A dangerous prayer

by Scott Grant

Matthew 6:9-13

Matters of God

There is an interesting scene in the movie "The Mission." Juggling a political hot potato, the Cardinal has to decide what to do with some Jesuit missions in South America. At one point, he asks one of the priests, Gabriel, "Do you know what is at issue here?" Gabriel answers: "Matters of God." The Cardinal responds, "No, the existence of the Jesuit order." For the Cardinal, "matters of God" were not as important as the survival of a religious order, and he knew that if he considered "matters of God," the Jesuit order might be threatened. So he kept God as far away from his thinking as possible. God's potential involvement in the world posed a threat to his view of the world. We're like that, too, aren't we? We're not sure we want "matters of God" messing with our view of the world.

In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus offers us a prayer. It is a dangerous prayer. It invites the earthly invasion of the heavenly God. It invites him to mess with our view of the world. Only people who have some sense that God is good can pray this way with anything approaching heartfelt desire. It is a prayer that believes God's earthward movement not only won't destroy us but will help us. It reflects the belief that God will bring glory to his name. It reflects the belief that God will meet our needs. Amazingly, it reflects the belief that God's movement toward earth brings glory to his name by meeting our needs.

The prayer can be seen as consisting of two parts. The first part has the Father as its focus (verses 9 and 10), and the second part has human need as the focus (verses 11 through 13).

All six of the requests in this prayer concern God's kingdom. The prophets predicted that when God acted decisively, these developments would take place: He would be recognized as holy, his kingdom would come, his will would be done, daily bread would be given, sins would be forgiven, deliverance from evil would be granted. When Jesus offers this prayer to those who are listening, then, he is saying that God's kingdom is breaking in even now.

What Jesus asks us to pray for, God has already promised to do. For example, we know that one day the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven, when heaven and earth merge at the end of the story (Revelation 21:1-22:5). Why, then, should we pray this prayer? In praying this way, we are saying that we are God's people - that we are the people who want the things of the kingdom. We are saying that we love God so much that we want it now (Revelation 21:20). Finally, in a way that we can't quite comprehend in the space between the sovereignty of God and the free will of humanity, our prayers influence God.

Prayer that God would come to earth (6:9-10)

Matthew 6:9-10:

(9) "Pray, then, in this way:
'Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
(10) Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.'"

The word "then" is the word usually translated "therefore." The manner of prayer is to be distinguished from the prayers of the hypocrites (Matthew 6:5-6) and the Gentiles (Matthew 6:7-8). It is to be prayer to God, which is reflected in verses 9 and 10, not for the sake of being noticed by others; and it is to be prayer with the knowledge that God knows what we need, which is reflected in verses 11 through 13. Jesus says not to pray "this" but to pray "in this way." He is offering not so much a prayer as he is a manner of prayer, a way of praying.

In the Sermon on the Mount, of which this prayer is a part, Jesus is offering the multitudes a way to be Israel. He is saying, "This kind of life is the earmark of true Israel." Thus, in what is commonly called "the Lord's Prayer," we have the kind of prayer that would be expected of Israel. Inasmuch as Jesus is gathering Israel around himself, this is the kind of prayer that would be expected of his followers. More than that, this is the kind of heart that would be expected of his followers.

The identification of God by Jesus represents a contrast. God is near (he is our Father), but he is far away (he is in heaven). God is intimate with us, as close as a father to a son, but he is above us, as far as the heavens are above the earth. He is immanent, yet transcendent. He is utterly holy, yet he involves himself with us. Right thinking about God appreciates this balance.

On the one hand, it is amazing that we can call God, in all his holiness, "our Father." On the other hand, calling him "Father," once we understand what that means, may not be something we're comfortable with. To call God "our Father" means that we want him near. But if he's as holy and awesome and transcendent as the scriptures say he is, perhaps we're more comfortable with God staying "in heaven." To call God "our Father" is to invite the nearness of a holy God who might act in ways that disturb our well-guarded fortresses. This prayer that Jesus offers us begins boldly: by welcoming the nearness of God.

