Lord, Teach Us to Pray (Part 1)
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
One of my favorite comedies is the movie School of Rock, starring Jack Black. Black plays a burned-out musician who pretends to be a substitute teacher because he thinks it’s easy money. He believes he won’t have to do very much until one day, one of the students says, “Teach us something.” And Black’s character teaches the only thing he knows: rock and roll music. His passion comes through and the kids learn a lot about creative problem solving and teamwork because of his passion.
In my life, I have been blessed with a plethora of great teachers. Men and women who poured into me out of their passion for a given subject. Whether it be history or literature or theology, when a teacher gets in front of a class from a place of passion, teachers make huge impact on the students.
Many people of faith, and many people who are tiptoeing into faith, get really curious about prayer. What does it mean to pray? What does it do in my life? Why do it at all?
Jesus’ closest followers were taught so much from him. He taught about the Law, the Kingdom of God, love, trusting the Lord, and on and on, but the disciples only asked him to teach one thing: In Luke 11:1 they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Why was that the thing they wanted to know from Jesus? It was not uncommon for religious teachers to pass on special forms of prayers to their disciples, and they had seen Jesus pray over and over again.
In Luke 3:21, during his baptism, Jesus prays. In Luke 6:21, before he chooses his closest followers, he prays. In Luke 9:28 he calls his inner circle of friends Peter, James, and John to go up to a mountain to pray. In Luke 5:16, we read that it was common for Jesus to withdraw to a quiet place to pray.
Even though Jesus tells his followers he and the Father are one saying, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” Even though he’s the Son of God—divine yet human—he prayed, all the time. So Jesus was passionate about this human activity, and in teaching the disciples he gave them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.”
What did this model prayer teach them about how to pray? And what can it teach us today?
A focus on who God is
First, in his lesson on prayer Jesus taught them to focus on their connection to God and who he is.
And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come’”—Luke 11:2.
The word “hallowed” means holy. Literally it means different, or set apart, and we could say that Jesus is asking us to declare that God’s name is holy. Now that’s not wrong. God is holy, God is righteous, God is totally other. But that’s not what Jesus is asking us to pray.
What Jesus is teaching us to pray, is “hallowed be your name.” This is both a prayer and an obligation—this is a declaration of worship that not only is God holy in a universal or cosmic or eternal sense, but it’s a prayer that God be seen as holy and different and set apart in our lives.
When I think of that word hallowed, I immediately think of the phrase “hallowed grounds.” I think of grand ornate places of worship like Westminster Abbey in London or the Sistine Chapel in Venice, or the Southern Steps in Jerusalem. Places where the air breathes a bit differently.
We have spaces that are hallowed for different reasons… A few years ago, Jules and I went to visit Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and there was a hush over this place that’s quite extraordinary. It was totally unlike the ordinary noise and the mundane busyness of the city just a few miles away. Now what made the Arlington National Cemetery hallowed ground? It was because of the sacrifice of the men and women buried there.
When we pray to God “hallowed be your name,” we are not talking about a God who is merely over us and is merely exercising power over our lives, but a God who deserves to be hallowed in our lives because he is given so very much to us. In fact, because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we have the opportunity to address God as “father” and not just as “ruler” or “master;” he is “Our Father.”
Practically speaking, this prayer forces us to confront the question, where has our relationship to God become ordinary and mundane in our lives? Where have we taken God for granted in our actions, in our words, in our thoughts, in our emotions, or in our relationships? Where have we forgotten to “hallow” God?
Our heavenly father has a purpose in sending his son Jesus, and it’s not just about getting us into heaven. It is about us participating in the Father’s Kingdom come to earth. When Matthew writes about this prayer, he writes “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
We demonstrate that God is hallowed in our lives when we exhibit his kingdom on this earth in conforming our lives to his will. The Lord’s Prayer is not about a shallow or cold recitation of some words, which it can often be in our church service; it is about talking to our Father in such a way that it actually shapes our lives.
The Father’s care about our physical needs
And this prayer also reveals something else about the nature of our Father who, like a good father, cares about our daily, physical needs.
Give us each day our daily bread—Luke 11:2.
Just before Matthew’s version of this prayer, Jesus teaches his followers a lesson on anxiety and trusting God for his provision by telling them that God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers. How much more does he care for us, his children?
God is in the business of providing for our needs, but as Warren Wiersbe points out, “not our greeds.”
When my children Caleb and Hannah were younger, they would often come up to me or Jules and say very definitively, “I need a snack.” By that they meant goldfish, or pretzels, or anything chocolate, or carbs, or carbs dressed up as sugar. They did not mean bananas, or grapes, or broccoli. They would eat those things, but that is NOT what they meant when they said, “I need a snack.” But my job as a parent was and still is to help them differentiate from their “needs” and their “wants”—and that is not always easy.
In Exodus 16, the people of God cried out to him that they were hungry and needed bread and meat. So God provided. Every day he miraculously sent just enough bread (called manna) for the day and warned them not to collect more than they needed for the day otherwise it would spoil. But they collected more anyway, and the bread spoiled. Yet when they took only what they needed for the day, they always had enough.
