The Religion of Jesus requires us to understand ...

Jesus and Prayer

Toyohiko Kagawa: Jesus Christ prayed very often. Some people think that strong persons need not pray; but Jesus at all events felt the necessity.

As has been said above, the religions of the world can be divided psychologically into two kinds the religion of meditation, and the religion of prayer. Christianity belongs to the latter class. In all time there has probably been no class of people who pray oftener than Christians.

Now there are people who say that prayer is superstitious. It may be to advantage therefore to study the psychology of the prayers of Jesus and to learn where the religion of prayer takes its standpoint, and whether prayer is superstitious or not.

In the New Testament there are four biographies - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In each of them a life of Christ is written from a different point of view. One eye is enough for us to see things, but with one eye we cannot see them cubically. It is fortunate that we can see Jesus Christ from four different angles. One of these writers, Luke, was a Greek doctor. He had the same Greek culture which produced scholars and artists like Plato, Aristotle and Phidias, and he wrote a Life of Jesus in good Greek. In his Gospel, more than any of the others, he refers to Jesus' praying.

As is shown previously, Jesus' prayers are recorded at least twenty-three times, from the beginning of His public life to its end. And of these prayers three-fourths, or sixteen, are reported by Luke.

It is written that on the very first day of Jesus' public life, at the very beginning of the religious movement He started, He "was praying" and "the heaven was opened" (Luke 3:21). The heavens will not open unless we pray. We can have religious experience most in prayer. In Jesus' experience, prayer and meditation were always one.

Jesus usually prayed in a lonely place. This seems to have been His habit. When Jesus had been doing something in a solitary place, it was always that He had been praying. Some people are happy while they are bustling about with other people, but when they get sick and are confined alone in a sick room they feel terribly lonesome. Jesus was not at all lonely when He was alone, but prayed always. We are strongest when we pray. We can know how earnest Jesus was in His attitude toward prayer through what He prayed. He prayed about everything and in every circumstance.

I love to steal awhile away
From every cumbering care,
And spend the hours of setting day
In humble, grateful prayer.

I love in solitude to shed
The penitential tear,
And all his promises to plead
Where none but God can hear.

I love to think on mercies past,
And future good implore,
And all my cares and sorrows cast
On him whom I adore.

I love by faith to take a view
Of brighter scenes in heaven;
The prospect doth my strength renew,
While here by tempests driven.

Thus, when life's toilsome day is o'er,
May its departing ray
Be calm as this impressive hour,
And lead to endless day.

Phoebe H. Brown.

When I think of Jesus praying in the wilderness, it always reminds me of an American woman, the mother of Dr. [S. R.] Brown, who came to Japan as one of the first missionaries. She is famous as a composer of hymns, and among them, "I love to steal awhile away" is perhaps the best known. Mrs. [Phoebe Hinsdale] Brown [1783-1861] was the wife of a poor painter and had many children; but she had poetical talent. The hymn cited above was composed while walking in a quiet lane near her house, one evening after she had finished her household tasks. Later this song became a favorite among many people both in the East and the West. In western countries there are many lanes, and some of them have their special names. We are fortunate if we have a "Prayer Lane" where we can go to and fro praying and thinking quietly.

Abraham Lincoln, one evening during the great fight for the emancipation of the slaves, knelt down by a bench in the Gettysburg graveyard and prayed about the Declaration of Emancipation. That prayer of his is called the Prayer of Gettysburg, and has become an historic prayer in American history. I hope that you and I too may have the habit of praying apart from people.

I do not pray philosophically. Prayer is primarily intuitive and instinctive. I used to pray to the crescent moon as I was taught to do by my stepmother. I have also prayed to "Tenjin-Sama" or Sugawara Michizane, a great Japanese teacher of the ninth century, that I might become a good writer. Charles Darwin, famous for his theory of evolution, at the age of seven prayed for his sick dog to be cured. When he was a child he was not an agnostic evolutionist. It was so with Jesus Christ. He clearly believed in prayer as a power by which to rely on God, and not as a theory.

