Bible Study

New Study commences Sunday 29th May 2022

Pray Like This

Introduction

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, Uttered or unexpressed; The motion of a hidden fire That trembles in the breast.
James Montgomery, What is Prayer?

 

In conversation with the BBC, The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams commented, ‘If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord’s Prayer.’

He went on to say, ‘The prayer as a whole tells us we stand in a very vulnerable place. We stand in the middle of a human world where God’s will is not the most automatic thing that people do. Where crisis faces us, where uncertainty is all around about tomorrow and where evil is powerfully at work.

‘To stand with dignity and freedom in a world like that, we need to know that God is Our Father. We need to know that whatever happens to us God is God, God’s name and presence and power and word are holy and wonderful and that that glorious God has made us members of his family in a very intimate and direct way.

 ‘With that confidence, that kind of unchildish dependence, we’re actually free. We know that there is a relationship that nothing can break.’

Bishop Tom Wright, in an essay on the Lord’s Prayer writes, ‘The Lord’s Prayer, along with the Eucharist, forms the liturgical equivalent to what Eastern Orthodox church architecture portrays and western Gothic architecture depicts — both developing, each in its own way, the central temple theology of Judaism. The God worshiped here, says this architecture, is neither a remote dictator nor simply the sum total of human god-awareness. This God is both intimately present within the world and utterly beyond, other, and different from it. He is present to celebrate with his people and to grieve with them, to give them his rich blessings and to rescue them from all ills, because he is also sovereign over heaven and earth, sea and dry land, all the powers of this world, and even over the urgings of the human heart. The Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to know this God and to share his innermost life.

’ St Cyprian of Carthage (d. AD258), bishop and martyr, in a treatise on the prayer says, ‘But, dear brethren – what deep blessings are contained in the Lord’s prayer! How many they are, and how great, collected in so few words but so rich in spiritual power! There is nothing at all that is not to be found in these our prayers and petitions, as it were a compendium of heavenly doctrine. Thus, he said, you must pray: Our Father, who art in heaven.’

According to St. Augustine (d. AD430), “whatever else we say when we pray, if we pray as we should, we are only saying what is already contained in the Lord’s Prayer.”

“It is especially the one prayer, called the Lord’s Prayer,” says St. Augustine, “which, when prayed by the faithful, may be regarded as a special mark of predilection and a guarantee of perseverance in the grace of God.”

By whatever measure you happen to use, the Lord’s Prayer must surely be the most popular prayer in existence. It has been translated into hundreds of different languages and dialects. In the early eighteenth century John Chamberlayne published a copy in 150 different languages and in 1787 Padre Hervez surpassed this with a version translated into 307 dialects and tongues. On the website http://www.christusrex.org/www1/pater/ there is a growing resource which at the last viewing had the prayer in 1655 languages and dialects.

The Lord’s Prayer has become the universal prayer of the Christian Church. It is unique in being handed down from Jesus to his disciples and then passed on to the fledgling Christian church after the Resurrection. The early Christians continued the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at certain hours of the day or night.

The Christian prayer of that time consisted of almost the same elements as the Jewish: recital or chanting of psalms, reading of the Old Testament, to which were soon added readings of the Gospels, Acts, and epistles, and canticles such as the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Other elements were added later in the course of the centuries.

We know from a very early document, the Didache, circulating around the end of the first century that the church was being urged to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times every day.

In the 16th century, Calvin wrote:

“Luke relates in the Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers “. . .continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers” [Acts 2:42]. Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Lord’s Supper and almsgiving.”

“ Calvin treated this passage in Acts as a central norm for Sunday worship. There were to be four elements present: the reading and preaching of the Word; prayers in the language of the people; the Lord’s Supper; and a sharing of goods, principally through almsgiving in the service.

In the Form of Prayers, Calvin used the Lord’s Prayer in three places: 1) The prayer for illumination before the reading and preaching of the Word ended with a recital of the Lord’s Prayer. 2) At a certain point in the prayer of intercession after the sermon, Calvin inserted a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. 3) In the meal, the table prayer included the text of the Lord’s Prayer

In contemporary worship, there is variation in common usage between the 1662 translation (…And lead us not into temptation ) and the more modern 20th century version (…Save us from the time of trial) although the former continues to be favoured by many Christians even when the liturgy surrounding it is contemporary in style.