That doesn’t seem greedy to save some bread for later. In fact, that seems practical, but it also demonstrated a lack of trust in the Father’s care for his people.
When Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father, “give us each day our daily bread,” it is both a request for God to do what he said he would do, and a request for God to give us a proper view of what our needs are versus our wants and desires.
Practically, this prayer should prompt us to examine how well we trust God, how well we lean into him for our needs, and to test how we may be trusting in other things to give us value and worth.
This is important because when we do not trust God’s ability and care to provide what we need, we are not demonstrating faith. As the writer of Hebrews states, “Without faith, it’s impossible to please God,” and Paul says in Romans 14, “anything not done in faith is sin.”
Every time we hoard our time, energy, finances, or resources and do not prioritize our relationship to the Lord, and don’t prioritize the mission God has called us to, we are not acting in faith, and we are sinning. That’s not meant to make us feel guilty or to tie a huge weight around our necks. This prayer gets us to examine our priorities in light of God’s promises. God is concerned with our physical, temporal needs, and this prayer helps us trust his love for us.
The Father’s care about our spiritual needs
But the Lord’s Prayer also reveals the Father is deeply concerned with our spiritual needs. Jesus prays
”and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation”—Luke 11:4.
In Matthew’s version the prayer reads, “forgive us our debts” because in the spoken language of Jesus’ time the word for sin and debt was the same. Debt-forgiveness was an essential part of the ancient Jewish culture. In the Old Testament, God called the Jewish people to forgive all monetary debts after every seven years, and after the seventh seven-year period or the 49th year, there was a massive debt forgiveness, slaves were set free and land was redeemed and a great celebration was to be held.
But here Luke is concerned with the spiritual affront sin is to the Father. Sin is a debt to the Father, a debt that we cannot repay; we can only have it forgiven because someone else has paid it for us. The Hebrews writer says, “without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins” because sin equals death.
As Jesus is teaching his disciples this prayer, he knows something they haven’t fully comprehended: he is the means for the very forgiveness he is teaching them to pray for.
This truth could not be more relevant for the practical side of this part of the prayer because Jesus teaches them to pray “for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us,” or “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” To appreciate the forgiveness of Jesus we absolutely MUST be willing to forgive those who hurt us, wrong us, step on us. But it is bigger than just waiting for people to wrong us so we forgive them; it’s about developing a lifestyle that reflects the forgiving attitude of Jesus.
We live in a time of easy offense. Every time someone says or does anything we don’t like or we disagree with, we take it so personally that we have to blast that person and anyone who is like that person. We take it to social media, we complain about it in the break rooms at our jobs or the lunchrooms at our schools. And people who profess faith in Jesus are some of the most vile offenders of this “easy offense” attitude.
I think this portion of the prayer is a call for God to soften our hearts under the weight of his forgiveness so that we live with attitudes of divine forgiveness and cast off the attitude of easy offense.
Jesus said in Luke 7:47, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Do we love like Jesus? Do we show it in how we exude an attitude of forgiveness?
As Jesus closes this prayer, we ask that God would not lead us into temptation. This does not mean God would ever lead us into temptation, because as James 1 tells us God does not tempt people to sin. Yet we all know because of the brokenness of this world, there are moments of adversity that may tempt us and test us. The Greek word translated temptation is related to that adversity.
When Jesus responds to the call of his followers to teach them something he points them to this powerful gift of prayer. And this model prayer reveals that our prayers are as much about God empowering us to live for him as it is about the Father providing for our physical needs. God absolutely cares about those needs, and he cares about our spiritual, emotional, and psychological needs—and if we call out to him in specific ways he will respond.
My encouragement to everyone reading this is to go back again and again to the Lord’s prayer as part of your devotion and meditation time. Let it teach you on a personal and individual level as Jesus taught it to his disciples. In the next part of this series, I’ll unpack a couple of ways I have used the Lord’s Prayer to inform my regular prayer journey. In the meantime, talk to God, he wants to hear us, and he is ready to answer.
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
Rev. Dr. Zachary McGowen was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but moved all over the world during his formative years. For nearly 25 years, Zac has been preaching and teaching God’s Word, and he loves inspiring congregations to reach their friends and neighbors for Jesus Christ while utilizing technology to communicate the gospel message more effectively. During his years at Florida Southern College (FPC’s neighbor to the north) he led the largest entirely student-run ministry on campus called BEYOND. Since 2001, Zac has served the Lord in the PC(USA), beginning with the First Presbyterian Church, Haines City, Florida, before taking his current call in Lakeland. Zac came to FPC Lakeland in 2013, and he has served on the board of The Fellowship Community, the Presbytery of Tampa Bay’s Commission on Church Vitality, as well as being active with PEACE (the ecumenical county-wide justice ministry). He holds an M.Div from Reformed Theological Seminary and Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. Zac is married to his beautiful wife, Julie, and together they have two wonderful children, Caleb and Hannah. Zac likes to spend time with his family at one of the area theme parks (he is a major “Disnerd”), go for a run, stay current on tech-related news, and watch college football – especially his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide (ROLL TIDE!).