Teach Us To Pray

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say...” (Luke 11:1-2a)

Sunday after Sunday, year after year, Christians all over the world gather together to pray for the many cares and concerns which are weighing heavily upon their hearts. Sometimes our prayers leap out of us, easily and without much effort: we know what our needs are, what our blessings have been, and how to offer our praise and thanksgiving to God. Other times we are at a loss for words: the needs of those around us are overwhelming, we feel inadequate and incapable of offering our selves to God in prayer. It is in moments like these that the Lord’s Prayer becomes more than just a rote-memorized collection of words, bereft of meaning.

Jesus’ Disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. It’s a reasonable request: if anyone is going to know about the true meaning and power of prayer, Jesus will. In response to their request, our Lord outlined a way, a pattern, and a method for prayer. The prayer he taught them is often called “The Lord’s Prayer,” even though Jesus never actually prayed it himself – indeed, it is the “Disciples’ Prayer.” It is the prayer, and the way of prayer, which Jesus intended for us to apply in our spiritual lives. These words have formed and informed the thoughts and prayers of many Christians for nearly the entire history of the Church. When we pray this prayer – and, most especially, when we pray in this way – we are opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit to offer, through us, praises and petitions to God.

Sometime we zip through this prayer, failing to hear or comprehend the true meaning and impact of the words we are reciting. Sometimes we pray, not so much hearing the words but allowing the thoughts and ideas they convey to move through and transform us in our prayers. Other times, however, if we truly listen to the ideas contained within those words, we discover that we are free to put these words into our own words. It is when we thus pray the Disciples’ Prayer that we are, most fully an faithfully, praying as Jesus taught us.

What does “The Prayer the Lord Taught His Disciples” teach us about prayer? What is this way, this pattern and method of prayer, that Jesus taught? Let’s take a little walk through the words as we usually pray them, Sunday after Sunday.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

These opening words focus our attention away from a conception of God as being beyond human understanding and toward the truth that God is our Parent, our Father, our “Daddy,” and that we are called to praise and glorify – give special respect to – God. God is almighty and eternal, but God is also our Divine Parent: God loves us, guides us, teaches us, comforts us, punishes us, nourishes us … in other words, in every way that a father and/or a mother loves and raises their children, so also God loves and raises us. God is our heavenly “Daddy” and – indeed – our heavenly “Mommy.”

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we pray these words, do we really mean them? Do we really understand what it means to pray for God’s kingdom to be established in our midst – in our own lives? If God’s will is going to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” this means that it will be done in our lives, too. Are we ready for God’s will to replace our will? Are we ready to set the ego, the self-pride, the “me, myself, and I,” aside and say, as Jesus said, “not my will, by thy will be done?” If we are, then we can truly, and truthfully, pray these words. Until then, we are just mouthing them.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

We should be willing to pray for what we need to live from day to day. “Our daily bread” means exactly that; not our daily Cadillac or our daily cruise vacation, but our daily bread. God promises to provide us with the basic sustenance that we need to live, not with the over-abundance or extravagance that we might crave. This doesn’t mean that God refuses to give us what we want or even desire, simply that we are promised what we need.

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We all like to hear that our sins are forgiven us, and it is true that Jesus died for our sins. However, this gift of salvation through the blood of the cross carries with it a life-transforming implication which we are all too swift to ignore: we are forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words, the extent to which we allow the grace of God to move through our lives, forgiving those who have sinned against us, reflects the extent to which we have allowed the grace of God to forgive us. If we don’t have a forgiving spirit, and if we willfully refuse to forgive others, we reflect the tragic truth that we have not inwardly accepted the gift of forgiveness. If we are a forgiven people, having truly and faithfully accepted God’s forgiveness, then we will also be a forgiving people.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

This is another hard one. Like forgiveness, which is sometimes difficult to give, so also temptation is often extremely difficult to avoid. Indeed, if you’re like me, it’s very easy to just dive into temptation and wallow in it. I’m reminded of the old Hymn “Love Lifted Me,” where we sing: “I was sinking deep in sin….” If we’re truthful, we would frequently want to add: “…whoopie!” If we’re truly praying as Jesus taught us, we will ask that we not be lead into temptation; we will pray that God’s grace will so empower us that, when temptation crosses our path, we’ll not go diving after it again. And, in so doing, God will be delivering us from evil … from the power and temptations of “the evil one.” And we know who he is, don’t we? He’s really good at making temptations look as if they’re not sinful, just fun. Praise God, Jesus also delivers us from Satan’s power.

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”

This closing doxology is not found in any of the scriptural accounts of this prayer, but that’s unimportant. We are called to close our prayers by attributing to God the authority, the strength, and the praise that belongs only to Him.

To summarize the above, our prayers should follow this pattern of prayer:

  • Call upon our Divine Parent, our heavenly "Daddy"
  • Praise God
  • Commit ourselves to service in God’s kingdom and to abiding by God's Will
  • Ask for what we need
  • Seek forgiveness for our sins while forgiving others
  • Seek guidance and strength to overcome temptation and the power of Satan
  • Recognize that God’s authority, strength, and glory should reign in our lives.

This is the pattern, the method, the approach to prayer which Jesus taught his Disciples’. Let us so open ourselves to His grace that we might conform our lives and wills to His in our living and our praying.

© 2004 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.