Last week was Part 1, a preamble of sorts. This week Marcus Felde rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on the task he set for himself in last week’s final paragraph—
“Condensing the [Lord’s Prayer] into two ‘super-petitions’—first, ‘Be God to us!’ and then, ‘Be good to us!’—has helped me understand the strength of the prayer. Jesus tells us ‘Ask, and you will receive.’ And what does he tell us to pray for? Everything. On one hand, that our Father in heaven would totally be our God. And that he would totally preserve us from all our trouble. I hope to demonstrate that by distinguishing between law and Gospel we can see how that is more than a wistful, utopian dream.”
Watch and rejoice as Marcus does precisely what he hoped to.
Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community
The Lord’s Prayer Part 2:
How the Prayer Leads Us to Repent
by Marcus Felde
Is this the perfect prayer? Is nothing at all missing? Although the topics seem comprehensive, two requirements are lacking:
One requirement has to do with us. This must be our prayer. We have to genuinely want this! It should express our hearts’ desire. Double-minded prayer gets us nowhere.
The other requirement has to do with God. God must want to give us what we ask for.
Some teach that the first requirement can be met by praying better. We must be more persistent, single-minded, and fervent in prayer. “Pray without ceasing,” and so on. Yes, we should. That is sound advice. But the internal struggle between the old heart and the new does not end in this world.
The second requirement can supposedly be met by thinking that “God is love,” and “God is good all the time.” But simplistic, “footprints-in-the-sand” faith is undermined constantly by the evidence of our eyes and ears, plus what we know about God’s justice. The trouble is that, apart from Jesus Christ, God’s attitude towards us is doubtful. God is always active in creation, even in our lives. But no quantity of happy personal experiences can reassure us that God will continue to bless us. Winning the lottery might convince you for a few weeks that God loves you; but it might turn out to be a curse! On the other hand, a single negative like the death of a loved one might destroy a person’s faith. People read God’s favor and wrath into daily occurrences; but interpreting God’s pleasure or displeasure from life experiences is not the same as knowing God’s heart.
So let’s try a different approach.
What truly satisfies the first condition, namely, that we heartily desire the things we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer? The evidence will not be in our passion but in our repentance. Only repentance can be an honest and therefore pure cry to God from hearts like ours.
What satisfies the second condition? How do we know God is going to grant us what we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer? The sign we have is the cross of Jesus Christ, our resurrected Lord. The forgiveness of our sins for his sake is the only unequivocal evidence that God will always be for us, not against us.
“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God's promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God.” (2 Cor. 1:19-20)
Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ elevate this prayer from being a fantasy into a proper and powerful prayer. According to God’s law, you and I have no right to ask God for anything; repentance means owning up to this. But according to the Gospel, we ought to ask for life abundant and eternal, because Jesus has rescued and restored us and reconciled us to the Father. The prayer works by a dual dynamic, first reducing us to sinners, and then reintroducing to us the joy of being God’s children. “To those who received him, [Jesus] gave power to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12).
For us to call God “Abba” would be rude, were Jesus not interceding for us! But we are not overreaching. We are saints, children of God who have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb. Although the law of God continues to condemn us, we have the righteousness of Christ. We are simul iustus et peccator, actual sinners and real saints at the same time. This paradox is an unmistakable aspect of the Lord’s Prayer.
But you may ask, how does the Lord’s Prayer convict us of sin? Praying it would seem to be the ultimate innocent activity, since Jesus gave it to us. We only ask for good things, and we use Jesus’ own words. Does the law have to interrupt us at prayer?
Yes, says Philip Melanchthon. “The law always accuses” (Apology 4).
Notice, then, how the law of God attacks us on three levels as we pray this prayer.
First, the law is at work here when we compare these petitions to our own thoughts and wishes and ask ourselves, “Is this truly my prayer? Do I mean this?” Petition by petition, as we look at the contents of the prayer and the way they are stated, we ought to find ourselves guilty of sin many times over. Our true wishes are not what we tell God we want; our hearts are not pure but adulterated.
Start at the beginning. Do we desire that in all things God’s name would be hallowed? Jesus could have taught his disciples something more modest, like “May our good deeds impress our neighbors somewhat.” But no, Jesus disputes our love of God. Since we care more about our reputation and glory than we do about God’s name being hallowed, this petition ought to make us blush.
Same goes for God’s kingdom and will. Are they really what we want? For example, don’t we know that God has promised to “send the rich away empty”? Do we want him to do that? Do we really want to call down God’s righteous wrath upon us for our sins of commission and omission? Those of which we are aware and those of which we are not even aware? Look where Jesus got when he prayed “Not my will but thine be done”!
Let’s see whether the second half of the prayer also accuses us.
Are the daily needs of all people equally our hearts’ desire? Are we willing to cast our lot with everyone else? What is the point then of national borders? The word “our” in “our daily bread” does not taste sweet. It tastes sour to me when I include my enemies. When we “pray for those who persecute us,” Jesus doesn’t mean pray for them to stop persecuting us. He means, pray for everything good for them, even their daily bread!
