Wednesday 25 June 2014

Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In this study we are going to consider the words of the prayer which our Lord and Saviour taught his disciples. It is found in both the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, and we will examine the context in which it is placed. It is not random, but is in a section of each Gospel which is concerned with the character of the person who prays. In that of St Matthew Chapter 6 we find it in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. In that of St Luke Chapter 11 we find it just after the account of Mary and Martha’s different response to the presence of Christ as a guest in their home.
To pray this prayer with great attention is to have our heart and mind formed slowly into the heart and mind of Christ. It should not be rushed, as if the mere repetition of the words would have an effect, but each word must be carefully addressed to God, with our whole heart and mind, as if being offered for the first time as a precious gift.

We begin with the words, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven..’. And by these words our thoughts are immediately lifted heavenwards. Abba Isaac says, there is a still more sublime and exalted condition which is brought about by the contemplation of God alone and by fervent love, by which the mind, transporting and flinging itself into love for Him, addresses God most familiarly as its own Father with a piety of its own. And that we ought earnestly to seek after this condition the formula of the Lord's prayer teaches us, saying "Our Father."

God is our Father, and that we are able to address him in such a familiar way is both the substance and goal of the Gospel. We who were once distant from him, and even the subjects of his wrath, have been brought close, and not even brought close, but have been made his own children by adoption so that we may cry out with the incarnate Son and Word of God, ‘Abba, Father’. But if God is our Father, then we also have a home with him, which art in Heaven.

Abba Isaac says,

When then we confess with our own mouths that the God and Lord of the universe is our Father, we profess forthwith that we have been called from our condition as slaves to the adoption of sons, adding next "Which art in heaven," that, by shunning with the utmost horror all lingering in this present life, which we pass upon this earth as a pilgrimage, and what separates us by a great distance from our Father, we may the rather hasten with all eagerness to that country where we confess that our Father dwells, and may not allow anything of this kind, which would make us unworthy of this our profession and the dignity of an adoption of this kind, and so deprive us as a disgrace to our Father's inheritance, and make us incur the wrath of His justice and severity.

If we are members of God’s family, and if we belong in Heaven, as being sons and daughters of God, then this must surely colour our prayers, and our whole life. Every time that we pray, and especially when we use this prayer of our Lord, we are reminded of something which is a spiritual fact, and not simply an aspiration. We are not of this earth. We are pilgrims on a journey to a distant country. And therefore we must live as pilgrims, not being bound too easily by the chains of attachment to the things of this world. If God is our Father then the very words we pray demand that we consider what sort of lives we should live to show that we are of the same family.

At the very beginning, then, of this prayer, our thoughts are lifted heavenwards. There will be a time to consider our own weakness, but we begin by considering our God, the Heavenly Father. One with whom we have a true and vital relationship as children. If God is our Father then all the problems of the world, and of our own souls, are placed into a proper perspective.

St Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. And if our prayers always begin with a sense that we belong in Heaven, then we will not so easily be weighed down by a concern for worldly treasure that rots and rusts and is stolen away.

We pray, Hallowed be thy Name, and in these words we are asking that above all things, and before all things, there might be nothing in our lives at all, or in our conduct, which brings dishonour to God in any way. We are asking that men may see your good works and glorify the Father in heaven, as the Lord says elsewhere. Again, St Gregory says that those who make this petition are asking, By the help of Thy grace, may I become blameless, just, pious, abstaining from every evil deed, speaking the truth, working righteousness, walking with integrity, a bright example of temperance, adorned with incorruption, wisdom and prudence, having my affections on things above, looking above and beyond earthly things, made bright by the principles of the angelic life.

We then pray, Thy Kingdom come, and our hearts and minds continue to be occupied with the things above, asking that the will of God be made manifest in our own lives. We have not yet turned to any thoughts of our own sin, nor have we asked God for any particular matter for ourselves or others, but our prayers begin by being rooted entirely in a sense of our relation with God, and seeking only those things that bring him honour and glory. There are those, especially outside the Church, who think that prayer is simply a matter of asking God for things for ourselves and others. But this prayer which our Lord teaches us as the pattern of our own spiritual conversation with God is far from such a caricature of the spiritual life. Our prayer, thus far, is all about God. And this is surely what Abba Isaac meant when he spoke about there being a type of prayer which leads us upwards and Godwards.

