Seminal Christian Thinkers: Augustine on the Lord’s Prayer
All Augustine sermon citations are taken from Sermon 80, Edmund Hill Translation1
Prayer has always been central to Christian communities. In America today, most are familiar with the text of the Lord’s Prayer, which Christ teaches his disciples in Matthew 6 (cf. Luke 11). The fact that such an ancient text continues to find relevance in the lives of each new generation says something significant about its worth. Yet popularity includes inherent drawbacks. Although millions can recite the Lord’s Prayer, many do so thoughtlessly. Others consider prayer to be a useless and atavistic ritual that should be permanently relegated to the primitive past.2 How can we address these issues? Here I will argue that a sermon delivered over 1,500 years ago by Augustine of Hippo has something important to say about the effectiveness of prayer. Sermon 80 exemplifies Augustine’s desire to meet his audience in a place where he is both teacher and fellow learner in the probing of Christian mysteries. One such mystery is the effectiveness of prayer. If, Augustine contends, “our Father already knows what we need (Matt. 6:8), why are we to ask?” (§2). Put bluntly: “Why should we tire ourselves out asking and seeking and knocking, just to inform someone who already knows it all?” (§2). The sentiment behind this question is well known to anyone who has experienced the ups and downs of faith’s journey.
Augustine begins the sermon by reflecting on the day’s gospel reading: Matt. 17:18–20. In this story the disciples are unable to cast out a demon “because of [their] unbelief” (Matt. 17:20). Surprisingly, Augustine does not focus on the failure of the disciples. Instead he holds them up as a model for his congregation by asking a rhetorical question: “If the apostles were unbelievers, who is a believer?” (§1). Given that Christians should trust the witness of the apostles, who were appointed by Christ to proclaim the message of salvation, why does Scripture seem to portray them as spiritual weaklings? Augustine turns to the gospel of Luke, and quotes a passage where the apostles entreat the Lord to give them more faith (Luke 17:5). He then explains that the disciples assumed a humble position before Christ because they recognized their Lord as the fountain of all good things. They implored Christ to “fill them up” and looked to Christ for satisfaction (§1). The message to pray for faith applies just as much to the disciples as it does to each wayfarer on life’s journey.
As the sermon unfolds, Augustine complicates the discussion by asking whether prayer can be more than one-way bridge from doubt to faith. “Do you imagine, brothers and sisters,” he asks, “that God doesn’t know what your needs are?” (§2). Just as the disciples learned about prayer directly from Christ, so we must learn to approach God, through Christ, in a way that befits God’s divine majesty. The time-bound human mind is fundamentally limited in its capacity to understand God’s omniscience, so this is not always an easy or simple task. On the one hand, Christ told his disciples not to be “garrulous” in prayer, since “your Father knows what you need before you ask him for it (Matt. 6:8)” (§2). We should exercise cautious reverence in considering whether a prayerful request is appropriate. Yet at the same time, Christ taught that we should “always pray, and not grow weary” (§2, cf. Luke 18:1). Augustine’s sermon combines these two difficult commands to highlight the complexity of Scripture’s testimony regarding the accessibility of God through prayer.3 Augustine is certain that we should pray. In fact, he is “obliged to urge on both you and myself to prayer” (§2). But what happens when prayers are not answered—when it seems that God is not listening?
One response is to assume that God only hears the prayers that God approves. Such an understanding seems to follow from the conviction that “your Father doesn’t give you what he knows is not good for you” (§2). Yet an essential piece of the puzzle is missing. If we feel “rebuffed” by God, Augustine claims that it is only to “exercise [us] in desiring” (§1). To back up this interpretation, Augustine looks to Christ’s incarnation. He develops a metaphor in which Christ is portrayed as the doctor who descended from heaven and “found all of us sick” (§4). To help his audience see Christ in this light, Augustine first asks them to consider “how urgently people beg doctors for merely temporary health, how if someone is desperately ill he’s neither slow nor shy about clinging to the [doctor’s] feet, washing … [the feet] with his tears” (§3). With this clever allusion to an event in the life of Christ,4 Augustine signals that he is going to compare and contrast the admiration and faith that people place in human doctors to that which should, all the more, be placed in the divine doctor.
