Usage and abusage of the Lord's prayer
Every day, millions recite the "Lord's prayer", either in a private moment of seeking heaven's grace or in a public context, such as at a funeral. Included in this model prayer outline are four apparent personal supplications:
Give us this day our daily bread (Matt. 6:11);
. forgive us our debts (6:12);
. do not lead us into temptation (6:13);
. deliver us from the evil one (6:13).
Believers naturally read this section in its "obvious" sense, as instruction from Jesus to "let our requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6). Leon Morris comments on this section:
Until now the petitions have concerned the great causes of God and his kingdom; at this point Jesus' attention moves to the personal needs of the worshiper. Jesus takes seriously our physical needs.1
This understanding of the passage, however, faces some problems. To be sure, Scripture emphasizes that God "is love" (1 John 4:8), and therefore we can be quietly assured that He does care for us, so much so that He continually tracks the hairs on our pates. True, also, that the imperative verb forms used in the "Lord's prayer" passages do suggest polite "commands" to God to feed us, forgive us, and spare us from being tempted. However, the Greek construction also uses a verb form (the aorist) that has no equivalent in English. The Macquarie Dictionary says that the aorist tense "expresses action. without further limitation or implication as to completion, continuation, etc". Got that? According to one writer, "The use of the aorist imperative2 in a command is to denote either instantaneous action or action that is to begin at once". A red flag. Is Jesus really telling us to beg God - ever so politely - to get on the stick and give us our dinner right now? Translating is a tricky, challenging business, particularly when it comes to verb forms. Other considerations lead to the distinct possibility - if not likelihood - that Jesus was instructing His listeners to humbly acknowledge their utter dependence on their heavenly Father for their daily bread, for forgiveness, and for protection from "evil". His words convey a sense of worship towards God for taking care of these daily concerns.
Personal requests should constitute only a minor part of prayer. Godly prayer is all about worship, not about gimmes. How can one say such a thing? Well, for starters, Jesus did not say that God seeks "true supplicants who supplicate the Father in Spirit and in truth", did He? No, He corroborated the Old Testament emphasis that prayer is all about worship, not about getting God to do what we want:
God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23).
Note; "worship Him", not "ask Him for gifts". What about Philippians 4:6?
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Surely this verse shows that God wants us to callous our knees with endless requests that He supply our every need. Not at all. How we interpret this verse depends largely on what we already believe about prayer. The word used here for supplication (deesis) is also used in Luke 2:36-37:
Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers (deesis) night and day.
This woman "served God" continuously with her "supplications". Was she asking endless things for herself? No way. The object of her "supplications" was something far more noble, more lofty, than herself. Her focus was on God and His goodness and glory, not on her own needs. The case can be strongly made, then, that the "petitions" God answers (see 1 John 5:15) have as their object the glory of God, not the needs of man.
Other passages suggest that in the Lord's prayer Jesus was exhorting us to worship God for His beneficence in providing us with everything we need moment by moment. For instance, a number of passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Deut. 10:18, Ps. 136:25, Joel 2:23-24, 26) express praise towards God for providing our daily bread.
None can be found applying to Him to provide it. He has provided soil in which trees and grains can grow, sunlight to provide energy, rain to provide water. He created all the plants that we eat, and devised the brilliant process of photosynthesis that turns water and carbon dioxide into sugars. Sing His praises.
A few passages can be found in which a believer asks God for forgiveness; one interesting example is Psalm 25:18:
Look on my affliction and my pain, and forgive all my sins.
However, to gain proper perspective on this request we need to note an earlier verse in the same Psalm:
For Your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great (vs. 11).
Yes, the supplication for forgiveness in this Psalm has the exalting of "God's name" as its intent and purpose. This point is intensified in Psalm 79:9:
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name's sake!
Furthermore, the apostle John tells us that God forgives us through the blood of Christ if we confess our sins (1 John 1:7-9), not if we merely ask for forgiveness.
(And, of course, we must forgive others their trespasses against us.)
In fact, he makes no mention of beseeching God for forgiveness. Similarly, four times Jesus told His disciples that they must be men of prayer if they are to refrain from entering temptation ( Matt. 26:41, Mk. 14:38, Lk. 22:40, Lk. 22:46). In other words, the key to avoid being led into temptation is to maintain personal contact with God in prayer rather than to plead with Him to spare us from temptation.
Jesus Himself provides a rudder to guide us in our understanding of the Lord's prayer:
Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing. So why do you worry about clothing?. Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matt. 6:25-33).
We don't need to be worrying about our daily bread; but we should thank God for its constant provision. Christendom has by and large lost the plot and has adopted a man-centered religion rather than a God-centered one; this error has influenced our approach to prayer and our interpretation of the model prayer given by Jesus. We should read it as a guide to worshiping and praising God rather than as providing a list of petitions that have God's seal of approval.