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Connections between the Bible and prayer: the context of the Lord’s Prayer

Friday September 14 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: the context of the Lord’s Prayer

Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and some of the other writers of the New Testament give instructions about prayer, and for the next couple of blog posts I want to write about those instructions. Today I focus on the Lord’s Prayer. So much has been written about the prayer itself, so I’m going to let others help us understand the words of the prayer. I’m interested in the context of the prayer in Matthew and Luke, and what those two very different contexts might teach us about prayer.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew give us a long speech by Jesus that we call the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s Prayer comes right in the middle of the speech.

The Sermon on the Mount occurs very early in Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 4 of Matthew, we read of Jesus’ temptation right after his baptism, the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first four disciples (Peter, Andrew, James and John), and a brief paragraph about Jesus’ healing and preaching. Then the Sermon on the Mount begins.

Jesus begins with the Beatitudes, then he talks about salt and light, the law and the prophets, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, almsgiving. Matthew 6:5-15 covers prayer, with the Lord’s Prayer taking up verses 9-13.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by instructions about fasting, treasures, the sound eye, and ten other topics. From the variety of topics that surround the instructions on prayer, I assume that Jesus is indicating that the life of prayer should be part of obeying God in everyday life, just like all those other topics. Following Jesus impacts every aspect of life.

In the prayer section of the Sermon on the Mount, in verses 5 to 8 before the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives two negative examples that we are to avoid: the “hypocrites” who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” and the “Gentiles” who “heap up empty phrases.” Instead, we are to pray in secret and to pray simply.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus notes that if we forgive others, God will forgive us. Sadly he says that the opposite is also true.

Frankly, it’s easier to zero in on the Lord’s Prayer itself rather than Jesus’ words that come before and after the prayer, which raise so many questions. Should we never pray out loud with others? That can’t be true because we have examples of Jesus himself praying out loud in the presence of others (John 17) and examples from Acts where the believers pray together. Can we never pray complicated prayers? And what about those instances when we are working on forgiving someone, but can’t quite get there? Will God not forgive us?

If I were to paraphrase the instructions surrounding the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, I might say something like: “Watch yourself. Watch to see if you are praying to impress others. Watch to see if you are falling into the temptation of thinking that lofty and eloquent words make a prayer better. Do your very best to forgive others. All of these things matter to God. And, based on instructions about prayer elsewhere in the Bible, if you can’t quite do what Jesus has recommended here, bring that to God in prayer.”

In contrast to Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:1-13 comes in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. Chapter 10 ends with the Mary and Martha story, a lovely reminder about the value of simply sitting with Jesus. At the beginning of chapter 11, Luke records that Jesus was praying, and afterwards the disciples ask him to teach them to pray.

In response to this request, Jesus launches right into the Lord’s Prayer, a slightly shorter version than in Matthew 6. After giving the words to the prayer, Jesus tells a story about persistence, then gives the well-known words about asking, searching and knocking, and concludes with another story about parents giving their children good gifts. Jesus ends these words on prayer like this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Just like in Matthew, these instructions that follow the Lord’s Prayer raise huge questions. What about the times we persevere in prayer, but receive no answer? What about the times we ask, search and knock in prayer, but God remains silent?

I take comfort in two things. Jesus talks about God’s many good gifts as he concludes these challenging paragraphs. Secondly, the Apostle Paul experienced a thorn in the flesh that he prayed about many times, and God did not remove it (see 2 Corinthians 12:6-10). We cannot use unanswered prayer to indicate that we have failed in our prayers in some way. God has given each of us many good gifts. Yes, perseverance matters, but it is not a guarantee of God’s answer to our prayers in just the way we want things to be.

Given how deep but straightforward the Lord’s Prayer is, maybe it’s good that Jesus’ words before and after the prayer raise a lot of questions. Prayer is an ongoing challenge as well as a comfort, blessing, and joy.

(Next week: the Apostle Paul’s instructions about prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer
          The character of God and prayer

My new book came out last month, and I am hoping my blog readers will let the pastoral care people in your churches know about it. Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices, part 2

Saturday July 19 2014

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices, part 2

As an adult, I have seldom prayed the Lord’s Prayer as a part of my personal prayer life, and I have not been in churches that use it regularly. Therefore, I simply haven’t thought of it very often. Earlier this year, a local minister asked me to preach as a part of his series on the Lord’s Prayer. Could I please do a sermon on how the Lord’s Prayer might inform our spiritual practices, he asked. So I began pondering that question.

In my first post on this topic, I wrote about the invitation to intimacy conveyed by the prayer. In this post I want to ponder the intercessory portion of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 5:11-13, NRSV).

