The Use of the Lord’s Prayer

Matthew 6:5-13

Pray It – Say It

How should we use the Lord’s Prayer (also known as the “Our Father” or the “Pater Noster”)? The first thing we should do with the Lord’s Prayer is to pray it frequently. By that, I mean we should repeat it verbatim – alone or with other believers – aloud or silently – as one continuous recitation, or pausing between phrases to meditate or offer related petitions to God. We should frequently pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray.

We know that early Christians believed Jesus intended them to recite the Lord’s Prayer verbatim. Written sometime between 50 and 120 C.E., the Didache (8:3) tells new Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times daily. This shouldn’t be too surprising, seeing that three prayer times existed within the Jewish liturgical framework that the early church inherited. Early Christians simply inserted the Lord’s Prayer into the daily liturgy or substituted it for existing prayers. The Didache is the oldest Christian writing not included in the New Testament, and in it we have clear evidence that early Christians used the Lord’s Prayer as a liturgical prayer.

Privately and With Others

That Jesus intended for his followers to pray privately is evident in Matthew 6:6. Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door.” That Jesus also intended his prayer to be used by groups is clear from the frequency of the first person plural: our Father, give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.

Vain Repetitions

What about Jesus’ warnings again vain repetitions” (Matthew 6:7 KJV), as the King James Version puts it? Doesn’t repeating the Lord’s Prayer verbatim lead to the kind of thing Jesus prohibited?

The compound word Matthew uses here is battalogeo. Logeo means “to speak” and the prefix is probably onomatopoetic. In our language, we would say it refers to speeches that sound like this: blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Some translators render it, “babble.”

Endless pastoral prayers fall in the blah, blah, blah category. Is it over yet? Can I wake up now? Just like those who stood on street corners to pray (Matthew 6:5), some public prayer leaders seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices or with the way they turn a phrase.

Ecstatic prayer, in which a person enters an altered emotional state and repeatedly says (or shouts or whispers) religious words or phrases (or maybe just indecipherable sounds), may come closest to the babbling form of prayer Jesus criticized. I’ve watched shamans work themselves into a frenzy, sweating, twirling and chanting to the beat of drums. The ceremony can go on for hours. Variations on this ancient form of pagan prayer predate the birth of Jesus. In his or her ecstatic state, the praying person believes themselves to be under the control of an unseen spirit. Some Christian prayer doesn’t look much different.

There is, to be sure, a place within the Christian church for glossolalia and other charismatic forms or prayer in which the words are overshadowed by experience. There is also place for the contemplative prayers of the mystics, prayer that focuses on union with God and transcends words. After all, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy in saying that one should love God with “all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” To that formula, however, Jesus added, “and with all your mind.” Charismatic and contemplative prayers touch the non-rational parts of our being, which is a good thing. Personally, singing hymns and chanting the liturgy performs this same function for me. Singing itself touches the non-rational part of my brain, while the words of the song speak to the rational part. Years ago, my choir director had a sign on her wall that said this: the one who sings prays twice. So true.

The kind of prayer Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:5-13, however, is more a matter of the mind and the will than it is a matter of the emotions or spiritual feelings. The Lord’s Prayer is notable for its simplicity, brevity and rational content. That is, the Lord’s Prayer is built around a few simple ideas. The words Jesus gave us resist turning prayer into a show or into a mindless experience.

Jesus certainly does not favor a dead formalism. He does not intend for us for Christians to recite this prayer mechanically, as if the mere uttering of the words had some sort of ex opere operato effect. Within the liturgical framework that the church inherited from Judaism, devotion of the heart (kavanat ha lev) was an essential element of prayer. Kavanah is “focus” or “concentration” or “attention” or “intensity.” It is the direction of the heart toward God. “Prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul,” said the rabbis. One sage said, “It is easy to stand in prayer at a certain time each day. But if you do not concentrate in your heart, how is your prayer any different than the mindless chirping of birds?”

Far from disengaging the mind, then, the Lord’s Prayer calls for Christians to engage their minds and focus on God in the act of praying. The words of the Lord’s Prayer give shape to those thoughts.

That’s not to say that one must have any particular experience while praying this prayer. Faith does not demand a particular experience from the prayer. God alone is the object of prayer. One prays in obedience, as an expression of one’s faith.

Prayer is essential to the relationship, in much the same way that attentive communication is essential to a marriage. To follow the analogy of marital communications a bit further, the emotional framework and intensity of prayer varies with time and circumstances. In a marriage, for example, you sometimes say “I love you” with deep emotions. At other times, it’s more matter-of-fact or ritualistic. Even though the emotional content is not the same, it’s equally true in both instances. Both forms contribute to maintaining the relationship.

In addition, there is something to be said about the act of frequently repeating the Lord’s Prayer. I know that some folks don’t like reciting anything. It seems formalistic and cold. If I say, however, that praying Jesus’ words is boring, that it doesn’t suit me or that I don’t get anything out of it, what does that say about me? Is the prayer the problem, or is it my unwillingness to be obedient and learn from Jesus.

The centerpiece of Jewish prayer is the recitation of the shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.”) of Deuteronomy 6:4. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 calls upon the people of Israel to keep these words in their heart, to recite them to their children, to talk about them, to bind them to their hands and write them on their doorposts. Immersing oneself in the words shema helps shape individual consciousness. When the community recites it together, it helps form the community’s self-understanding. Similarly, immersing oneself in the Lord’s prayer reshapes the Christian’s mind and will and helps the church understand who it is. With frequent recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, its words become part of the fiber of our being. Its petitions give structure to the way we see ourselves and our world.

