“Whenever you pray, pray this.”

by K.W. Leslie, 21 February

Jesus expected us to pray it more often than we do.

Luke 11.1-4

The Lord’s Prayer comes up twice in the gospels: Once in Matthew 6, and here in Luke 11. Today I’m gonna zero in on something Jesus taught about it in Luke. You’ll notice the Luke version is a bit shorter than the Matthew and Didache versions.

Luke 11.1-4 KWL
1 It happened while Jesus was praying in a certain place:
Once he finished, one of his students told him, “Master, teach us to pray,
like John the baptist taught his students.”
2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father!
Sanctify your name. Bring your kingdom. 3 Give us bread for the day, daily.
4 Forgive us of our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who owes us.
Don’t bring us into tribulation!’”

You’ll also notice when Jesus taught it, he prefaced it with, “When you pray, say…” Lk 11.2 Which brings up the rather important question: Does he expect us to say these words every single time we pray? Or is it optional?

Are we to take Jesus literally, as many a literalistic Christian will insist upon? Or are we gonna follow their example?

’Cause maybe you just realized a whole lot of the very same folks who claim, “We need to believe and follow everything in the bible literally, or we’re not truly bible-believing Christians” in fact don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer every single time they pray. They tend to be much bigger fans of extemporaneous prayer. Rote prayers, even rote prayers from the bible, tend to get treated as dead religion. Even this prayer, which Jesus taught his students personally.

Weren’t they supposed to begin every single one of their off-the-cuff prayers with the Lord’s Prayer? Aren’t we all?

Think about that for a few minutes. I’ll wait.

No, seriously. I’ll be back in the next section.

It couldn’t hurt.

And I’m back.

Whenever I teach new believers and children about prayer, I teach the Lord’s Prayer. And that it’s our default prayer. When we don’t know what to pray, or where to start, Jesus gave us this prayer to pray. Pray it!

Yeah, it’s a rote prayer. So what? Jesus gave it to us. For this reason it’s not a bad prayer. True, people can pray it with absolutely no faith nor conviction behind it. They can turn it into dead religion, same as they can with every good thing the Father gives us. But that’s not what we’re doing, right? We’re practicing living religion, right? Better be.

It’s a back-to-basics prayer. Sometimes we overcomplicate our prayer lives. Gotta have our prayer journals, candles, soothing music, beads, rug, shawl… and cram all these things (plus ourselves) into our prayer closet, and can’t pray without ’em. And we gotta hit all the requests our prayer groups, our prayer chains, our family members, or any other people have asked us to pray on their behalf. And there’s that book on effective prayers we’re working our way through, and there’s those prayer techniques our prayer groups have pushed us to practice…

…And this, and that, and all sorts of things which suck all the life out of our praying, and turned it into dead religion without our ever noticing it. These other things are meant to help us grow closer to God, not get in his way. If they’ve discouraged us from praying as often as we oughta, or we’re not hearing back from him like we should, or we’re otherwise burnt out from all the effort, it means something’s wrong. Strip off all the extra things and go back to the basics: Lord’s Prayer.

Yeah, I’ve known longtime Christians who balk at this advice: “Wait, if people aren’t hearing God anymore, you want ’em to try a rote prayer? Rote prayers are the problem, aren’t they?”

No; the problem is Jesus taught us how and what to pray, and we’ve lost sight of that, and started praying what we wanna pray. What our churches, well-intentioned as they might be, wanna pray. What some “prayer expert” figures oughta work for us… forgetting when we’re following someone else’s guidelines for prayer, exactly how is that significantly different from following some rote prayer’s specific words?

I don’t play golf. I know lots of guys who do, and every so often one of ’em complains their golf game is beginning to degrade. They’re hitting the ball all wrong. So they realize it’s time to go back to basics. When they were first taught golf, the pro taught ’em proper posture, stance, grip, swing, and so forth. Over time (as humans will) they made little adjustments: Little tricks and techniques and changes they figured might work better for them, and improve their game. Some of ’em legitimately did. Some appeared to, but made things worse. Some used to, but as their muscles got older (or, sometimes, better) the techniques stopped working.

Prayer’s the same way. If your prayer life grows your relationship with God, great! And if not… well, it’s time to visit our pro. That’d be Jesus. And you know he’ll point you back to basics: The Lord’s Prayer.

So it’s a very good idea to regularly return to the Lord’s Prayer. Preface your own prayers with it. Start (or end) your prayer groups with it. Lots of churches use it as part of their worship services. And when you don’t know what to pray, pray this.