Commencing Sunday 29th May 2022

Pray Like This

Study 1 - Lord, Teach Us To Pray

‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”’
(Luke 11:1)

The Jews were well versed in prayer, following a regular pattern throughout the day at the third, sixth and ninth hour. Prayer centred on the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book (where some prayers originated as early as four centuries before Jesus, from the time of Ezra) and the religious life of the Synagogue.

Within the pages of the Old Testament are many examples of Jewish prayers, some very personal and others used in the company of other people. For example, the prayer of Moses in Numbers 12:13 (the shortest prayer in the Hebrew scriptures), the prayer of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10, Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the first Temple in I Kings 8, Hezekiah’s prayer in II Kings 19, the Aaronic or Priestly Benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace.”). Not forgetting of course the book of Psalms, the hymn book of Israel’s worship.

Jewish prayer focuses on God’s Kingdom, acknowledges the person and power of God. It also references Biblical texts and acknowledged truths about God.

One famous prayer, the Shema would have been as familiar to the disciples as it is to Jews today. The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to God. It is said upon arising in the morning and upon going to sleep at night. It is the first prayer that a Jewish child is taught to say. It is the last words a Jew says prior to death. The first paragraph, which comes from Deut. 6:4-9, contains the concepts of loving God:

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

 

 

Doing prayer badly

In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus has one or two words of warning about how you pray. Firstly, he tells those listening that among some there was a tendency to feel the need to let everyone know what they were doing (an outward show of piety) rather than prayer being an intimate conversation. Also the length and wordiness of some prayers was a concern. ‘It’s not the words and being seen that are important.’ says Jesus. ‘Cut out the babbling! It’s the heart and soul that’s behind the words that matters!’

 In the Old Testament we can see what happened when the prophets of Baal were having problems contacting their god. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. (1 Kings 18)

What do you have to do to get your god to sit up and listen to you? Do you start quiet and then start shouting? Do you think up as many fancy titles as possible to try and appease him? And if that fails do you just shout louder and louder and start getting physical? Does it take a blood bath to get your god’s attention?

One of the problems with prayer is that the whole process can sometimes be confusing. How do we know that we’re using the right form of words? How do we know that God is listening? Why would he even bother to listen to us, and how do we know that he will answer our prayer?

One of the reasons that the pagans tried to cover all the bases in the way they addressed their gods was that there was a real fear – firstly that they might not be listening, and secondly that they might be angry with the one praying. They had to say the right words/shout/dance/prophesy/do something to be sure in their mind that they were doing this right; otherwise the gods might be angry with them, refuse their requests or even punish them.

 

Advice from Jesus

 ‘Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ (Matt 6:8) Jesus tells us not to worry, that God knows what we need even before we ask, and there’s no need for babbling and shouting! Jesus tells the disciples to pray ‘Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name…’

The disciples asked Jesus for a prayer. What was in Jesus’ mind as he gave his response? Jesus may well have done something rather interesting – taken the familiar and transformed it. It’s something he did a lot. The parables he told took illustrations from life in order to make a spiritual point.

Think again about those words from Deuteronomy which start the Shema prayer, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’. In Mark’s Gospel we read about a scribe asking Jesus which is the greatest commandment. Jesus seems to have taken the opportunity to answer this question with a summary of the Law,taking the Shema prayer and transforming it into a statement of faith that was easily remembered.

The Jesus Creed

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

‘There you go,’ says Jesus. ‘That’s what the law is all about, love God, love others. All the others are merely clarifications of these’

That’s been called the Jesus Creed – Love God, love others – and this is the essence of what a Christian life is all about. It is not just about loving God; that love has to flow to others in the simple act of everyday living.

 

 

Our Father

If we take the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father’ is a common way of addressing God in Jewish liturgy (as for example in the New-Year’s prayer “Our Father, our King! Disclose the glory of Thy Kingdom unto us speedily”) and within Hasidæan circles the phrase ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ appears quite frequently.

