If there is one practice which seems to many to be the opposite of authentic spirituality, it is saying set prayers. Prayer, we easily feel, ought to be spontaneous, heart-felt, uninhibited. Surely repeating old phrases runs the risk of losing these things. Surely someone else’s words cannot best express my uniquely individual thoughts and needs. Surely this would turn prayer into a hollow religious ritual.
The thing is, however, that it does seem that Jesus intended the prayer he gave the disciples—the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer—to be actually used as set words of prayer. Luke’s Gospel tells us that one of Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). This is an intriguing moment, because no doubt the disciple did already know how to pray, at least in theory. Yet it seems there was something about Jesus’ prayers that caught the disciple’s attention. Luke tells us that this request came as Jesus finished praying by himself in a certain place. Jesus’ prayers made this disciple feel he had more to learn about prayer. Perhaps he felt, as we often do, that prayer is a struggle. Jesus responds not by outlining a set of guidelines but by giving the disciples (the whole group rather than the question-asker alone) an actual prayer for them to use: “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2). What follows is the Lord’s Prayer. The fact that we have two versions, from both Matthew 6 and Luke 11, in which the exact words are slightly different doesn’t change the fact that it is basically the same prayer (although it does stop us from thinking that these are somehow magic words that you have to get exactly right for them to work).
Let’s consider this prayer from two angles. Firstly, what this prayer means and what it teaches us, and secondly, why Jesus might have given us this teaching in the form that he did—that is, why he gave us a prayer to use, and not just some rules about prayer.
The prayer itself
What does the prayer itself teach us about how we should pray? Let’s notice three things.
The basis for prayer
First, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us the basis on which we may pray to God. Our Father in heaven, it begins, or in Luke just Father. We pray to God as Father, and we may pray because he is our Father. This is an amazing thing and we mustn’t miss it. It’s not at all a common way of speaking of God in the Old Testament. It is there, but it’s not usual, because of course to call God Father is incredibly intimate. What right do we have to address God with such boldness and intimacy?
Actually, on our own we have no such right. We have no right to God’s attention, to his fatherly care and love, because on our own we stand before him as sinners before the holy Lord. But of course, and this is part of the point of the Lord’s Prayer, we do not stand on our own. We stand with Jesus. Jesus, the one and only true and perfectly faithful Son of God the Father, the only one who truly has a right to address God in this way. Jesus has given those who believe in him the right to become children of God, to be adopted into his family alongside him as brothers and sisters. Through his death to take away our sins and his resurrection to new life, Jesus has allowed us to share, by faith, in his own relationship to God the Father. And so in prayer we approach God not as fearful slaves but as beloved children coming to our Father. We can pray like this only because of God’s mercy—but because of God’s mercy in Jesus, this is how we really can pray.
One further comment here: notice that, at least in Matthew’s version, we pray to God as our Father. Not, that is, just my Father. God is not just interested in me alone. He is interested in me; but he is also interested in others. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray as part of a community, a family.
What truly matters
The second thing to notice is that the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for what truly matters. The first things we are taught to pray for are about God himself and his honour. In Matthew’s version, these are: Hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Most likely, these are not the first things we would think to pray for if we were on our own. We forget that the world does not in fact revolve around us but around God, and that what matters most is not our honour, but his; not our kingdoms, but his; not our purposes, but his.
When we pray that God’s name might be hallowed, we are praying that God would be glorified, that all of creation would recognize who he is and worship him as he deserves, that God would be revered, respected, honoured. This is not a prayer to be prayed lightly. It reminds us that there is only one Lord, and that everyone ought to worship him… and that it is a catastrophe, a dark stain on creation, that our families, friends, and neighbours do not do so.
Jesus tells us to pray too for the coming of God’s kingdom and, in Matthew, for the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven. This, again, is a prayer that most of the time we probably don’t really want to pray, because it’s a prayer for God to act to change things. It’s a prayer for him to reveal his Son Jesus as the king in glory, and to bring an end to sin and evil. Sometimes, when things are not going well for us or when we’re in pain, perhaps we will feel the goodness of this prayer. But often it will be deeply confronting. To pray this is to be forced out of contentment with how things are here and now. It’s to ask for life as it now stands to pass away, to be overcome by God’s kingdom. To pray this prayer is to learn to want something more than life here and now, even at its finest. It is to refuse to be mesmerized by the possibilities our present existence offers for enjoyment and satisfaction.
