Invitation to the Heart of God
“This, then, is how you should pray." Matthew 6:9
Before we begin: How old were you when you first learned the Lord’s Prayer? How often do you pray the Lord’s Prayer? Why does this prayer (of all the prayers in the Bible) matter so much?
Come with me to Stuttgart, Germany in the last terrible days of World War II. Before us is the famous Church of the Hospitallers. The pastor is a noted young theologian named Helmut Thielecke. Bombs fall day and night as the final German resistance crumbles. Slowly, relentlessly, the mighty Russian army approaches from the east. In the west the Allies gain more ground every day. It is only a matter of days until the “thousand year” Reich falls to the ground.
Through the long years of the war, Pastor Helmut Thielecke preached the gospel to his congregation. Now the end is in sight. What will he say to his people amid the carnage, the death, the destruction, the killing, the gore, the violence, the collapse of society, the fall of Hitler, and the Allied occupation? What does a man say in a moment like that? Where does he go to find the truth his people need to hear? The pastor preached a series of sermons that became so famous they were put in a book called Our Heavenly Father (later translated into English and published in America). The sermon series that he preached as the war drew to its tragic climax was based on the Lord’s Prayer.
I don’t know how that strikes you, but it seems unusual to me. Odd. Esoteric. When the bombs are falling on every hand, why would a man talk about something theoretical like the Lord’s Prayer? Why wouldn’t he talk about something practical? I do not mean that as some sort of critical comment for I too am a pastor and week by week I must bring the Word of the Living God to my own people. And certainly I have never been in that sort of situation. But very few pastors would decide to preach on the Lord’s Prayer when the world is falling apart. Should that not be reserved for a more tranquil time?
Looking back on his experience, Thielecke commented that he could see the fear and desperation on the faces of his hearers. They lived in constant tension, not knowing when the Allied planes would return, bringing with them more bombs, more destruction, still more death and the end of the world they had built and had known and believed in, even when they didn’t accept every part of it. He spoke of the “torment of doubt and despair” of the people as they reached out for hope.
All that the preacher read in those faces and also what filled him to the brim, since he too was a participant, is doubtless reflected in these sermons. And the Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all. There was not a single question that we could not have brought to it and not a one that would have been suddenly transformed if it were put in the form of a prayer (p. 14).
I was greatly struck by one sentence, “The Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all.”
A Prayer for All Seasons
“The Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all.”
That one sentence, rightly understood, is the reason I began this study. In twenty centuries of Christian history, no prayer has surpassed the eloquent simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer. There aren’t many things that unite Christians of all persuasions, but the Lord’s Prayer is one of them. I don’t know how old I was when I first learned the Lord’s Prayer, but I couldn’t have been more than four or five or six years old. I feel like I’ve known it all my life. My travels in recent years have taken me around the world and into churches that span the denominational spectrum. I have shared in a Russian Orthodox worship service and clapped my hands with a happy group of Haitian believers. At this moment I pastor an interdenominational church in a Chicago suburb. Each Sunday people from forty to fifty different denominations worship with us. I have discovered that all Christians know the Lord’s Prayer. It transcends language and ritual and culture and race. Simple though it is, and perhaps because of its simplicity, the Lord’s Prayer is part of the glue that holds the body of Christ together. We love to argue about doctrine and to debate which church is right, but in the end when we begin to say “Our Father in heaven,” our hearts join as one to repeat these ancient words that speak with such contemporary power.
Several years ago I was chagrined to discover that the Lord’s Prayer is considered one of the three foundational documents of the Christian faith. To be more accurate, I was chagrined to discover that I didn’t know that. How could there be three foundational documents and I didn’t know that? Evidently I was absent the day they mentioned that in my church history class at seminary. But it is true. For two thousand years every branch of the Christian church has considered the Lord’s Prayer as one of the three foundational documents. If you go back through church history 500 or 1000 or even 1500 years, you discover that the Lord’s Prayer is mentioned in every catechism of the Christian church. That’s a crucial fact because throughout history, the catechisms (which are basically Christian doctrine taught in question and answer fashion) were used to teach people who couldn’t read the doctrines of the Christian faith. That’s how Christianity spread in the generations before the printing press revolutionized the world.
