“Granted that most of us know some individuals who are remarkable prayer warriors,” writes D. A. Carson, “is it not nevertheless true that by and large we are better at organizing than agonizing? Better at administering than interceding? Better at fellowship than fasting? Better at entertainment than worship? Better at theological articulation than spiritual adoration? Better—God help us!—at preaching than at praying (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 17)?”
Most Christians know: prayer is important. Foundationally, it’s because the Bible repeatedly affirms this. Sometimes by positive report (Gen. 4:26; Act 2:42). Sometimes it’s by direct command (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Sometimes by teaching, like, “Now [Jesus] was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart (Lk. 18:1).” It’s noteworthy that the extensive Psalms are not just songs, but many double as prayers (cf. Ps. 72:20). Yet, consider by way of example, that prayer is not only a major part of Jesus’ ascension ministry (Heb. 7:25), but was a frequent practice of his earthly ministry.
This shines perhaps most clearly in Luke. Indeed, in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew shares with Luke Jesus’ prayer of praise to the Father (Matt. 11:25-26; Lk. 10:21), and all three share his Gethsemane prayer (Matt. 26:36-46; Mk. 14:32-42; Lk. 22:40-46). Additionally, Luke’s statement that the crowds swelled, “But [Jesus] would withdraw to desolate places and pray (Lk. 5:16)” is analogous to Mark 1:35. Yet, Luke records many additional references, which spotlight Jesus’ regular prayer practice (3:21; 6:12-13; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1; 23:34 and 46). Needless to say, it’s no surprise that after one of his prayer sessions, Jesus is asked, “Lord, teach us to pray… (Lk. 11:1).”
The Lord’s Prayer
The prayer Jesus taught his disciples (traditionally called the Lord’s Prayer), occurs in Matt. 6:9-13 and Lk. 11:2-4. Together, it consists of six petitions that can be divided into two parts. The first contains “your” petitions, which focus on “your” (i.e. God’s) name, kingdom, and will. The second contains “our” petitions, which center on “our” (i.e. God’s people’s): needs, forgiveness, and battle with sin. The petitions are clarified well in the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms. In brief, however, we pray for aid that: 1. God’s name would be glorified by us and others; 2. God’s kingdom of grace may be advanced in the world; 3. God’s will would be obeyed; 4. God would meet our needs (“bread” being a synecdoche); 5. God would forgive our sins; and 6. God would support and deliver us in our ongoing struggle against sin and Satan.
Further, though it is not erroneous to recite the Lord’s Prayer as our own prayer, Jesus surely intended more. This is evident in that of all the recorded prayers of the apostles in the NT, none recite the Lord’s Prayer verbatim. Rather, they reflect a personalized, pouring out one’s heart to God (cf. Ps 62:8) in ways that may employ and expand elements of the Lord’s Prayer, though not necessarily all elements at once.
For example, when the apostles prayed concerning human opposition (cf. Acts 4:24-28), they petition, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). This is a personalized request for “your Kingdom come.” Also, Paul says to the Philippian church, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11). This is a prayer for God’s name to be glorified and his will to be done. Further, before his arrest, Jesus told his sleepy disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Here, Jesus indicates their need at the moment is to park on the sixth petition, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil [or the evil one].” Additionally, it’s interesting that Jesus’ high priestly prayer, in John 17, includes several themes from the Lord’s Prayer. For instance, it’s addressed to the Father (Jn. 17:1). It seeks God’s glory (Jn. 17:1, 4), his “name” being manifested and honored (Jn. 17:6, 11-12). It mentions God’s kingdom “work” on earth (Jn. 17:4, 18) and asks that his people be kept “from the evil one” (Jn. 17:15. See ISBE, 3:163).
In this light, G.I. Williamson’s picture is helpful when he avers that one should think of the Lord’s Prayer as one would a small model house. For the purpose of a 5’ by 5’ model is not for us to try to live within it. Rather, “It is only to help us to build a house that we can live in (The Shorter Catechism, 2:116).” This appears to be how the Lord’s Prayer is employed in the NT.
A House to Live In
In moving from the model to a house, then, it’s important to remember that the NT prayers (above) exemplified a personalized pouring out one’s heart to God in ways ultimately informed by Scripture. These elements are affirmed in Westminster Shorter Catechism 98 that, “Prayer is offering up our desires unto God [referencing Ps. 62:8 that in prayer we ‘pour out our heart before him’] for things agreeable to his will…” and 99 that, “The whole [Bible] is of use to direct us in prayer; but [especially]… The Lord’s Prayer.”
Concordantly, more than a hundred years earlier, Martin Luther advocated the same. In a personal letter in 1535, Luther gave common sense counsel on the practice of private prayer. He addressed issues like not putting prayer off nor letting the mind wander during it. Interestingly, though, Luther encouraged using the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, as well as other Bible passages (and The Apostle’s Creed) as springboards into expanded personalized prayer. So, for example, when Luther read “Your Kingdom come,” he might pray for the transformation of enemies and the defense of the church. He might pray for the church’s well-being and expansion over the kingdom of darkness, as well as the conversion and growth of specific individuals (The Annotated Luther, 4:260). Throughout, Luther stresses: the point is not to recite words but to meet with God with hearts, “…stirred and guided concerning the thoughts which ought to be comprehended in the Lord’s Prayer [and other passages]” (ibid, 263).
Further, this expanded praying does not stale though we utilize familiar Bible texts. For as Luther wisely says, one prays, “…in one fashion today, in another tomorrow, depending upon [one’s] mood and feeling (ibid, 263-264)”, and, we might add, in accordance with the providential situation one’s in. Luther also stressed the Holy Spirit’s involvement in prayer. So if the Spirit stirs our heart, perhaps regarding sin to confess, thanks to offer, people in need etc., these should be prayed over in the moment (ibid, 264, 269).
Finally, as we saw in the examples above: various NT prayers may highlight some, but not all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in a single session. Similarly, as Luther prayed the Lord’s Prayer in this expanded, Bible-guided manner, he declares, “It may happen occasionally that I may get lost among so many ideas in one petition that I forego the other [petitions]” (ibid, 264). These can be taken up next time. In all, this expanded Bible praying seems to be Jesus’ aim with the Lord’s Prayer. And our practice of it is a good way to move from “the model” to a house.
Dean Landry is Sr. Pastor of Indian Valley Faith Fellowship in Harleysville, PA.