I’m struck, right off, by the simplicity of this prayer. In a consumer age, when we are assaulted by ceaseless advertisements designed to create desire, this prayer is lean and spare, focused on essential needs. These intercessions, recommended by Jesus, make me want to be sure my prayers are focused on what really matters – what I need – and not on what the consumer culture tells me I want.

Two spiritual practices that have helped me detach from the consumer culture the most are Sabbath keeping and fasting.* Keeping a Sabbath gives me a day off every week from striving, from pushing hard, from believing I am essential and necessary. That step back from my everyday life enables me to separate needs from wants more easily. Fasting – from food or from other things like entertainment media, electronic devices, or shopping – creates space for prayer and clear thinking and for understanding my need for God.

The Lord’s Prayer also indicates the high priority Jesus puts on forgiveness. In an age when many church worship services no longer include a confession of sin, we need to make time in our personal prayer life to acknowledge our sin to God. This can happen silently in prayer alone, in prayer times with family members or small groups, while journaling or walking or singing a song about forgiveness. Confessing sin with some regularity requires intentional effort in our self-focused world.

Jesus couples two things: asking God for forgiveness and forgiving others. The first is challenging, and the second is sometimes next to impossible, which reveals our need for God’s help. These requests in the Lord’s Prayer trigger in me an awareness of my deep need for God. I need God’s help to know how to pray and what to pray for, to grow in praying in ways consistent with God’s priorities and not centered only on my own desires. I need God’s help to face my sins and particularly to forgive others. I need God’s help to desire not to follow evil paths.

What are the spiritual practices in your life that help you acknowledge and express your need for God? Which spiritual practices help you take steps to forgive others? In what setting do you pray most readily for forgiveness? In what ways do your prayers reflect your own needs, and the needs of others, and in what ways do your prayers reflect your desires? Which spiritual practices help you resist the consumer culture? These are just a few of the questions I think about when I read or pray the intercessions in the Lord’s Prayer.

(*If you'd like to learn more about the Sabbath or Fasting, I've written a book on each of those topics: Sabbath Keeping and Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites. I've also written numerous articles about those two spiritual practices, which you can find on the articles page of this website. The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, part 1, is available here. If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. )

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices

Wednesday July 16 2014

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices

A few months ago a local minister asked if I’d be willing to come and guest preach at his church. We chose a date, and he said he’d be in the middle of a series on the Lord’s Prayer. Could I perhaps talk about how the Lord’s Prayer might inform our spiritual practices?

His request set off several months of very rich pondering. First, I realized that we might think creatively about how to use the Lord’s Prayer itself as a part of our spiritual practices. A person can sing the Lord’s Prayer or pray it as a part of journaling. A person might pray it while walking or pray it as a breath prayer, one phrase on each breath.

Next I started thinking about how the content of the Lord’s Prayer might inform our spiritual practices. The prayer opens with Jesus calling God “Our Father.” I have never been very comfortable calling God “Father” because I was not close to my own father. However, there’s no doubt that Jesus felt great intimacy with his Father. Spiritual practices are all about intimacy. Once, when I told someone I do a lot of writing about spiritual practices, he replied, “For most people, spiritual practices are just one more way to try to earn God’s approval.” I found the exact opposite to be true when I interviewed people about the Sabbath, fasting, hospitality, and many forms of contemplative prayer for my books. My interviewees talked about ways they experience intimacy with God through spiritual practices. Many talked about “making space for God” in the midst of busy lives.

A first and basic way the Lord’s Prayer should inform our spiritual practices is to remind us anything we do to draw near to God or make space for God is all about nurturing relationship with God, not about proving to God we are worthy or righteous.

As I thought more about the Lord’s prayer, I noticed something significant. About half of the words of the prayer relate to God: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Then come the four requests related to daily bread, forgiveness, temptation and evil. The closing words most Protestants use also focus on God: “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever.” In what ways can spiritual practices enable us to remember and rejoice in God’s holiness, kingdom, will, power and glory?

Our spiritual practices – forms of prayer, reading the Bible, engaging in a Sabbath, etc. – can easily become all about us. “God, I need your help to excel on this exam . . . to cope with my difficult co-worker . . . to have patience with my teenager . . . to have more energy for the things that matter to me.” It is right and good to come to God with our requests, as is modeled by the requests in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer. But our spiritual practices also need to focus on who God is and enable us rejoice in God’s character, as we offer ourselves to God in service, love and devotion.

Prayers and scriptures focused on thankfulness and praise can help us do that. Other practices like the Sabbath or fasting can be done in a spirit that rejoices in who God is. Spiritual practices that honor the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer will create space for us to draw near to God to receive the help we need, while also honoring God’s holiness, kingdom, will, power and glory.

(For a second post on the Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, click here. If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage.This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)