Prayer Begins with God

Dr. Brian Allison

Prayer is the simplest thing to do, as well as the most difficult thing to do. Though this sounds contradictory, it is true. Prayer is the simplest thing to do because all we need to do is speak to God. We teach little children the prayer verse, "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Even children can pray because children can speak. We would expect prayer to be the simplest thing to do because God invites even children to come and pray to Him. But prayer is also the most difficult thing to do. When you have come into the grace and experience of God, you realize that you must wrestle with Him, trying to discern His will, trying to hear His voice, trying to lay hold on Him. We must learn how to agonize in prayer. Andrew Murray writes, in his book Revival, "On those who believe that a revival is needed and is possible rests the solemn responsibility of preparing the way of the Lord in speaking to God and men and women about it. To God we speak about it in prayer. We ask Him to open our eyes and hearts, and those of our church, to what He thinks and says of the spiritual life He finds...We give ourselves to stand in the gap, to take hold of God's strength...Let us give ourselves to such prayer – intelligent, deliberate, intense prayer" (pp. 20-22). Prayer is the prelude to revival, and it is only when we truly understand the state of the Church and the state of our own hearts, and thus are broken by the appalling conditions, that we will be driven to pray that God would be pleased to rend the heavens and come down, and to pour out His Spirit and bless His Church.

A few months ago, I pulled off my shelf the book by Andrew Murray, With Christ In the School of Prayer. It was refreshing to read. Christ, by His Spirit, teaches us how to pray. Christ is the great Prayer, He is the great Intercessor. Throughout the Church age, our Lord continues to pray; He ever lives to make intercession for the children of God; He is praying right now. Jesus teaches us how to pray by His Spirit. Our Lord is pleased to instruct us how to pray through the teaching of the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, we find much concerning prayer, and how to pray. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord teaches His disciples how to pray. In Matthew 6:9-13, our Lord says, "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.]'"

The context

Recall that Jesus introduces the theme of prayer in verse 5 of this chapter. He is very practical. He first touches on the place of prayer. Jesus teaches that we are not to be as the hypocrites who love to stand in the synagogue and on the street corners in order to be seen of men. Our Lord directs us, with respect to personal prayer, to enter into a private place. When we have entered into the inner room, and have shut the door behind us, we are to pray to our Father in secret, and our Father Who sees (not simply hears) in secret will reward us. So, we are not to be motivated by the desire to receive praise and recognition from people, which really reveals a proud heart. No, we are to seek the private place so that we may lay bear our hearts before God, praying with deep sincerity and unpretentious openness. In the inner room, we stand before God in our spiritual nakedness, at His disposal, open to whatever He reveals to us, and whatever He wants to do in and through us.

Jesus proceeds in this passage to teach about the manner of prayer. Negatively speaking, we are not to use vain repetition while praying. We are not to pray in an unthinking, meaningless way. We are not to heap up empty statements, believing that in our much speaking, God will hear us. Jesus informs that we are not to pray in this fashion because our heavenly Father already knows what we need. Accordingly, having considered the manner in which we are not to pray, Jesus proceeds to state positively the manner in which we are to pray.

A model for prayer

Jesus provides us with a structure for prayer – "Pray, then, in this way" (v. 9a). We could translate the verse, "Continue to pray, then, in this way." The implication is that we should be continually engaged in the practice of prayer; we are to be continually seeking God, calling upon the Lord. In the original Greek, there is an emphatic pronoun. We could translate it this way, "You [plural] continue to pray." Of course, that suggests the notion of community. This prayer is given to the community of believers; it has universal relevance and application. This prayer is for the whole Church; and serves to inform our prayer life in general.

Jesus presents to us a model prayer. That is the idea behind the language "in this way." It does not say to pray "using these words;" it says to pray "in this way." (Of course, this does not mean that we cannot recite the Lord's Prayer verbatim). Jesus presents us with a general form of prayer – one of the most basic lessons of prayer with Christ in the school of prayer. True prayer – the kind of prayer that our Lord teaches us – begins with God. This model prayer has six petitions. The first three petitions concern God, the second three petitions concern us. Prayer should begin with the glory of God, and then should address our needs. Generally speaking, if we pray, not having in view the glory of God, and if that is not our emphasis, we are not praying as our Lord has taught us.