There’s another familiar Jewish prayer, called the Kaddish, and the opening words also seem strangely familiar:

‘Glorified and hallowed be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen’

There are echoes of words from the Lord’s prayer here ‘Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ There are others we might look at, but the question is, did Jesus do the same here as he did with the Law, take the familiar and transform it? Take prayers that his disciples would be familiar with and transform them by addition of the Jesus Creed (Love God, love others) into the form we are familiar with so that it became his prayer, the one they would remember and pass down through generation to generation. The prayer that summed up what all our prayers should be about.

It is about God and it’s about us, but it is also about our neighbour.

Love God, love others. The Jesus Creed.

Is the Lord’s Prayer the Jesus Creed morphed into a prayer? A yearning for God’s will to be done, his name to be hallowed, and for all of us to benefit from the generous love of God for our comfort, healing and spiritual well being.

 

 

Some questions:

  1. Why do you think the disciples wanted Jesus to teach them a new prayer when they already had a store of Jewish prayers? How do you approach God in your private prayer?
  2. Do you find space within the day, or fit prayer in where you can find time? Does it matter?
  3. Do we still have those worries about prayer – that we’re not doing it right, that God might not hear us, that he’s angry with us or simply won’t answer? If so, how do we address those fears?
  1. How easy do we find the words to use in our private prayer? Do the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer help us to break the ice, or is their familiarity something which can make it more difficult for us to open up our hearts to God?

5.The Jews had no problem with thinking of God as ‘Father’. How do we feel about the whole gender issue when it comes to addressing God? Do we accommodate other views easily, or find ways around them?

Some quotes

Don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.
Satchel Paige

The value of consistent prayer is not that He will hear us, but that we will hear Him.
William McGill

 

 

Study 2 - Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come

 The fifty or so words that Matthew gives us for the Lord’s Prayer are packed full of good things. In this study we’re going to concentrate on how Jesus draws us into considering the spiritual realm.

We live in a scientific age which demands proof before belief can happen (if we discount the quasi-scientific editorials that appears in our newspapers under the guise of proven science) and that can cause problems for many, for although as Christians we know there’s more to life than the mere physical, it’s not something that we can prove empirically. It’s a faith thing, and that’s why one commentator calls this the disciples prayer, it can only be meaningfully spoken by someone who is a disciple of Jesus.

The spiritual realm

‘Hallowed be your name’ means acknowledging that there is a spiritual realm. ‘Hallowed’ is not a word that is in common usage, so it is worth putting it both into the context of Jesus’ words and also bringing it into our own experience. It is a word which has within it the Old Testament concept that the name of God is tremendously powerful. In Hebrew a name is not just the word by which someone is called, but much more – within it is the very nature and personality of that person insofar as it is revealed.

Hallowed as a word comes to us in the Greek from a word translated as holy (hagios), but can mean separate or different. So putting these two ideas together we can maybe get closer to what the early Christians would understand by ‘Hallowed be your name’. It means something like ‘May we give you the unique place in our lives which your nature deserves and demands’

 If we were going to use one word to express this phrase we might use ‘reverence’. To reverence God means that we not only acknowledge that he exists, but that we know something of his character; his holiness, love and justice, and most importantly that we acknowledge his presence in the world. That God is with us when we wake, when we walk out of our front door, when we eat in MacDonalds, when we sit at our office desk, when we lay our head to rest. That is what brings us, either physically or metaphorically to our knees in reverence to God, and in submission and obedience to Him.

That’s quite a lot of meaning packed into a few words – but then, that’s the way Jesus taught.

The physical realm

And then the spiritual connects with the physical in ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ The Kingdom of God was central to the message of Jesus; we find numerous passages in the Gospels concerning the Kingdom. Luke 4:23 begins “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God…” and Luke 8 begins ‘After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.’

We have several of Jesus’ parables concerning the kingdom. There’s the mustard seed (Mark 4:29-31), the sower of seed (Mark 4:25-27), yeast (Luke 13:20-21), a banquet (Luke 14:14- 16) and others. They talk about growth, opposition, apathy and the whole range of human emotions, and they emphasise that the kingdom is about real people and their relationship to God.