Simple though it is, and perhaps because of its simplicity, the Lord’s Prayer is part of the glue that holds the body of Christ together.
All the major catechisms of the Christian faith include the Lord’s Prayer as one of the three foundational documents. The other two foundational documents are the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments. Every essential truth you need to know is contained in those three documents. The Apostle’s Creed tells us what we believe. The Ten Commandments tell how we are to behave. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how we are to pray. Think of it as belief, action and prayer. It’s all right there. As you go back into church history and look at all branches of the Christian church-Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant-wherever you find a catechism, you will always find a section about the Lord’s Prayer.
A Prayer For The World
During my first visit to Russia shortly before the collapse of Communism, our team visited eight churches, and in six out of the eight churches the choir sang the Lord’s prayer as part of the worship service. It happened in country churches, city churches, big churches, small churches, and in churches by the Volga River. It was a standard part of the service in Russia. But the same is true in churches around the world. The Lord’s Prayer is not something small or peripheral. It’s central to our understanding of what the Christian faith is all about.
I have spent over 30 years in the ministry, most of that time spent serving congregations in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. My current ministry takes me across America and around the world. As a result, I meet Christians from many different backgrounds. Everyone seems to agree that we all need to come into a deeper knowledge of our Lord through prayer. We all say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It is clear to me that our real needs aren’t financial. Whatever problems we have aren’t related to our buildings or our programs. And we don’t have many theological problems. The real challenge before us is the challenge of prayer: to know Jesus Christ better and to bring our needs to him in a deeper and more personal and more intimate way. But what I say about my own church is not unique. Almost every pastor would say the same thing. We all need to pray, we want to pray, we feel the call to pray, and we dream of a church that can truly be called a “praying church.” It occurs to me that it is hard to define exactly what the term means but you know it when you see it. Or sense it. Or feel it.
The real challenge before us is the challenge of prayer: to know Jesus Christ better and to bring our needs to him in a deeper and more personal and more intimate way.
And that brings us back to the Lord’s Prayer as a foundational document. When the disciples wanted to know how to pray, Jesus taught them this simple prayer. We can always do more once we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer, but we can hardly say we have prayed at all until we have prayed as Jesus taught us to pray. For many of us our problem may be stated very simply: We have heard the Lord’s Prayer so many times that by now we take it for granted. Martin Luther said that the Lord’s Prayer was “the greatest Martyr” because “everyone tortures and abuses it.” He meant that in his day when anyone went to church-morning, noon or night-they always recited or sang the Lord’s Prayer. They did it so often that it became a meaningless habit. You could say it by memory without even thinking about it. It’s easy to see how that could happen.
We know it too well. We understand it too little. So I’m going to ask you for a personal favor. As you read these messages, open your mind and your heart with me as we go back to the greatest of all Christian prayers.
At this point I should mention two objections that are sometimes raised against an emphasis on the Lord’s Prayer. Some people have suggested that the Lord’s Prayer is not really a Christian prayer since it occurs in the Sermon on the Mount and that means (according to certain interpreters) that it is not a description of Christian discipleship. The simplest answer is to observe that this prayer has been almost universally received as a prayer for believers today. Beyond that, we can simply add that there is nothing in this prayer that is not taught elsewhere in the New Testament. If Christ taught us to pray this way, how could it not be a Christian prayer?
We can always do more once we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer, but we can hardly say we have prayed at all until we have prayed as Jesus taught us to pray.
And some people object to calling this “The Lord’s Prayer.” They say that John 17 should be “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer should be called “The Disciples’ Prayer.” I won’t quibble over titles since the New Testament never calls this “The Lord’s Prayer.” That’s simply the title handed down by church history. Some even point out that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, would never pray, “Forgive us our debts.” True, but on the Cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In any case, this is the prayer our Lord taught us to pray, which means it is truly “The Lord’s Prayer” since he is its author.