Indeed he says of this clause in the prayer,

The second petition of the pure heart desires that the kingdom of its Father may come at once; namely, either in that sense whereby Christ reigns day by day in the saints (which comes to pass when the devil's rule is cast out of our hearts by the destruction of foul sins, and God begins to hold sway over us by the sweet odour of virtues, and, fornication being overcome, charity reigns in our hearts together with tranquillity, when rage is conquered; and humility, when pride is trampled under foot) or else that which is promised in due time to all who are perfect, and to all the sons of God, when it will be said to them by Christ: "Come ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world".

And the next clause is an explanation of what this kingdom means, when it says, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Abba Isaac says,

The third petition is that of sons: "Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth." There can now be no grander prayer than to wish that earthly things may be made equal with things heavenly: for what else is it to say "Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth," than to ask that men may be like angels and that as God's will is ever fulfilled by them in heaven, so also all those who are on earth may do not their own but His will? This too no one could say from the heart but only one who believed that God disposes for our good all things which are seen, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and that He is more careful and provident for our good and salvation than we ourselves are for ourselves.

It is the humble and obedient heart which asks that only God’s will done. As Abba Isaac says, it is the prayer of a child of God, one who has a complete trust in the Heavenly Father, and is confident that his will is best, and this his will brings honour and glory to his name. There is a movement among some Protestant groups which is popularly called ‘Naming and Claiming’, in which the teaching insists that if we name what we want and claim it from God then he is obliged to give it to us. Of course they use all manner of Scripture taken out of context to support their views, and in a modern consumer age they find many ready hearers. But we see that our Lord teaches us to pray not for ourselves at all, but only for the will of God to be done.

We may remember his words in another place, Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you. And when we pray that the name of God, our Father, be hallowed, and his kingdom come, and his will be done, then we are putting things in the right order, and we are seeking first the kingdom of God.

Yet the Lord knows that we have needs, and these are not neglected in the prayer he teaches us. We say, Give us this day our daily bread, and this is the extent to which he instructs us to consider ourselves. He does not begin to extemporise on all the problems he faces, nor does he teach the disciples to do so in this place. Rather we ask for that which we need today, and leave the rest to God.

Abba Isaac reflects on this clause and says,

For where it says "daily" it shows that without it we cannot live a spiritual life for a single day. Where it says "today" it shows that it must be received daily and that yesterday's supply of it is not enough, but at it must be given to us today also in like manner. And our daily need of it suggests to us that we ought at all times to offer up this prayer, because there is no day on which we have no need to strengthen the heart of our inner man, by eating and receiving it, although the expression used, "today" may be taken to apply to his present life, i.e., while we are living in this world supply us with this bread.

There is a great sense in the Christian life that we live in an eternal present with God. Today is the day of salvation. Just as the Israelites in the desert received just enough manna to feed them each day, so the Lord encourages us to ask only for that which we need today. And of course not only or especially in a material sense, but in regard to the spiritual grace and nourishment which we require to persevere on our pilgrimage to the far country of our Heavenly Father.

It is always easy to be bowed down with a weight of concerns and difficulties. I speak from great experience. But I have had to learn for myself that if something has not yet happened then it has not yet happened. There is no value in adding up all the possible things that I could be worried about and dealing with them all on my own. Tomorrow will have enough problems of its own. We must live and act and serve in the present. And we must seek from God all that we need to do those things he has immediately given us to do.

St Gregory says of this instruction, that, we are consequently directed to seek for what is sufficient to preserve our bodily existence, saying unto God, ‘Give us bread’, not delicacies, nor wealth, not garments embroidered with purple flowers… no one of all those things by which the mind is seduced from the thought and care of Divine and better things.

It is only now, having been placed in a proper relationship with God, that we ask for forgiveness of our sins and transgressions. We pray, Forgive is our debts or transgressions, as we forgive those who are indebted to us, or transgress against us.

There is a wonderful passage on this clause in the Conference with Abba Isaac, indeed it is used in the Daily Prayers and readings book of the British Orthodox Church as one of the daily portions from the Fathers. He says,

And so without anxiety and in confidence from this prayer a man may ask for pardon of his own offences, if he has been forgiving towards his own debtor…Whoever then does not from his heart forgive his brother who has offended him, by this prayer calls down upon himself not forgiveness but condemnation, and by his own profession asks that he himself may be judged more severely, saying: Forgive me as I also have forgiven. And so if we want to be judged mercifully, we ought also to be merciful towards those who have sinned against us. For only so much will be remitted to us, as we have remitted to those who have injured us however spitefully.