The Kingdom of God is not something that we just saunter into. “The time has come,” said Jesus. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Jesus challenges us to believe it, live it and preach it, because at its heart is our relationship with God and with our neighbour. Jesus also spoke of the kingdom as existing in past (Luke 13:28; Matthew 8:11), present (Luke 17:21) and, in this prayer, future.

The best way of understanding the phrase ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ is in the context of the Hebrew style of writing, called parallelism. You find it throughout the psalms. A verse divides into two where the second half repeats and brings out the meaning of the first half.

If we apply the same idea to the Lord’s Prayer we have ‘your kingdom come – your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

 If the second half explains and amplifies the first then we have a definition of the kingdom of God – it is wherever on earth God’s will is done as it is in heaven.  To be in the kingdom is to submit to and obey God’s will. And that goes back to Jesus’ summing up of the Law in his ‘Jesus Creed’ – Love God, love your neighbour. Everything else flows from this.

Living the Jesus Creed is living in the Kingdom!

 

Life in the Kingdom

That’s why God’s kingdom can span past, present and future at the same time. Anyone at any time in history who has submitted their life to God’s will was living in God’s kingdom.

‘Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”’ (Luke 17:20-22)

Jesus started his ministry by talking about the kingdom, and calling people to repentance. The apostles, as they started their ministry continued the pattern of preaching that Jesus had started. They did not just preach about Jesus, but by their lives and their words they found receptive hearts in those who were prepared to turn their lives around and become citizens of God’s kingdom.

‘But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.’ (Acts 8: 12)

Looking to the future But of course we also look to the future. We do not live in a perfect world at this moment in time, but one full of injustice, lacking in love, morally lacking despite glimmers of goodness and love. The vision that the Bible gives us is of a time when everything and everyone will be subject to God’s will as his kingdom is revealed in all its glory and Christ returns again.

‘To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.’ (Revelation 1:5-7)

FF Bruce comments: ‘When the Kingdom is fully come, God’s will shall be done on earth even as it is in heaven, but those who do His will to-day belong to His Kingdom here and now; they anticipate spiritually the conditions which are to appear universally when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14)….

‘Thus in every Christian sphere to-day, be it the Christian individual or the Christian Church, the Christian home or the Christian business-house, those qualities ought to be seen which are to characterise the golden age for which all creation longs.

‘And the existence of such qualities in these spheres is a divine guarantee that justice and mercy, peace and truth shall yet reign universally and bring the joy of heaven to every corner of earth, when at last “the kingdom of the world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev.11:15).’

 

Some questions:

  1. Bearing in mind the phrase ‘Hallowed be your name’ and the thought behind the words, can you think of a more contemporary phrase which encompasses the truth of these familiar words, and which non-Christians might better understand?
  2. How would you describe the kingdom of God to a non-churchgoer? How different should life in God’s kingdom be compared to the ‘kingdom’ under which we currently live? Is there anything we can do to bring a little of God’s kingdom into our working and everyday life?
  3. In Jesus’ parables the kingdom is described as a small seed that grows into a large tree, or a small quantity of yeast that is mixed throughout some dough. Can we relate this to the idea of mission, and as a church how could we engage with this?
  4. ‘Practical prayer is harder on the soles of your shoes than on the knees of your trousers.’ (Austin O’Malley) How does this quote relate to life in the kingdom of God?

A quote:

Prayer may not change things for you, but it for sure changes you for things.
Samuel M. Shoemaker

Study 3 - Give us this day our daily bread

Read John 6:25-59

What was Jesus asking us to pray for when he used the phrase ‘Give us this day our daily bread’?

Was Jesus talking physical or spiritual? About loaves of bread or food for the soul? Or both?

Let’s start with the spiritual! Since the very earliest days of the church, the Lord’s Prayer has featured in Christian worship, and particularly within the celebration of Holy Communion. Even setting aside denominational differences on how to interpret the elements of bread and wine, could it be that within the Lord’s Prayer the early church leaders were reminded of the privilege they had of sitting at the Lord’s Table and eating ‘spiritual’ food, which is the Word of God which satisfies both heart and soul?