What does the term "Father" mean? The Lord called Israel his son (Exodus 4:22). The Israelite king is called his son (Psalm 2:7), to whom God would be a father (2 Samuel 7:14). Jesus, who fulfills God's role for Israel and the Israelite king, is called God's Son (Matthew 3:17). In Matthew 5 through 7, Jesus, in speaking to the multitudes and his disciples, begins calling God "your Father." He is sharing his "Israelness," his "kingness" and his closeness to God with us. When he invites us to pray by calling God "our Father," he's saying that his followers are of God's Israel, that they are in some sense kings and that they are intimate with God.

To call this holy, awesome, transcendent God "our Father" is risky business. It means we sign on for his purposes, that we identify with his purposes for Israel and kingship and intimacy with God - and we know very well where that got Jesus. To call God Father, though, is to recognize that, somehow, his nearness and transcendence are not mutually exclusive. God, in all his transcendence, wants to be near. And the bold men and women of faith invite his nearness in the belief that his involvement with the things of their lives, their churches and their world will not bring about destruction but fulfillment of purposes beyond their understanding of good.

The first request in this prayer is that the Father would make his name "holy." Many translations use the word "hallowed." The verb used here is related to the adjective "holy." Holy means different or special. Something set aside for a particular use, such as vessels for use in the temple, were called "holy." When God is called holy, it means he is utterly above us, particularly in moral purity. This first request can be seen as the overarching theme that governs all other requests in the prayer. Every other request, if answered, has the effect of making the Father's name holy.
The Father, of course, is holy. Why, then, does Jesus encourage us to pray that the Father's name would be holy? The name of a person in the ancient near east meant more than it means today. It had to do with character and reputation. For the Father's name to be understood as holy is for him to be recognized as holy. It is to invite the expression of his holiness.

This is a dangerous request. When God expresses his holiness, the people who see it feel threatened. Consider Isaiah, for example. When he saw a vision of the Lord in all his holiness, he said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:5).

How can anyone, in confidence, ask for God to express his holiness? A knowledge of the scriptures helps us to do this. Our Father has attached the holiness of his name to the prosperity of his people. The psalmists understood this and recognized that God blessed his people "for his name's sake" (Psalms 23:3, 25:11, 31:3, 79:9, 109:21). In other words, God's reputation is at stake, because he has attached his name to his people. What happens to his people reflects on him. The amazing thing is that our heavenly Father makes his name holy by blessing us. On occasion, God reminds the people that they have "profaned" his name but that he will bless them for the sake of his name (Isaiah 48:11, Ezekiel 36:22-23). If we belong to Christ, regardless of how we have "profaned" the name of God by the way in which we have lived, we can pray confidently that God express his holiness, knowing that we will be blessed, not destroyed. But that certainly doesn't mean that God's blessing won't at times feel like destruction, especially if we have lived in reckless disregard for his name.

Our Father's blessing is intended to conform us to the image of Christ. The Father expresses his holiness, then, through the holiness of the people he has blessed. We become like Christ in this world, and the Father's name is honored.

If Jesus gives us this prayer, and if it is from God, and God wants his name to be holy, isn't that a bit egocentric of God? John Piper answers: "Because God is unique as an all-glorious, totally self-sufficient Being, he must be for himself if he is to be for us. The rules of humility that belong to a creature cannot apply in the same way to its Creator. If God should turn away from himself as the Source of infinite joy, he would cease to be God. He would deny the infinite worth of his own glory. He would imply that there is something more valuable outside himself. He would commit idolatry."

The prophets envision the Father's making his name holy and blessing his people in the context of his kingdom. The scriptures say that God will be recognized and that his people will be blessed when his kingdom comes.

