I grew up on the Plains. It is not easy for Plainsmen to ask for help. The Plains are the home of rugged individualism, which was a very useful trait for settlers who turned over ground for the first time. Farms were some distance from each other. Before electricity and telephones, communication was very slow. So, if a plow broke, a farmer had to fix it by himself. I suppose some small farmers still work this way, if only to save money. For Plainsmen, asking for help, at least doing it too often, is seen as a sign of weakness. It means another man has to stop his work and come help you with yours. I suppose it is not just Plainsmen who struggle to ask for help. Life in the big city is also, in its own way, isolating. Pushing one’s way into a crowded subway car requires a sort of ruggedness of its own, as one has to push through the crowds, ignoring the people against whom he is bumping.
In contrast to rugged individualism, prayer is a confession to another of our need and weakness. Perhaps this is one of the most difficult aspects of prayer. Here is where it is vital to distinguish between works and grace. In the covenant of works, one truly is on his own. “Do your own work” was a regular refrain among my teachers. Looking at a schoolmate’s exam is cheating, a violation of the covenant of works. Prayer, however, belongs to the covenant of grace and in prayer God’s covenant people turn to the God of the covenant who said,
I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (Ex 6:6–7).
The God to whom we pray is the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. However isolated we might be from others, whether on the farm or on the internet, we believers are not isolated from God. He keeps his covenant promise to be our God. Our part of the covenant of grace is to respond to his grace by making use of the means he has graciously provided. Even those means, the objective (preaching and sacraments) and the subjective (prayer) are gifts and when we do make use of them, even then it is by grace. Nevertheless, in union and communion with Christ we do make a free (uncoerced) choice to respond with thanks to that grace, in that grace. It is not as if, having begun the Christian life by grace, we finish by works.
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:1–3; ESV).
So, prayer is part of the communion we have with our gracious Father, in Christ, with and by the Spirit. The same God who created and sustains us, who loved us so much that he sent his only begotten Son, delights to hear our prayers and to answer them. This is why we confess:
118. What has God commanded us to ask Him?
All things necessary for soul and body, which Christ our Lord comprised in the prayer, which He Himself taught us (Heidelberg Catechism).
Our understanding of prayer differs considerably from much of what is commonly accepted in contemporary evangelical circles. For example, we find nothing in Scripture that commands us, either by precept or example, to pray the way the so-called “health and wealth” preachers teach. There is no promise in Scripture that if believers simply have enough faith (and send in enough money) that the Lord will make them wealthy. A Rolls Royce is a beautiful thing but it is not necessary. In contrast, we pray for “all things necessary for body and soul. A vehicle may be necessary but a Gulfstream 650 jet certainly is not. Health is a necessity (James 5:13, 14). Rain is a necessity (James 5:17, 18). Forgiveness is a necessity (James 5:15). We ask our heavenly Father for everything we need because ” Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17; ESV). In prayer we trust our Father with all our anxieties (Matt 6:25–34; 1 Pet 5:7). God’s Word says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil 4:6; ESV).
God cares for us more than we care for ourselves. He is trustworthy and capable of meeting all our physical and spiritual (body and soul) needs. Not only is willing and able to hear and to help but he has given us a pattern by which to pray. There is a subset of evangelicals, some Dispensationalists, who, because of their eschatology, will not pray the Lord’s Prayer because they do not believe it is “for today” as they say. Such a view of the Lord’s Prayer is not only starkly unbiblical, (it represents a significant misunderstanding of the kingdom of God, that it is both inaugurated and yet to be consummated), it is also contrary to the universal practice of the Christian church for more than 2,000 years.
Instead of refusing to use the words and pattern our Lord gave us, we should receive them with thanks. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1–13; Matt 6:5–13), they were not asking for a prayer that applied only to them or that would not apply to us and when our Lord gave them the prayer, he was answering their question. He was teaching them (and us) how to pray. The whole context of the prayer, particularly in Luke 11, makes this quite clear to those who do not have an a priori notion of what the kingdom of God must be (an earthly Israelite kingdom) by which the words of Christ can be (unfairly) levered aside. We are those in Luke 11:5&ndash13 who need to know that God is, in Christ, our friend who, like a friend, will rise and give us whatever we need (Luke 11:8).
That prayer and pattern for prayer is Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matt 6:9–13).
There are two variants to note. First, Heidelberg Catechism 119 includes the traditional doxology, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.” This doxology does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew 6:13. It is drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:10–13. It appears first in later, Byzantine copies of the New Testament. A shorter version appeared in the Didache, which is probably best dated to the early to mid-second century. There is certainly nothing wrong with a biblical doxology and it is perfectly appropriate to pray it but knowing that it was a later addition helps to understand the variation in practice. Its omission is not a sign of theological or biblical infidelity.
Second, Luke 11:4 says “forgive us our sins” whereas the parallel passage in Matthew 6:12 says “forgive us our debts.” There is, of course, no contradiction since Luke’s text says, “as we forgiven everyone who is indebted to us.” Debt is merely a metaphor for sin. Further, many Christians have learned the Lord’s Prayer, known by many by its Latin title Pater noster (our Father), from the widely used Roman Catholic form or from the Book of Common Prayer (1662) which says, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In prayer we confess to our Creator and Redeemer God, our covenant God who promised to redeem us and who has, in Christ, redeemed us and is now by his Spirit, through Word and sacrament, sanctifying us that we are not our own but belong body and soul, in life and death, to our faithful Savior. We confess our needs and we call upon him to meet those bodily and spiritual necessities. In his Word he reassures us that he hears our prayers, for Christ’s sake, and that he answers them for our good and his glory.
In “Give us this day our daily bread”, we need to be clear that “us” doesn’t just mean “me”, or “me and my family”, or even “me and the brethren I live with and see most days”. “Us” means the whole church of God militant on earth. For us prosperous Christians in the West, then, the priority meaning of this prayer might be “Give us the grace and the facilities to share our material blessings with our brethren elsewhere in the world that don’t have them”. This aspect of the prayer impinges far more on us in our global village than it did on our forefathers, for whom worldwide relief work was hardly a possibility – hence its absence from our confessions and catechisms.
The Matthaean Doxology is only absent from three manuscripts of the Alexandrian tradition and it is not absent from W, which is negligibly less ancient than the Oregenic Aliph and B, which are derived from memory versions. We need not doubt its presence in the original Matthew’s gospel, whilst accepting that it was not recorded by Luke (who’s account was of a different occasion, anyway).