Many people know the Lord’s Prayer, having learned it from a parent or grandparent. But few know that it was given as a response to the disciples’ request for Jesus to teach them how to pray.
It seems odd, at first, that as the young adults they were then, the disciples would ask for such a basic lesson. We don’t know how often they went to the synagogue or how well their parents took care of their spiritual education. Judging from their request—and the religious practice of young people nowadays—it is clear that not many people receive practical religious guidance. The purpose of this article is to fill part of this void, especially that part that deals with practicing private prayer. How should we pray? What does prayer look like compared to what Jesus taught?
The motivation behind the request
We are not told how Jesus prayed, only that “when He finished [praying]”, the disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). This shows that the motivation behind their request was connected to observing Jesus’ devotion to God, which sparked their desire to follow His example.
Before the passage which contains the Lord’s Prayer, Luke recounts the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary. They were hosting Jesus and His disciples. While Martha, the older sister, is the perfect homemaker, caught up in the whirlwind of total servitude, Mary sits listening at Jesus’ feet (the disciple’s position in the culture of that time). Martha is indignant to the point that she reprimands Jesus for His apparent indifference to Mary’s lack of involvement. The Teacher’s answer is shocking: “’Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:41-42). Martha’s sacrificial spirit cannot compete with Mary’s unfettered devotion.
This is also how one has to look at Jesus’ prayer life. The disciples probably noticed that He did not pray hastily, like most people do. They probably noticed that, irrespective of the pressure placed on Him, He would in no way deprive Himself of His calm pursuit of His Heavenly Father.
The passage following the Lord’s Prayer also has something to say about what the disciples noticed in Jesus when He was praying. It’s a parable meant to underline the necessity of asking God for His Holy Spirit. The parable says a man receives an unexpected nocturnal visit from a friend. The custom of oriental hospitality required offering the guest a good meal when he arrived. But the host did not have bread so he calls on a neighbour for help. Being late at night, the inconvenience is easily imagined, so the neighbour tries to refuse the one asking. But the latter insists until he gets the necessary bread. If not for the sake of friendship, then at least to avoid the shame of refusing him, he will give him what he needs (Luke 11:8). (It was indeed a shame in ancient oriental cultures to deny help when you could give it).
Jesus concludes that His disciples must use the same motivation to ask for God’s Holy Spirit. For His name’s sake He will honour their request. Receiving the Holy Spirit is not like receiving a material object. It is communion with Divinity. It is the highest degree of intimacy with God: the most important request. The disciples probably noticed that Jesus was more interested in enjoying a close relationship with His heavenly Father than getting material gain from His prayers. This was something very different from man’s pursuits. Unfortunately, we usually want something from God, rather than wanting God Himself.
The Lord’s Prayer
Jesus’ answer to His disciples’ requests is what we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer. One should notice that Jesus suggests this prayer as a model both for public prayer (see the context of Matthew 6:9-13), as well as for private prayer (see the Gospel according to Luke). What can we learn about prayer from the Lord’s Prayer? If we talk about the form, it is a short prayer, like a public prayer ought to be. It is concise like a prayer addressed to an all-knowing God (Matthew 6:32). It is comprehensive, as it should be, considering its length and the Person it is addressed to (its statute). It is also a free prayer, not a memorised, mechanical one.
However, I believe the most important thing is the content of the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer has three parts: God, daily needs, and the problem of sin and temptation. The conclusion of this division makes one realise how much one can say in so few words. The position of these three parts helps us notice that the material world is engulfed by the spiritual. Daily needs are framed by God and the solution to the problem of sin. Let’s quickly go through them.
Regarding God, Jesus teaches us to always keep in mind His honour, the coming of His Kingdom and the fulfilment of His will. The preamble is one with which everyone should begin their prayers. I do not refer to the exact words, but the content. We should truly be more preoccupied with God’s name, the future kingdom, and His will. This will shield us from being preoccupied with our own person, with this life and our personal wishes. Prayer is a highway of connection we enter by giving way to God.
The second part of the Lord’s Prayer contains the only material request. The key word is not “bread”. We may ask for anything. We may ask for health, good memory for an exam, a suitable partner, a good car, or anything else. The key word is that which is usually translated as “daily”. But in New Testament Greek, the term is epiousios, which translates as “for being”. The adjective refers to what is necessary for our daily living. Thus we can ask for literally anything, but this ‘anything’ must be necessary for living. This limitation is meant to discourage fleeting and worthless pursuits.
The last part of the prayer focuses on sin and temptation. We are encouraged to ask for forgiveness, the premise being that no man is sinless (Romans 3:10). But forgiveness from God is proportional to the forgiveness we offer to the people who have wronged us (Matthew 6:14-16). This is where one can see that the prayer is meant to set one on the right track when it comes to human relationships.
Jesus’ prayer also touches on the topic of resolving the problem of sin, which involves something more than just being forgiven for past sins. We are invited to pray that the door of temptation will remain shut. The meaning of the verse, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one,” is that if God does not protect us, we stand no chance in the face of evil. This is why “lead us not…” requires us not to become complacent in a false sense of security, but to position ourselves to depend on God.
In conclusion, the Christian prayer must be concise, comprehensive in what it asks, and free. When it comes to content, biblical prayer starts with God and the world to come. It continues with the transient, more specifically, the necessary things. And it ends with spiritual requests, in which we ask Heaven for forgiveness for the sins we have committed and for protection from the lure of evil.
Laurenţiu-Florentin Moţ, PhD, is associate professor and rector of Adventus University.