We are talking again this week about prayer.
We are going back to look at the verses we skipped over in talking about freedom from religion. Here in verse 7 are some very familiar words where Jesus teaches about prayer. His first instruction is simple; “Don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.”
We saw an example of that in the video clip. Another example that would have been familiar to people listening to Jesus is the prophets of Baal, who were defeated by Elijah. As you know, Elijah challenged them to a contest to see whether God listened to them or to Elijah. Please read the story in 1 Kings 18.
On top of Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal danced around for an entire day chanting “O Baal, answer us!” Elijah spent the day mocking them, suggesting that maybe they needed to wake God up from his nap.
It says in verse 28: “So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response.”
It was all futile. All the noise. All the effort. All the activity, for no result. It was all futile.
Two main lessons are to be gained from this, beside the obvious one of praying to the one true God. First, they were obsessed with technique. This is the assumption that if you dance in just the right way or slash yourself correctly then your prayer will be answered. Second, they were obsessed with effort. This is the assumption that if you want an answer from God you just have to shout louder and longer.
At the root of these wrong assumptions is the mistaken idea that it is all up to us.
Sorry to say, this way of thinking did not die with the false prophets but persists today in far-flung corners of the church. Prayer is not a set of techniques that can be used to manipulate God. Prayer is a relationship.
Jesus simply says: “Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!”
God knows what you need, but he doesn’t give you what you ask for automatically. If he did, would you dare pray? For me, it would be too dangerous.
We know that our father loves us. He knows our every need. So we can relax. Just talk in a calm and respectful way that is suited to talking to the Lord of the universe, who just happens to be your daddy. He isn’t busy and distant. Prayer is making humble requests. Prayer is sharing feelings and thoughts and experiences. Prayer is a relationship of trust and love, so stop making it into hard work.
Next Jesus gives us a lesson on prayer, what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ or the ‘Our Father’.
He teaches us to say ‘our’ and ‘us’ in this prayer. It is a prayer for believers to say together to their shared father, which is why we say it together every Sunday.
The prayer contains two groups of three statements.
The first prays for God’s name, kingdom and will. It concludes with the words, ‘on earth, as it is in heaven.’ That God’s name will be kept holy and he will be obeyed by all of us together, that his kingdom will come and we will live as citizens of his kingdom, and that all of us will do whatever he asks of us. We submit to him and we implore his victory over the powers of evil. These things are true now, and we want them to be true in the future on earth.
The next three are about our needs. Our need for food first. When we pray this we remember also that Jesus is the bread of life, and we depend on him for life. Every day.
Our need for forgiveness and our need for protection from temptation. The temptation is probably not only that temptation to do wrong, because it also means ‘time of trial’. We are asking for help to endure persecution, personal hardships, and the testing at the end of the age.
I want to spend a bit longer on the prayer for God to ‘forgive us our sins.’ Every time we gather together and say this prayer, we admit we need God to forgive us. As long as we have a sinful nature and until we are perfect, the inner battle continues.
Jesus says there are conditions attached to this forgiveness. He thinks this is so important that in verse 14, after his example prayer, he adds these instructions: “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
It may seem as though one comes before the other. As though you forgive and ‘then’ he forgives. But that would turn forgiveness into a reward. The word ‘then’ is missing from this text, however. Jesus is saying something subtly different.
It is not a lesson in cause and effect. It is a lesson about relationship.
If you are the kind of person who never forgives, it means you are the kind of person who cannot receive forgiveness. You can’t receive because you have a heart that is not in relationship with God’s heart, and is not in relationship with your brother or sister.
It is not enough for you to agree with this principle. It is not enough for you to say that one day, at some distant point in the future, you will get around to forgiving people.
What is required is for you to write off all the spiritual and emotional debts of others toward you. Write them all off and close the book. And then bury the book.
To pray the Lord’s Prayer authentically, we have to let go of all unforgiveness as we pray. When we say the words ‘as we have forgiven those who sin against us’ (or ‘as we also have forgiven our debtors’ [NIV]) we must mean ‘I hereby declare that right now I entirely forgive anyone who has done me any wrong ever.’
And we do it again every time we pray this prayer, because we continue to need God’s forgiveness. And we continue to need to forgive others.
Forgiveness is not optional. It is not a decoration on our authentic faith. It is core. Without it we cannot have a healthy relationship with God or with each other.
Unforgiveness is a rottenness in a fruit that spreads to the other fruit in the bowl, causing bitterness and grief to grow. The rotten fruit has to be removed.
Unforgiveness is a bridge to the past. It is a highway straight back to the hurt and pain. It keeps us always as a victim, by keeping the past alive. Forgiving breaks the link and sets us free. The pain stays in the past.
You may need to forgive yourself sometimes for being less than perfect and making a mistake. Sometimes we blame others, maybe even entire nations, for our situation. Or we are upset at getting old and frustrated with our bodies.
Forgiveness is an act of will. It is no use at all delaying until you feel like doing it. It will never happen. Just do it. Now!
It may seem impossible. Some people, maybe you, have deep wounds. You may need to receive compassionate help and support, not easy phrases and cool advice.
Forgiveness is often a journey of pain and hardship that has to be walked over time. One step after another. Step after painful step. Jesus knows it isn’t easy. Jesus never says anything that should make you feel guilty over how hard it is.
But Jesus does say we walk this journey together, praying together to our God.
The importance of relationships is explicit and emphatic in Jesus’ words. If you do not forgive your brother you cannot know God’s forgiveness. There is such tragedy in the lives of people who spend hours in prayer and yet cannot overcome some grievance.
Your relationship with God can never be right as long as you hide unforgiveness in your heart. It is impossible to cultivate a deep prayer life while you are crabby, critical and complaining toward others.
Jesus has issued us with an urgent request to a better way of life.
Turn your back on the swamp of depression and bitterness.
Shift your gaze from the hurts of life onto the Lord of your life.
Turn away from the offence of others to a quest for purity in your own life.
Forgive, and start to explore a new world of intimacy with God.
Discover true freedom in your prayers. Forgive. Do it today and tomorrow.