Two Beginning Observations
Let’s begin with two simple observations. First, the Lord’s Prayer is given to us as a guide or a pattern or a model or a framework for what Christian prayer is all about. When we think about the Lord’s Prayer we tend to go to one or two extremes. One extreme is to demand that whenever you have a church service, you must recite the Lord’s Prayer. Certainly there is nothing wrong or unbiblical with that practice. The other extreme is never to use it in public or private worship. Surely this is an over-reaction. The way of wisdom is somewhere between those two extremes. There is no biblical mandate to say the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but we would do well to have a greater grasp of what Jesus was saying when he gave us this prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is a model or a pattern or a framework. It is the answer to the question: what does Christian prayer look like? Christian prayer looks like the Lord’s Prayer. It doesn’t have to sound like the Lord’s Prayer. It can be said in different languages. It certainly will be said in different words and in different forms and styles. But truly Christian prayer looks like the Lord’s Prayer. It is given as a pattern to teach us what prayer is all about.
Second, the Lord’s Prayer is mentioned twice in the New Testament-once in Matthew 6 and once in Luke 11. The version in Matthew 6 is a little bit longer and is considered the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer.
A Simple Prayer
With that as background, we pick up the story in Matthew 6, the middle chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. In this section, Jesus is talking with his disciples about true and false giving, true and false praying, and true and false fasting. When Jesus got to the subject of prayer, he said there is a false kind of prayer, which is praying to be heard by men, and there is a true kind of prayer, which is going into your prayer closet and praying to your Father in secret from your heart. Then he gives us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13,
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. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Christian prayer looks like the Lord’s Prayer.
As we stand back and look at the prayer as a whole, three things come quickly to mind:
First, how simple this prayer is. No long words, no strange theological expressions, no obscure phrases, no genealogies. The simplicity explains why Christians for 2000 years have gravitated toward it.
Second, how brief it is. There are too many long-winded Christians think because of their many words they’ll be heard by God. The Lord’s Prayer contains only 65 words. In the Greek no petition has more than ten words. It’s hard to be briefer (or simpler) than “Your kingdom come” or “Your will be done.” Short and too the point. What a great lesson for us.
Third, how comprehensive it is. Everything that you’d ever want to say in prayer is in here. Everything. It’s in here somewhere-all in this prayer.
The Prayer That Has It All
God is in this prayer. We are in this prayer. The past is in this prayer. The present is in this prayer. The future is in this prayer. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in this prayer. Everything is here. Let me share a simple outline for the Lord’s Prayer. The first half of the prayer talks about God-his name, his kingdom, his will. The second half of this prayer talks about man-give us, forgive us, lead us. So God and man form the two great subjects of this prayer.
Look now at the second half of the prayer. You’ve got the past-Forgive us our debts. You’ve got the present-Give us today. You’ve got the future-Lead us not into temptation. Notice the Trinitarian structure of the prayer in both halves of the prayer:
Hallowed be your name-it is the Father who magnifies his name.
Your kingdom come-it is the Son who establishes his kingdom.
Your will be done-it is the Holy Spirit who executes the will of God.
Give us today our daily bread-the Father’s provision.
Forgive us our debts-the Son’s pardon from sin.
Lead us not into temptation-the Holy Spirit’s protection from temptation.
Prayer Begins With God
Jesus taught to say, “Our Father in heaven.” Then we talk to the Father about the Father. Prayer begins with God. It doesn’t begin with us. Focusing upward we talk to the Father about his name, his kingdom, and his will. Then we talk to the Father about his family. We pray for provision -"Give us this day our daily bread.” We pray for pardon -"Forgive us our debts.” We pray for protection-"Lead us not into temptation.” So we begin with God and move to our own needs. We talk to the Father about the Father and then we talk to the Father about his family.
