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THE LORD’S PRAYER1717Preached at Balliol, 1872..


LUKE xi. 1, 2.

THE Lord’s Prayer has been the type of prayer among Christians in all ages. For eighteen centuries men have poured forth their hearts to God in these few words, which have probably had a greater influence on the world than all the writings of theologians put together. They are the simplest form of communion with Christ: when we utter them we are one with Him; His thoughts become our thoughts, and we draw near to God through Him. They are also the simplest form of communion with our-fellow men, in which we acknowledge Him to be our common Father and we His children. And the least particulars of our lives admit .of being ranged under one or other of the petitions which we offer up to Him.


It would be an error to suppose that the words of the Lord’s Prayer are altogether new, or that they seemed to the disciples of Christ quite different from anything which they had ever heard before. Truth does not descend from heaven like a sacred stone dropped out of another world, concerning which men vainly dispute what it is or whence it came. But it is the good word, the good thought, the good action, which arises in a man’s mind; as the apostle also says, ‘The word is very nigh unto thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart.’ The great prophet or teacher draws out what is latent in man, he interrogates their consciences, he finds a witness in them to the best. And, therefore, when we are told that parallels to all the petitions contained in the Lord’s Prayer may be found in Rabbinical writers, when we remark that in Seneca and other Gentile philosophers we are exhorted to forgiveness of injuries, when we read in Epictetus the words, ‘We have all sinned, some more, some less grievously,’ there is no reason why we should be shocked or surprised at these parallelisms. Neither is the Lord’s Prayer less fitted to be the medium of our communion with God because ancient holy men have used several of its petitions before the time of Christ, as all Christians have been in the habit of using them since. Are not all true sayings and all good thoughts, in all times and in all places, the anticipation of a truth which is shining more and more unto the perfect day?


The Lord’s Prayer is the simplest of all prayers, and also the deepest. We are children addressing a Father who is also the Lord of heaven and earth. In Him all the families of the earth become one family. The past as well as the present, the dead as well as the living, are embraced by His love. When we draw near to Him we draw nearer also to our fellow men. From the smaller family to which we are bound by ties of relationship we extend our thoughts to that larger family which lives in His presence. When we say ‘Our Father’ we do not mean that God is the Father of us in particular, but of the whole human race, the great family in heaven and earth. The heavenly Father is not like the earthly; yet through this image we attain a nearer notion of God than through any other. We mean that He loves us, that He educates us and all mankind, that He provides laws for us, that He receives us like the prodigal in the parable when we go astray. We mean that His is the nature which we most revere, with a mixed feeling of awe and of love; that He knows what is for our good far better than we know ourselves, and is able to do for us above all that we can ask or think. We mean that in His hands we are children, whose wish and pleasure is to do His will, whose duty is to trust in Him in all the accidents of their lives.

And, before we can pray to God in a worthy manner, we must still further distinguish between the 253earthly and heavenly Father. For although we speak of Him as a Father, which implies also the idea of personality, we do not mean that He is subject to personal caprice, or that He favours some of His children more than others, or that He will alter His universal laws in order to avert some calamity from us. All experience is against this, and we should destroy religion if we set up faith against universal experience. For either we should dwell in a sort of fools paradise, believing that our prayers had been answered when they had not been, because we had asked things which God could not grant (for they were at variance with the laws of the universe); or we should deny that there was a God altogether, because there was no such God as we had imagined. We must enlarge the horizon of our thoughts, and conceive of God once more as the infinite, the eternal Father, ‘with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning’ either in the physical or in the moral world; He of whom Christ says, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for one farthing? and yet your heavenly Father careth for them,’ and ‘The very hairs of your head are all numbered’; and yet also the universal law, the mind or reason which contains all laws, as much above the world of which He is the Author as our souls are above our bodies; in whom all things live and move and have their being; who is the perfection of all things, and yet distinct from them.


A great effort of mind is required of us if we would think of God truly, and also pray to Him. The imagination more easily conceives Him as a king seated on the clouds of heaven, and human creatures bowing before Him like Moses and the elders of Israel at Mount Sinai, hardly able to endure the glory that was revealed. And among the uneducated there are many religious persons who conceive of God as the friend in the next room, or rather in this, by whom they are seen when performing the most trivial actions of their lives, with whom they converse as with an earthly acquaintance, and tell Him garrulously of their sorrows and their joys. And perhaps they may think and speak of Him in a manner suited to them, but not in a manner suitable or natural to us. For we desire to approach that which is highest in the world with that which is highest in us, with our reason, and not with our feelings only—with such a prayer as men (and not children only) may use, living in the light of the nineteenth century, and not in the days when men were ignorant of the fixed laws of nature. Of this higher or true prayer, of this rational or mental service, I propose to speak in the remainder of this sermon. And then I shall go on to consider some of the hindrances or difficulties which most of us find both in private prayer and also in the common or public worship of God.

