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the lord's prayer: understanding the deeper meaning

The Lord’s Prayer: Understanding the Deeper Meaning

When we know something or someone very well, it is easy to skip over the nuances that reveal the beauty, wonder and mystery of that object. So it is with the prayer given to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We know it by memory, but do we really know what Jesus is actually telling us here? Along with my good friend, Pastor Chuck Davis, we’ve divided the study of the Lord’s Prayer into five devotions as a way of probing beneath the surface of Jesus’ words to the meaning he wants to convey to each one of us.

How to Pray

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:5–6

In a very different context, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says much the same thing about our motives behind praying. If we pray to impress people with our religious prowess, we are subverting the very reason to pray. Jesus says that prayer is about connecting with God. It is an ongoing conversation, a dialog where we not only can speak, but we can be spoken to as well. When it comes to prayer, we need to step outside of the discourse and commerce of everyday life so that we can adjust the attitudes of our heart to hear and to be heard, to speak and to be spoken to, not in the normal way of such things, but in the intimate company of God Himself.

God Knows What You Need

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7–8

Prayer is the essential link that connects us to God, who is not detached and foreign, but who desires to give each one of us the good things that he planned for us from the very beginning. After David fell into temptation and sin, he implored God to not take his Holy Spirit away because that would be worse than death (Psalm 51:11). God is not impersonal; he knows everything about us, and he wants us to know him. But if we fake it and babble like the pagans and puff ourselves up like the hypocritical religious leaders, we are engaging in mere pretense that in the end leaves us unhappy, alone, and dissatisfied. God is not far away (James 4:8). He is near, and it is through the power of prayer that we can draw ever closer to him. We should be confident that he hears us and longs for our eternal well-being.

The Lord’s Prayer

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:9–10

The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar that it is easy to miss its depth and complexity. In the first sentence alone, Jesus includes four declarations. First, he addresses God as “Our Father,” not as some stern and unfeeling taskmaster, but as “Daddy,” just as a child would address his own loving and protective father. Then he says, “hallowed be your name,” which sets this Father apart as holy and perfect and above the sinful and imperfect condition of men and women on earth. Then Jesus prays that God’s kingdom will be restored here on earth, replacing the kingdoms that are at war with God and his people. Finally, he prays for the unity that can only exist when the original design takes root here on earth, echoing the harmony that existed at the very beginning when God created the world and all the creatures in it, and he saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31).

Daily Bread

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

In this plentiful and prosperous corner of the world, it is too easy to forget what would happen if all the foods we find in markets and restaurants suddenly vanished. It is difficult to imagine a world where this kind of deprivation could become a reality, but for many, getting access to food is the harsh reality of daily life. When times are good, it is easy to assume provision from the endless supplies afforded by science and enterprise. But is this a reasonable position? Jesus prays to God for daily provision because he knows that God is the only true provider. As he says elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). To paraphrase another prayer: “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray . . .. Please keep me, guide me, love me, Lord, just for today.” Recognizing our daily dependence on God is the only way to live each and every day.

Forgive

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:12

Whether we use the word “trespasses,” “debts,” or “sins” when praying the Lord’s Prayer, we are essentially asking God for forgiveness for the countless ways we have fallen away from him. In an earlier encounter, Jesus makes his mission on earth abundantly clear: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Paul says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), so when we are praying, “Forgive us,” there are no exceptions or exemptions. Everyone needs to ask for God’s forgiveness because our sin causes us to betray him time and again. When Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death,” he gives us the answer immediately: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Roman 7:24–25) This one line of the Lord’s Prayer is liberating because without forgiveness, we will never escape the destructive consequences growing out of our sin-prone nature. But it is not just about us: We need to forgive as God has forgiven us. Just as God’s forgiveness cost him dearly, to forgive others as God has forgiven us can be costly. But from an eternal point of view, the cost is worth it.

Deliver Us

 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13

Why would God lead us into temptation? Perhaps it is best to think of this dilemma as fundamental to our relationship with God. Jesus seems to be requesting that God not place him in a situation where he would be tempted to betray God. When Jesus was tempted by the devil three times in the wilderness, he resisted by remaining centered in the Holy Spirit. This prayer acknowledges the existence of an evil one, who wanders the earth looking for people not able to withstand the devil’s schemes. Here is the promise for those who believe: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes

Put yourself on the wind swept hill above Caperneum and the Sea of Galilee. You have been following Jesus from town to town as he has been performing miracles to the amazement of many but to the consternation of some. Now Jesus has asked everyone to sit so we hear his timeless teachings on our relationship to God and to one another.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his followers a way of life that promises an eternity in Heaven. Please join me in exploring these teachings known as The Beatitudes.

The Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

Jesus begins the Beatitudes with a statement that throws into question the direction of our striving hearts. Many of us build our lives stone by stone, thinking that our economic well-being will relieve our thirst for something more than the riches and real estate we may acquire through a lifetime of effort. But wealth by itself cannot quench our thirst or satisfy our longing hearts. The poor are blessed because they are less prone to be blinded by the smokescreen of riches that obscures God’s authentic role in this world. The poor are not blessed because they are better. God calls all men and women into relationship with himself. It is just harder for the rich to put their trust in God because they may have decided to trust in the power and position that wealth can bring. “A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:20).

Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

When we experience the loss a friend or a family member, we cry out from the bottom of our hearts because we know something irreversible has taken place. We mourn, but Jesus tells us that God comes beside us to mourn with us and to comfort us. We are blessed at these moments because in the midst of our profound aloneness we experience the presence of God. And when we experience his presence, we realize that when we invite God into our lives, we are not alone and will never be alone. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).

The Meek

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

Again, Jesus takes a counterintuitive tack when stating who will inherit the earth. In his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s anti-hero, Sherman McCoy, is the “Master of the Universe,” a “god” of Wall Street who exudes antipathy for the nameless swarm of humanity that surrounds him in the city of New York. Sherman is a type that can be found in all the major financial centers in the world. He is trapped in a limousine reality and would have no understanding of what Jesus is telling him and us. When Jesus points to meekness, he is emphasizing humbleness of character. The meek are meek not out of a reservoir of weakness, but through the experience of knowing God and knowing that he is God and we are not:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

You are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

You know it completely, O Lord.

(Psalm 139:1–4)

Those Who Hunger and Thirst

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

If we hunger and thirst for something, we will not stop until we get it. What is your desert thirst? What do you hunger for above everything else? Jesus is using physical appetites common to all men and women to point to the one thing that will actually satisfy. Solomon asked God for the wisdom of “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (1 Kings 3:9). By asking for wisdom he was asking God to bless him with the righteousness that can only come from God. Jesus came down to earth to make that righteousness available to all: “Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21).

The Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

As God has shown mercy to us, so we should show the same measure of mercy to others. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus tells of a servant who cannot repay his master a large amount of money. The servant begs for mercy and it is granted. But soon enough, the servant demands repayment of monies owed him, and instead of showing the same kindness when the debtor cannot pay, he has the debtor thrown into prison. When the master is told of this, he asks the forgiven servant, “Shouldn’t you have had the same mercy on your fellow servant just as I had for you?” (Matthew 18:23–35) Think of the master in the parable as God, and think of the wicked servant as each one of us. We have received God’s mercy; in fact, we receive it everyday and we can never pay it back. But we can show it to others every time we have the opportunity. We can represent God in the world by forgiving just as we have been forgiven.

The Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

If we have the means, we wash away the grit and grime that naturally accumulates during our daily engagement with the world. If we don’t go through the daily rituals of bathing, we begin to feel out of sorts. But outer cleanliness does not necessarily equate with inner cleanliness. Jesus compares the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27–28). The unclean and diseased heart infects the whole person from the inside out, making it less and less possible to “see God.” Jesus is the ultimate heart surgeon who repairs and restores, beginning with the heart and working out from there.

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

We hear people speak of peace all the time, but how can there be peace when, in the deeper recesses of the heart, we are often at war with God? It might be said that human history began with the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. One thoughtless act of defiance led directly to all the enmity, pain, suffering, murder, and mayhem that characterize so much of the historical narrative. Peacemaking, as opposed to peacekeeping, can only take root if we first make peace with God through Christ. Then genuine peacemaking can begin, one person at a time.

The Persecuted

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)

From our earliest days, we expect to be rewarded for good behavior. When the opposite occurs, we feel the pain of injustice to our very core. This correlation of good behavior and reward is so pervasive that we often expect that our life will get better if we follow Jesus. But the weight of the narrative thus far suggests the opposite is just as true. Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod’s troops when he was a young child, he was persecuted and reviled by the religious elite for performing miracles on the Sabbath, and he was even rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus experienced persecution, his disciples experienced persecution, and the church has experienced persecution down through the ages and even to the present time.

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