Is there anything in heaven or on earth that is not comprehended in those two broad categories? All of life is there. All of eternity is there. All that was and is and is to come is there. If there is something you want to pray about that isn’t in those two categories, perhaps it is not worthy of your time or God’s attention. Everything that is legitimate to pray about can be found in the Lord’s Prayer. This must be what Pastor Thielecke meant when he said, “The Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all."
He Knows What We Need
Before we jump into the prayer itself, let’s take a moment to consider a question that has troubled many people: “If God is sovereign, why pray?” I would suppose that most Christians have wondered about it at one time or another. Certainly skeptics have thrown it in our faces to discourage us from seeking the Lord in times of crisis. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I myself have wrestled with this issue on more than one occasion. Here are five biblical truths that we need to keep in mind. (I am indebted to a tape by R. C. Sproul called “If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?” for many of these insights.):
Everything that is legitimate to pray about can be found in the Lord’s Prayer.
1. God knows all things. We call this aspect of God’s character his omniscience. It speaks to the fact that because God is God, he knows all things that could be known-past, present, and future-and he knows them at the same time. That means that God is never surprised and that he never learns anything new.
2. God has committed himself to provide for his people. We can state it even more forcefully than that. God wants to provide for us, he intends to provide for us, and he will provide what we need. In Philippians 4:19 Paul assures us that “God will meet all your needs,” which is the New Testament version of Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” David also said in Psalm 34:10, “Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” God promises, “I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint” (Jeremiah 31:25). When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” do we not pray to a God who has promised to give us all the bread we need precisely when we need it? The whole record of the Bible teaches us that God is the Great Provider, which is why one of his divine names is Jehovah Jireh-"The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:14).
3. God has invited us to bring our needs to him. We are told to ask, to seek, to knock (Matthew 7:7-8). Why? Ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you. In Psalm 81:10 the Lord declares, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” This is where prayer becomes intensely personal. Our Heavenly Father-who already knows our needs-invites us to make our needs known through prayer.
4. We don’t know what we really need. We think we do, but we don’t. Or to be more accurate, we know part of our needs, but not all of them. Our perspective is inevitably limited by our own experience, desires and personal knowledge. Romans 8:26 reminds us that “we do not know what we ought to pray for.” How true that is. Recently I was presented with a problem involving a couple whose marriage has been in a crisis situation for many years. I can honestly say that I have prayed so much for this couple without a positive result that when I try to pray now, I don’t know how to pray for them effectively. That’s why the most basic prayer is always “Your will be done.” But God knew that we would often be baffled in prayer so he sent the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us. He prays for us when we don’t know how to pray for ourselves or for anyone else.
5. God knows what we need before we ask him. Matthew 6:8 says this very plainly: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” That means we don’t have to impress God, or use big words, or pray long prayers. We don’t have to repeat ourselves when we pray and we don’t have to worry about getting all the details correct or throw in flowery language when we pray. Since God knows us through and through, he knows our needs better than we do. When you pray, you aren’t informing God of anything. He knew your need before you bowed you head.
But that brings us back to the original question. If God knows everything before we pray, and if he truly wants to provide for us anyway, why bother praying at all? Isn’t prayer just a waste of time? Or you might say it this way: If God has ordained all things, won’t he do whatever he’s going to do, with or without my prayers? The answer goes something like this: We do not pray to inform God of anything. Because God knows all things from the beginning to the end, he knows the future as well as he knows the past. It is not as if God “needs” our prayers in order to gather accurate information. God doesn’t need our prayers, but we need to pray. We pray in order to express our complete dependence upon our Heavenly Father. We pray to build our faith. We pray because He is God and we are not. We pray because God has ordained that our prayers are part of His unfolding plan for the universe. In that sense there is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and our prayers. God invites us to join with Him in the great adventure of advancing the cause of Christ in the world. We “partner” with God when we pray. You might even say that God voluntarily “limits” what He does in the world so that we can join with Him in prayer. That’s why we can truly say that some things happen when we pray that wouldn’t happen otherwise if we didn’t pray. That’s a truly awesome thought. Dr. Billy Graham comments that there are rooms in heaven filled with answers that no one on earth has thought to ask for. I think he’s right, and that ought to motivate us to pray fervently to the Lord.
