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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer

A gazillion more profound things have been written about the so-called Lord’s Prayer. I’m going to shoot for a low bar here and merely try to supplement the Wikipedia entry on the subject, though I promise not to be anywhere near as lengthy.

You will remember it goes like this, though not because anyone has recited it in school recently:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
(Matthew 6:9-13)
(I’m not, of course, suggesting that having unsaved children recite any mere religious formula daily, especially one that means nothing whatsoever to them, does much that is useful for their spiritual state. I do note that removing its recitation from the school day has not improved schools any. Of course, singing the national anthem never really made me more patriotic either.)

Not a Formula

Very obviously this prayer is a template, not a formula to be repeated verbatim.

We know this because:

1.    Notwithstanding the “rich tradition of formal prayer” some consider to support the practice of reciting pre-existing prayers, no “formal” prayers occur in the New Testament.

2.    The Lord himself did not pray in formulas. We have a number of the Lord’s actual prayers recorded for us, and none of them duplicate each other or remotely resemble this one. So the “Lord’s Prayer” is truly a misnomer, unless we understand it to mean “the prayer the Lord taught”. He certainly never prayed it as far as scripture’s record is concerned.

3.    The disciples obviously did not understand it as a formula. If they had, we would have had examples in Acts of them praying it and/or teaching it. Instead, they too prayed unique, intelligent prayers related to their current circumstances.

Not Comprehensive

Further, this template prayer is not intended to be comprehensive. That is to say, it does not include every sort of prayer, or subject of prayer, that may or ought to be prayed. We can be sure of this because it does not include thanksgiving, which is the distinguishing characteristic of four of the Lord’s five prayers I’ve linked to above. If his recorded prayers are any indication, thanksgiving may well have been the most prominent aspect of the Lord’s own prayer life.

So there are other legitimate ways to pray, and plenty of New and Old Testament examples to observe in connection with this.

But this particular prayer contains two very different sorts of statements.

Two Classes of Statements

Personal Request

One class of statement here is very familiar, and that is request. But these are specific sorts of requests. Each is personal in nature, involving what we might call the necessary maintenance of the children of God.

There are three or four requests, depending on how you read it: (1) daily needs; (2) forgiveness; (3) deliverance from temptation; and possibly (4) deliverance from evil generally. These are all very natural requirements of God’s children while here on earth, even forgiveness and deliverance from temptation, which are necessary in order to maintain normal fellowship with our Father. All of these may be prayed confidently, given statements made elsewhere in God’s word about his character: that he gives “good things to those who ask him”; that he is endlessly forgiving; and is both concerned that we not fall into temptation and consistently faithful in keeping us from that which we cannot handle. We can be sure that all of these things are ours in the measure we require — provided we ask for them.

The believer who asks for such things daily demonstrates a recognition of our reliance and utter dependence on our heavenly Father for everything in life, and the knowledge that nothing good that we receive is merely a product of our own hard work, intelligence or achievement.

Recognition of a Higher Purpose: His Name, His Kingdom, His Will

While we often find ourselves occupied primarily with the effort of getting through life, the second class of statements is a little different, and it is with these that the prayer begins. I don’t think it’s accidental that they come first. Such statements point to a purpose or cause that transcends mere survival, and certainly eclipses the mere acquisition of things that make life more pleasant and enjoyable.
“… hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we pray with the Lord’s will and purpose for this world in mind, we transform the nature of our requests from the mundane to the transcendent. We are no longer merely putting in time until the Lord returns and winds up this whole messy, wicked age; we are actively engaged in the furtherance of his kingdom and the increase of the knowledge of his glory.

On one level, of course, this will be accomplished whether we choose to pray this way or not. God is sovereign, and if it is his purpose to “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth”, which it is, we can be guaranteed that his purpose will most certainly be accomplished, and accomplished gloriously, whether or not we refuse to acknowledge it or participate in it, and even if we remain ignorant of his purpose entirely; immature enough to believe that a relationship with God is somehow “all about us”.

On another level though, we participate personally. We pray “your kingdom come”, because the gates of hell will not prevail against his kingdom, even though the part you or I are called to play in that may be very small. We pray “your will be done”, not just because the will of every leader in history has led to abject failure and human misery, but because our Father’s will is “good, acceptable and perfect”, a fact we acknowledge and (hopefully) submit to joyfully on a daily basis. We pray “hallowed be your name” because there is no one like our Father and therefore it matters very much to us that his name be distinguished, praised, singled out and recognized above all others.

And then we go out into the world not merely to exist or survive, but to testify to the glory of that coming kingdom, that all-encompassing perfect will and that name above every name through our words, our actions and even our thoughts, which our Father knows before we think them.

One day, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. If you know anything about God, that seems a prospect that is not so much marvelous as it is both inevitable and greatly to be anticipated.

The real marvel is that we are actually invited to participate in it at all.

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