The beginning of true prayer is resignation to the divine will. We must not try to make His will our 255will, but to make our will His will. We must not kick against the pricks, or beg that this sickness or pain, the loss of this beloved one, may be averted from us. For God has taught us by many signs and proofs that these things are regulated by fixed laws. And is there not a kind of impiety in refusing to learn the plainest of lessons? Now that the book of nature has been revealed to us, must we not have the courage to say, a little parodying the words of the prophet, ‘Henceforth there shall be no more this prayer in the Christian Church, “Father, alter Thy laws for our good”; but “Father, if it be possible . . . nevertheless not my will, but Thine be done”’? We wish to live, perhaps, and accomplish a little more before we go home; but we know very well that our prayers will not delay the coming on of age, or restore the failing sight, or revive the strength of the paralyzed. ‘It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth Him good.’ And in youth there are often troubles which happen to us, great in themselves, and rendered greater by imagination, such as loss of fortune, or inferiority of position, or disappointment of the affections, or some other kind of disappointment; and we think with bitterness, ‘Oh, that we could have this particular trial spared to us; that we could have had the position of which we could have made such a good use; the friend without whom life seems hardly worth having!’ But all this is weakness and discontent. Can we not rise out of these crises of our lives, acquiescing in 256the will of God, but starting afresh to do Him service, making stepping-stones of our former selves towards something higher, setting our hearts where true joys are to be found? We cannot go to God and say, ‘O God, give me the life of that child, or sister, or wife, who is visibly hastening to the end.’ But we can say, ‘Though He smite me, yet will I trust in Him’; ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Neither can we go to Him and say, ‘O Lord, give me wealth,’ or even, ‘give me a sufficiency of the means of life, that I may make a good use of them.’ But we can go to Him and say, ‘O Lord, we thank Thee for the blessings which Thou hast given us, and for the sorrows by which Thou hast chastened us. Grant that we may draw nearer to Thee, and do Thy will more perfectly.’ What is this but praying that we may be more holy, more pure, more just, more truthful, more willing to live for others? Can we offer up such prayers too often, or have too many of them?

And this leads me to speak of a second aspect of prayer, communion or co-operation with God, For prayer is not the mere utterance of a few words in public or private at set times, but is the expression of a life. When we talk with men our words flow naturally out of our characters; we like to impart our thoughts to them, and to receive their thoughts in return. And when we speak with God, our power of addressing Him or holding communion with Him 257depends upon the identity of our will with His. Can we retire to rest with the feeling, ‘Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,’ remembering too that in the darkness; ‘Thou, God, seest us’? Can we rise in the morning almost with a feeling of joy that we are spared another day to do Him service—‘Awake, my soul, and with the sun Thy daily stage of duty run’? Does the thought ever occur to us in the course of the day that we will correct that particular fault, intellectual or moral, whether idleness, or want of accuracy or method, or any other fault, not with a view to success in life, or to university distinction, but in order that we may be able to serve Him better? Or do we ever seek to carry on the battle against sin and evil and the temptations which beset us, conscious that in ourselves we are weak, but that there is a strength greater than our own which is perfected in weakness? Or, once more, do we sometimes think of God as the Eternal, into whose hands we resign ourselves when we depart hence, with whom do live the spirits of the just made perfect, and who in the hour of death will be our trust and hope? We would not always be thinking of death, for we must live before we die; yet the thought of a time when we shall have passed out of the sight and memory of men may also help us to live, may assist us in shaking off the load of passions, prejudices, interests which weigh us down, may teach us to rise out of this world into the clearer light of another.


This is the spirit of prayer, the spirit of converse or communion with God, which leads us in all our actions silently to think of Him and refer them to Him. Such a spirit also enables us to know Him, as far as our faculties will admit. It is a great step in the knowledge of God to recognize that the laws by which He governs the world are fixed, and that true religion, as well as philosophy, requires that we should submit to them, and not by any freak of imagination seek to escape from them. But it is a still greater step in our knowledge of God when we recognize Him as the Author of good in the world, when we hear in the voice of conscience His voice speaking to us, when we are aware that He is the witness, and also the source, of every good thought in us; and that, when we feel in our hearts the struggle against some lust or evil passion, then God is fighting with us against envy, against selfishness, against impurity, for our better self against our worse self. And, once more, there is a further step, when we think of Him as not only co-operating with us, but going before us or preventing us, when we begin to see that He has an education or plan of salvation prepared, not only for us, but for all mankind, extending through many ages, even to eternity, in which we too may take a part and have a share, and find the true meaning of our lives in His service.

