Private Prayer

Dr. John Boyd, Holywood, N. Ireland

In the Gospels the Lord Jesus Christ gave us two lessons on prayer, (i) Matthew 6. 5-13, (ii) Luke 11.1-13. In both of these portions He sets before us a model prayer, each given by com­mentators the title "The Lord's Prayer". There are marked differences in these two prayers, each presenting distinc­tive lessons.

Let us examine, first, the prayer of Matthew 6. 9-13, with its accompany­ing instructions. This prayer occurs in the Lord's "Sermon on the Mount", Matt. 5-7, where a frequent expression is, "But I say unto you", or its equiv­alent, "Verily I say unto you". Thus it would seem that in the sermon we have the Lord's corrections of some of the disciples' misconceptions, or wrong customs. In some parts He addresses the disciples as a composite body, and in others He gives them personal instructions.

In one section of the sermon, 6.1 -18, the Lord directs the mind of the com­pany to the great purpose of Christian living. The theme is introduced in verse 1 as the doing of alms, a.v. But the word "alms" is taken from an incorrect Greek text. The Revisers change the word to "righteousness", while other translations use the word "piety". The correct Greek word dikaiosune is uni­versally rendered "righteousness" in the Authorized and Revised Versions. The word suggests a life of devotion to God, and is not something done for man's appreciation, but something that earns God's recognition of the moral quality of the believer's life.

This righteousness is a life of de­votion to God, and is considered here under three headings, (1) Almsgiving, vv. 2-4, a different word from that used in verse 1 ; (2) Prayer, vv. 5-15; (3) Fasting, vv. 16-18. In each of these three subdivisions the appeal is direc­ted to the individual, with three activi­ties of the Christian life that teach more particularly the value of personal re­lations with God. Note the frequent use of the words, "thou, thine, thee, thy", vv. 2, 3, 4, 6, 17, 18, where the singular personal pronoun is used 24 times. It would seem as if the Lord is dealing with the disciples' own person­al practice of piety. This is emphasized in the directions about praying, v. 6.

The Lord's instructions here to the disciples suggest that He is setting before them the principles of private rather than of public praying. He would insist that private prayer particularly is a personal matter between the disciple and his heavenly Father. It is the ideal form of prayer, and one so commonly entered into by the Lord Himself. In this exercise the Lord gives specific instructions about what the disciple ought not to do, vv. 5, 7, and what he should do, v. 6. The believer must not be hypocritical in his praying, v. 5, such as choosing to stand and pray in crowded places, as in the synagogues, and at the corners of the streets, in both of which places men congregate, and might applaud their prayers. The Lord taught that this was not profitable praying, for the reward that they got was only a manifestation of them­selves before men. They receive by such praying only the reward they sought—man's approval, and nothing from God. Prayer should be for the eye and ear of God, for only He can ade­quately give the answers we seek. Let us ask ourselves, "How much of my public praying is for the attention of men, rather than for God's regard ?". If we pray to men, they will reward us, but not God. How inferior is the re­compense of men to that which God gives!

Neither should the believer, when he engages in private prayer, make a habit of copying what the Gentile nations round about did—using a senseless multiplication of unprofit­able phrases, v. 7. The Lord is not ob­jecting here to the repetition of prayers, for He did so Himself, Matt. 26. 44. The Lord's prayers in Gethsemane were not meaningless repetitions. At times they were accompanied by earnest pleading, and an agony that resulted in great drops of sweat falling heavily to the ground, Luke 22. 44. This was not the vain repetition of the heathen, but the Son of God pleading with His Father. The Gentiles prayed as they did, thinking that their gods would answer prayer that consisted of many words without any express purpose or meaning. Besides, in the use of a multitude of words for their own sake, we cannot avoid sinning, Prov. 10. 19; we cannot impress God thus in prayer, for He knows full well our needs, even before we present them to Him. Such praying may impress our fellowmen, but it is only vanity, for man cannot recompense our needs. God alone can do this.

But a really profitable method of praying is set out for us in verse 6. The Lord commanded the believer to enter a room in his house, lit., his store­room, where his treasured possessions are kept, "thine inner chamber", r.v., suggesting a secret room, for one's own private purposes. There, having shut the door, to keep intruders away, he is told to pray to his Father who is in the secret place, where he cannot be seen by others, an exactly opposite condition to what was practised in verse 5, where he wanted to be seen by men. The inner chamber is the proper place for private prayer. It is not necessarily a room enclosed by four walls. The Lord Himself found the secret place to pray to His Father in "a mountain apart", Matt. 14. 23; in "the wilderness", Luke 5. 16; "a solitary place", Mark 1. 35; in the inner reces­ses of the garden of Gethsemane.

In this secret place the Father sees the disciple who is come thither to pray to Him. Not only so, but in that secrecy the Father will recompense the prayer offered.

