The following is an extract from Brian’s new book: Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), pp. 251-53. It is used with the permission from the publisher.
No one finds praying easy. In Romans 8 Paul himself is realistic about the difficulty of prayer and spells out why praying is so difficult:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he [God] who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (vv. 26–27).”
In order to pray effectively we need God’s help not only to overcome our weakness, but also our ignorance: “we do not know what we ought to pray for.” And God facilitates our prayers not only through helping us in our weakness but also by “knowing our heart” (v. 27); that is, our deepest emotions, thoughts and desires. Jesus makes the same point just before a giving a model prayer to his disciples in Matthew 6: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (v. 8). In other words, being known by God makes prayer possible.
Just as prayer is possible because we are known by God, so also our experience of being known by God is facilitated by prayer. The Lord’s Prayer itself demonstrates the role prayer plays in recalling and rehearsing key aspects of our identity. We do not simply pray to receive good gifts from God. The act of prayer itself reminds us who we are in relation to God:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
Praying the Lord’s Prayer is an exercise in knowing ourselves as we are known, by God. It reminds us to whom we belong, what we are a part of, what we need, and where we are headed.
We pray to “Our Father in heaven,” and we belong to him. Praying to God as your Father brings to mind the sonship of Adam, Israel and David and our own adoption as God’s children. It also reminds us of Jesus’ own intimate and familial approach to God. As we saw in chapter 9, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), at the center of which stands the Lord’s Prayer, connects God as the father of Jesus and God as the father of Jesus’ disciples. Fifteen times Jesus speaks of “your father” or “our father” before Jesus refers at the end of the sermon to “my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Here he teaches us to pray, “Our Father in heaven.” Fundamentally in Matthew Jesus is the Son of God. And when we pray to our heavenly Father we share in his identity as God’s children and identify ourselves as part of his family.
The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come,” reminds us of the central theme of Jesus’ proclamation. To pray for God’s kingdom to come means to pledge allegiance to the rule of the one true God and to embrace the agenda of that rule as set out in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. It is also to locate your life in the narrative of God’s unfolding plan.
Likewise, to pray, “your will be done, on earth as in heaven,” is to pray for the integration of earth and heaven through that kingdom, with its many implications for love and justice that God’s reign brings. It is to live now in the light of your defining destiny. Implicitly, it is a renunciation of both self-assertion and the desire to build your own kingdom.
To ask God to “give us today our daily bread” is an admission that our lives are in God’s hands and that he knows how to give good gifts to his children. It is no accident that the next topic in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus addresses concerns money and greed. Praying it reminds us that our lives do not consist of “food and clothes” (Matt. 6:25) and that we worship God and not money (Matt. 6:24).
The petition to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” brings both comfort and a challenge. It reminds us of our status as forgiven sinners, forever grateful that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6). We are not those who are too proud to admit our wrongdoing. On the other hand, the inner connection between being forgiven and forgiving others also goes to the heart of our character. As Jesus taught in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21-35) we are to forgive “from the heart” and “seventy-seven times” if necessary.
Finally, the request “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one,” reminds the person praying of their inherent weakness and vulnerability and the extent of our need for God. As John Nolland suggests, it is a request “to be spared times of great pressure, times which would prove very trying. … [and] reflects a sense of one’s own frailty and limitation.” To be delivered from the evil one is a reminder of Jesus’ own temptation, and that of Adam and Eve’s disastrous transgression. Craig Keener notes that, “testing with a view to bringing people to succumb was the business of the ‘evil one’ (6:13b), a characteristic Matthean title for the devil.”
This final petition is another reminder that the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to share the priorities and pattern of life of Jesus himself. Tom Wright notes that, “in giving this prayer, Jesus is inviting his followers to share his own struggles and to experience the same spirituality that sustained him.” As Jesus will say to his disciples at the Last Supper, “you are those who have stood by me in my trials” (Luke 22:28). In short, the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that our identity is found in Christ.