Remember what occasioned our Lord giving this model prayer. In verse 7, as Jesus first touches on the manner of prayer, He refers to the Gentiles; and instructs, "Don't be like the Gentiles, who, with their needs, make request unto their gods with vain repetition." Now, this is the main issue: presenting our needs to God. Pagans pray in such a way that they think that God will hear them because of their protracted speech. How are we to approach God so that He hears us? How are we to present our needs to Him? Jesus says, "Don't continually remind God what you need in a vain, meaningless way because He already knows your need. If you want God to hear you, as you present your need to Him, begin with Him." If we want God to hear us, and provide for our need, we must begin with His glory. This is a powerful principle of prayer. Sometimes we wonder why God has not answered our prayers, why our needs are not being met. One answer may be that often we come to Him in a self-centred, selfish way; and the Lord may see us in our brokenness and in our pain – and no doubt He is moved with compassion – but the issue is always His glory, not our need. When we have focused and concentrated on His glory, then we have a right to present our need. This is how our Lord teaches us to pray in order that we may bend the ear of God. God is moved to act when His glory is acknowledged and professed.

Praying to the heavenly Father

Prayer is typically an address to our heavenly Father – "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father who art in heaven'" (v. 9). We are to address God as Father. It is spiritually uplifting to clearly realize and say that God is our Father; and we are to address Him as such. This does not mean that we cannot pray to Jesus or to the Spirit; they too are God. But the relationship being underscored here is a filial one, indicating that we have been born again of the Spirit of God, and thus we are His spiritual offspring. Sonship (generically understood) is our spiritual status, and so we are to address God as Abba, Father. This fact can bring a tremendous amount of comfort and peace to a believer's heart. God is not a cruel, harsh ogre. He is not an impersonal, cosmic force. He is our Father.

As our Father, God cares for us. He wants to provide for us. He is concerned about us. He loves us. He knows what we need, and He knows what we are enduring, and He desires to help us. If you have any doubt about this truth, realize that it has come from the evil one, and you need to resist it; you need to rebuke him. As a believer, you have been born again of God's Spirit, and now you are a child of the King. Jesus says, "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father.'" 'Our Father' implies not only the idea of community, but also the idea of family. We should understand prayer as a family activity, realizing that we stand in spiritual relationship with other believers who also sustain a filial relationship with God the Father; and so, when we pray, we do not stand alone in relationship to God, but a multitude of believers also embraces God as Father; and we stand with them in Spirit, crying out (even though we may be praying alone), "Our Father."

We are to pray to our Father "in heaven." God reveals His presence and His glory in a special way in heaven. Because God is in heaven, we are to look up to Him in Spirit when we pray. The children of Israel were instructed, when they were away from Jerusalem, to pray towards the temple in Jerusalem. Their very posture was to underscore the fact that they were directing their prayers to God Whose abode was in the temple at Jerusalem. For example, Solomon prayed, "When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against Thee, and they pray toward this place and confess Thy name and turn from their sin when Thou dost afflict them, then hear Thou in heaven and forgive the sin of Thy servants and of Thy people Israel" (1 Kgs. 8:35,36a). So, while praying, in Spirit we should look up to the greater sanctuary or temple which is in heaven. God is the high and lofty One. He is the transcendent One, totally unrelated to this fallen creation. We need to have a very high view of God. We need to see God as unique, special, and infinitely higher than His creatures. He dwells in heaven, and that leads to the first petition (and there is a logical progression with these petitions).

God demands universal worship

The first petition concerns God's person – "Hallowed be Thy name" (v. 9c). We could translate the petition this way, "Let Your name be holy." Jesus is not instructing us to pray that God would make His name holy. God's name is already holy; it is holy by nature. Holiness characterizes all of God's attributes. He does not simply have the attribute of holiness, He Himself is essentially holy, that is, He is totally set apart from anything common and unclean; and He is infinitely pure in His nature.

We are to pray, "Lord, let people view and treat Your name as holy;" "Let people acknowledge and accept You as the Holy One;" "Let not people take Your sacred name in vain." Even Christians may take the name of the Lord in vain. They fail to realize that they are on holy ground every time they make reference to, or speak, the name of God. Ancient Israel were so concerned about taking the name of God in vain that they would not even pronounce the name Yahweh. They feared the name of God. We may take the name of God in vain, and that does not simply mean using God's name in a profane way; but while professing to be Christians, we may give a poor representation of, and witness to, God before others. We say that we bear His name, and yet may live in a compromising way, and thus cause the heathen to blaspheme the name of the Lord.