What is this kingdom? God established his reign on earth through the kingdom of Israel. He set up his earthly throne in the temple of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12) and installed his kings (Psalm 2:6). But neither Israel nor its kings proved faithful to the Lord, and the kingdom of Israel faded. So the Lord told the prophets that he would act to establish his kingdom in a new and better way through a new and better king from the line of David, who would vanquish evil, redeem his people and reign in righteousness (Isaiah 9:6, 11:1-5). There was a longing in the Israelite soul for this kingdom (Mark 15:43).

Jesus is that new and better king, the Christ, who came to establish God's new and better kingdom (Matthew 1:1, 16). The kingdom is breaking in even now, as Jesus teaches this prayer (Matthew 12:28), yet there is more to come (Matthew 25:31).

The Israelite soul may have been longing for God to establish his kingdom, but when Jesus came to do precisely that, he was rejected. Yes, they longed for him to vanquish evil and reign in righteousness, but they didn't realize that the evil was in their own hearts. The kingdom they envisioned was one that defeated their enemies; Jesus came to defeat the enemy within - Satan, who had exerted such influence within the hearts of the people that they were no longer interested in following their God.

When we pray that the Father's kingdom would come, we again are praying dangerously. It means we are praying for him to vanquish evil, to remove even the smallest spec of dust that does not bring honor to him. It means we are asking him to remove the parts of our being that don't bring honor to him. We're inviting his invasion into our lives, our churches, our world. This prayer could result in the anguish of self-awareness, the embarrassment of exposure and the painful knowledge that the problem is not without but within. This is the dangerous prayer of the poor in spirit, who belong to the kingdom of God because they recognize their desperate need, who know that the problem is within and long for the Father to rescue them from their own disposition to reject him (Matthew 5:3). The dangerous prayer has a glorious result. It may lead to anguish, but beyond the anguish is glory - nearness to the Father, conformance to the image of Christ.

When the Father's kingdom comes, his will will be done. When any monarch is installed, his word is the rule of the land - his will is done. This aspect of the prayer is a request that the Father's kingdom come, but it is also a request that it come in the way he wants it to come.

Again, this is a dangerous prayer. When we pray, "Father, let your will be done," think of the possibilities! After all, look what if did for Jesus. He prayed this prayer, and he ended up being crucified (Matthew 26:39). We know that if we pray this prayer in Gethsemane, God's answer might be Calvary. C.S. Lewis quotes an author whose name he can't remember: "Have we never risen from our knees in haste for fear God's will should become too unmistakable if we prayed longer?" It all depends on our view of the king. Some kings can't be trusted, and we know that. To pray this prayer is to trust that this king is good, that if he exercises his will, good things will happen. It is a prayer of extreme trust.

Jesus trusted the Father in the garden. If Calvary was the Father's answer, to Calvary he would go. Calvary, of course, wasn't the end of the story. Beyond Calvary was the resurrection and the kingdom. Christ ascended to his throne in heaven, where he reigns in glory, bringing all things into subjection to him (Hebrews 2:8). Calvary meant the fulfillment of God's purpose beyond anyone's conception of good. So if we pray this prayer, and God's answer to it is the anguish of our own Calvary, whatever form it takes, beyond Calvary is resurrection. It means the fulfillment of God's purpose beyond our present conception of good.

It's likely that the phrase "on earth as it is in heaven" governs all three requests in this part of the prayer, not just the last one. The prayer is introduced as identifying God as "in heaven," providing a link to this phrase that gathers together all three aspects of this part. The Father's name is holy in heaven, his kingdom has come in heaven and his will is done in heaven. It's a prayer for all these things to happen on earth. The prayer starts with God in heaven, and there is this desire for his earthward movement.

The only potential problem with this is that we're the ones living on earth. To give lip service to this prayer is one thing; to believe it and want it in our hearts is another. To want God to involve himself in the things of earth, the things of our earth, means that we are convinced that the outcome will be good. It means that we believe he is good. It means we're open to having our definition of "good" shattered. It means we want to be wildly out of control and to live freely on the edge in eager anticipation of the next great thing God will do.

Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The earthward movement of God has never touched anyone the way it touched her. She was impregnated by it! Was this a good thing, or a bad thing? At first she exalted the Lord, saying, "My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46). But when Jesus was a child, Simeon told Mary that "a sword will pierce even your own soul" (Luke 2:35). When God moved toward earth and became the son of Mary, he was scorned. He was not the kind of savior Israel expected, nor was he the kind of son Mary expected (Luke 2:48, Mark 3:31-35). When it all ends too soon and in the wrong way, she is left to look upon her dying son on a cross (John 19:25). As N.T. Wright notes, "Gabriel had never warned her about this - never let her in on the secret that to carry God in your womb was to court disaster." But for Mary, and for the disciples, and for us, beyond the cross is the resurrection. When God comes near, it looks disastrous, but the outcome is liberating. When we read in the scriptures and when we see it a few times, we begin to believe it, and we begin to pray for the nearness of God with boldness.

Prayer that God would meet needs on earth (6:11-13)

Matthew 6:11-13:

(11) "'Give us this day our daily bread.
(12) And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
(13) And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'"

(Note: Later manuscripts add to the end of verse 13, "For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen." The earliest manuscripts omit these words, so they were probably not part of Matthew's original document.)

As there was a progression in the first part of the prayer from the greater to the lesser, the Father's holiness to his kingdom to his will, in which each succeeding request, if answered, would fulfill the previous one, there is a progression in this part as well, only it is from the lesser to the greater, from bread to forgiveness to deliverance. Bread is important, but as Jesus said in Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Bread is not as important as forgiveness, nor is forgiveness as important as deliverance from evil.
The first part of the prayer was a request that the Father glorify his name by bringing his kingdom and exercising his will as king. The second part of the prayer asks for developments that would be expected to take place in the Father's kingdom, at least when he consummates it. Bread (Ezekiel 34:13), forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:34) and deliverance (Isaiah 46:4) were anticipated by the prophets.

This prayer places us with Israel in the wilderness, which was depending on the Lord's daily provision of manna and longing for the establishment of the kingdom in the promised land. We are pilgrims in the wilderness, so to speak, longing for the kingdom.

Perhaps what is most interesting about this request is what isn't there. It's a request for daily bread, not bread enough for a week or a month or a year. In giving us a prayer for only daily sustenance, Jesus is saying that this is a good place for us to be - depending on the Father daily. One who prays this prayer, then, actually wants to pray only for daily bread because it puts him where he wants to be - depending on his Father.

Debts can be understood as moral debts with God. In this sense, we "owe" God for our sins against him. It is a debt we have not the resources to pay; therefore, we cast ourselves upon his mercy.

The wording is interesting. Those who pray this prayer for forgiveness as they already have forgiven their debtors, those who have sinned against them. This places the forgiveness by those who pray in the past. Those who pray this in Jesus' day are saying that, by virtue of the fact that they have forgiven those who have sinned against them, they are waiting for God to act decisively to forgive sins, just as he promised. Their prayer, of course, was answered when Jesus went to the cross.

For us to say today that we have forgiven those who have sinned against us is to say that we are God's people, that we have been touched by his love, that we are people whom God forgives. It is to say that our sins have been applied to the cross.

It seems that the one who prays this prayer cannot come to God for forgiveness unless he or she has first forgiven others. Forgiveness from God is not dependent on forgiving others; rather, forgiving others is evidence that one truly wants God's forgiveness. Forgiveness is available to all who want it, but one who lives a lifestyle of holding grudges proves that he or she doesn't want it. It proves that God's love has no impact in that person's life.

This, of course, doesn't mean that if one fails to forgive instantly that one is unforgiven by God. The prayer doesn't claim that we have forgiven all those who have sinned against us or that we have forgiven any of them instantly. It does say that there has been forgiveness and implies that a forgiving spirit is infiltrating this person's life.

