The Lord’s Prayer Explained By Charles Kingsley

The Lords Prayer TextThe Lord’s Prayer is a popular subject for the Sunday sermon. One such sermon was delivered by Charles Kingsley and included in his old book Sermons for the Times. Kingsley was a 19th century priest of the Church of England, a university professor, historian, social activist, and a novelist (as well as a friend of Charles Darwin).

Kingsley’s analysis of the Lord’s Prayer differs in many ways from The Living Hour’s more modern & Unitarian reading (which you can read here: The Lord’s Prayer), but it is always good to look at any subject from the alternative viewpoints of the past—especially when it comes to matters of religion and spirituality.

Excerpted from Sermons for the Times

The Catechism teaches us the need of prayer, immediately after making us confess our duty; and therefore it is that it begins by teaching the Lord’s Prayer, because that prayer is the one, of all prayers which ever have been offered upon earth, which perfectly expresses the duty of man, and man’s relation to Almighty God.

It is throughout a prayer for strength. It confesses throughout what we want strength for, to what use we are to put God’s grace if He bestows it on us. Our delight in the Lord’s Prayer will depend on what we consider our duty here on earth to be.

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If we look upon this earth principally as a place where we are to pray for all the good things which we can get, our first prayer will be, of course, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

If we look at this earth principally as a place where we have a chance of being saved from punishment and torment after we die, then our first prayer will be, ‘Forgive us our sins.’ And, in fact, that is all that too many of our prayers now-a-days seem to consist of,—‘Oh, my Maker, give me. my daily bread. Oh, my Judge, forgive me my sins.’ Right prayers enough, but spoilt by being taken out of their place; spoilt by being prayed before all other prayers; spoilt, too, by being prayed for ourselves alone, and not for other people also.

But if we believe, as the Bible and the Catechism tell us, that we and all Christian people are God’s children, members of God’s family, set on earth in God’s kingdom to do His work by doing our duty, each in that station of life to which God has called us, in the hope of a just reward hereafter according to our works, then our great desire will be for strength to do our duty, and the Lord’s Prayer will seem to us the most perfect way of asking for that strength; and if we believe that we are God’s children and He our Father, we shall feel sure that we must get strength from Him, and sure that we must ask for that strength; and sure that He will give it us if we do ask.

But if His will is to give it us, why ask Him at all? Why pray at all, if God already knows our necessities, and is able and willing to supply them?

My friends, the longer I live, the more certain I am that the only reason for praying at all is because God is our Father; the more certain I am that we shall never have any heart to pray unless we believe that God is our Father. If we forget that, we may utter to Him selfish cries for bread; or when we look at His great power, we may become terrified, and utter selfish cries to Him not to harm us, without any real shame or sorrow for sin: but few of us will have any heart to persevere in those cries. People will say to themselves, ‘If God is evil, He will not care to have mercy on me: and if He is good, there is no use wearying Him by asking Him what He has already intended to give me: why should I pray at all?’

The only answer is, ‘Pray, because God is your Father, and you His child.’ The only answer; but the most complete answer. I will engage to say, that if anyone here is ever troubled with doubts about prayer, those two simple words, ‘Our Father,’ if he can once really believe them in their full richness and depth, will make the doubts vanish in a moment, and prayer seem the most natural and reasonable of all acts. It is because we are God’s children, not merely His creatures, that He will have us pray. Because He is educating us to know Him; to know Him not merely to be an Almighty Power, but a living, loving Person; not merely an irresistible Fate, but a Father who delights in the love of His children, who wishes to shape them into His own likeness, and make them fellow-workers with Him; therefore it is that He will have us pray.

Doubtless he could have given us everything without our asking; for He does already give us almost everything without our asking. But He wishes to educate us as His children; to make us trust in Him; to make us love Him; to make us work for Him of our own free wills, in the great battle which He is carrying on against evil; and that He can only do by teaching us to pray to Him. I say it reverently, but firmly. As far as we can see, God cannot educate us to know Him, The living, willing, loving Father, unless He teaches us to open our hearts to Him, and to ask Him freely for what we want, just because He knows what we want already.

If I have not made this plain enough to any of you, my friends, let me go back to the simple, practical explanation of it which God Himself has given us in those two words—father and child.

Should you like to have a child who never spoke to you, never asked you for anything? Of course not. And why? ‘Because,’ you would say, ‘one might as well have a dumb animal in one’s family instead of a child, if it is never to talk and ask questions and advice.’ Most true and reasonable, my friends. And as you would say concerning your children, so says God of His. You feel that unless you teach your children to ask you for all they want, even though you know their necessities before they ask, and their ignorance in asking, you will never call out their love and trust towards you.

