Primer on Prayer

Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), Prayer (1889), oil on canvas, 74 cm x 53 cm, Kuroda Memorial Hall, Tokyo

Jesus often went off alone on a mountain to pray. On one occasion the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. He didn’t respond with a riddle or admonition. He taught them a simple prayer they could pray. It’s one of the few times the disciples asked for something and Jesus did what they asked him to do. Like a parent whose child asks for a hug, how could he say no?

Luke 11:1-13 is Jesus’ primer on prayer. It’s both practical and surprising. The text has three distinct sections: 2-4, 5-8, and 9-13. In the first section, we find Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is briefer than the one in Matthew’s Gospel.

The first thing that is surprising to me about this prayer is that it was intended primarily for communal not private use. It begins with the plural pronoun “our.” Prayer is supposed to bring Christians together and often does. Unfortunately, even the Lord’s Prayer shows the scars of theological schism. Catholics don’t add the doxology (“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever”), and Protestants can’t agree amongst themselves whether to ask forgiveness for “debts” or “trespasses.” It is ironic that a prayer intended to unite believers in shared devotion actually divides us instead.

Some are troubled by the way Jesus taught his disciples to address God. We know God is a spirit and as a spirit doesn’t have gender, yet Jesus called God his “Father” and taught us to address him as such. Patriarchal language was dominant but not exclusive, however, as the Bible sometimes uses feminine imagery for the divine. God is like a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) and a nursing mother, who comforts and nurtures her children (Isa. 49:14-15,  66:12-13). When referring to himself, Jesus used the simile of a mother hen protecting her brood (Luke 13:34).

We are encouraged to begin our prayer by acknowledging God’s transcendence and holiness (“who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name”).  Moreover, we should long for his rule (“thy kingdom come”) and ask for his perfect will to be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Prayer begins with recognizing who God is and the fact that he has a plan for the world. Not just a plan but an eschatological promise of a coming kingdom.

Another surprise is that prayer doesn’t have to be long. The Lord’s Prayer is not only a model prayer it’s also a model of brevity. No one, apparently not even God, likes longwinded prayers. There’s no eloquence or lofty speech. There’s also no requirement that we merely “wing it.” Prayer doesn’t have to be extemporaneous.

When we pray we should humbly petition God for bread and forgiveness—that is, for both physical sustenance and spiritual restoration. Finally, we are to remember the reality of evil and temptation and ask for God’s protection. Likely Jesus was referring to the evil one (the devil) rather than an abstraction.

Even though our prayers don’t have to be long or flowery, we should pray earnestly and persistently. Jesus told a homely parable about a man who goes to a friend at midnight to borrow food (again, bread) for an unexpected guest (5-8). The petitioner got what we wanted because of his “importunity” (lit. “shamelessness”). Jesus said “knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (9). The verb “knock” here can mean “keep on knocking.” Jesus encouraged his disciples to be relentless when petitioning heaven.

In the final section (9-13), we find a lesser-to-greater argument about God’s parental goodness. Human fathers, despite being “evil,” still give good gifts to their sons. “How much more,” the Bible says, “shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (13).

Given Jesus’ user-friendly model prayer and promise of success, why don’t we pray more than we do? I think the answer can be summed up in one word: disappointment. We’ve all asked God for something and not gotten it. Maybe it was a job we really needed or a loved one who had cancer and wasn’t healed. Let’s be honest, sometimes God doesn’t answer our most fervent prayers, at least not in the way we want. We shouldn’t be surprised.

The Apostle Paul petitioned God to remove an unspecified physical handicap but God didn’t (2 Cor. 12:7-10). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for relief from suffering and God said no (Matt. 26:39). True prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer, begins with a desire that God’s will be done, even when it’s not what we want. That might just be the hardest lesson in this primer on prayer.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Primer on Prayer

  1. Glenn Bratcher

    Travis, this is a great explanation of the Lord’s prayer. It came at a time when I needed to hear these thoughts on prayer…and I thank you for them!

    God Bless You!!!

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