The request that the Father not lead us into temptation is an interesting one. It seemingly flies in the face of James 1:13, which says that God "does not tempt anyone." Perhaps there is a difference between tempting and leading into temptation. The Spirit led Jesus to be tempted (Matthew 4:1). God leads, and there is temptation wherever he leads. Perhaps we can understand the prayer, then, as a request that God would not lead us to places where we are tempted, or tempted beyond what we are able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Spirit led Jesus with the intent that he be tempted, but because of James 1:13, we can surmise that he was the only one. He was tempted for us.

What is the temptation that we would like to avoid? Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to fulfill his call in a way contrary to God's will - in an easier, quicker manner (Matthew 4:1-11). The temptation for us is the same; it's the temptation to avoid the call of the kingdom. It's the temptation to not be the kind of people who pray this prayer. The temptation to want our name to be known, not the Father's; to want our kingdom established, not the Father's; to want our will to be done, not the Father's; to see ourselves as providing for our own bread; to see ourselves as neither needing forgiveness nor needing to forgive; to see ourselves as able to deliver ourselves. The temptation is to not sign on for the work of God's kingdom. It is to want the easy, quick way.
The word for "evil" would be literally translated "the evil," and could be translated "the evil one." This seems likely, inasmuch as Jesus was just "tempted" by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). The prayer, then, is a request to be delivered from the evil one, Satan.

The Israelites of Jesus' day would have wanted deliverance from evil, but the locus of evil in their minds was Rome, the oppressing power. God's mighty acts of deliverance in the past concerned the vanquishing of foes such as Egypt and Babylon. But if this is prayer for deliverance from Satan, it is an acknowledgment that the problem isn't so much with Rome as it is with the Israelites. It's recognition that the problem is among them - even in them.

One who prays this prayer today, then, acknowledges his deeply rebellious state, that he is prone to be influenced by the evil one away from the call of the kingdom, away from the devotion to the king, away from "the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3). It is an acknowledgment that he cannot deliver himself. It is a prayer that casts oneself on the mercy of God.

One who prays the second part of the prayer acknowledges himself as deeply needy. In praying this prayer, we acknowledge our "creatureliness" and our utter dependence on the Creator. It is a good thing to acknowledge. When you see food before you, think of your need. When you sense your unforgiving spirit or the guilt you feel for your moral debts, think of your need. When you sense evil impulses within, think of your need. It will lead you to the place where you see yourself as truly and deeply needy. Then what comes out of your mouth when you pray this prayer, or prayers like it, will be the passionate words of the heart, not empty words of recitation.

Writer Dan Wakefield speaks of his reluctance to bow down to God until he recognized his desperate need in his effort to stop drinking: "The change comes when you're willing to do what AA tells you. They said to get down on your knees and pray. I said, 'I can't do that; I'm a Jew. We don't do that.' About a week later I was down on my hands and knees in my living room, trying to pray. You're willing to try anything to manufacture a life without alcohol. In the early slogging you've got to be open to anything - and that's a miracle." His recognition of need led him to the place of dependence, and in the place of dependence, we pray "the Lord's prayer" from the heart.
The second part of the prayer shows us how we can get to the place where we could ever pray the first part of the prayer with confidence. These verses reflect need - need for bread, need for forgiveness, need for deliverance. Only people who recognize their need ever have to trust anyone for anything. As we recognize our need for God's provision, we are led to seek it, and in seeking it and finding him trustworthy, we long for his kingdom to come instead of dreading it.

It's not so dangerous after all

When we back up and see that God has always honored his name by blessing his people, we see that this prayer is not so dangerous after all. The only thing it threatens is the fortresses we have built to protect our version of reality. The Father may express his holiness by tearing down those structures and giving us something akin to mansions of glory. He conforms us to the image of his Son. He sanctifies his name, and he blesses us. He sanctifies his name by blessing us.

- SCG, 2-8-98