But must we every time?

Now for the literalists. ’Cause I know a few of ’em. I grew up among them. They’re the ones who got their panties in a wad every time we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, and somebody didn’t pray it in the King James Version. It’s “debts,” they insisted, not “trespasses.” (Book of Common Prayer does “trespasses.”)

Still, the version of the Lord’s Prayer they emphasized was the Matthew version. Not the Luke version. Which is why they skipped the bit, “When ye pray, say…” Lk 11.2 KJV and never realized Jesus expects us to practice the Lord’s Prayer more often than we do.

Still (as I wrote in my article on literalism) we’re to take scripture seriously, which doesn’t always mean literally. What was the point of Jesus telling his kids, “When you pray, say…”?

Well, like Luke said in verse 1: One of Jesus’s students heard him pray, and requested his Master teach them to pray. Apparently John the baptist had taught his kids to pray, and we also know the Pharisees taught their students to pray. So what does Jesus want his followers to pray? What’s the pattern they should follow? What should they pray like, as Jesus phrased it in Matthew 6.9?

That’s the thing: The Lord’s Prayer is a pattern. It’s not merely a rote prayer. True, we should pray it like a rote prayer, ’cause that’ll help us learn the pattern. But it’s only the pattern Jesus wants us to stick with. Basically:

  • FATHER! ’Cause God isn’t some distant, removed deity. He’s Dad. He’s adopted us as his kids. He’s given us every right to approach him. So do.
  • SANCTIFY YOUR NAME. Much like “In Jesus’s name,” we’re requesting God bring honor to himself in answering our requests. Do it ’cause it increases your glory. Definitely not to spoil your kids.
  • BRING YOUR KINGDOM. Isn’t God’s kingdom what we’re all supposed to be striving for?
  • GIVE US BREAD FOR THE DAY, DAILY. Ask for daily needs. Could be bread; could be other stuff. We’re not asking for wealth (more than enough bread, which we could trade for luxuries), nor comfort (bread for the year, so we can relax and get lazy). We’re only asking the LORD our provider, to provide.
  • FORGIVE US OF OUR SINS. ’Cause we sinned. And we’re not hiding that. We suck. But God is infinitely gracious.
  • FOR WE OURSELVES FORGIVE EVERYONE WHO OWES US. ’Cause God’s excellent example has taught us how to behave towards the world around us: He’s gracious to us, so we’re gracious to others.
  • DON’T BRING US INTO TRIBULATION! Duh; tribulation sucks.

Facets of all these ideas oughta be regularly found in our prayers. If they’re not, we’re gonna get a distorted picture of how prayer, and God, work. It’s gonna mess up our prayer game, just like golf tricks gradually mess up one’s golf game.

Pharisees had rote prayers for everything. When you pray over food, pray this. When you pray on Sabbath, pray this. When you pray over sacrifices, pray this. When you ritually wash yourself, pray this. When you ask God’s forgiveness, pray this. Pharisees wanted to make sure they always said the right thing to God. What they wound up doing was overcomplicating things. As Jesus taught us: You don’t need 50 different prayers for all occasions. The Lord’s Prayer works in every circumstance. Need a prayer? Pray this.

The point wasn’t to give us a new rote prayer, but a solid baseline for our prayer lives. Do we have to recite the Lord’s Prayer every time we pray? Doesn’t hurt. But that’s not the point. The point is to apply its principles to every prayer we pray.

Missing the point, and making it a mandatory ritual, makes it way easier to turn it into dead religion and legalism. We ignore the spirit of Jesus’s instruction, go through the motions, and figure that’s all we need do; that’s righteousness. No it’s not.

It also doesn’t mean we take the other extreme, and never pray the Lord’s Prayer for fear of making it a dead ritual. We treat it, same as all Jesus’s instructions, with respect and devotion: We pray it ’cause it’s valuable! We strive to mean it, same as all rote prayers. We let it teach us to pray as Jesus wants. We conform to Jesus’s will, instead of only praying our own will, in our own way, in the false belief only extemporaneous prayers are authentic and good.

When in doubt, fall back on the Lord’s Prayer. Use it as your guide. Memorize, but don’t worry about, its specific words: God’s totally okay with us riffing on them. Our relationship with God isn’t gonna grow if we limit ourselves to a box made of rote prayers. When you pray, pray this. But never forget to pray more than this.