Spiritual hunger

In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel Jesus says of himself, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

There is a hunger in the 21st century, as there was in the 1st, but it is mainly for physical rather than spiritual things – a gluttony for possessions and over-indulgence in an attempt to find satisfaction and inner peace. The phrase ‘much wants more’ could just as equally apply to the Roman society of 60 AD as it does now. Pliny tells of a bride-to[1]be whose wedding dress cost the equivalent of £500,000, and there were banquets of peacock’s brains and nightingale’s tongues. As one commentator puts it ‘They were both appallingly rich and appallingly hungry.

When Jesus talked about the bread of life, he was acknowledging that the body needs food to sustain life, but also hinted at a definition of life which was more than just the physical; a life lived in fellowship and centred in the love of God. It is those ‘…who come to Jesus’ who will not hunger, those ‘…who believe in Jesus’ who will never be thirsty.

If it is through Jesus that the hungry heart is satisfied, then Jesus is in a very real sense the ‘bread of life.’

As an aside, within this passage from John we see also the spiritual journey that all Christians have made.

We see Jesus (not physically, but through the Bible and the lives of others).

We come to him (not as a character in a book but as a real person).

We believe in him (and acknowledge who he is). And through grace we find life in fellowship with him, a possibility open to all of humankind. The bread of life is for all people.

 “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:37-40)

William Barclay in his commentary on this passage says ‘God not only provides the goal; he moves in the human heart to awaken desire in him; and he works in the human heart to take away the rebellion and the pride which would hinder the great submission, We could never even have sought him unless he had already found us.’

Physical needs

The picture of Jesus as the bread of life has much to commend itself to us, as it encompasses the whole of the Christian experience, but was that what Jesus actually wanted his disciples to understand when he gave them this prayer for them to use?

Part of the problem in interpreting this passage lies in a single word epiousios which has been translated as daily. Strange as it might seem, this word was more or less unknown in Greek literature so translators had to make an educated guess as to its meaning. But then, not too many years ago some fragments of papyrus were discovered with this word on, and they comprised a housewife’s shopping list. So, it would seem that Jesus might actually be telling his disciples to simply pray for God to provide for the daily needs of the family – food on the table!

Does that seem just a bit too ordinary?

God’s provision

If we put the phrase in its context, then it may make more sense. We have begun the prayer by acknowledging the greatness of God, his love as our heavenly Father, and yearned for his kingdom to be seen and lived out on earth by those who love him. How natural it is to follow that thought by asking our heavenly Father for those things that even a loving human father would want to provide.

Jesus showed the love of God to ordinary people through his healing touch, his compassion and his generosity. He fed people spiritually and physically when confronted by a crowd on a hillside.

A holistic approach

There is an over-used word holistic which is used in complementary therapies. It means an approach to general health which looks to care for the whole person and not just individual body parts. Jesus’ approach to all those he met was very much a holistic one.

He cared for their bodies, and he cared for their souls, feeding them when they were hungry, healing them when they were sick.

To see the phrase ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ in this way is to understand that everything we have that sustains us comes ultimately from God and his provision. We can be reminded as well of Jesus’ encouragement not to worry about tomorrow, because God will care for our needs.

Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!’ (Luke 12:24)

We can expand this thought if we so wish. We are praying ‘Give us…’ and this can remind us that there are many needy people in this world, and our prayers should necessarily embrace the whole family of humankind rather than just our own particular needs.

So back to our original question: Was Jesus talking physical or spiritual? About loaves of bread or food for the soul? Or both?

We don’t “live by bread alone” says Jesus himself, “but by every word coming from God’s mouth”.

It may well be that Jesus’ thought was that we should pray that God would provide food for the table, and in doing so acknowledge that the food we grow and eat is part of God’s provision for his creation, and is for sharing. But there is nothing wrong with also reminding ourselves that Jesus described himself as the Bread of Life, and that our daily needs are for both physical and spiritual sustenance.

