4 Lessons We Can Learn from The Lord's Prayer: An Everyday Theology Blog
Breathing is a natural occurrence. We don’t deliberate about how or when to breathe; it’s simply instinctive. Likewise, the act of prayer should be so integral to the Christian life that it’s a habitual, ingrained practice.
American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards beautifully illustrated this correlation when stating that “prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life.” Our life should be as dependent upon prayer as it is upon breathing. But for many Christians, prayer isn’t instinctive. It’s intimidating.
There are many reasons that Christians struggle to pray. Among them, some have cited a lack of knowledge, believing they simply lack the proper verbiage. Others don’t quite understand the essential relational aspect of prayer. Then some are unsure of how prayer works.
The nuances of prayer and its implications for Christian life were discussed in episode 4 of Woodside’s Everyday Theology series. However, some contemporary Christians’ struggles with prayer find their roots in the 1st century. To help solve this conundrum, Jesus provided a model to His inquisitive disciples, which today is known as the Lord’s prayer. His archetypal prayer provides many lessons for the modern Christian.
Jesus recites the Lord’s prayer in Matt. 6:9–13. But in Luke 11:1, the disciples ask Jesus how to pray. In Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church, John Onwuchekwa points out that this request by His disciples is quite unusual. Although Jesus instructs His disciples throughout the four Gospels, Onwuchekwa says this is the “only record in Scripture when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them.”
This small detail should serve as a sense of relief for the contemporary Christian who struggles with prayer. Often, we see others who appear to pray with ease. They are confident, seem to not wrestle with words, and sometimes even evoke an eloquence in their prayers. But even Jesus’ closest companions needed help after witnessing Him pray countless times. Thus, it’s okay if prayer is a struggle, just don’t surrender. The transcendence of Jesus’ teachings is just as trustworthy today as they were then.
This, then, is how you should pray:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today 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 the evil one.” — Matt. 6:9–13
1️⃣ The Subtle Structure
One of the first things we learn from the Lord’s prayer is how to structure our prayers. Though Jesus does not intend for our prayers to be a rigid copy of His recitation, there is an implicit message in His framework.
Notice that the prayer can be divided into two sections. After a brief introduction (Our Father in heaven), there are two main blocks of text. In the first block, the word “your” is repeated several times. Similarly, the word “us” is reiterated multiple times in the second block. This subtle revelation shows us Jesus’ order of importance in prayer. Our adoration, worship, and initial prayer emphasis should primarily be directed toward God. Though we come to Him with requests and praise, our respect for Him is a focal point. Immediately following are our personal petitions. God knows our needs. He knows what we desire before we ask it. But prayer shows our dependence and trust in Him. Therefore, we come to Him for guidance, thanksgiving, and to express our emotions.
2️⃣ The Interpersonal Introduction
The introduction to the Lord’s prayer is only four words but provides the essential relational aspect of this divine encounter. Jesus’ Jewish roots are prevalent when He addresses God as “Father.” Beginning in the Old Testament, Jews regularly addressed God as their (heavenly) “Father.” (Deut. 32:6; Ps. 68:5; Is. 63:16; Jer. 3:4; Mal. 1:6) In our prayers, it can be easy for us to forget how God desires to relate to us. In our modern culture and with the ancient Jews, fathers are typically viewed as loving and trustworthy providers. Our prayer posture should always be undergirded by this relational truth. God is our heavenly Father, more faithful and dependable than we can truly comprehend.
3️⃣ The Future in the Present
In verse 10, Jesus says, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Again, this is an example of Jesus harkening back to His Jewish roots, which would have been familiar to His disciples. He is reflecting the thoughts of a part of an ancient Jewish prayer called the Kaddish. One of its earliest forms stated, “Exalted and hallowed be his great name, in the world that he created according to his will; may he cause his kingdom to reign . . .”
God’s future rule ought to tangibly affect the present disposition of his people. As Christians, we are God’s representatives on Earth. While acknowledging our imperfections and dependence on Him, we serve as His ambassadors, which primarily manifests through our love for others. We hope to attract them to the God of love through our love for each other and our non-Christian neighbors. This is shown through meeting the physical needs of others (Matt. 25:35–40) and their spiritual needs. As J. I. Packer stated in Praying the Lord’s Prayer regarding Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom come,” “(it is a) plea that his lordship might be seen and submitted to, and his saving grace experienced, all the word over, till Christ returns and all things are made new.”
4️⃣ The Freedom of Forgiveness
Finally, in the last stanza, Jesus said to His disciples, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus employs the word “debt” to emphasize His point since it had such cultural relevance for His Jewish audience. God commanded economic debts to be forgiven every 7th and 50th year to address lengthy poverty. But in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matt. 18: 21–35, we see that every sin in our lives creates a debt between God and us. Our lesson in this verse is that when we pray, humility is key. Although others often wrong us, our sins (i.e., violations of God’s law) are essentially wronging our divine Father. Just as His grace allows us to be forgiven, we should be driven to forgive other imperfect image-bearers with the same grace dispensed to us. A grace that was dispensed in its ultimate form on the cross, when Jesus didn’t merely provide us with a way to communicate with the Father, but a way to eternally commune with Him.