In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He revealed a bunch of surprises, not the least of which was His clarification of how we’re to address our Creator. He’s our Father. Now, up till then God had been characterized as being a lot of things but never a father figure so this was big news, indeed. The implications are immense. God cares about us. God wants what’s best for us. When we grieve, He grieves. When we rejoice, He rejoices. We can develop and nurture an intimate relationship with Him. We can rely on Him. He’ll always have our back. No one loves us more. So it should come as no shock that Christ, when giving us the prayer template known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, began it with “Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored…” (Matthew 6:9). Is this paternal designation significant? Is water wet? J.I. Packer wrote, “…Everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that’s distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.” What a comfort that is! Even those with lousy or absent dads will be uplifted over that announcement. They can imagine what the most fantastic father would be like and revel in Jesus’ assurance that their Heavenly Father is even greater than that! It explains why the inspiring praise song “Good, Good Father” is so popular with so many. It strikes a beautiful, resounding chord in our hearts. Perhaps that’s the same emotional reaction Jesus witnessed when He announced to the crowd that the holiest prayer we can offer to God is one that starts off by acknowledging His Fatherhood.
However, it must be emphasized that the notion of everybody automatically being deemed a “child of God” isn’t found in any of the Scriptures. Attaining son or daughter status (via divine adoption) is a supernatural gift acquired only by surrendering our life to Christ and believing He died for our sins. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29). Thus simply being born isn’t sufficient. Jesus said we must be born again. The Bible’s clear on this issue: “…To all who have received him – those who believe in his name – he has given the right to become God’s children – children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God” (John 1:12-13). I realize it’s fashionable to believe everyone gets to stroll through the Pearly Gates as long as their positives outweigh their negatives. All other religions tout that doctrine but Christianity alone maintains that eternal life in the presence of God is obtained only by being figuratively washed in the blood of Jesus. There’s no other way in.
Since I’ve already scratched the surface of the Lord’s Prayer we might as well delve into it further. The opening statement indicates our Father God’s name deserves to be honored or hallowed as it were. Dallas Willard wrote, “In the biblical world, names are never just names. They partake of the reality they refer to. The Jewish reverence for the name of God was so great that especially devout Jews might even avoid pronouncing it. Thus we don’t really know how Yahweh, as we say it, really is to be pronounced. The pronunciation is lost in history.” Sadly, so is the significance of the word hallowed. Sanctified can be substituted because it connotes a name that should be treasured, revered and adored more than any other in existence. Addressing God Almighty in such a dignified way also fits right in with the personal Father concept Jesus espoused. That’s because when we’re adolescents our parents are our whole world. We can’t envision life without them. We trust them explicitly to care for us, to feed us, to provide shelter and protection and, most of all, to love us unconditionally. Plus as children we soon discover that displaying honest respect for a parent goes a long, long way towards improving our relationship with them. The Scriptures repeatedly confirm that God does recognize and appreciate it greatly when we hold His name in the highest esteem.
Next our Savior suggests we ask, “…May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Keep in mind that in no way are we requesting that God’s kingdom come into existence. Wherever in His universe God prefers His will to dominate and remain inviolate is His kingdom. Yet there are “valleys of death.” It’s obvious His will is continually being usurped on planet Earth so to ask for God’s kingdom to displace Satan’s down here makes all the sense in the world. After all, the devil is a real person and he’s identified as “…the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience…” (Ephesians 2:2). Later Paul reiterates this fact with, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). So this prayerful plea is for God’s perfect kingdom to infiltrate and overwhelm the secular, God-denying culture that surrounds us on all sides. Willard wrote that culture “…is the place where wickedness takes on group form, just as the flesh, good and right in itself, is the place where individual wickedness dwells. We therefore pray for our Father to break up these higher-level patterns of evil. And, among other things, we ask Him to help us see the patterns we are involved in. We ask Him to help us not cooperate with them, to cast light on them and act effectively to remove them.” The more God’s kingdom seeps in, the less room there is for sin to thrive and corrupt. There will come a day when “…At the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11) but, until that spectacular day arrives, we must pray to get as much of God’s kingdom as we possibly can.
Our Lord then advises we ask our Heavenly Father to “Give us today our daily bread.” Since God created everything there is from the tiniest quarks to the most massive of galaxies it’s logical (if not extremely wise) we should ask Him to provide us with the necessary basics that keep our bodies alive and functional. And by requesting only what we need today, we demonstrate our unshakable trust that He’ll take care of our bottom line needs tomorrow, too. Again I revert back to the child analogy. No youngster who has a good, good father and/or mother ever has to stop and worry about whether there’ll be something to eat on the table tomorrow. Their faith isn’t in the food, it’s in the people who’ve taken on the responsibility of watching over them and making sure they’re fed. We mustn’t lose sight of the underlying purpose that lies behind praying to our Heavenly Father for sustenance: To free ourselves from being anxious about the future by putting all such concerns into the hands of our loving Creator who’s promised to take care of us.
