Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Lord’s Prayer and Submission to the Will of God

In this short piece I wish to offer an interpretation of the most repeated and most familiar of prayers, the Lord’s Prayer. 

A modern view of prayer

When we reflect on it, on its spirit, nothing could be more different from the expressions of that piety which we routinely teach our children, a piety of taking Jesus into our hearts and of the need to establish a relationship with Jesus, partly if not wholly through asking things of him which in due course he will – or may not - provide  us what we ask for. What matters is our relationship to the Father, of which Jesus is the Mediator.

Nor is the Prayer easily related to how modern evangelical Christians speak of prayer, as if it is a sort of stuff: ‘He’s ill so he needs more prayer’. The idea of this is that prayer is a sort of force aimed in the direction of God, an unwilling or distant God, to get us what we want when other means fail, and even perhaps when other means haven’t failed. Sometimes we seem to think of prayer as a first-class delivery system, through the use of which we can ensure a rapid response.

A different model

This is a model of Christian prayer  taught by Jesus two thousand odd years ago about what his followers are to pray for  when they address  his Heavenly Father. It is not a prayer to Jesus taught by Jesus, but a prayer to his Father and our Father. Jesus is the mediator of our prayers, including teaching his people the spirit of prayer. He is not the one to whom are prayers are to be addressed.  No doubt Jesus’ prayers to his Father provide a kind of paradigm for the understanding of this prayer, the most familiar and yet the strangest of all prayers.

I suggest that the Lord’s Prayer is primarily intended to shape us, not to wake up the Lord. It is God-centred template for prayer. It emphasises not our needs but God’s transcendence and sovereignty. God, our Father, is in heaven, he is out Creator and Lord, and his name is to be hallowed, to be revered. He has a kingdom, and the petitioner seeks to align himself to the purpose of God with the bringing about of that kingdom. This has nothing to do with the problems in the Middle East, or the refugees, or the latest tragedy highlighted by the media. We are not asking the Lord to take charge of the H.M. foreign policy. It is not a prayer for peace, though elsewhere in the New Testament we are encouraged us to pray for peace.   The prayer is not that God's kingdom will be transformed into an earthly kingdom – the entirety of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom is against such an idea. This is that God’s kingly reign in heaven may be extended on earth. This is exactly what the early disciples in their first encounters with Jesus thought that he was, a revolutionary Che Guevara figure. In the case of God's kingdom men and women enter it through penitence and faith in the Messiah, the mediator of the covenant.

But what about ‘Give us this day our daily bread’?  Isn’t this the real business of the prayer, to get us those things that we want, and persuade ourselves what we need? Isn't this the difference that being a Christian brings, the possession of a hot line to the Almighty? After all, isn’t God concerned with every detail of our lives? The spirit of this petition is - alas! - very different from that of promoting a sort of Christian consumerism.  It is a request for bread that we need in order to live. It shows our dependence on Almighty God. Give us day by day the bread we need. The bottom line. In the last analysis it is God alone who can keep us going physically. It is a prayer both of submission to God, and of contentment with his care. It is not a prayer which  contains within it all the aspirations of worldly ambition, and which we are free to extend to the entirety of our wish list. The reverse.  It is a prayer that the Lord will give us contented spirit.

Such minds must include a forgiving spirit.  Why should we hope for forgiveness from God when we are unforgiving to those who upset us?  Our showing forgiveness to others, and especially to those who have offended or harmed us in some way, is not a condition of God forgiving us, as a quick reading of the petition may suggest.  But rather, how can we in reason expect the Lord to forgive our trespasses if we in turn have a spirit that is unwilling to forgive those who trespass against us, a mean-spirited and selfish outlook? It is incongruous to hope for our own forgiveness while at the same time we are hard-hearted to others.

A prayer of self-denial

And finally, the prayer returns us to where we began. The kingdom, the power and the glory are not ours, much less is praying to be centred on such concerns, our own advancement. The kingdom that  has no end, and the power and the glory of it,  are the Lord’s alone. And those people have a part in this coming glory who enjoy his free forgiveness, and who themselves have a forgiving spirit.

So the prayer is a prayer of discipleship.