Jesus’ band of followers already knew a lot about prayer. They were used to praying in their homes and at the synagogue. They were familiar with the amazing range of prayers found in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Psalms, so they knew you could approach God in many ways: exuberant celebration, mournful lament, respectful praise, heartfelt thanksgiving, quiet meditation, desperate petition and even troubled argument. And they had watched Jesus pray in different fashions, from a public blessing (Luke 9:16) to a spontaneous outburst (Luke 10:21-22) to an all-night wrestling (Luke 6:12).
On one occasion, after observing him pray (curiously, they were just watching), one of his friends said to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1-4) Perhaps he wanted Jesus as his rabbi to provide a specific prayer that they could recite. Evidently this is what John the Baptist had done for his group. Jesus readily responded. He gave them a prayer that can serve as a liturgical expression (like a psalm) but also one that provides a profound pattern for engaging God. It’s the wisdom and beauty of this pattern that I want to commend to you for your own prayer life.
First, note how the prayer divides into two parts. The first half centers on God (with implications for us) and the second half focuses on us (with assumptions about God).
Father — By inviting us to approach God with this intimate address—Abba, Papa—Jesus teaches us that all prayer begins as a response to God’s enormous grace. God regards us as beloved children and welcomes us into his embrace. So we open our prayers in a posture of trust and gratitude. Sometimes, we will want to stay right there for some moments, just basking in the unconditional love of our heavenly father and rehearsing our fundamental identity as a son or daughter.
Hallowed be your name —The note of grace is followed immediately by the note of holiness. We step back from the initial embrace, as it were, and go to our knees in reverence and awe. We acknowledge God’s holiness, his magnificence, his otherness. This is the invitation to worship in both humility and joy. And paradoxically, such worship simultaneously makes us small and enlarges us. To worship the Creator is part of what it means to be fully human.
Your kingdom come — We acknowledge the Creator’s rightful rule over all the cosmos and all of human culture. We know the world is messed up in so many ways (perhaps we pause here to lament some area of brokenness such as the tragic spread of Ebola in West Africa or the racial injustice in America as recently exposed in Ferguson). But we also know that God is at work in the world to bring renewal and justice and shalom, so we pray to that end, aligning ourselves once again with his good purposes: Not my will, but yours, Lord, be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us each day our daily bread — Now the prayer turns and we are free to ask God for everything we need to live our lives as human creatures, from food to funds to friendship, always remembering that we do not “live by bread alone.” Every day we gratefully express our dependence on God’s provision—and we can add our prayers that God provide for all in need.
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us — Shifting from body to soul, we admit our wrongs, our failings and flaws, and ask for mercy, confident that Christ has paid our great debt on the cross. Deeply conscious of our own undeserved forgiveness, we check our heart to see if we are holding anything against someone who has hurt or wronged us. If so, wee ask God’s help to release them from what they owe us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one — Lastly, we pray for God to guard us and to guide us as we go about our day. We ask him to keep us out of trouble, but, given that none of us are exempt from difficulties or temptation, we also ask him to save us or to give us strength if we do find ourselves in over our heads.
According to Jesus, this is a good way to pray — and a good pattern for living. Grateful for God’s grace, we love him in return. In awe of his holiness, we offer our worship. In response to his authority, we pledge our allegiance. As we live for him in a broken world, we look to him for provision and forgiveness and protection. We depend on God in body, soul, and circumstance. All of this for the sake of his kingdom, by the power he has poured out and generating the glory that he deserves.