One crisis in the ministry of Christ was when He chose twelve disciples and began His great evangelistic mission. The evening before He chose the twelve, "Jesus went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God" (Luke 6:12). Jesus seems to have had a very strong physique. Unless one is healthy, it is hard for him to pray strenuously. When we pray intensely it really wears us out and we feel our strength pouring out from within.

Some people will doubt the wisdom of an all-night of prayer. But when one is face to face with a crisis in one's life, though one may wish to lie down and sleep at peace, yet one cannot do so. For Jesus, the night before He chose His twelve disciples was the time when He faced a crisis, so naturally He prayed all night.

It is written in the Bible that on one occasion when Jesus had been praying desperately with all His might, His disciples began to fall into a doze, and if they were awakened, soon again they fell asleep (Luke 22:45). We cannot pray really satisfactorily when we are weak. That Jesus prayed all night goes to show that He was healthy and deeply in earnest. An idle brain is the devil's workshop. Some people become melancholy when they are alone. These must learn of Jesus, Who always prayed when He was alone.

It is said that Jesus took bread and fish, and looked up to heaven and blessed them, and brake and gave to the disciples to give to the multitude, who ate and were all well filled. It was a habit of Jesus to thank God for food (Matt. 14:19).

Although in the temples of the Zen sect, taking meals is a part of the religious life, generally speaking, the Japanese are ungrateful when they eat. There is hardly an atom of religion about their meals. It was not so in old Japanese custom. But for many people of to-day, as a matter of course their dining table is not religious. They eat in a hurry; at the very least, their manner of eating is not artistic.

Jesus made it one of the most important features in the Messianic movement to eat with people at the same table. Some one said, "People do not live with preaching only." We cannot be really religious until we have made our daily life and the problem of bread religious. Religious life is not something extraordinary, like growing wings in order to fly up to heaven; it is simply to reveal God in our daily life, in the very problem of bread.

Jesus ate bread with His disciples after the resurrection. It is written in Luke 24:30 that their eyes were opened and they knew Him by the manner of His prayer. It is to be hoped that at our dinner tables there is always a deep religious atmosphere. Our religious feeling is encouraged by eating together with others.

As Christian rituals we have Baptism which symbolizes purification from sins, and Holy Communion through which we commemorate the redemption of Jesus. The latter is a memorial of the last supper that Jesus took with His disciples the night before His crucifixion which is nothing but eating together. It became a memorial of Christ. In the early churches they had, besides this, another ritual which they called the love-feast [agape meal]. It was to eat together with love.

During 1919, when there developed many nouveaux riches, one of them had a dinner party in Kobe, costing £50 per head. But if you eat in the mood of prayer, even though your meal is nothing but a rice-ball, you can eat pleasantly. In May 1921, when there was a strike in Osaka, many thousands of laborers ate only such rice and pickles, but they ate together in a friendly and cheerful spirit. It is no strange thing that when Jesus blessed and brake the bread, five thousand people should have eaten together happily.

I have never heard of Confucius dining with his disciples. Neither did Gautama do such a thing. Some one said that religion grew up from the problem of bread. The problems of bread and of religion have many very intimate relations. It is said that the gods of South America have corn on their heads. We cannot be said to be complete in religion until we come to handle even the problem of bread religiously in our daily life.

Jesus often ate with His disciples. He made eating one of the religious rituals and added the problem of bread to the Lord's Prayer. We need to remember this very clearly.

We read on another occasion that Jesus went up into a mountain to pray. And as He prayed the fashion of His countenance was altered and His raiment was white and glistening (Luke 9:28-36). The face of a man who is looking at God is transfigured. One of the most beautiful faces in Japanese art is that of the Goddess of Mercy by Sadatomo of the Fujiwara Era. I should like to restore at least that face to the present-day Japanese. Of course it is not enough; but if we could add the mood of prayer to this goddess, how even yet more beautiful her face would be.

Unless you wash the powder from your face the real face will not come out. The faces of those whose hearts are pure are naturally sweet. The face will be changed with a change of heart. Faces of vagrants and temptresses have some disagreeable and cloudy expression.