If Christ came as a doctor to heal all of humanity, why do people still suffer from sickness? Augustine addresses this question by describing “two kinds of sick people” (§4). Each one reacts differently to the humble work of Christ. Although both are in need of the same treatment, “one pleads with the doctor in tears, the other, delirious in his sickness, pours scorn on the doctor … Why? Because he imagines himself to be well” (§4). This person is anyone—Augustine himself included—who is exercised in the self-deception of sin. In his Confessions, Augustine describes how his own sin “was all the more incurable because I imagined that I was not a sinner … I preferred that you, Almighty God, should be overcome in me, to my destruction, rather than that I should be overcome by you for my salvation.”5 Visiting the doctor is an occasion for humble trust, not selfish manipulation. How can a doctor work if his patient is unwilling to obey his commands? He can only “wring his hands over the one who is laughing at him” (§4). The healing work of the heavenly doctor is regularly obstructed by the specific capacity of humans to “make the world evil” (§8). Even further, Augustine reminds us of how human beings rejected Christ, “seizing the doctor, binding him, scourging him, and crowning him with thorns” (§4). In deliberate sin, we are no different from those who destroyed the divine doctor by their actions.
But what can all this teach us about the role of prayer in daily life? The answer is found in one succinct and beautiful phrase: “The blood of Christ, which they had shed in fury, they drank in faith” (§5). This phrase reveals the inestimable value of conversion (repentance) for Augustine. The very same humans who were once enemies of God, who were once the sinners of Romans 3:23, are now capable of sharing in the eucharistic gift of Christ’s humble suffering! If Christ was willing bear the pains of the cross, in order to extend mercy even to those who were despising him, how much more will Christ willingly listen to the prayer of a faithful person, spoken from a broken and humbled heart (Ps. 55:19)? And what is a broken heart but one that has been made pure by repentance, one that is continually striving to cast off the old man and put on the new (Eph. 4:22-24)? As Augustine articulates: “The proud cannot find [God], however deep and curious their knowledge, not even if they could count the stars and the grains of sand, or measure the constellations in the sky and track down the paths of the stars.”6 In the act of worship, Christians around the world speak together the words, “Lord, have mercy.” Augustine entreats us to do the same in our daily lives, approaching the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) with self-emptying humility rather than self-righteous assurance. If we are willing to ask earthly doctors for temporal goods, how much more should we beg the divine doctor, through the Holy Spirit, for the eternal good of faith (Rom. 8:26)?
Augustine boldly asserts that humans can relate to the transcendent will of God. We should do so both publicly and privately, willing to acknowledge the life-changing aspects of dialoguing with the eternal in and through our temporal awareness. Augustine conveys his message by interpreting sacred texts metaphorically, using terms his parishioners can understand. He opens up the Scriptural witness about prayer (with its inherent ambiguities!) with the metaphor of a divine doctor. This metaphor helps us embrace the tension between our needs and God’s omniscience, showing that humility is the necessary point of departure for effective prayer. Augustine’s charitable desire to bring understanding of the Christian mysteries to anyone who is seeking knowledge inspires us, in turn, to cry out with the saints, “Lord, we do believe: help our unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
1) Augustine of Hippo. Essential Sermons. Translated by Hill, Edmund, OP. New City Press (New York, 2007).
2) In addition, as a consequence of prevailing individualism in American culture, public and communal dimensions of prayer are deemphasized. Prayer is now associated with words like “privacy,” “quiet,” and “introspection.”
3) Other verses that come to my mind include Isa. 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts,” and 1 Cor 1:25, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” Nonetheless, if “in Christ dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (John 1:18), what role does Christ proceed to play in the prayer of the faithful?
4) Where the “sinful woman” becomes a model of discipleship by washing her Lord’s feet with tears, see Luke 7:36-48. See Confessions 5.8-9 for a riveting example of the true effects of prayer in the tearful entreaties of Monica for her son’s safety.
5) The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Warner, Rex. Penguin Group (New York, NY: 1963), 5.10.
6) Ibid., 5.3.