Some questions

  1. How easy is it for children growing up today to associate bread in the supermarket as something which started life as a grain that had to be sown in the ground, watered and tended until it reached maturity – that within the grain lies the potential and promise of bread on the table? Have we lost that sense of connectedness with the land that previous generations had, and if so is that something that needs addressing?
  2. We have looked at the idea of spiritual food, but what do you understand by spiritual food based on your own experience? How does God feed us spiritually and how is this manifested in our lives? Is there a connection between physical bread and spiritual bread?
  3. When Jesus was reminded about the Manna that God had provided for the People of God as they passed through the wilderness, and indirectly challenged to conjure some up as a miracle, he responded ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ What do you understand by Jesus’ words?
  4. Many of us pass through difficult times in our lives; when bills pile up and difficult decisions have to be made about what can and cannot be afforded. How easy is in these moments to put aside our worries and concerns and rely on God to supply our ‘daily bread’? Is there anything we can do to help God help us?

Some quotes

Some stand on tiptoe trying to reach God to talk to him – you try too hard, friend – drop to your knees and listen to him, he’ll hear you better that way.
Ever Garrison

When you pray, rather let your heart be without words than your words without heart.
John Bunyan

It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk.
Henry Ward Beecher

 

Study 4 - Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors

In the previous studies we’ve looked at how this prayer touches upon the relational as well as spiritual aspects of our lives. ‘Thy kingdom come’ reminds us that God’s kingdom is both here and now as well as to be fulfilled in the future, and to live in God’s kingdom means that we interact and share God’s love with those among whom we live and work. ‘Give us today our daily bread’ brings to mind our reliance on God the provider, and that our prayer is extended to all people and not just our own perceived needs. God provides and if we are living in His kingdom then there is an onus on us to share.

Now we reach ‘Forgive us as we forgive’ and this is where things get very personal. For debts read sins as the words are interchangeable in this context.

 Jesus knew how difficult this was to pray. He emphasises the importance of forgiveness by adding a rider to the prayer he’s teaching, which Matthew records.

 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14,15)

 This seems to have been a recurring theme of Jesus’ teaching. In Mark 11:25 we read ‘And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’

The Jewish sages of old also echoed the need to practice forgiveness. “Forgive thy neighbour the hurt that he hath done unto thee, so shall thy sins also be forgiven when thou prayest,” says Ben Sira.

Forgive is not optional

 It’s in the relational that we so often fall down. Those things that people say and do that wind us up, and are so difficult to let go of. Because sin doesn’t always mean the big sins that come easily to mind; it can be a simple slip of the tongue, actions or words that upset and offend. But, big or small, they get between us and fracture relationships.

There is a tendency to think that by not forgiving that we are in some way punishing the one who has upset us or done us wrong, but we only have to sit down and think about that logically to see that this is not the case. The other person will just get on with their life, it is us who remain screwed up inside with ill feelings toward the offender – in effect we punish ourselves!

In one sense, Jesus’ words seem very severe. If we’re not prepared to forgive even the minor offence, then we can’t expect that same forgiveness from God. After all, let us not forget that forgiveness is at the very heart of Christianity!

Could it be that what Jesus is actually saying is something like this. The love which pours into our lives from God is intended to flow out from us to others. If we put a stopper on the bottle then nothing gets out or in. It’s not only our relationship with the other person that’s spoiled; it’s our relationship with God and that person that’s no longer working. The way to have a healthy relationship with God is to let his love flow through you to others.

Forgiveness is at the centre

Rowan Williams, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury in a BBC radio interview said,

‘Jesus tells us that very powerful story about the King’s servant who’s let off his debt and then goes straight off and puts another servant in prison because he owes him a small amount of money. And he underlines the point there that unless you forgive you can’t receive forgiveness; you’ve just made yourself incapable of receiving forgiveness. ‘…

 If I can’t hear the word of forgiveness and really let it change me, then I shan’t be able, I shan’t be free to forgive, so this is quite a sobering prayer about forgiveness’

Bishop Tom Wright adds this thought,

 ‘…the Lord’s Prayer was intended by Jesus to bind his followers closely to the agenda of his whole ministry. Forgiveness, which is offered freely and without recourse to the temple system, was another hallmark of Jesus’ work — indeed, so much so that it was the cause of scandal (as, e.g., in Mark 2:5-12). Furthermore, there is good reason to think that Jesus regarded this free offer of forgiveness as a central part of his inauguration of the new covenant, and that he saw the corresponding obligation to mutual forgiveness as a necessary badge of membership’

R T Kendall in the introduction to his book Total Forgiveness shares the bad times that he went through, until a friend persuaded him of the need to forgive those who had offended him gravely and who RT felt he could never forgive.