On another occasion when the seventy disciples returned from their successful mission, Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, "I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth" (Luke 10:21-22). Jesus prayed when He was glad. It is hard to make the prayer of thanksgiving. People usually pray only to ask something from God, but not to return thanks. We often forget to give thanks. Always we pray to be given something, and we may well be called "Prayer-beggars."

There are many portraits of Jesus, but very few in which He is smiling. Of course, even Jesus had His times of joy and rejoicing, but most of the pictures of Him have a sorrowful expression. There are many who pray when they are in sorrow, but very few who pray when they are rejoicing. We want to be those who pray at all times. True prayer is conversation with God. We must have more of this conversation and more praise of God in our prayer.

When people brought children to be touched by Jesus, and when Jesus saw His disciples rebuke them, He was much displeased and took the children up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them. Jesus was so kind that He put His hands on the children and prayed for them (Mark 10:16). Many people take children in their arms, but few pray for them. If we have contact with children in the spirit of prayer and bless them with our whole hearts, the children will grow up to be great persons.

Dwight L. Moody until seventeen was the apprentice of a shoemaker, but he was a boy of a religious bent. He wanted to do something to help the bad boys of his neighborhood, so he went to a Sunday School belonging to some church in Chicago and asked that he be made a teacher. The minister made a strange face on looking at a boy of such poor appearance, but he said, "All right! You may teach this class." Moody asked, "And the pupils?" "There are no pupils." So he went and brought there the bad boys from his neighborhood and made them into a class. This was the beginning of a great religious movement in America.

Afterward Moody went to London. On one occasion a gipsy boy with uncombed hair, who came from a slum, climbed up on Moody's carriage and listened to his preaching. Sankey, a co-worker of Moody's, looked at him and put his hand on the head of this thirteen-year-old beggar boy and blessed him, saying, "You grow up to be a great man and give service to God." This very boy was [Rodney] Gipsy Smith [British evangelist, 1860-1947].

The Pharisees taught their disciples a form of prayer, but God was to them little more than an idol. Jesus Christ for that reason did not teach a form of prayer, but in compliance with the request of the disciples He showed them a model prayer. That is the Lord's Prayer. It was originally given by Jesus to His disciples in order to educate them. Tolstoi went as far as to say about it, "Our prayer must not be more than this. It is selfish to pray beyond the limits of this prayer." From whatever aspect it is viewed, the Lord's Prayer is a model prayer. When we find no other words, we may repeat this prayer:

"Our Father in heaven, enable us to worship you; let the ideal kingdom come, and make your will completely accomplished."

If prayer be such a thing as this, how can it be called superstitious or contrary to reason? If we always had such a beautiful religious spirit, the purified spirit of prayer, we should never make a mistake. And though ordinarily we may not think we need it, yet if once our peace is broken and a landslide in life has occurred, it is fortunate if such a prayer springs naturally from within our hearts. With such an example of prayer Jesus Christ pulled up the corrupt conscience.

Jesus prayed also about bread. Man does not live by bread alone, but Jesus believed in the necessity of bread, and that man grows upward toward God by eating bread.

Again, Jesus knew the defects of mankind, and so in the next place He prayed that we might forgive one another. He did not forget to pray that in horizontal contacts - that is, socially - we should forgive one another's sins; nor did He forget to pray that in vertical contacts - that is, in our relation to God - our daily lives might be protected from mistakes.

In the 22nd chapter of Luke (39-46) there is written a description of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus prayed all through the night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He was to be crucified the next day. Christians think of Jesus in Gethsemane when they suffer. At that time Jesus was in the utmost suffering, but He did not ask God for His own sake. Though struggling with His sweat falling down like drops of blood, there was not the least selfishness in His prayer. He prayed, "Father, if Thou wilt, remove this cup from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done."

In Nishinomiya there is a shrine to the god Ebisu, and on the 10th of January every year many people go to worship and pray for good luck during the year to come. But since, so it is said, the god is deaf, people go to the back of the shrine and knock loudly on the back door, so that their wishes may be heard as much as possible, and that they may be given good luck. Those who are specially covetous go there again on the 11th, the next day, to get the left-over luck! This kind of prayer is very selfish. In it they wish luck and profit only for themselves. But Jesus' attitude was just the contrary:

"Father, if it is Thy will, I will go anywhere, even through fire, water, heaven or hell."