The Lord then set before them a model prayer. That Matthew 6. 9-13 was intended as a model prayer, rather than a liturgical exercise for constant repetition, is evident by the Lord's introduction in verse 9, "after this manner therefore pray ye". This prayer is a pattern. Thus we do well to exam­ine its arrangement. It is remarkable for its brevity. It consists of (1) An Invoca­tion, (2) Three Petitions seeking the Father's exaltation, (3) Four Petitions expressing the needs of mankind. God's matters are first (Thy Name, Thy kingdom, Thy will), our needs last (our daily bread, our debts, our guidance— not my, but our). Let us always re­member to put the Father's interests first in our prayers, and then those of our fellowmen, lastly considering our own personal requests. Note the lessons the Lord teaches us:

(1)  The Invocation—"Our Father which art in heaven" : how to address God, expressing first the near relation­ ship of the God to whom we speak. "Father" suggests care, provision, blessing, which the child of God en­joys. At the same time it indicates God's greatness—the One whom the heavens (plural) cannot contain—Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omniscient.

(2)  Petitions relating to God—

(a) "Hallowed be Thy Name". This teaches us to consider the Father's glory first in our prayers. One of the first thoughts in our minds as we approach God in prayer should be to consider what He will receive as the result of our prayer, namely, that He might be hallowed—reverenced, glori­fied, and His holiness exhibited.

(b) "Thy kingdom come". This is a request that the rule of God may be manifested. Let us so pray that the uppermost theme in our minds will be the desire that God will be seen as the supreme King of the universe. He has been King over all since eternal ages. Men like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David acknowledged the rule of God in their lives. The nation of Israel was appointed by God as a people over whom He desired to rule, but it failed Him. Then He sent His Son that the kingdom of God would be among men—an internal and spiritual character of God's rule in the hearts of men. Thus in the days of the Lord's sojourn upon earth, to pray for the kingdom of God to come implied that men would accept Him to rule their lives. And so it applies still, as men enter it through the new birth, John 3. 5. But the kingdom of God is also used of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth as the Messiah, to set up His millennial kingdom, for which the people of Israel look expectantly. To pray today, "Thy kingdom come", may have reference to either of these last two applications. It implies a longing in our hearts that God may receive His rightful authority as we pray to Him.

(c) "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven". This thought ought to control every petition we present to God. What we ask to be done on earth should be such that the answer may result in an obedience to God in the earthly things for which we ask, as the ready, perfect obedience rendered in heaven.

(3) Petitions relating to Men's Needs. The following four petitions, that refer to what we feel are our needs, ought to be offered while keeping in mind the three first petitions relating to God's interests.

(a) "Give us this day our daily bread". "Our daily bread" is the bread that is necessary for our subsistence. Adam and Eve did not thus seek God's provision as they ate of the forbidden fruit. They did not glorify God's Name, who knows what is good for us, Gen. 2. 9, and who seeks our acquiescence, Gen. 3. 11. God's will, so perfectly done in heaven, was not done on earth. "Our daily bread" is more than merely food for our bodies, but in­cludes that which is needed for all our physical and spiritual requirements. All are supplied by God. If we look to our Father, not to our fellowmen, we shall have all our needs met, and God will be glorified.

(b)   "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors". This petition also would imply a desire to hallow God's Name, for God sees His own image reflected in our forgiveness. This is the nature of the authority in God's king­ dom, and suggests perfect obedience to His will. We ask God for forgiveness of debts, because we realize that it is His will, to which we ought to render obedience, as we do in forgiving our brethren.

This is not a request for God to copy our example in forgiving debts. It reminds us that we have forgiven those who owed something to us, as the Revised Version expresses it, "as we also have forgiven our debtors". We remember that we have forgiven others because it was His will for us to follow His example. This is the love of mercy that we show when we walk humbly with God, Mic. 6. 8; Matt. 5. 7.

(c)"Lead us not into temptation". This petition suggests that the child of God asks that the Father will not per­mit him to enter into temptation. He would rather walk a life of holiness, and hence hallow His Name. He would rather follow the Father, to whose kingdom he submits. It is not the Father's will that he should sin, and disobey Him, but that there should be revealed that blessing that obedience to God's will manifests.

(d) "Deliver us from evil". Here the child of God is taught to seek continual preservation by his Father, causing him to set before men the blessing that reverence for His Name presents, showing forth the glories of his accept­ance into God's kingdom, and deliver­ance from Satan's power of darkness, Col. 1.13, being always filled with the knowledge of God's will, in all spirit­ual wisdom and understanding, v. 9.

Paul, in Romans 7. 21, saw a new principle in his regenerate nature— that to him who wanted to do good, the tendency to do evil lay close at hand. This principle he breaks down into two separate laws, (a) the law of his mind, and (b) the law of sin, v. 23. The law of his mind was that he de­lighted to do the law of God, that is, in his inmost mind and will, v. 22. Yet the law of sin was also a force in his members, in his flesh, and opposed the law of his mind, and wanted to cause him to do evil. Paul wanted deliverance from this sinful tendency, and appre­ciated that God alone, through Christ, would bring him freedom. This was possibly what the Lord was teaching in Matthew 6. 13, the prayer of the believer to God, to deliver him from Satan, the evil one, who activates this law of sin.

Thus these last four petitions, while dealing primarily with the needs of the children of God, carry also a responsi­bility to keep God's interests before our minds. This is real communion with God; this makes us feel how dependent we are on Him ; this makes us conscious of our nearness to Him. This is the spirit of private prayer that the Lord expounded to His disciples in Matthew 6. 5-7.