‘The wrong I believe was done to me affected just about every area of my life: my family, my ministry, my very sense of self-worth. I felt at times like Job when he cried,

 “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” (Job 3:26)… … because Josif was from Romania and was far removed from the situation, I was able to tell him everything.

 “Is that all?” he asked when I finished my story.

“Yes, that’s it,” I said. And then came those remarkable words—spoken in his Romanian accent: “You must totally forgive them.”

 “I can’t,” I replied.

“You can, and you must,” he insisted.

 Unsatisfied with his response, I tried to continue. “I just remembered. There is more. What I didn’t tell you. . . ”

 “R.T.,” he interrupted, “you must totally forgive them. Release them, and you will be set free.”

. ‘An unexpected blessing emerged as I began to forgive: A peace came into my heart that I hadn’t felt in years. It was wonderful. I had forgotten what it was like.’

Forgiveness and understanding

In order to forgive, we must learn to love. True Christian love, which has its source in God never sees anything but the best in another person, and life in God’s kingdom is a life that is ruled by love. Jesus, in excruciating pain on the Cross did not demand retribution but instead offered forgiveness.

We must also learn to forget. If we keep brooding upon words or actions that have offended us then there is no space for forgiveness. There are often reasons why someone acts in the way that they do, and if we can begin to understand them a little better, then it can make the process of forgiving easier.

Some questions:

  1. ‘To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.’ (source Unknown) How easy to you find it to forgive? Do you hold in your heart resentment against a person or persons who at some point in your life have done something to cause offence or hurt? How do you deal with that hurt – bottle it up or let it out?
  2. Is it enough to forgive, or should you be prepared to forget as well, bearing in mind that this is the model of forgiveness that God offers us? How much more difficult do you find the process of wiping the slate clean?
  3. When someone says or does something that offends, do you try and understand what their motives are, or what has triggered this event, and if not would this actually help you to offer forgiveness and possibly restore a broken relationship? Can you think of practical ways of doing this?
  4. ‘It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” (William Blake) How true does that seem to you and why might that be?

The Lord’s Prayer – A Summary from WIlliam Barclay

 1) It presents the needs of the present – ‘Give us this day our daily bread’

 That’s God the Creator and Sustainer

2) It brings the past into God’s presence – ‘Forgive us our sins…’

That’s God the Son, our Saviour and Redeemer

3) It commits our future into God’s hands – ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one’

That’s God the Holy Spirit, our comforter, strengthener, guide and guardian.

Barclay adds ‘The Lord’s Prayer brings the whole of life into the presence of God, and brings the whole of God into the whole of life.’

Study 5 - And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one

At first reading it might seem that we are praying that God will not deliberately tempt us into sin; and we would be right in thinking that this is a peculiar thought if God has our best interests at heart.

‘When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.’ (James 1:13-15)

 

 

Tempt or test?

Here it is suggested by commentators that the word often translated temptation would often be better rendered as test, and tempting be more about a test of loyalty and strength than persuading people into deliberate sin. An Old Testament example of this use of the word would be that famous story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his only son Isaac. In the Authorised Version (Gen 22:1) it reads ‘And it came to pass that God did tempt Abraham…’ which is difficult to comprehend if our understanding of temptation is to lead into sin. This was very much about God testing the loyalty and obedience of Abraham, and fortunately it had a happy ending!

The equally familiar story of Jesus being led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan is again better understood by seeing this as Jesus being tested – otherwise we have to subscribe to the idea that the Holy Spirit would lead Jesus into a situation where he would sin.

 

 

A firm foundation

In both these examples the outcome was positive, and this is something which it is often difficult for Christians to understand until perhaps we look at it from a different angle. We’re used to driving cars or travelling on trains or aeroplanes and at the heart of each of these is a chassis or framework of steel which has been tested beyond its normal use so that we can know that it is safe. If God tests us then it is so that he knows that we are fit for service! And just as importantly, if God tests us then he knows that we are capable of standing the strain.