The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to lift our eyes and to ask first, however much of a wrench it may be to do it, for what truly matters: the glory of God and the coming of his kingdom.
What we really need
The third thing to notice about this prayer is that it teaches us to pray for what we really need. We pray for three things for ourselves: bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. Give us this day 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. Bread, forgiveness, deliverance.
If you were writing this part of the prayer, I wonder what you would have put in. Certainly more than bread. Maybe security would be a better starting point. Maybe even, dare we ask, the freedom to keep enjoying the prosperity we have at the moment. Isn’t it fair to ask God for that? But this is not a prayer for bonds and boats and biscotti—just bread. What we need to live. We’re asking God just to keep sustaining us.
It quickly moves on from our material concerns to the other things we need. We ask, first, for forgiveness of our debts. This is a great reminder, I think, that we never come to God as people who have moved past needing his mercy. It is very easy to forget this. It is very easy to start feeling good about ourselves, especially if we have been blessed with work we are doing well, or friends and family who tell us that we’re wonderful. But Jesus says we must always pray for forgiveness.
It’s not just a weak, shallow forgiveness we need, either: a forgiveness that is just a kind of idea, a theory, a nice story we tell ourselves. No, the forgiveness we need to pray for is the forgiveness that actually changes the way we live, that transforms our lives. As we also have forgiven our debtors. Those are very scary words, but what they do is remind us that the forgiveness we need from God is as real, and as tortured, as the forgiveness we offer others. This part of the Lord’s Prayer makes it impossible to pray it just as a religious exercise. What we really need, this prayer teaches us, is the kind of real, shocking forgiveness from God that makes you forgive others.
Finally, deliverance. This last part is the weirdest for us, but it is important. We are taught that, as much or in fact more than our daily bread and all the things that preoccupy us, what we really need is to be saved from the powers of evil. What this prayer reminds us of is that the greatest threat to us, the greatest risk we face each day, is sin, is being overcome by evil. We are called to pray to be spared temptation and delivered from the snares of the devil. Do we feel this way about sin and evil? Do we have this kind of awareness of its danger? Very often we have a much more cavalier attitude to sin. We don’t flee from temptation, we flirt with it. We trust that we’ll be able to handle it and stop ourselves from going ‘too far’. We flood our eyes with images of sex and violence, and our ears with words of cruelty and lewdness and darkness, and then flatter ourselves that we are ‘engaging with the world’. Jesus teaches us to ask God to lead us not into temptation but to deliver us from evil.
The form of the lesson
Well, this is what Jesus tells the disciples to pray for, and there is a lot to think about. Yet on top of this we should also pause to reflect on another question: why does Jesus teach us these things in the form that he does, that is, by giving us a prayer to use? Why does he do this rather than just, say, give a bunch of instructions like, “Well, first off, you want to think about location. It’s important to be comfortable, but not so much that you’ll fall asleep. Then, you want to start with praising God. Do that for four or five minutes and then move on to confession.” In other places, Jesus does give instructions about prayer, and perhaps that’s what the disciples had expected. So why does he also, and as his first response, give an actual prayer for them to use and practice?
I’m not sure; but I have a hunch: you can’t learn to pray more deeply just by learning the theory, you have to learn by doing it. Prayer, that is, is something learnt by practice, a skill you can only learn in the doing of it, like learning a skill with your hands such as playing a musical instrument or knitting. It’s something that comes by practice and by apprenticeship over time. It’s a craft, a know-how, and you learn by practicing under the direction of a tutor.
