Apart from telling us WHAT to Pray, the “Lord’s Prayer” shows us in at least three ways HOW to pray!
The “Lord’s Prayer” is a profound outline or guide for prayer. It is profound in that although it is so short it provides a framework for every necessary topic of prayer, and also in that it teaches us important things about the way we should pray about the things for which we ask.
The prayer is found in two places in the Gospels – in Matthew 6: 9-13 in its fuller form, and in Luke 11: 2-4 in an abbreviated form. This fact alone seems to prove that the prayer is a guide on essential topics to pray about, rather than a prayer with specific words to be learned and repeated by rote as some believe.
Looking at the longer form of the prayer in Matthew, there are seven specific petitions or requests directed to God; but in this article, rather than looking at those petitions individually, as is often done, let’s look at some of the overall aspects of the guide which can be helpful in teaching us how to pray.
• The Prayer and the Commandments
First, when we compare the overall structure of the prayer, we see that it is actually similar to the structure of the Ten Commandments: the first group of points relating more directly to our relationship with God, the second group of points to our relationship with others. There are even some basic but noticeable touch-points: “I am the Lord Your God …” - “Father in Heaven”; "You shall not take my name in vain” - “Hallowed be your name”; etc. This is not surprising, of course, because in both the Commandments and the Lord's Prayer we are looking at the same things - our relationship with God and with others.
The dual stresses of the commandments and the model prayer are even clearer if we compare the words of Christ when he was asked which were the most important of all the commandments. Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). When we understand this we see the Lord's Prayer is not about asking for the things that we think will make us happy or that we want, but things that show our love for God and others. If the Ten Commandments show us how to love God and others, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to ask for help to do that properly.
Remembering this dual stress of the commandments and the prayer is truly important in helping us focus our approach to the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than seeing the prayer as an unrelated list of requests, we begin to see it as a prayerful “walk through” of key areas of our relationship with God and with others. That fact in itself gives us an important clue as to how Jesus’ prayer outline can be expanded, as we use it, to include all kinds of things relating to our spiritual relationship with God and the rest of His family. And we need to remember that dual aspect of the prayer’s focus. Humanly it may be easy to expand “Give us today our daily bread” by mentioning our many physical needs, but how much do we expand on requests such as “hallowed be your name”? Realizing the dual stress of the prayer helps us to better equally balance the things for which we pray.
• First Person Plural
Another basic thing to remember as we look at the model we are given is that there isn’t a single “I” or “my” in this prayer – only “you” and “us”, “your” and “our”. Considering how obvious this fact is, there seems to be a clear lesson – once again to focus our prayers on our relationship with God and with others.
Seen this way, the Lord’s Prayer is very different from the individual list of personal wants and needs we are all tempted to offer at most times given the problems of everyday life that we all face. There is certainly no problem in praying for ourselves, and the prayer outline does not deny us the ability to ask for the needs we have – it just puts our requests in the context of “our” needs, helping us to keep our minds on the fact that the problems of others are just as real – and sometimes much more serious – than those we face.
The Book of Psalms gives some great examples of this fact. Remember there are more prayers there than in any other book of the scriptures, and if you look at many of David’s heartfelt personal requests for help, they end with requests for others – for his people, for all of Israel (see Psalms 25:18, 22; 28:2, 9 for just two examples).
• Prayer Triage
When we kneel before God don’t dozens of things come into our minds – the many needs and concerns of our own lives and of those of family, friends and others we know. These many individual-level needs are in addition to things God shows us are even bigger needs – of worldwide scale. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start and where to end. That fact underscores one of the great purposes of the model we have been given – putting things in the right context and priority. Think of the Lord’s Prayer as prayer triage. Jesus’ guide to communication with our Father sorts through all those clamoring thoughts and needs and puts our concerns and requests in the right order. Matthew 6:7-8 shows us that “… your Father knows what you need before you ask him”; but even though God already knows what our most urgent needs are, the prayer outline puts things in perspective.
Putting it all Together
As we saw at the outset of this article, the Lord’s Prayer is a guide to prayer. None of the recorded prayers of Jesus or the disciples after the time the outline was given follow the wording of the prayer (showing again that it is not a prescribed set of specific words to be prayed), although each recorded prayer in the New Testament stresses some aspect found within the guide. Perhaps we could say that while spontaneous - and especially urgent - prayers will often take their own form, the “Lord’s Prayer” provides a guide for those occasions when we wish to seek God in regular and complete prayer. Although God is doubtless more concerned with the content rather than the form of our prayers, the guide Jesus gave us covers all the main aspects of our relationship with God and with others; it constantly directs our focus outward to include the needs of others; and it helps us to bring order and priority to the requests we make. These three areas of guidance help us to keep in mind what regular prayer is all about.