We do not pray to inform God of anything.
Perhaps an illustration would help. Picture a father watching his four-year-old daughter trying to put together a puzzle. She tries and tries but she just can’t get the pieces in the right place. Her father watches with great interest but he doesn’t interfere. Finally, she crawls in his lap and says, “Daddy, would you help me put my puzzle together?” He smiles and bends down and together they begin to pick up each piece. One by one they put the puzzle together. Why didn’t the father help his daughter earlier? For one thing, she didn’t ask for his help. For another, he wanted her to try on her own. And most of all, he wanted her to ask him for his help. When she did, he was honored and gladly helped her finish the puzzle. Is this not a picture of how our Heavenly Father deals with his children? Although he longs to come to our aid, often he waits until we ask him specifically. Sometimes he wants us to come to the end of our own pitiful resources before he intervenes. When we cry out in despair, he is honored as we express our complete dependence upon him.
Every prayer is the cry of a child saying, “Help, Father, I can’t do this by myself.”
Praying for the Lost
I’ve already said that since God knows what we need before we ask him, we don’t have to repeat ourselves to get his attention. But that’s not the whole story. We all know from personal experience that not all our prayers are answered the first time we pray them. Sometimes we receive immediate answers, but often we must wait days, week, months, or even years before the answer comes. I would add that it often seems the case that the more something matters to us, the longer we will have to wait for the answer to come. This is very often true when we pray for our loved ones to come to Christ. How long should you pray for your loved ones to be saved? My answer is simple. You should pray until God answers your prayers. Do you remember the story of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8? The woman kept coming back to the judge to plead her case. Because the judge was dishonest, he didn’t have time for her, but her persistence wore him down so finally he said, “I’m going to see that this woman gets justice before she drives me crazy.” Listen to the words of Jesus as he applies this story to our Heavenly Father:
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly (Luke 18:7-8).
Jesus isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge. But if an unjust judge can be swayed by the persistence of a widow, won’t God’s heart be moved by the persistent prayers of his people? The answer is yes. Persistent prayer moves the heart of God because it expresses such desperate dependence on him. Sometimes it takes desperate circumstances to bring forth this kind of faith. Perhaps you’ve heard about the doctor who said to his patient, “There’s nothing I can do. It’s in the hands of God now.” “Oh no,” the patient replied, “has it come to that?" Prayer reminds us that in the end everything depends on God and not on us.
Prayer reminds us that in the end everything depends on God and not on us.
James 5 gives us another wonderful example of the power of prayer. Elijah prayed that it would not rain and for 3 ½ years there was no rain in Israel. He prayed again and the rains fell from heaven. Here’s the moral of the story in James 5:16, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (NKJV). Fervent prayers get God’s attention because they come from a heart that believes God’s power is unlimited. This doesn’t mean that you need to shout when you pray or that you need you have to weep or moan or stand or sit. Fervent prayer is simply prayer offered in earnest petition to God. It’s not the words that matter . . . or the length of the prayer . . . or the tone of your voice . . . or whether you stand or kneel or sit. What matters is that you really mean it when you pray.
Many years ago I heard a noted Christian leader speak at a youth worker’s rally in Long Beach. He told the story of how his wife had been involved in a terrible accident. As the ambulance rushed her to the hospital, he tried to pray but the only words that would come out were “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.” It seemed, he commented, like one of the few times in his life that he had entered into the true spirit of prayer. The same thing happened to me the night our first child was born. My wife had carried the baby for ten full months and there were some difficulties at the end of the pregnancy. She was in labor all night long but nothing seemed to be happening. Finally the doctor came in about 5:30 AM and said, “We’re going to take that baby now.” I knew from the look on his face that he felt things weren’t going well. Moments later they whisked my wife away and I was left alone. I tried to pray but the words wouldn’t come. The only prayer that passed my lips was, “Oh God, have mercy. O Lord, have mercy.”