Bifocals of Prayer

The second use of the Lord’s Prayer, then, pertains to our ability to look at ourselves and our world. I am at an age now where I need glasses. Specifically, I need bifocals. In my case, I need more help focusing clearly on things close up than on distant objects, but others have different requirements. Much like a pair of bifocals, the Lord’s Prayer can serve as a lens that can help us focus on the world close at hand and the world in the distance.

Up close, the Lord’s Prayer can help us focus our prayers on ourselves and those closest to us. Having listened to prayer requests for several decades now, this is where we seem to spend most of our time in prayer. Pray for me in my need. Pray for my family members, my neighbors or my coworkers in their need. As we bring each of these needs to mind, we can work our way through the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Each petition gives us a point for reflection, meditation and petition. By bringing the light of the Lord’s Prayer to bear on the things that weigh on our hearts, we can keep God – and not ourselves – at the center of our prayers. God is not a cosmic vending machine: deposit a prayer – get a miracle. That’s not what prayer is meant to be.

Let me give you a hypothetical example of what I mean. Let’s assume a close friend – Joe – has cancer and I am praying for him.

Father. I pray for my brother and your son Joe. He is as dear to you as he is to me; even more, for your love is perfect and mine is not. So I’m not pleading with you to do something foreign to yourself. You love him and all of us as a parent loves a child. Help Joe and me and everyone who loves him trust in you no matter what.

May your name be treated as holy. It would bring glory to your name to heal Joe. We would tell everyone what you have done. But … it would also bring glory to your name for us to be strong and courageous in the face of this disease. It would bring glory to your name for us to live like people who believe in the power of the resurrection in the coming day. It would bring glory to your name for us to continue to love you and each other, even when life is painful. Help us to do that.

Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in heaven. Someday, your kingdom power will transform all reality. You will overcome death and disease forever, and I am grateful for that hope. I know that not even death itself can overcome your goodness. Still, I am praying for a foretaste of that kingdom now in a miracle in Joe’s body. As Jesus touched the sick and made them well as a sign of the kingdom to come, I ask for your kingdom power to overcome the cancer in Joe’s body today. Your will for us, however, is bigger than any disease. Give us the strength to continue to do your will in every aspect of our lives, and not let this disease turn us aside from being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Give us this day our daily bread. Joe needs healing, and so I pray for that. But I know he needs other things as well. He needs peace of mind. He needs courage. He needs friends that will stick by him. He needs to be relieved of the pain he is suffering.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. I have to say that I’m more than a little angry about all of this. Forgive me for the times I’ve let my anger get in the way of turning to you. I’m also afraid. Forgive me for the times I’ve let my fear keep me from being there for Joe. And I’ve been hurt and angered by the way other church members have dealt with this. They’ve not been there for Joe, either. Help me to understand their fears and to forgive them for the wrongs I believe they’ve committed.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. This is a big, scary thing for Joe and his family. Whatever happens, don’t let this destroy their faith or their love for each other. I’ve seen too many times when illness and death tear a family apart. Keep them strong in their love for you and for each other. And ultimately, Father, crush this demon cancer under your feet. Deliver Joe, and all who suffer from its power, from the harm it brings.

Well, I think you get the point. We can take every situation that weighs on our hearts – and that usually merits a “God bless Joe” or “We pray for Joe’s healing” – and flesh out our prayer with the framework provided by the Lord’s Prayer. The purpose of such an exercise is to keep our prayers from becoming magical thinking with a Christian veneer. The purpose is to pray in a manner that is more fully Christian.

We can even use this process on desires that don’t consciously rise to the level of prayer. We recognize that it’s right to pray for Joe, but we’re hesitant to pray for some other desires of our hearts. We understand that there is something inherently selfish about praying for a fancy car or a high paying job. Furthermore, some desires that bubble up within us are clearly sick or twisted. Inside, we feel these desires, but we don’t consciously bring them to God. We CAN, however, pray about ALL these things when we pray about them in the light of the Lord’s Prayer. The words Jesus gave us can put these unspoken desires in their proper place. By walking these desires through the gauntlet of the Lord’s Prayer, they can be tamed, purged or purified.

We can also use this approach to prayer to look beyond ourselves. It is natural to pray about the desires of our own hearts, about the people close to us, and so forth. We know what we want – or at least we have a clue that we want something that we don’t have – and as Christians we pray about these things. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, however, we might learn clue that God is concerned about much more than my little world. When we pray “Our Father .. give us .. forgive us .. lead us .. deliver us,”the “us” is the whole church of God, not just our little corner of it. So we can use the Lord’s Prayer to pray for people and situations about which we might not naturally be concerned. Just because a matter isn’t naturally near and dear to us, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to God. And maybe, if something is important to God, it ought to matter to us.

As we read the newspaper or watch the news – as we meet people along the way – as we observe the things that go on where we work or where we live – we can use the Lord’s Prayer to give us better distant vision. When we see boarded up businesses in the neighborhood through which we drive to work, what would it mean for God’s kingdom power to come there. When we see panhandlers downtown, what for them would would be daily bread? When read of wars and conflicts, where does forgiveness need to take place? The scope of God’s vision is larger than our own. The Lord’s Prayer can help us see things as God sees them.

Prayers and Actions

The Lord’s Prayer explicitly requires one action by the person who prays: forgiveness of the offender. Implicitly, however, it requires several other actions as well. (In the Army, we call those specified and implied tasks). Can one pray to the Father without seeing oneself as a son or daughter of God (and a brother or sister to others in the household)? Can we pray for God’s name to be honored when we don’t honor it ourselves? Can we ask for God’s kingdom to come without a willingness to live in harmony with the kingdom’s values and goals, or without doing what we can to make our world just a little more kingdom-like now? Can we ask for God’s will to be done without a willingness to be obedient? Can we ask for daily bread when we are unwilling to share with those in need? Can we ask for deliverance from temptation and evil when we so willingly walk right into both?