Continuing on, Jesus then taught us to “…Forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.” We’re to ask our Heavenly Father to have mercy on us for our shortcomings with the understanding being that we’ve gone ahead and shown mercy to those who were short with us before we prayed. Look, forgiveness isn’t a natural instinct. On the contrary, our initial impulse is to judge others and then condemn them for what they’ve done. By asking God to forgive us we are, at the same time, asking Him to continue to grace us with sufficient love and mercy to forgive our transgressors before we say or do anything else. Mercy is yet another word that’s lost a lot of its core meaning due to overuse so it’s actually more fitting we ask God to pity us for being so imperfect in His sight. I reckon some readers won’t be at ease with the idea that we are, in reality, quite pitiful creatures. But the truth sometimes stings like a bee, ya know? Willard wrote, “…Only pity reaches to the heart of our condition. The word pity makes us wince, as mercy does not. Our current language has robbed mercy of its deep, traditional meaning, which is practically the same as pity. To pity someone now is to feel sorry for them, and that’s regarded as demeaning, whereas to have mercy now is thought to be slightly noble – just ‘give ‘em a break.’ …But no, I need more than a break. I need pity because of who I am. If my pride is untouched when I pray for forgiveness, I haven’t prayed for forgiveness. I don’t even understand it.” Timothy Keller offered another perspective on forgiveness: “Cycles of reaction and retaliation can go on for years. Evil has been done to you – yes. But when you try to get payment through revenge the evil doesn’t disappear. Instead it spreads most tragically of all into you and your own character.”
Lastly, Jesus recommended we request of God, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” In other words, “Father, please don’t test our stamina or resolve. We’re not up to it.” Fredrick Buechner said of this, “If it takes guts to face the omnipotence that is God’s, it takes perhaps no less to face the impotence that is ours. We can do nothing without God. We can have nothing without God. Without God we are nothing. It is only the words ‘Our Father’ that make the prayer bearable. If God is indeed something like a father, then as something like children maybe we can risk approaching Him anyway.” Seems to me only a fool would desire to be tempted to sin. Therefore this passage has a lot to do with subduing our ego by admitting we’re spiritually weak and susceptible to the devil’s whispered enticements. Otherwise Christ wouldn’t have told us to ask our Heavenly Father to kindly keep temptations at bay. All of us know how alluring sin can be so petitioning God for His powerful assistance in that area is a smart move on our part. Christians in particular have a tendency to begin thinking our faith is stronger than it really is and harboring that attitude can be dangerous. When things are going smoothly we can get reckless.
Take the Zebedee boys, James and John, for example. These loyal disciples were so sure they could handle anything they persuaded their codependent mom to approach Jesus and beg Him to appoint both of them to lofty cabinet positions in the earthly regime they mistakenly thought their Master was going to establish soon. Jesus shook His weary head and said to them, “’You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’” (Matthew 20:22). Jesus let them down gently, informing them such things were for God to decide, not Him. I doubt they would’ve been so presumptive if they knew Jesus’ cup included a torturous, bloody crucifixion on a cross. Their somewhat arrogant confidence vastly outweighed their good sense to know you gotta watch what you ask for because you just might get it. Petitioning our Heavenly Father to keep us out of harm’s (and the evil one’s) way is an effective, proactive method of avoiding sticky situations our shortsighted pride might otherwise put us in. In effect, Jesus was saying it’s okay to ask God to not let bad things happen to us. Can’t hurt.
It’s also important to bear in mind there’ll be times when a difficult trial is necessary in order for us to learn a vital spiritual lesson. It’s not that God wants us to suffer per se but He knows us better than we know ourselves and there may not be a better option for garnering our undivided attention. Yes, Satan’s powerful but he’s not omnipotent. In the opening chapters of the Book of Job we read that the devil had to ask God’s permission before he could harass poor Job. Not once but twice! Nothing occurs in any corner of creation without our Heavenly Father knowing about it. Nothing. Now don’t get me wrong. Not every mishap or hardship we encounter is the handiwork of Satan or his nasty posse. That terrifying car accident that made your life a living hell might’ve been caused by a drunk driver or one too busy texting to notice the signal light was red. Or maybe your spouse is mad at you because you lied about how much money you stupidly wasted at the casino, not because some demon made you do it. In both cases the crucial matter is how you choose to react to the aftermath. The greatest temptation you’ll face will be to lash out in anger and end up making a bad circumstance even worse. That’s why asking God to steer us away from temptation’s snares is advantageous. Yet Paul reminds us that “No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Through prayer we’ll be able to spot the “way out” that God will provide if we trust Him.
I’ll end with this gem from Brennan Manning: “In prayer Jesus slows us down to a human tempo, teaches us how to count how few days we have, gifts us with wisdom of heart, and liberates us from the oppression of false deadlines, myopic vision and the degradation of language. …I’ve discovered prayer has purified my vocabulary of many boring, colorless, puffy and apparently damned important words like maximize, prioritize, interact, facilitate, interface, input, and feedback. There’s a conspicuous absence of empty, overused words in Jesus’ speech. We find no trace of impacting, hopefully, at this point in time, parameters or linkages in the Gospel; in fact, there are no junk words, jargon, or meaningful nonsense at all.” I can’t top that.