You know that if you want really to have your child to please and obey you, not as a mere tame animal, but as a willing, reasonable, loving child, you must make him know that you are training him; and you must teach him to come to you of his own accord to be trained, to be taught his duty, and set right where he is wrong: and even so does God with you. If you will only consider the way in which any child must be educated by its human parents, then you will at once see why prayer to our Heavenly Father is a necessary part of our education in the kingdom of heaven.

Now the Lord’s Prayer, just this sort of prayer, is man’s cry to his Heavenly Father to train him, to educate him, to take charge of him, daily and hourly, body and soul and spirit. It is a prayer for grace, for special grace; that is, for help, daily and hourly, in each particular duty and circumstance; for help from God specially suited to enable us to do our duty. And the whole of the prayer is of this kind, and not, as some think, the latter part only.

It is too often said that the three first sentences are not prayers for man, but rather praises to God. My friends, they cannot be one without being the other. You cannot, I believe, praise God aright without praying for men; you cannot pray for men aright without praising God; at least, you cannot use the Lord’s Prayer without doing both at once, without at once declaring the glory of God and praying for the welfare of all mankind.

Hallowed be Thy name.’ Is not that a prayer for men as well as praise to God? Yes, my friends, when you say, ‘Our Father, hallowed be Thy name,’ you pray that all men may come at last to look up to God as their Father, to love, serve, and obey God as His children; and for what higher blessing can you pray?

Ay, and you pray, too, that men may learn at last the deep meaning of that word—father; that they may see how Godlike and noble a trust God lays on them when He gives them children to educate and make Christian men; you pray that the hearts of all fathers may be turned to the children, and the hearts of all children to the fathers; you pray for the welfare, and the holiness, and the peace of every home on earth; you pray for the welfare of generations yet unborn, when you pray, ‘Our Father, hallowed be Thy name.’

Thy kingdom come.’ Is not that too, if we will look at it steadfastly, prayer for our neighbors, prayer for all mankind, and still prayer for ourselves; prayer for grace, prayer for the life and health of our own souls?

‘Thy kingdom come.’—That kingdom of the Father which Jesus Christ proved by His works on earth to be a kingdom of justice and righteousness, of love and fellow-feeling. When we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ it is as if we said, ‘Son of God, root out of this sinful earth all self-will and lawlessness, all injustice and cruelty; root out all carelessness, ignorance, and hardness of heart; root out all hatred, envy, slander; root them out of all men’s hearts; out of my heart, for I have the seeds of them in me.

Make me, and all men round me, day by day, more sure that Thou art indeed our King; that Thou hast indeed taught us the laws of Thy Father’s kingdom; and that, only in keeping them and loving them is there health, and righteousness, and safety for any soul of man, for any nation under the sun.’

Thy will be done;’—no, not merely ‘Thy will be done;’ but done ‘on earth as it is in heaven;’ done, not merely as the trees and the animals, the wind and clouds, do Thy will, by blindly following their natures, but done as angels and blessed spirits do it, of their own will. They obey Thee as living, willing, loving persons; as Thy sons: teach us to obey Thee in like manner; lovingly, because we love Thy will; willingly, because our wills are turned to Thy will; and therefore, oh Heavenly Father, take charge of these wayward wills and minds of ours, of these selfish, self-willed, ignorant, hasty hearts of ours, and cleanse them and renew them by Thy Spirit, and change them into Thy likeness day by day.

Make us all clean hearts, oh God, and renew within us a right spirit, the copy of Thine own Holy Spirit. Cast us not away from Thy presence, for from Thee alone comes our soul’s life; take not from us Thy Holy Spirit, who is The Lord and Giver of Life; whose will is Thy will; who alone can strengthen and change us to do Thy will on earth, as saints and angels do in heaven, and to be fellow-workers with each other, fellow-workers with Thee, O God, even as those blessed spirits are who minister day and night to all Thy creatures.

Give us this day our daily bread.’ People sometimes divide the Lord’s Prayer into two parts—the ascriptions and the petitions—and consider that after we have sufficiently glorified and praised God in the first three sentences of the prayer, then we are at liberty to begin asking something for ourselves, and to say ‘Give us day by day our daily bread.’ I cannot think so, my friends.

I have been showing you that ‘Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,’ if we do but recollect that they are spoken to our Father, are just as much prayers for all mankind, as they are hymns of honour to God; and so I say of these latter: ‘Give us—Forgive us—Lead us not—Deliver us’—that if we will but remember that they, too, are spoken to our Father, we shall find that they are just as much hymns of honour to God as prayers for mankind.

Yes, my friends, when we say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we do indeed honour God and the name of God. We declare that He is Love, that He is The Giver, The absolutely and boundlessly generous and magnanimous Being. And what higher glory and honour or praise can we ascribe, even to God Himself, than to say that of Him? Next, we pray not for ourselves only, but for our neighbors; for England, for Christendom, for the heathen who know not God, and for generations yet unborn.

