The Lord’s Prayer offers us an absolutely radical approach to God that even 2,000 years of having it as our most basic prayer still subverts and reorients the lives of those who pray it.
Sadly, the Lord’s Prayer is ignored too often as an actual prayer to be prayed and improvised on and spending way too much time on shelves like a dusty heirloom. The evidence of this is how rarely it influences the rest of our praying.
Most of my prayers sound very little like the prayer Jesus taught us and this has begun to concern me.
There are two contrary seeming aspects of the Lord’s Prayer that are essential to it and yet hardly practiced by American evangelicals as I listen to others of my tribe pray. It is insistent and it is passive at the same time.
The Lord’s Prayer is the height of audacity, since it is a series of commands aimed at God.
Think about that for a moment. In the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, we are supposed to issue commands to the King of the Universe. That sounds so insane, which is why we rarely follow through with it.
I know so much less than God and am so much more selfish than God. So, telling him to do things seems upside down. If anything, I should be asking him to tell me to do things, which is what we usually do in our praying.
“Lord, tell me what to do about this situation and give me the strength to do it.” This is my typical prayer and one that sounds like a lot of what I hear from others. But that’s exactly what the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t do. Instead of seeking help so that I can get busy, Jesus teaches us to command God to do something and then passively wait for him to do it.
There is no call for personal action in the Lord’s Prayer.
The only action (other than praying the prayer itself) is forgiving. But again, this is passive. In the prayer, we call on God to do the forgiving. We ask him to forgive us in the way that we have already forgiven others.
Now, this approach to seeking God’s forgiveness for ourselves does inspire us to forgive others, since his forgiveness is based on our own. That’s why it is the only part of the prayer that gets commented on by Jesus. He comments on our approach to forgiveness not just because its essential to any kind of Christian spirituality, but because it’s the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that leads us to action ourselves. There’s no need to comment on the rest of the prayer, because God has those actions covered.
Again, this is stunning.
How is any of this stuff going to get done if we don’t do it ourselves? How are we going to get our daily bread if we don’t find jobs or get busy with the ones we already have? How is God’s Name going to be hallowed if we don’t spread his fame, glorifying him in word and deed? How are we going to avoid temptation if we don’t actively walk away from it when it walks up to us?
Passivity seems like faithlessness. But it is actually the height of trust, according to Jesus.
How will things get done? God will do them.
Where Jesus wants us to be most active is in commanding God to do the things that God already wants to be done. So, it’s really not all that audacious, right? Could anything be easier that telling someone to do what he already wants to do?
Abraham Lincoln’s boys were notorious for their ability to interrupt their presidential father even in the most serious of meetings, running into the Oval Office and jumping up on his lap, where he’d give them his full attention before returning to governing affairs. It’s an image that helps me understand what Jesus is getting at with his prayer.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to God as a father (“Our Father”) whose knee is always open for us to sit on and whose ear is always open for us to speak to in the urgently commanding way of all children. But we also pray to God as the Great King of everything (“thy kingdom come”) who will have his way and who cannot and should not be stood against.
The tension between intimacy and authority are wrapped up in the prayer. It’s not understandable apart of that tension. God’s kingship is humbling, causing us to sit back and passively watch him act. But his fatherhood is inviting, causing us to sit up and actively ask him to do all kinds of things for both his good and our own.
Jesus is the son of the King whose authority knows no bounds, and he brings us to his Father’s throne, pulling us up on his lap to join our requests with his own. This is why we ignore the prayer he taught us at the impoverishment of the praying center of our spiritualities. It is the key to establishing all of our priorities and practices.