If your experience is anything like my own, you will have found that the praying life is often littered with shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds (which continue to sting), and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart.
Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to your surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which you had previously been blind. The Sermon on the Mount has often been, for me, one such site of this very unraveling of the familiar – a place where the real limitations of my spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
More than any others, perhaps, the words of the Lord’s Prayer contain such inestimable, unquantifiable freight. These words – so dear, so familiar, so second-nature – stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and they articulate, in six remarkably short petitions, some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15).
And yet, as with anything we hold in close proximity, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us, and can dull the radical challenge by which it seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
More than familiar words of comfort, this prayer challenges our easy temptation to imagine that we ourselves are the authors of our own salvation and the world’s. The trials of our age may tempt us down such a well-intentioned road, but the reality of the Christian experience is something much more complex. Jesus urges us, “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; 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).
The same One who spoke to Elijah’s fearful need – not in the din of created noise, not in earthquake, wind, or fire (1 Kings 19:11—13), but in the silence from which all sound emerges (created and uncreated) – is also the One who knows, better than we ourselves ever could, all that we need. As Matthew’s Jesus declares, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:11).
And this is perhaps one of the greatest perplexities of petitionary prayer: God knows, yet still bids us ask in our praying. Yes, we may say, God knows what we need; why, then, do we even bother with the exercise at all? The next clause of the prayer answers our curiosity: our need for forgiveness – which only God can grant. In this way, Jesus teaches us that in our asking, we are somehow cooperating with God in the process of our redemption. In this way, we cast ourselves anew into God’s hands: “Save us… deliver us…” The prayer closes with the ultimate recognition that God alone is God, whom we worship and on whom we depend for all: “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” It is this cataract in our condition into which Jesus speaks when he teaches us to pray this way. As one who shed all power, privilege, and the riches of his divinity to enter into our humanity, Jesus invites us to pray to become uniquely aware of our own poverty – of our inability to save ourselves – by asking God to meet our needs one day at a time: Give us this day our daily bread. As we are apt to mistake our wants for our needs, “heaping up” many-worded petitions for the fulfillment of a reality according to our own, limited vision, this can be a difficult revelation to stomach. God knows what we need.
We should not be surprised to find, as Jesus’ followers did, that the kingdom being unveiled to us in and through our prayer will not meet our expectations. But do not despair; it will surely surpass them. Clouds and darkness may indeed hide God from our knowing, but righteousness and justice are the foundations of the divine (albeit cruciform) throne.
The tension between our human vision of peace and justice (what we want the world to look like), and the socially indecent charity of God’s ways (how God’s world actually is), has been with us from the beginning. Just as the people of first-century Judea were surprised by the content of Jesus’ revelation, so too should we be surprised. The kingdom, God’s final setting-right of the world, defied the familiar expectations of the disciples. “‘Do you also wish to go away?’ he said to them. ‘Lord,’ Peter replied, ‘to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:67—68).
What sort of familiar expectations do you have about God’s kingdom? What needs to be recognized as the cultural baggage it is? What needs to be recognized as the subtle allure of the Accuser?
Lord, teach us to unravel the familiar.