I learned that night that prayer is less a matter of using specific words and more a matter of the heart. Fervent prayers move God to action because they come from persistent faith in the face of desperate circumstances. I also learned that the more something means to you, the harder it is to pray for it. The reason we can pray so easily for others is that we’re not that deeply invested in them. It’s relatively easy to say a brief prayer for people in Thailand or Botswana or Latvia. After all, you don’t know them personally and you’ll probably never meet them and you don’t have any personal investment in them. It is much different when you try to pray for those who are closest to you. The more you care, the harder it is to pray. When it comes to those things in life that really matter-your husband, your wife, your children, your loved ones-those things are hard to pray for because they are close to your heart.
The First Rule of the Spiritual Life
A few years ago I came face to face with a truth I call The First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and We’re Not. All prayer is based on this simple truth. He runs the universe, we don’t. We pray because he’s in charge and we’re not. And here’s a crucial insight: When we don’t pray, it’s because we’ve forgotten who’s God and who’s not. A lack of prayer means we’re still trying to run the show. It’s a sign that we’ve decided we can handle things on our own. Sometimes you see little signs that say, “Prayer changes things.” I believe that’s true. And the first thing prayer changes is us. It teaches us to depend completely on our Heavenly Father and it reminds us that he is God and we are not.
Why pray if God knows everything in advance? Because God has ordained that our prayers are part of his plan for the universe. Our prayers really do matter to God. In a sense God limits what he can do in the world so that he can work through our prayers. It’s not that God “needs” our prayers. He doesn’t. But in his grace, he has invited us to join him in the great adventure of bringing his kingdom to this sinful world. Through our prayers, we partner with God in changing the world. Our greatest problem is not with God’s sovereignty but with our own sinful unbelief. The Bible says, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2 KJV). But Jesus himself invited us to ask God for anything that we need. So why don’t we pray more than we do?
I also learned that the more something means to you, the harder it is to pray for it.
Let’s wrap up this message with a very simple theology of prayer. Our part is to pray fervently, sincerely, and honestly, bringing our deepest concerns to the Lord. God’s part is to listen to our prayers and to graciously answer them in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his. In that spirit we approach the Lord’s Prayer with humility, saying with the first disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Through prayer we journey from wherever we are on earth to the very heart of God. The Father invites us to come into His throne room any time and all the time. The King of Kings wants to hear from you. Don’t keep him waiting any longer.
Lord Jesus, we say with the disciples, “Teach us to pray.” Give us hearts that truly want to pray. Without you we can do nothing. Even our prayers are ineffective without your help. May our study of the Lord’s Prayer be more than an intellectual exercise. Set our hearts afire with a fresh desire to know you. Amen.
A Truth to Remember: Everything that is legitimate to pray about can be found in the Lord’s Prayer.
1. What did Pastor Thielecke mean when he said, “The Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all?”
2. Take a moment to think through the various parts of the Lord’s Prayer. Which part is most personally significant to you right now? Why?
3. Do you believe the Lord’s Prayer should be regular part of every public worship service? Why or why not?
4. How would you answer the question, “If God is sovereign, why pray?”
5. What would a church devoted to prayer look like? What impact would it have on its community? How would you rate the prayer life of your own congregation?
6. Finish this sentence: “The one thing that keeps me from growing deeper in prayer is ____________.
An Action Step
Rewrite the Lord’s Prayer, putting it into your own words. Add any phrases that help you express each petition in terms of your own circumstances. Try praying your version of the Lord’s Prayer for seven days. Feel free to revise the wording as you discover new ways to express this ancient prayer in a very personal way.
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