Teach Us How to Pray – The Lord’s Prayer

The Christian prayer – its significance and what it means.

Rev. Stan Brown is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church which he has served in a variety of appointments. He studied theology and philosophy at Leeds and Birmingham Universities and is currently working on a Doctorate at King’s College London. For the last six years Stan has been Chaplain at Kingston University, London, working with and alongside students and staff of many faiths and helping to support the religious groups within the University. He is an active member of the Kingston Inter-Faith Forum and is frequently involved in organising inter-faith events.

Christian worship and Christian prayer are very diverse. Christians use many languages, many sources and many styles. There is, however, one prayer you will find in the hearts and on the lips of Christians everywhere – the “Lord’s Prayer”. This is the form of prayer received directly from the teaching of Jesus.

The prayer is found in two places in the Christian scriptures: the Gospel of Matthew 6:9-13 and in a slightly shorter form in the Gospel of Luke 11:2-4, where it is a response to a request to Jesus from his disciples to “teach us how to pray”. Jesus would almost certainly have first taught the prayer in his spoken language of Aramaic, but the record we have of it in the gospels is in Greek. For Christians the underlying meaning of the prayer is more important than its form in the words of any one language and so the Lord’s Prayer, like the Christian scriptures, is translated into countless languages. To many English speakers, however, the “Lord’s Prayer” is most familiar in the form it was given in 1662 CE by the Book of Common Prayer which had a lasting effect not just on English Christian worship, but on the English language itself.

Here is the prayer in both its traditional English form, and a widely used contemporary English version:

Traditional Form

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.

Contemporary Form

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Amen

The prayer offers us an all-encompassing vision of the majesty of God and invites us to respond with lives that are radically changed through our relationship with Him. This prayer may be set to hauntingly beautiful music in the worship of a great church, or it may be muttered by someone alone, afraid and desperate or one who finds some familiar words of hope in God.

Many years ago I visited an elderly lady in hospital at the very end of her life. Her family and friends were around the bed where she lay seemingly unconscious – without having spoken for many hours. After talking for a while with those around the bed, I took her hand and began to say the Lord’s Prayer. To the astonishment of everyone there, without opening her eyes she joined in the familiar words. She died shortly after and the prayer was probably the last thing she said out loud. This prayer lies very deep in the Christian heart.

Like all great prayers it takes a lifetime of study, reflection and worship to even begin to unpack its meaning, but a few thoughts and comments will at least help to begin that journey:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name

The prayer begins with an address to God Who is heavenly – above, beyond and immeasurably different from us, but at the same time “our Father” – intimate, loving and close to us. This dual relationship with God is at the heart of all Christian spirituality where the closeness and otherness of God are held constantly in balance and tension. The older English form of the prayer can help us here for at the time this was shaped the English language (like the Greek in which the Christian Scriptures were originally written) could distinguish between thou /thy/thine: an intimate form used to address family and friends, and you/ your/yours: a polite form used to address strangers and show respect. God is always addressed in the intimate “thou” form when this older style of English is used. Yet because these words now sound strange and mysterious to us we mix it all up and assume these old words are some special hyper-respectful language used only for God. How wrong we can be!

Within the Hebrew Scriptures which Christians share with Jews, God’s “name” is not just what He is called, but God’s whole character and nature. So God’s “name” and nature ought to be “hallowed” or treated as holy – this is a prayer that the whole of creation will come to give honour to God.

 

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Look at the teaching of Jesus as we find in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew – you will see so much of it is concerned with the coming of God’s “kingdom”, but if God is already King of the Universe, what can this mean? God’s rule is not forced on us, you have only to look around the world to see many and terrible examples of people openly denying God’s ways of love, justice and peace. God may indeed be King, but we need to pray continually that His way of being King – a way of patient love for His children – should be accepted “on earth as it is in heaven”. There was a time when the world’s great political powers used to talk about their “spheres of influence”. We pray that God’s “sphere of influence” – His kingdom on earth – might increase.

Give us this day our daily bread.

There is some doubt how to translate the word rendered here as “this day”. It is an unusual word in the original language, but taken alongside Jesus’ teaching that we should not worry about the future but simply trust it to God the meaning seems to be that we should be content and thankful if we have what we need one day at a time. In a world of huge contrast between wealth and poverty what right do we have to ask God for that which we do not really need? In this simple line of the prayer there is a whole world of challenge to the materialistic lifestyles which are consuming the planet today. Our prayer should help to form us as people who live in a different way content with what we need rather than expecting everything we desire.

 

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of Christianity. For Christians “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians believe that it is the very nature of God to be forgiving, and that this is what God shows us through Jesus. If it is in the nature of God to be forgiving, then it must become part of human nature too. The old word “trespasses” with its sense of crossing a boundary to a place we shouldn’t go could equally well be rendered as “sins” as in the modern English version, or perhaps best of all as “debts”. The stress is less on our need for forgiveness because we have done a whole raft of wrong actions, than on our need to be reconciled to God because we owe Him more love, honour, praise and glory than we are ever able to give.

 

And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

Some translators prefer “do not bring us to the time of trial”. The prayer is perhaps not so much that we should be spared any inward feeling of “temptation” but rather that we are not put in places where we are tested beyond what we can stand. When engineers want to know the strength of a material or a structure they may employ either “destructive” or “or non-destructive” testing. Testing to destruction simply means over-loading the structure (or a model of it!) until it breaks and then measuring the load at which it did so. Non-destructive testing employs techniques which allow the engineer to calculate and predict the point at which the material will break – but without actually having to break it. There are places in life to which any of us can come in which our faith in God risks being tested to destruction – places of illness, grief, anger or doubt – the prayer is that God keeps us safe from these frightening places. Evil is very real; terrible things can and do happen even to those who put their faith in God. We might see this as the forces of “evil” in an impersonal way or as “the evil one”- a personal Satan (also a possible translation) but the reality and the danger remain the same.

 

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen

These words are not part of the original prayer as Jesus gave it to us and you will not find them in either the Gospels of Matthew or Luke. Technically words like this at the close of a Christian prayer are known as a “doxology” – a formal ending in which glory is given to God. At some point very soon after the time of Jesus, Christians started adding these words to the end of the prayer, probably when they used it in public worship, and there they stuck. Many churches, however, and especially the Roman Catholic Church do not normally add these concluding words.

The Lord’s Prayer sums up Christianity – it speaks of our belief about the nature of God and our relationship with Him, of our need to be reconciled to God and each other, of ways in which our lives and our world are being transformed by the presence and power of God. This is not an easy prayer. Christians say it over and over again, day by day, week by week, but like everything that becomes familiar we probably do not reflect on it as we should, for this is a prayer which asks for the whole world to be changed, and invites those who pray in this form to become a part of that change themselves.

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