Jesus says, "Pray this way, 'Father, let Your name be viewed and treated as holy';" because that is what God deserves, and that is what He expects. The name of God represents God, and points to the person of God. Accordingly, what we are really praying is that God Himself be viewed as holy; or, in other words, we are to pray that God be honoured, that He be revered, that He be respected, that He be praised, that He be worshipped. We are to be so concerned about God's person that we are moved and broken when we see that He is not glorified, that He is not extolled. We, as believers, ought not to be indifferent concerning the person of God, or concerning people's attitudes toward God. Our chief concern should be that God's name be worshipped, that He receive homage and obeisance, that He receive praise and thanksgiving.

This first petition is really a plea for revival and spiritual awakening. Do you know why? Because much of the world is not honouring God, is not praising God, is not worshipping God; and the only way that this petition will ever be fulfilled is through revival and spiritual awakening. When we pray that God's name be viewed and treated as holy, we are, in effect, praying that God would bring revival, calling all the nations to Himself. We are praying for the fulfilment of Psalm 117, "Praise the LORD, all nations; laud Him, all peoples! For His loving kindness is great toward us, and the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD!" Jesus is saying to us, His people, that we should be concerned about God's glory, that we should have as our first priority, our first concern, that He be worshipped, praised, and adored.

God demands universal submission and surrender

God has a claim on our lives. We are His creatures, and He is the Creator. This fact leads us to the second petition – "Thy kingdom come" (v. 10a). There are two perspectives in view here. We may talk about the spiritual kingdom and the physical kingdom. The spiritual kingdom has already come with the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Every believer is in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. And yet, we are to pray for the extension and further manifestation of this kingdom. But we are also to understand the kingdom in a physical way. The future, eschatological kingdom will come when Christ returns. We are to pray for a hastening of the revelation of that future kingdom. Thus, this petition is a prayer for the swift return of Christ.

When we talk about the kingdom, we are talking about God reigning. We need to be praying that God would reign in the hearts and lives of people; that His reign would become universal. People are prone to follow their selfish desires, living in resistance and rebellion, being a law unto themselves, seeking out their own pleasure, not being accountable to anyone. They may acknowledge the existence of God, but they do not bow the knee to Him. So, we are to pray, "Lord, reign in the lives and the hearts of the nations." Again, this petition is a plea for revival and spiritual awakening. The kingdom cannot come apart from the Spirit of God. The coming of the kingdom is the coming of the Spirit. In order for the kingdom to come in power and fullness, the Spirit must be poured out in abundance.

If God is reigning in our hearts and lives, then we will be living in submission and surrender. Has the kingdom of God come to your heart? Has it manifested itself in your life? I am not asking you whether you are a Christian, but I am asking whether the kingdom of God has come to you. Does He reign in your heart; that is, have you submitted and surrendered your heart to Him?

God demands universal obedience

Of course, when we talk about submission and surrender, we are also talking about obedience; and that leads us to the third petition – "Thy [not 'my'] will be done" (v. 10b). The kind of will in view here is God's moral will, not His decretive or directive will. We are to pray that people will acknowledge that God is Lord Almighty and will live in conformity to His Word. We should pray, "Father, let the nations obey Your truth and follow You."

Many in the world are dead in trespasses and sins. There is rampant abuse and crime. There is widespread hatred and prejudice. We are to pray for a universal, moral transformation of the world. We are to pray that as the angels perfectly obey God, so everyone on the earth will perfectly obey Him – "on earth as it is in heaven" (v. 10c). Again, it is a plea for revival and spiritual awakening. Such an obedience can only come about through repentance from sin and a devotion to God, which means that the Holy Spirit must powerfully work.

So, our Lord here teaches us how to pray. We begin with God and His glory, not ourselves and our need. We are to pray in reference to His person; we are concerned about people viewing and treating God as holy, which is a plea for universal worship. We are to pray in reference to His ways; we are concerned about God reigning in the hearts and lives of people, that people acknowledge His sovereignty, which is a plea for universal submission and surrender. We are to pray in reference to His revelation; we are concerned that people conform to God's will, which is a plea for universal obedience. To pray properly, we must be consumed with His glory. Is that how you are praying?

Many prayers in the church are self-centred and self-directed. We are needy, but God does not want to hear our needs first. He first wants to hear our concerns for the revelation of His glory; and then He will respond to our needs. The only reason why God is pleased to meet our needs is because He is pleased to reveal His glory. So, our Lord teaches us to pray. Are you learning? Are you with Christ in the school of prayer?