There are lots of things where it’s easy to know the theory of how to do something and still be a long way from actually being able to do it. We probably know examples of this from our work. It’s one thing to know what to do; it’s another thing to be able to do it. Some years ago I worked at a very fancy coffee bar for a little while. When I arrived there I came with my barista certificate proudly in hand. I had done a two hour course and now knew how to make coffee. But of course, I didn’t at all. I knew the theory, but I hadn’t learnt it by practice, so that it had gotten into my muscles and my bones. When I was there, apprentice baristas did six months of steaming milk for take-aways before they moved onto shots. Because really knowing how to do it wasn’t about knowing in theory—the theory takes about two minutes to explain—it was about working it into your hands.
Perhaps Jesus knew that prayer was like this. That you only grow in prayer by doing your apprenticeship and by getting the movements into your body, so to speak. And so he gave his disciples a way to get going.
Of course, the great danger with skills learnt like this is to develop bad habits. If you’re learning an instrument and you get bad tuition early on and just plug away with the wrong posture, or the wrong mouth position, or the wrong breathing, then those habits get harder and harder to break. When I was younger and learnt the saxophone, I changed tutors after two years or so and had to go back to square one, because I’d been playing the wrong way.
But this is why the Lord’s Prayer is so helpful. Because this prayer can function as a standard, a pattern for prayer that teaches us the right habits. It’s as if Jesus shows us an exercise and says, “start by doing this”. He gives us a pattern to work with that will set us on the right track, a model that will help us develop the right rhythms. The Lord’s Prayer is not a lecture on how to pray; it is an apprenticeship, a way for us to learn to pray correctly by practice, to build the right habits and develop the right skills.
How to live
I hope this will renew our enthusiasm for the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer. But before we get there, let us notice one more thing. What Jesus is teaching his disciples in teaching them this prayer is far more than just how to pray; he’s teaching them how to live. For as we’ve already seen, what this prayer shapes is not just your prayers, but your whole attitude towards life, your whole outlook and approach to the world.
As we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we learn much more than just how to pray. We learn who we are—that we are God’s children in Christ, debtors before him yet beloved and redeemed nonetheless; we learn where we are—that we stand alongside others, in a community that matters and amongst people we are called to love and forgive; and most of all we learn what time it is—that we live in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom, and that the time we have now is filled with challenge and opportunity and demands our attention.
This point—what we might call the ethical function of the Lord’s Prayer—is borne out by the striking fact that in Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer stands right at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous piece of moral teaching. Indeed, some commentators suggest that the entire sermon is structured so that this prayer forms its centre. The significance of this should not be overlooked. It is a reminder that this prayer is an apprenticeship not only in prayer, but in life, in living by the Spirit in this world in the light of the kingdom. This is why Karl Barth declared that “‘Abba, Father’ becomes the basic act of the Christian ethos”. This prayer is right at the heart of Christian discipleship, of learning to live in the way the Master teaches us.
So let us take up this prayer and use it. There are perfectly good reasons to be anxious about set prayers and religious rituals. But we should not throw out this prayer, because this prayer is a gift to us. It’s not magic, of course. It will only do us any good if we mean what we say. But it is a gift.
We must not let our anxieties about authenticity and individuality stop us. There is certainly a place in the spiritual life for individuality. God made us different and he loves that. But there is also a lot of commonality. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” says Paul (Rom 8:29). Conformed! To be a Christian is to become more like Jesus, and that’s the same for all of us. That doesn’t mean we will all be the same in every way, but we are growing in many common ways. If we are not interested in being like Jesus, then we are not interested in being Christians.
Perhaps one of the most counter-cultural practices we could adopt in our age, in which we idolize authenticity and spontaneity, is to make the Lord’s Prayer a regular part of our lives and the lives of our churches, to build this habit in so that it moulds us and shapes us. We would have to work, of course, to stop it becoming stale, to keep meaning it, to keep it being a prayer and not just an exercise. But that’s not impossible. So why not take hold of this deceptively simple gift from our Lord? Being a Christian is always and only ever being an apprentice, a disciple. Why not let Jesus’ prayer mould our prayers, and our hearts, deeply and richly? There may be nothing so simple that we can do that will have such a profound impact on our lives for good.
 K Barth, The Christian Life, T & T Clark, London, 1981, p. 102.