We pray that God would so guide, and teach, and preserve the children of men, as to enable them to fulfil in every country and every age the work which He gave them to do, when He said, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.’ We know that our Father has commanded us to labor. We know that our Father has so well ordered this glorious earth, that whosoever labors may reap the just fruit of his labor; therefore we pray that God would prosper our righteous plans for earning our own living.

We pray to Him not only so to order the earth that it may bring forth its fruits in due season, but that men may be in a fit state to enjoy those fruits, that God may not be forced for their good to withhold from them blessings which they might abuse to their ruin. But we pray, also, ‘Give us:’ not me only, but us; and therefore we pray that He would prosper our neighbor’s plans as well as ours.

So we confess that we believe God to be no respecter of persons; we confess that we believe He will not take bread out of others’ mouths to give it to us; we declare that God’s curse is on all selfishness and oppression of man by man; we renounce our own selfishness, the lust which our fallen nature has to rise upon others’ fall, and say, ‘Father, we are all children at Thy common table. Thou alone canst prosper the richest and the wisest; Thou alone canst prosper the poorest and the weakest; Thou wilt do equal justice to all some day, and we confess that Thou art just in so doing; we only ask Thee to do it now, and to give us and all mankind that which is good for them.’

Thus we pray not for this generation only, but for generations yet unborn; not for this nation of England only, but for heathens and savages beyond the seas. When we say, ‘Give us our daily bread,’ we pray for every child here and on earth, that he may receive such an education as may enable him to get his daily bread.

We pray for learned men in their studies, that they may discover arts and sciences which shall enrich and comfort nations yet unborn. We pray for merchants on the seas, that they may discover new markets for trade, new lands to colonize and fill with Christian men, and extend the blessings of industry and civilization to the savage who lives as the beasts which perish and dwindles down off the face of the earth by famine, disease, and war, the victim of his own idleness, ignorance, and improvidence.

And all the while we are praying for the widow and the orphan, that God would send them friends in time of need; for the houseless wanderer, for the shipwrecked sailor, for sick persons, for feeble infants, that God would send help to them who cannot help themselves, and soften our hearts and the hearts of all around us, that we may never turn our faces away from any poor man, lest the face of the Lord be turned away from us.

So far we have been praying to our Heavenly Father, first as a Father, then as a King, then as an Inspirer, then as a Giver; and next we pray to Him as a Forgiver—‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ We have been confessing in these four petitions what God’s goodwill to man is; what God wishes man to be, how man ought to live and believe. And then comes the recollection of sin.

We must confess what God’s law is before we can confess that we have broken it; and now we do confess that we have broken it. We know that God is our Father. How often have we forgotten that He is a father; how often have we forgotten to be good fathers ourselves.

We are in God’s kingdom. How often have we behaved as if we were our own kings, and had no masters over us but our own fancies, tempers, appetites! We are to do His will on earth as it is done in heaven. How have we been doing our own will!—pleasing ourselves, breaking loose from His laws, trying to do right of our own wills and in our own strength, instead of asking His Spirit to strengthen, and cleanse, and renew our wills, and so have ended by doing not the right which we knew to be right, but the wrong which we knew to be wrong.

God is a giver. How often have we looked on ourselves as takers, and fancied that we must as it were steal the good things of this world from God, lest He should forget to give us what was fitting! How often have we forgotten that God gives to all men, as well as to us; and while we were praying, give me my daily bread, kept others out of their daily bread!

Oh, my friends, we cannot blame ourselves too much for all these sins; we cannot think them too heinous. We cannot confess them too openly; we cannot cry too humbly and earnestly for forgiveness. But we never shall feel the full sinfulness of sin; we never shall thoroughly humble ourselves in confession and repentance, unless we remember that all our sins have been sins against a Father, and a forgiving Father, and that it is His especial glory, the very beauty and excellence in Him, which ought to have kept us from disobeying Him, that He does forgive those who disobey Him.

And, lastly, in like manner, when you say, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver…’ you are not only entreating God to lead you, but you are honouring and praising Him, you are setting forth His glory, and declaring that He is a God who does lead, and a God who does not leave His poor creatures to wander their own foolish way, but guides men, in spite of all their sins, full of condescension and pity, care and tender love.

You do not only ask God to deliver you from evil, but you declare that He is righteous, and hates evil; that He is love, and desires to deliver you from evil; One who spared not His only-begotten Son, but gave Him freely for us, to deliver us from evil; and raised Him up, and delivered all power into His hand, that He might fight His Father’s battle against all which is hurtful to man and hateful to God, till death itself shall be destroyed, and all enemies put under the feet of the Saviour God.

Don’t forget to check out our new rendering of the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John at: Read the Gospels Online.