Going on. Do we make it a habit to forgive those who sin against us? Have we forgotten their debts and transgressions? Or do we nurse grudges against those who have hurt us most? Is it a good idea to ask God to measure out forgiveness to us the way we do, so grudgingly? This may be the one point in the prayer where people sometimes feel uneasy about whether they might inadvertently be invoking God’s judgment on their own heads. But we should be just as uneasy about every petition!
Are we keen on avoiding temptation, or do we relish the challenge? I think I know people who enjoy the cycle of lapse-and-be forgiven.
Deliver us from evil? I will not question the sincerity of people who ask God for this. Truly, there are no atheists in foxholes! But are we hereby asking God to deliver also our enemies from evil? Isn’t there a wee bit of room for us to enjoy poetic justice?
Each and every petition, by itself, judges us. But we are thoroughly condemned on a second level when we realize that the two super-petitions are perfect descriptions of what Jesus taught as the two greatest commandments. When we hold them up like mirrors to search our hearts, we find ourselves guilty of neither loving God “with all our heart and soul and mind,” nor loving our neighbor “as ourselves” (cf. Matt. 22:37-39).
The first and greatest commandment is only obeyed if and when the first three petitions are all fulfilled in us. God is not our God if we are all talk. Nor is God our God if we only act like he is. Remember that the Greek word “hypocrite” means also “actor,” one whose actions are not real. Jesus quoted Isaiah: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mk. 7:6). He also said: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand” (Mt. 7:26). The three things can be discussed separately, but they do not exist apart from each other.
Because we are hypocrites, our thoughts, words, and deeds do not match up, and God does not give credit for partial worship. We do not totally love God, as we are commanded.
By its thoroughness, the second super-petition, “Be good to us,” exposes our failure to love our neighbor “as ourselves.” Jesus shows us how our wishes ought to run, and the contrast with how we actually think is a devastating criticism. If we loved our neighbors “as ourselves,” we would always be as concerned about all their needs as we are about our own, so we would always include them in our prayer. We would pray, for example, “Give us today our daily bread.” That is not how we pray. Night and day we seek—we strive for—our own good, and the good of our own family, our own city, our own country. We do not regard a benefit to others as having the same value as a good we receive. We disagree with the one who taught us it is more blessed to give than to receive. We do not rejoice with all who rejoice or weep with all who mourn, only our people. In short, we are “not-good” Samaritans. Jesus makes this plain to us by injecting the commandment to love into the second half of the Lord’s Prayer.
And finally: as though it were not enough to be condemned by each petition on its own and by the full meaning of the two super-petitions, we also stand condemned on a third level when we consider the relationship between them.
We want to assume that if God is our God, he would be good to us. Instead, at this point our disqualification to ask for anything at all becomes most obvious. We must ask, knowing what we know about God through his law, whether it might be a good idea to run away! Hide behind a tree, like Adam. By what logic would a God who punishes the wicked be nice to us? Who are we to expect God to be good to us? Have we forgotten that God has standards? Read the fine print of Exodus 20, the details of that covenant. Or just listen to Psalm 1—
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Who are we in that psalm? The righteous who prosper because we do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread? Maybe we are kidding ourselves. But how about the next line? Do we sit in the seat of the scoffers? Without scorn and derision, what would become of late-night television? But it gets me right between the eyes for all the times I have looked down my nose.
So, are we among the righteous? Or among the wicked who will wither and perish? Do we have the clean heart and pure hands of those who ascend the holy hill to pray to God? Or are we honest like old Isaiah: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).
A reasonable god might give people credit for effort and adjust the law for difficult circumstances. But when Jesus tells us the Law, he is, if anything, more critical than the prophets. Consider this general formula, which I think of as a “working outline” for the Lord’s Prayer: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). Is our first striving for God’s kingdom, and for everything to be the way God wants it? Or is our first striving and our chief aim something other than to give glory to God? When Jesus establishes the correct order of all Christian prayer—subordinating our wishes to the necessity of God being God—he thereby condemns our way of doing business. Ambition and greed and a willingness to hurt others are sins we justify in our self-idolatry.
If not for the Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer might make matters worse with God. The person has not yet been born who can sincerely lift their hands to God and say, “This is what I want more than anything!” We more closely resemble beauty queen candidates who want a scholarship but say “Most of all I want world peace.”
The Lord’s Prayer is serious law. Jesus absolutely requires us to wrench ourselves away from self and turn towards God, in word and deed. This is not good news. "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Lk.14:26) This is Jesus describing the same transformation of the heart that he requires of us in the Lord’s Prayer. But turning away from sin does not in itself solve our problem. It is only a precondition for faith, and not one we can meet with our own reason and strength! (cf. Small Catechism, Creed, Third Article.) We might be very sorry without repenting.
The necessary pivot in priorities may be as difficult to discern as to execute. We cloak self-interest in piety, like the man who asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17). He was a good man who kept all the commandments. All he wanted was to add eternal life to his other assets. He would have done almost anything Jesus asked. But Jesus challenged him with a concrete test of whether he truly wanted to be his disciple. Was he ready to repent and believe? It turned out that it would have been easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor and then follow Jesus.
