priority: the first table outlines our duty to God and the second our duty to our neighbour.
Tomorrow: A Christian’s Prayer: The Christian way of prayer (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.