Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name …
If you’re like me, you know these words well, and saying what follows is reflex. I grew up going to church, so reciting the Lord’s Prayer is a habit I don’t even remember forming. Each phrase just flows into the next—so much so that it feels like I’ve put zero effort into the act of remembering it.
The first time I really engaged with this prayer was as a teenager in youth group: we explored it line by line so that we could understand what the familiar words were on about. This is when I finally worked out what “hallowed” means. (It means “to make holy” or “to revere”, in case you were wondering.) This was also the first time I realised that this prayer is actually drawn from Scripture (see Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). Since then, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to revisit it as I pray it in church, reflect on it in Scripture, and even gave a talk on it from Luke 11.
The words of this prayer, which the Son of God himself taught to his disciples, are more than just an accomplishment of memorisation for me; they are a source of rich theology. This prayer reveals who the God of the universe is, it points out my failings in the face of his majesty and rebukes me, and it strengthens me in the relationship I’m called to as a child of God. As I revisit it, I’m always surprised by the way God keeps teaching me through it: he continually issues me new truths or challenges.
Here are just three lessons he’s taught me from this prayer.
1. A remembered prayer is a comfort should my mind fail
I have a terrible memory for quotes and so I struggle to remember the exact wording of Bible verses. While teaching a kids program, I might manage to learn the term’s memory verse, but test me on it a few months later and it’s gone. Without repetition or continual use, my brain tends to file such information away in the deep recesses of my mind. So the frequency with which the Lord’s Prayer is spoken in church services is helpful for etching some of God’s words deep into my memory.
I’ve come to appreciate repetition for memorisation even more while ministering to the elderly. When I’ve gone into nursing homes, it’s struck me that even if senior citizens are fuzzy on what they ate for breakfast or what the names of their children are, they still remember the hymns they sang as a child or the prayers they learned by rote. Alzheimer’s may steal many precious things from me, but it’s unlikely that this prayer will be one of them. I’ve come to see that one of the blessings of this great little prayer is that it’s full of words of great wisdom and truth. In times of distress—moments when fear or grief overwhelm my capacity to speak my desires or wants to God—I can fall back on this prayer: I can recite it with familiarity, trusting that what I am praying for are good and right things to ask of my heavenly Father.
2. Complacency is the danger we never see coming
There’s a dangerous flipside to familiarity though: in Isaiah 1, God rebukes his people for their empty religion of rites and sacrifices—religion that lacks genuine repentance and love of justice. My teenage encounter with Jesus’ prayer revealed to me how easily I can fall into the same trap: I can recite the words, but possess no reverence for God. My lips can be speaking praise, but my mind might be focused on the latest plot twist in a TV show I am currently watching. I can be sitting in the pew every Sunday, but my heart might be far from God. As a teenager, my attitude and practices when it came to church services were distracted, and the way I treated the Lord’s Prayer was the way I treated God: with complacency.
Over the years, I’ve come to recognise complacency as one of the biggest dangers to my walk with God. I can tick all the right boxes of Christian activity while, at the same time, drifting straight into it. Furthermore, I’ve found it’s the sort of thing that sneaks up on me: it’s often coupled with a slide in my personal quiet times as other seemingly pressing matters crowd in. I think, “Doesn’t my prep for the Bible Study I’m leading count as my scriptural intake for today?” I start to treat God as a list of tasks to achieve. I forget what real relationship with him looks like. And while I subconsciously know that this is not good, I fall back on an assumption of God’s grace: surely he will forgive me; surely he will help me do better next time. Even though these things are true, my attitude is horrifying: I take for granted just how holy, great and powerful God is—how the grace and forgiveness he extends to me came at such a painful and personal cost—and why that grace should not be treated so lightly, so complacently.
The Lord’s Prayer warns me of the danger of complacency. Every time I say it, I’m reminded of how empty my recital of it has been in the past. Having spent time every few years revisiting this prayer and dwelling on what it means, the meaning I associate with its words has grown in richness so that every time I recite it, I’m challenged to bring these ideas and truths to mind so that I’m no longer just going through the motions. Doing this requires constant, conscious effort, but it keeps me on my guard.
3. Prayer is not about me
The third thing the prayer has taught me is that prayer is not about me. I’m a selfish person. The sinful habit of my nature is to focus on myself—my needs, my desires, my situation. That’s often how I pray. But Jesus gives us a model of prayer that doesn’t start with ourselves: it begins with God—by praising his name. The first requests it makes are about God’s intentions and plans. We pray for God’s will to be done before we even ask for something for us in the now of our need. The wonderful scope the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of catapults me out of the limited sphere of me and reminds me of God’s vision. It puts God first in my prayers so that I am prompted to fit my desires in with his desires. Prayer is more about the one I’m praying to, rather than me, the pray-er.
After all, prayer is an expression of our humble dependence on God: when we make our requests of him, we do so out of our trust that he is powerful enough and able to deliver. We speak to him because he has invited us into relationship with him. He is our Father; we are his children. The Lord’s Prayer offers us a model and a reminder of what it means to come to God in prayer: it is not to pray in a selfish monologue like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14; it is to look to our Father with trust and adoration, knowing that we rely on him completely for all aspects of our lives.
There are many more insights I could share with you about how God has used the Lord’s Prayer to shape me and nurture my knowledge of and love of him. It may be a short prayer, but it’s a rich one. Why not take some time today to dwell on its words? Let them take root in your heart and see how God might use them to change you.