Jesus was not saying that if he did two things he could qualify to inherit eternal life. The challenge was much more radical. Jesus enabled him to see how he did not love God above all things or love his neighbor as himself, even though he was a “law-abiding” man.
So, the Lord’s Prayer leads us to repentance, even when if don’t feel like we need to repent. (Like my ancestor Lars, who took a bath every spring even if he didn’t need it.) Repentance is a necessary bridge to faith which depends on God for everything. The second part of this prayer (“Be good to us”) does not flow out of the first half except—praise be to God! —when through faith we abide in Christ.
The Law and the Gospel use the same word to answer the question of why God would be good to us: Because we are righteous. That is, we are like God. We belong to him. The difference is in how they define “righteous.”
If only those who are righteous according to the law deserve God’s favor, then, as the Lord’s Prayer shows us, no one is. End of story. Prayer is a waste of time.
But that is not the whole story. Along comes Jesus, bringing the promise of reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of our sins for his sake. Suddenly, God’s favor is within reach of anyone and everyone. Nobody who wants this is disqualified. Anyone willing to drop their phony, ego-based claim to God’s benefits is eligible for Jesus’ sake to receive every good thing from their heavenly Father. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Rom. 8:32)
In Christ, the two “super-petitions” of the Lord’s Prayer begin to work, because he underwrites them. The second flows out of the first because we are now assured of God’s love, not hypothetically but as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. We appeal to God not on the basis of our making ourselves Godlike, but on God’s condescending to us and identifying in Christ with us who repent. We do not curry favor; favor is in the Creator’s nature. God comes to our level, giving his Son to die for us on the cross. Since, then, we have been buried with him in baptism, he raises us up to share in the life of his Son’s resurrection. This is not a path for heroes, but a way for the weak. For you and me.
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26).
Viewed in this light, the Lord’s Prayer is an epitome or summary of Christian faith and life. Prayer is not an accessory to that life; it is the articulation of its essence. When the disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” they were not looking for something to do in their off hours. They were asking how to be his disciples. His reply outlined a way of thinking, speaking, and living which is full and free, abiding in him.
As our very own pre-authorized prayer, the Lord’s Prayer now becomes a Christmas cake packed with good things. Petition by petition, we get with Jesus. We rejoice to give glory to a God who not only gives but forgives! We are delighted to be members of a kingdom in which even the least of us is greater than John the Baptist. Seeking and doing God’s will becomes our new freedom, because who would not want to work for God? We are more certain God will provide for us than children are sure their parents will. And we itch to help our neighbors with their needs because they are with us! We love to flex our divine mandate—not to condemn but to forgive. We love to watch reconciliation spread. We are certain that nothing in all creation, heights nor depths nor anything, will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. As long as we live, we want to live the life that is really life, an outline of which is the Lord’s Prayer, faithfully and imaginatively bringing it to life. Praying this prayer, we are adopted over and over as children of the God who made heaven and earth. It becomes our pleasure to do his pleasure.
When I was young, one of my favorite Bible verses was 1 Peter 3:15:
“…in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you….”
I thought “being prepared to account for the hope that is in us” meant being able to explain away people’s objections to the Christian faith. Now I see that our participating in Christ’s death and resurrection is not what we need to explain. It is how we account for the incredible hope that is in us. It is the foolishness of God which is wiser than our wisdom. Whatever we hope for from God, whatever wishes we bring before the throne of the Almighty, our expectations are never disconnected from the Gospel promise.
The Lord’s Prayer is the classic prayer of the body of Christ for all the needs of the God-loved world. When we use it—and we should use it a lot!—we take onto our lips and into our hearts the very purpose of God, the mission of God: that the world should be at peace, that we love and serve one another freely, that no one perish. That God’s will be done on earth…as it is in heaven.
Once upon a time there was a lad whose dream was to live it up in some distant place. His wish came true. He did as he pleased as long as he could, until the money ran out. When the fun was over and he was ruined, he repented and returned to the father who had always loved him and still loved him. And when that festive party was over (the robe and the ring and the standing rib), he went to bed at peace.
This became his prayer. Life did not suddenly become a picnic. He still had to work. His brother despised him. He missed his mother. But he had faith, and therefore he had everything. He had been “born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed” (1 Pet. 1:23). He was home.
This prayer was his strength and his song, at work and at play…before meals and after…when he rose and when he lay down. If old longings and resentment surfaced, and even when he grew old and close to death, he would think about how being led by his own passions had worked out and then he would funnel his wishes into this prayer, with its pattern of faith and love. He prayed, not that his father would love him better, but that he might love his father better.
John tells us that “When [Jesus] was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone, for he himself knew what was in everyone (Jn. 2:23-25).
Indeed, he knew the mess and the turmoil in us. He understood our fickle fascinations, our hot and cold hearts. And into the noise and confusion of our conflicting wishes and desires, he brought—and still brings—peace to those who pray for it. A peace which, on earth as in heaven, gives glory to God.
Let us pray.
Our Father, who art in heaven…
Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community
You must be logged in to post a comment.