"Thy will be done."

Do your very best, but after that leave the matter entirely to God. Here you find the secret of beauty of a man's life. After all your efforts have ended, believe that God will take the best care, and rest in His holy arms. It would be very out of place for a small child to say to his mother, when being led by the hand on the way to the market, "Mother, I won't go with you because I cannot believe in you." There is no need to lose your mind if even you get sick or undergo suffering, or even if you fail in your school examinations, if you are doing your best.

Jesus Christ was insulted by people who called Him "a fool Who had saved others but could not save Himself" (Mark 15:30). In answer to them He prayed God to forgive them.

In the age of the Apostles, when Stephen was stoned to death, he did not get angry at all, but prayed, "Father, forgive them!"

Very often ruffians come to my house and break glass and throw down my table. I could not endure such occurrences if I were to get angry every time; but when I speak to them with an attitude as soft as cotton, most of them come afterward and apologize. I have many times met such instances, and every time I have the experience of forgiving them religiously.

Jesus breathed His last, praying, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 24:46). His last moment was a beautiful stanza of a poem. In contrast to that, Soho Tokutomi said that Prince Katsura agonized horribly in his spirit at his last moment. But the death of Jesus was entirely the death of the Son of God.

In Japan we have a death-rate of twenty-one per thousand a year, so the time will certainly come when each of us must part from this world. Our death should mean that we commend our spirits to the hands of God.

This brings our study of the Prayers of Jesus to a close. In every crisis in His life He prayed. What now has He to say about Prayer itself? Let us look at some of them.


Prayer in its early form was incantation. Japanese incantation is very selfish, but it is a kind of prayer. An example of incantation is that of the secret code of Shingon called Hibuse.

I have studied the incantation of Babylon, which is the oldest incantation in the world. Chaldean magic is a special means for a man to attain some desire which is unattainable by his own power.

The secret Japanese art of attaining invincibility comes under this category also. If one studies those rituals or chants which are recited in a fashion unintelligible to the users, being in some old-world language, we find that they are all prayers. Some of them are Sanskrit, and some are sentences of prayer from a very ancient age which have been transmitted to us in their original form. There is indeed an incantation in the 24th book of the Hokekyo, the Saddharmapundarika Sutra, which has never been translated, and is said to be in the original from the ancient language.

Thus when we study it historically we see that prayer has existed from very ancient times, and it is a thing which will never be taken away from the heart of man. Prayer is part of man's original nature. He can never be satisfied with merely meditative religion, and naturally and involuntarily inclines to move on to the religion of prayer. For example, the Shin sect of Buddhism forbids prayer, but when the Emperor Meiji was dying, we saw that their formula of invocation was changed to prayer. Indeed this very formula, which they have to repeat countless times daily, already shows a transition from the religion of meditation to that of prayer.

In the Zen sect, before they practice Zen, they have the custom of repeating a kind of prayer. In a life of Sakyamuni by T. Inouye, it is written that Gautama, before he attained higher perception, prayed to some God. This is not taught in Buddhism. Doesn't this tell you that man can never be satisfied with a religion of meditation only!

With this by way of preface, let us examine some of the things Jesus said about prayer.

Some people make themselves look especially ascetic when they want to pray. They wear strange garments, they put on their badly made clothes and gird themselves with a rope. Jesus said, "Thou shalt not be as the hypocrites," (Matt. 6:5) against such manners. He warned His hearers to the utmost against those people who pretend to be religious.

There is a story told in the early days of modern Japan when at Kaigan Church, in Yokohama, a certain man prayed for an hour and a half at the farewell meeting for someone. His prayer began with the creation of the universe and went on to the end of the world. When he had finished, he lifted up his head; his friend had already gone on board his ship. There was some reason in Jesus saying, "Use not vain repetitions" (Matt. 6:7)! This may be right if our prayer is like that of Zen, and is used for purposes of self-hypnosis. But if we think of prayer as the expression of our aspiration for God, we give up vain repetitions or forms. The prayers of Jesus were very short. His longest recorded prayer, in John 17, would not take more than five minutes. Our prayers should be simple and to the purpose. Jesus warned the scribes who made long prayers for a show.

