A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: The Christian way of prayer (continued).
The second problem concerns the fact that the Bible says temptation and trial are good for us: ‘Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials’ or ‘various temptations’ (Jas.1:2). If then they are beneficial, why should we pray not to be led into them? The probable answer is that the prayer is more that we may overcome temptation, than that we may avoid it. Perhaps we could paraphrase the whole request as ‘Do not allow us so to be led into temptation that it overwhelms us, but rescue us from the evil one’. So behind these words that Jesus gave us to pray are the implications that the devil is too strong for us, that we are too weak to stand up to him, but that our heavenly Father will deliver us if we call upon him.
Thus the three petitions that Jesus puts upon our lips are beautifully comprehensive. They cover, in principle, all our human need – material (daily bread), spiritual (forgiveness of sins) and moral (deliverance from evil). What we are doing whenever we pray this prayer is to express our dependence upon God in every area of our human life. Moreover, a trinitarian Christian is bound to see in these three petitions a veiled allusion to the Trinity, since it is through the Father’s creation and providence that we receive our daily bread, through the Son’s atoning death that we may be forgiven and through the Spirit’s indwelling power that we are rescued from the evil one. No wonder some ancient manuscripts (though not the best) end with the doxology, attributing ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory’ to this triune God to whom it alone belongs.
Jesus seems then to have given the Lord’s prayer as a model of *real* prayer, *Christian* prayer, in distinction to the prayers of the Pharisees and heathen. To be sure, one could recite the Lord’s Prayer either hypocritically or mechanically or both. But if we mean what we say, then the Lord’s Prayer is the divine alternative to both forms of false prayer. I do not myself think it fanciful to see this in both halves of the prayer.
The error of the hypocrite is selfishness. Even in his prayers he is obsessed with his own self-image and how he looks in the eyes of the beholder. But in the Lord’s Prayer Christians are obsessed with God – with his name, his kingdom and his will, not with theirs. True Christian prayer is always a preoccupation with God and his glory. It is therefore the exact opposite of the exhibitionism of hypocrites who use prayer as a vehicle for their own glory.
The error of the heathen is mindlessness. He just goes babbling on, giving voice to his meaningless liturgy. He does not think about what he is saying, for his concern is with volume, not content. But God is not impressed with verbiage. Over against this folly Jesus invites us to make all our needs known to our heavenly Father with humble thoughtfulness, and so express our daily dependence on him.
Thus Christian prayer is seen in contrast to its non-Christian alternatives. it is *God-centred* (concerned for God’s glory) in contrast to the self-centredness of the Pharisees (preoccupied with their own glory). And it is *intelligent* (expressive of thoughtful dependence) in contrast to the mechanical incantations of the heathen. Therefore when we come to God in prayer, we do not come hypocritically like play actors seeking the applause of men, nor mechanically like pagan babblers, whose mind is not in their mutterings, but thoughtfully, humbly and trustfully like little children to their father.
It will be seen that the fundamental difference between various kinds of prayer is in the fundamentally different images of God which lie behind them. The tragic mistake of Pharisees and pagans, of hypocrites and heathen, is to be found in their false image of God. Indeed, neither is really thinking of God at all, for the hypocrite thinks only of himself while the heathen thinks of other things. What sort of God is it who might be interested in such selfish and mindless prayers? Is God a commodity that we can use him to boost our own status, or a computer that we can feed into him words mechanically?
From these unworthy notions we turn back with relief to the teaching of Jesus that God is our Father in the heavens. We need to remember that he loves his children with most tender affection, that he sees his children even in the secret place, that he knows his children and all their needs before they ask him, and that he acts on behalf of his children by his heavenly and kingly power. If we thus allow Scripture to fashion our image of God, if we recall his character and practise his presence, we shall never pray with hypocrisy but always with integrity, never mechanically but always thoughtfully, like the children of God we are.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:19-34. A Christian’s ambition: not material security but God’s rule.
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.