It is perfectly acceptable for us to ask God not to bring us to this point of testing, because none of us want to be faced with difficult situations in our lives that might cause us to stumble on our journey of faith. But when facing times of testing, it is also good to ask God to grant us the strength to overcome.

Rowan Williams says of the word temptation in this prayer,

‘But the word means so much more in its context; it means this huge trial that’s coming, this huge crisis that’s coming. Lead us not into crisis, don’t, please God don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it. Don’t push us until you’ve given us what we need to face it.’

 

 

Know your enemy

God may not tempt us into sin, but the fact is that there is much in the world that might tempt us into sinning, and there are forces and people who we might describe as evil.

The Bible is quite plain when it talks about evil. It does not see evil as some latent and abstract force operating in the world, but as having a source which is personal.

Satan means adversary or opponent and devil (from the Greek word diabolos) means the slanderer. These are words which human beings have used to describe the indescribable. When Jesus tells his disciples to pray for deliverance from the evil one he is talking of the power which is against God and humankind, the power which would frustrate the will of God and bring us to our knees.

‘The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”’ (Job 1:7)

In any battle it is important to know your enemy, and we should not ignore or underestimate Satan.

 

 

Who is the enemy?

David Watson says ‘He is the prince of the power of the air who seeks to manipulate the philosophy, the thought forms, the moral standards of our life, often through the influence of the media’ (see Ephesians 2:2)

 ‘He is the god of this world, who can blind the minds of unbelievers, often by the paralysis of apathy, and who can change the patterns and structures of society so fast that many are left bewildered and depressed.’ (see 2 Corinthians 4:4)

C.S. Lewis pinpointed two ‘equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils; one is to disbelieve their existence; the other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail the materialist and the magician with the same delight.’

We are always vulnerable to attack, and this comes both from the world and from within us – the flesh. There is always a part of us which is naturally hostile to God, that bit of us that wants to be totally in control of our lives.

‘Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.’ (Romans 8:5)

The world is everything (both bad and good) which is not under the control of Christ. It is a life lived outside of the presence of the Lord and it is all those nations, governments, people, objects and possessions which have not been brought to and dedicated to God.

Recognising that there are influences all around us and within that might deflect us from our spiritual journey is the first step to overcoming.

‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.’ (Galatians 5:24)

We do not need to speculate on the origins of this evil power, it is enough to know that it exists and needs praying against. As William Barclay says ‘If we wake up and find that the house is on fire, we do not sit down in a chair and write a treatise on the origins of fire in private houses; we set out to extinguish the fire and to save the house.’

God’s Word equips us to fight the battle against the evil one. If we go to Ephesians chapter 6 we are told to stand firm together in Christ, so that we can ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.’ putting on the whole armour of God; the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.

No soldier goes out into the battlefield without his body armour and weapons and expects to return uninjured!

Bishop Tom Wright in an article about the Lord’s Prayer says,

‘Jesus’ whole public career was marked by “trials” of one sort or another — by what he, and the evangelists, saw as a running battle with the powers of evil, whether in the form of possessed souls shrieking in the synagogues or angry souls challenging in the marketplace.’

God’s Word equips God’s people to fight the battle against the evil which is in the world.

 

Some questions:

1.According to St. Augustine (d. AD430), “whatever else we say when we pray, if we pray as we should, we are only saying what is already contained in the Lord’s Prayer.”

Is Augustine right in this statement?

  1. Which particular temptations does our own society forcefully present to us?
  2. How easy do you find the concept of Satan? Does the Biblical picture of evil ring?
  3. In what ways does it help us if we recognise that, despite our apparent self[1]reliance and strength, we are actually frail and vulnerable and open to attack?
  4. How might we protect ourselves better in our Christian life from spiritual attacks?

Some quotes:

Deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie – I found that out.
Mark Twain

It is good for us to keep some account of our prayers, that we may not unsay them in our practice.
Matthew Henry

Prayer gives a man the opportunity of getting to know a gentleman he hardly ever meets. I do not mean his maker, but himself.
William Inge