Another feature of Jesus' prayer in this connection is that He used the simplest language.

The beauty of the Salvation Army is that their daily life is religious. When they meet a friend, they salute each other saying, "Hallelujah" [Praise the Lord!] It might be even better if we could say in Japanese very naturally, "Let us praise God." The important thing is that our daily life itself should become religious, and all religious life be woven into daily life. It is a kind of malady that to-day our daily life is disunited into two or three compartments, and in some that there is not a religious compartment at all. In our life there ought not to be any such distinction as "the religious life," "the artistic life," etc.

The famous book called the Confessions of St. Augustine is written in a form of prayer throughout the five hundred pages of the book. Also the philosophy of the Greek philosopher named Heraclitus is written in prayer form. The Scriptures of Manu and the Code of Hammurabi are also begun with prayer. When our heart has reached the boiling point everything is turned into prayer.

Some people use high-falutin' language when they pray, and so their prayers do not touch their listeners very closely. In the early days of Christianity in Japan it was very vigorous, but afterwards there came a setback, though to-day it has once more become active. The norito, the modern Shinto ritual, is in the terms of the Nara Era, and it sounds very strange. Some Christians have inherited the type of prayer of those former days. To-day we ought to be able to pray with the language of our daily life, though the Japanese language itself has become much more colloquial of late.

Some may say that this old-world custom is a proof that though religious life existed in the past, to-day it is far removed from daily realities. If, in Christianity, we pray in old language as is used in Shinto, a composition of 1400 years ago, it will have no meaning in the present.

Some may think that unless a thing is difficult it is not deep; and so they may feel, grateful for the Kegon Sutra, which common people cannot understand. But the deepest religion must be that which has most contact with our daily life, and is in closest touch with reality. The religion which is rooted in our original desire, and grows up from out of it, is the only real one. To pray we need not use artificial words. There is nothing wrong if we pray in our ordinary everyday language.

But there are some folk who say they prefer a difficult religion. Religions of the world may be divided into two groups: religions centering round a person, and impersonal religions. In the former the emphasis is on God, but in impersonal religion the emphasis is on Law or Reason. Impersonal religion does not recognize personality or will, therefore it makes man's desire itself an illusion and would destroy it.

In India there originated a religion which emphasized the thought of nothingness. Many people are interested in it because their desires are not granted. In Japan there are many Nihilists to-day. From the view-point of "Mu no shiso" - the Nothingness Idea - such a religion might be more interesting than the religion which starts from personality and self. This form of religion in its most purified form becomes pantheism.

But the religion of personality starts first from myself, from me. Incidentally this is the most natural scientific method. It discovers the existence of psychological law in the universe where God and man, and also man and man, stand face to face. A poet, Shiki Masaoka, left as his last poem one called "The Autumn Wind." In it occurs the line

"To me, no god, no buddha."

This is not merely a nihilistic idea; it seems to me to be his realization that there is some religious idea even in the depth of the void. But the religion Jesus taught was a religious life where prayer grows in the warm contacts of personality with personality. Jesus taught us to pray together. Prayer has a social aspect. We must not neglect praying in groups as well as alone. Here is the reason why we have prayer meetings. Where people have active prayer meetings, it shows their religion is alive.

The world is opened by prayer. What one prays for is always accomplished. Prayer, at the very least, uplifts the heart of the one who prays, and develops high ideals in his mind. Jesus prayed with His hands and feet. He prayed on the Cross. His daily life itself was worship. In Him, labor was completely prayer. It should be so with us, too. We must take our gladness and sorrow and all of everything to God, and look into the world where God and man melt together.

Chapter 3 of "The Religion of Jesus" by Toyohiko Kagawa, translated by Helen F. Topping, London, 1931

Toyohiko Kagawa, "The Religion of Jesus":
Chapter 1. The Knowledge of God
Chapter 2. Jesus and Men's Failures
Chapter 3. Jesus and Prayer
Chapter 4. The Death of Jesus - Its Before and After
Chapter 5. The Relation of Jesus to His Disciples

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