Detail, Prayer Without End, Nicolaes Maes (1665)

Detail, Prayer Without End, Nicolaes Maes (1665)

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name… (excerpt from Luke 11:1-13)

Perhaps it seems strange that I cut the citation off at this point. Perhaps you even find yourself fighting a slight instinct to simply keep going, “Thy/your kingdom come…” which, of course, is normal. We almost always recite and study the Lord’s Prayer as a whole unit. However today I want to focus simply on this opening phrase, in part because it is often overlooked, but also because I am convinced that it contains a essential key to understanding not only the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, but also the entire passage in which is found in Luke, and as a result, prayer in general.

What do I mean by this?

Take a look at Jesus’ response to the disciples when they ask him for instruction on how to pray. He does not respond by giving them specific techniques or prescribing specific times in which they should carry out their prayers. Rather, he responds first by giving them a model prayer—the Lord’s Prayer, which begins by addressing God as Father—and then giving them two situations in which the nature of God’s Fatherhood is illustrated. He is like the friend we can go to in our hour of need, trusting that he will not fail to meet our needs; and he is like the father who will only give us his best. It is clear that, in the words of Joel Green “[Jesus] is not so much concerned with the technology of prayer as he is with the shaping of prayer in relation to an accurate recognition of the one to whom prayer is offered” (emphasis added).

The two situations Jesus gives appear at first to be two separate illustrations, each of which taps into a distinct aspect of God’s character. In fact they are intimately related. The story about the friend who is approached by another in need at midnight rests on the assumption that the one approached is the lord of the house and is thus able to distribute the household goods such as bread, and in Greco-Roman antiquity, ‘father’ was a synonym for ‘lord of the house’. Both stories focus on the role of the father, whether implicitly or explicitly, and taken together, they reveal a God who is not only eager to help us and give only his best, but he also has the authority and means to do so (He does own the cattle on a thousand hills after all).

On one level this speaks to and assuages the fears many of us have that perhaps God does not care about our needs, or cannot be trusted with our desires. He does care and can be trusted not only respond to our needs, but also give us his best. However, it also challenges the tendency we all have to make prayer a transactional experience in which we only go to God when we need or want something. We all fall in to patterns in which we only pray when there is a pressing need or desire, but this is not how one treats a friend or a father. At the very least it is generally acknowledged that doing so betrays the love, trust and affection that is meant to be the fabric of such relationships. There is no doubt that Jesus is encouraging us to come to God with our needs and trust that he will not fail us or respond to our requests with malevolent alternatives, but he is also encouraging us to not approach God as if he were a lender or some sort of benevolent figure from whom we simply get things (or not as it were), but rather to open ourselves up to him in the love, trust, and mutual self-giving that is essential to all healthy relationships.

And this, believe it or not, is where the second half of the phrase cited above comes in to play. You see, the “hallowed be thy name” is not simply declaration of praise, as perhaps it is most commonly understood. Rather, it is the expression of a deep desire that God’s Name—that is, who he is in his unchanging character and essence—will be sanctified and vindicated of all the ways in which it has been abused by those claim to represent him, but who, in fact, act in ways that are far from his heart. “Why must God sanctify his name?” asks Joel Green, “Because it has been profaned by God’s own people…

This, we must acknowledge, is a reality in which we all take part—both as victims and as perpetrators. Whether we’ve had painful experiences within the church from the ways we (or those we know) have been treated, or ourselves have acted in ways that are far from reflecting God’s love and holiness, God’s Name has been profaned to the extent that we all struggle to know, trust and fully experience his unfailing love and grace. And in this sense, every single time we come to him in prayer, God’s name is very much at stake, for it is only in prayer that the wounded relationship that challenges our ability to trust him is healed as we begin to experience him as both friend and father who cares intimately for our needs and gives us only his best; and it is only through prayer that we become more conformed to his image, embracing practices and living lives that honor him as we surrender ourselves to Him and to His will.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” I would add that it also changes our experience of who God is. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The same God who did not fail us on the cross will not fail us in the whole of our lives. But this does not mean that he will always answer us when and how we expect him to. Often times he does not—not because he is failing us, but because he is forming us and even healing us.

It is in these moments that our true relationship with him is forged, for when we share our fears and wounds with him, we allow him to speak peace, healing and strength into our hearts as he works his plan of unfailing love and redemption in our lives and in the world around us.

 

Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.