Everything Wesley believed, practiced, and taught about prayer is based on one premise: God can be known. With that foundation clearly laid, he viewed prayer as “the grand means of drawing near to God.” In this final installment, we will use Wesley’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew and Luke in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1755) to provide insights regarding the God to whom we pray. The italicized phrases will be Wesley’s own words.
To say “Our Father” is to speak volumes concerning the God of prayer. More than anything else, said Wesley, God is “good and gracious to all.” Or to say it another way, the nature of God is love. Therefore, we enter into God’s presence through prayer fully assured that God is willing to receive us and able to help us. We are God’s dear children “by adoption and grace,” and as such we should never worry or fear that God will be disinterested in us.
Praying “who art in heaven” is not to view God as detached and far away, but rather as “the Father of the universe” -the God who knows “every creature, and all the works of every creature, and every possible event from everlasting to everlasting; the almighty Lord and Ruler of all, superintending and disposing all things.” Far from being distanced and otherwise removed from our cares and concerns, God “fillest heaven and earth.”
We thus have the two great pillars of honest and effective prayer: God’s love and God’s comprehensive knowledge. If God knew us but did not love us, we would fear, using every means possible to sweep our sins and shortcomings underneath the rug. But because we begin knowing that God loves us, we can bring the totality of our lives to him.
On the other hand, if we prayed to a God of love, but who lacked complete knowledge of all things, we could pretend, holding onto our faults and failures, and presuming on a kind of benign benevolence. But because God knows us and all things, we must confess, repent, and ask for grace to be forgiven and healed. It is the combination of God’s full love and complete knowledge that provides for authentic prayer. And based on that combination we can say, “hallowed by thy name,” which Wesley took to mean our desire for God to “be truly known by all intelligent beings, and with affections suitable to that knowledge!”
With this kind of communion established, it is only natural that we would begin to look at things from God’s viewpoint. Thus, all remaining phrases of the Lord’s prayer become human expressions of divine desires. None is more important than “thy kingdom come”-our prayer for the “kingdom of grace to come quickly, and swallow up all the kingdoms of the earth!” Our prayer becomes a recognition of God’s evangelistic heart whereby “all mankind, receiving Thee, O Christ, for their King, truly believing in Thy name, be filled with righteousness, peace, and joy, with holiness and happiness, till they be removed hence into Thy kingdom of glory, to reign with Thee for ever and ever.”
We would have to look a long time to find three lines of prayerful commentary that better express the comprehensive, redemptive love of God in time and for eternity. The same can be said for the other phrases that follow in the Lord’s prayer.
To pray “give us this day our daily bread” is to recognize that God is concerned about our materiality as well as our spirituality. “Give us,” said Wesley, is the recognition that God is the source of all we are and have; “we claim nothing of right, but only of Thy free mercy” and we do it in the context of “this day”-that is, “all things needful for our souls and bodies; not only ‘the meat that perisheth,’ but the sacramental bread, and Thy grace, the food ‘which endureth to everlasting life’.” As far as human existence is concerned, prayer makes sense only against the backdrop of God’s comprehensive concern.
This concern includes those areas of our lives where we are tempted to turn from our faith, and those moments when we must cry out for deliverance from evil. Even in such times God is with us. “Whenever we are tempted, O Thou that helpest our infirmities, suffer us not to ‘enter into temptation’; to be overcome or suffer loss thereby; but make a way for us to escape, so that we may be more than conquerors, through Thy love, over sin and all the consequences of it. Now, the principle desire of a Christian’s heart being the glory of God, and all he wants for himself or his brethren being the ‘daily bread’ of soul and body (or the support of life, animal and spiritual), pardon of sin, and deliverance from the power of it and the devil, there is nothing besides that a Christian can wish for: therefore this prayer comprehends all his desires. Eternal life is the certain consequence, or rather completion, of holiness.”
Is it any wonder, then, that Wesley was compelled to devote regular, continuing, and extended periods to prayer-and to encourage others to do the same? Can we doubt that this connection to God’s heart, God’s will, God’s grace, and God’s power was the “engine” that powered both his personal life and the movement of early Methodism?