Another aspect of prayer is the confession of our wrong-doing. There are sins which we have committed, 259or a course of life, idle or expensive pleasure, in which we have indulged, or feelings which we have entertained towards others, which were not right: of these we ought to think sometimes at our prayers. Then is the time to get rid of hypocrisy and see ourselves as we truly are in the sight of God. I do not think that we are called upon to confess our sins to men, except in certain cases, or when we have individually wronged them; but we are called upon to acknowledge them before God—‘O Lord, against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.’ Nor should we tease ourselves about the past, which cannot be undone. But we should set before ourselves, and fix indelibly in our minds, that these things were wrong, offences against the laws of God, and some of them perhaps disgraceful in the opinion of men. One use of prayer is to maintain in us a higher standard, and prevent our principles insensibly sinking to our practice, or to the practice of the world around us. When a man listens to the voice of the tempter within him, he is inclined to do as others do, not to resist when the temptation seems great. But when he looks into the law of God and hears the words of Christ, his natural sense of right and wrong is restored to him, and he becomes elevated, purified, sanctified.

These are some of the thoughts which may occupy our minds at public as well as private prayer. And there are many others which each one can supply for himself. We desire for a few minutes in each day to 260live in the presence of God, in the presence of truth and justice and holiness and love, and to think of other men as they are in the presence of God. Yea, and of ourselves also, that we may free our minds from vanities and jealousies, that we may grow in self-knowledge and in true knowledge of the world, that we may have peace in the thought of death. And, if our horizon seems to enlarge, and new knowledge makes the old childish prayer impossible to us, let the horizon of our prayers enlarge too and include all knowledge and all truth, that we may be reconciled to ourselves, and learn to devote our intellectual gifts wholly to the service of God and man.

Let me say a few words in conclusion about our worship in this place. No one is compelled to attend the chapel service; nor will any of us think worse of those who are absent than of those who come. Prayer is the offering of the heart to God, and cannot be enforced. College rules might keep up the appearance of religion among us, but not the reality. And we must endeavour to avoid the error of dividing this or any other society into those who think with us and those who do not. Persons who have strong religious feelings must be on their guard against the danger, not exactly of thinking too well of themselves (for no man consciously does this), but of isolating themselves, of falling into party spirit, of allowing devotion insensibly to degenerate into superstition. If they can do any good to others, they must be like 261them; they must draw others to them by the insensible influence of their characters, and not by a profession of religion.

And, speaking to others, may I be allowed to say that many or most of us would be better for coming to chapel on week-days; at least I think so. A few minutes of calm thought, in which we hear the best of words read and offer up the day to God, ought not to be a burden to us. In this ever-increasing hurry of life, and in this nineteenth century, when we live so fast, as people sometimes say, do we not require a breathing time, a moment or two daily, to think where we are going? In youth especially, when we are laying the foundation of our after life, and find such a difficulty in realizing that this gay time, this sunshine or summer of enjoyment and health, these few years passed at the University, are in reality the most important of all. We have been all of us taught to pray by our parents in the days of our childhood. Is there not something sad in our throwing this aside when most required by us, on the threshold of manhood? Life is a shallow thing with out religion, and at times the old religious feelings will come back upon us and assert their natural powers. As years go on we shall have others to teach, and may then find that the springs of religion are dried up within us, and that we have no religious gift or influence to impart to them such as our parents imparted to us. Then we may feel painfully about 262 them what we do not at present think about ourselves. We may wish that they had the restraint of religion to enable them to resist the lusts of the flesh and the other temptations of evil; we may regret that they are so worldly and external, or perhaps that, following some natural impulse, they have rushed into some opposite extreme, and perceive too late that the deficiency in their characters began in our own.

But if a person, not from indolence or levity, says that he has no inclination to join in our daily public prayer, and that he is afraid of falling into formalism or conventionalism, I would not condemn him or regard him as less a Christian on that account. Every one must judge for himself, and the end is not to be confounded with the means. But, if he forsakes the customs of others, he is the more bound to watch strictly over himself. He has not less, but perhaps rather more, need of a high standard of duty and of life. He must make a religion for himself of what he knows to be right, of whatsoever things are lovely and of good report. He must teach himself humility and modesty from a consciousness of his own weakness and liability to error, and the narrowness of the human faculties. He must think of sickness and old age and death as possibilities and realities of life. He must acknowledge that mere worldly success to any higher mind is not worth having. He must condemn many of his own actions when he calmly reviews them. He 263must lament over opportunities which he has lost. He must desire to become better. For to all good men, whether they use the words or not, life is an aspiration and a prayer. And sometimes they may be doing the work of God while yet only seeking after Him and still ignorant of Him.

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