Of course we know that our Lord had done no wrong, and there was no sin in him, yet he humbled himself to speak as one of us, and addresses his prayer to the Father as if he had anything that needed forgiveness, just as he entered the waters of baptism on our behalf and not because of his own need. And he teaches us that we should properly ask for forgiveness of our sins in our daily prayers, but that we must also forgive all those who have anything against us.

It requires humility in us to recognise that if we wish to be forgiven we must also forgive. It requires us to class ourselves among all those people who we think have treated us so badly. We are no different from them. No more deserving, no less deserving. We ask for forgiveness as we must give forgiveness. It is the same measure, Abba Isaac insists. If you will not forgive this one his sins against you, then you will not be forgiven your own sins against God. If you will forgive this one his sins against you, then the floodgates of Heaven will be opened, and you will find grace pouring down upon you.

We must become like God as it were, by grace. Able to go beyond what is merely human by the divine assistance. The disciples asked whether a person should be forgiven once or twice, but the Lord demanded of them that they forgive hundreds of times. This is beyond what is natural to our damaged humanity, but with God all things are possible.

St Gregory says,

If then we purpose to bring before God a petition for mercy and pardon, let us obtain for ourselves, boldness to do so by our own conscience, that our life may be a joint advocate with our voice, and we may truly say, For we forgive our debtors.

And now we come to the final clause, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Of this passage Abba Isaac says,

Next there follows: "And lead us not into temptation," on which there arises no unimportant question, for if we pray that we may not be suffered to be tempted, how then will our power of endurance be proved, according to this text: "Every one who is not tempted is not proved;" and again: "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation"? The clause then, "Lead us not into temptation," does not mean this; namely, do not permit us ever to be tempted, but do not permit us when we fall into temptation to be overcome. For Job was tempted, but was not led into temptation. For he did not ascribe folly to God nor blasphemy, nor with impious mouth did he yield to that wish of the tempter toward which he was drawn. Abraham was tempted, Joseph was tempted, but neither of them was led into temptation for neither of them yielded his consent to the tempter. Next there follows: "But deliver us from evil," i.e., do not suffer us to be tempted by the devil above that we are able, but "make with the temptation a way also of escape that we may be able to bear it.

The Christian life is inseparable from temptation, and it has been said that we cannot stop the birds flying around the tree, but we can prevent them making a nest. Here we see that our prayer is not that we should never face any obstacles, but that we should always find that God’s grace is sufficient for us. It is by the testing of our faith that we are able to develop perseverance.

It seems to me that this prayer, when we consider it carefully and offer it with attention, is worthy of so much more honour than it often seems to receive. It is the measure of the Christian life. It encourages the development of a robust and stable faith that is not pre-occupied with those things that will not last, but places God first and foremost, and arranges the rest of the spiritual life around him.

Abba Isaac says,

You see then what is the method and form of prayer proposed to us by the Judge Himself, who is to be prayed to by it. A form in which there is contained no petition for riches, no thought of honours, no request for power and might, no mention of bodily health and of temporal life. For He who is the Author of Eternity would have men ask of Him nothing uncertain, nothing paltry, and nothing temporal. And so a man will offer the greatest insult to His Majesty and Bounty, if he leaves on one side these eternal petitions and chooses rather to ask of Him something transitory and uncertain; and will also incur the indignation rather than the propitiation of the Judge by the pettiness of his prayer.

The one who already knows our needs before we ask, offers us this prayer to direct our hearts and minds and voices towards the Heavenly Father. It is not an accident of Church history that we have a record of it. On the contrary it was deliberately taught to the disciples by the Son and Word of God incarnate that it might be part of the Gospel message, summing up in itself the Gospel of salvation, forgiveness of sins and of life eternal as children of God.

It is a good and necessary thing for us to offer this prayer on many occasions through each day with the greatest care and attention. It forms in us the mind of Christ. It develops within us the life of Christ. It raises over us the will of Christ.

There is no magic prayer or technique that will solve all of our problems. The weakness, sins and obstacles we face in our lives are part of our spiritual life. We take them with us into the inner room where we pray. But the proper use of this prayer will invite that divine grace upon us which will grant us strength in our weakness, purity in our sin, and courage in every difficulty. The constant use of this prayer will bring about, by the grace of God, that life which it describes. May we commit ourselves to offering it as a spiritual treasure, with joy and hope, to the glory of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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