Lord, Teach Us to Pray (Luke 11:1-4)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 5, 1986, p. 974. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We’ve never had it so good, yet our civilization has managed to keep God at arm’s length. At the same time, we fear we have sold our birthrights. We are afraid and preoccupied. We know there is no way out of our dilemma that does not begin in prayer.

He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, 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 thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation"’ [Luke 11:1-4].

Can a spirit longing to fly to God on the wings of prayer possibly hope to take off when those wings are so severely clipped? Could it be that by this very severity Jesus intended to throw cold water on our human desire for religious flights to God? Could it be that Jesus means to say that these few words are the full content of both what we need to say and what God wishes to hear from us? In any case, when Jesus prays he is all business.

"Father, hallowed be thy name." God, you are the personal, beloved parent of our being. Therefore, we acknowledge in gratitude and awe your holiness, your lordship, your sovereignty. Your very name is sacred. Never should your intimate parental love tempt us to the contempt of familiarity.

"Thy kingdom come." Our deepest longing is to see the day when the triumphant, sovereign lordship of you our loving God will no longer be a mere hope clung to desperately by faith, but a manifest reality in all human affairs. Our souls can never be entirely content until your honor is fully vindicated in all creation. When will the reign of evil and death end?

But life is not all unfulfilled possibility. Life is good, yet our physical needs must be met. The request "Give us each day our daily bread" is a plea for more than food; it implies all the necessities of life. God, give us what we need in order to enjoy the gift of life.

". . . and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us." Jesus does not suppose that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our forgiving. Rather, he simply assumes that those who seek to learn to pray from him will indeed forgive their enemies. Quite an assumption!

Finally, there is the recognition that our forgiveness of the sins of others is not the basis of our righteousness. By treating the forgiveness of sin and thus all Christian living as a simple given, Jesus’ prayer precludes all boasting. Indeed, our pride ought to be shattered when we pray, "and lead us not into temptation," for by these words we recognize that we can never be self-sufficient in holiness and virtue. Were God to "lead us into temptation," were we required to play the role of Pharaoh or Jezebel or Judas in the divine drama, we would be as consumed by evil as a snowflake in a furnace is consumed by fire. Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners, knew well that temptation can simply overcome people. Victims of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, oppression, parental abuse, gang life and drugs reveal to us how easily, indeed automatically, people can be driven beyond endurance. Those who pray with Jesus share his abject sense of ultimate human helplessness and dependence.

Apart from the Lord’s Prayer, what few practical "rules" for praying that Jesus did offer can be reduced to three slogans: keep it secret (Matt. 6:5-6) , keep it uninflated (Mart. 6:7-8) and, with dogged confidence, keep it up (Luke 11:5-13; Luke 18:1-5; Matt. 7:7-11; Mark 11:23-24). It would be easy enough to act on the first two slogans if we had the faith to carry out the third. If we really could believe that "God will vindicate his elect, who cry unto him day and night" (Luke 18:7), then our secret prayer would not constitute a dark night of the soul, just as our inspired confidence in God’s deliverance would render moot any temptation to merely human eloquence. As for Jesus’ statement that "whoever says to this mountain ‘be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him" (Mark 11:23) , down deep we believe it to be mere hyperbole. Thus, we resort to eloquent verbal bouquets -- to cover our naked unbelief. Behind the request "Teach me how to pray" lies the more fundamental plea, "Teach me how to believe so that I can pray." The real question has little to do with technique. The real question is: Do we believe in Jesus’ God?

"Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God,"’ said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Such a remark intends no impiety. Certainly, Bonhoeffer was no atheist. It is often difficult to believe that anyone could really be an atheist at heart. What is called atheism is generally a sadly disappointed or militantly outraged reaction to the fact that we can and must "deal with . . . all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God."’ It is less a rejection of the existence of the holy than a profound disappointment that God is so distant just when we need him the most.

It is difficult for modern Christians to pray precisely because we carry within ourselves the very questions about how God works in the world -- or makes any difference in the world -- that cause the so-called atheists among us to turn their backs on God in melancholy outrage. Further, we wonder, are we constantly to go through the motions of asking -- when we know we can do for ourselves? Weren’t we created to be creative, hardworking beings? Aren’t our talents given to us precisely so that we can produce? And is it not an embarrassing fact that because we generally don’t need God to bail us out, when we do become desperate and could indeed use help we are almost ashamed to ask? We don’t want to be like the shameless son who never visits his parents except to hit them for a loan.

Clearly, our uncertainty about petitionary prayer reflects our uncertainty about how God governs the world. Christians often hold contradictory views about God’s providence. There are those on the fundamentalist side who speak about the direct intervention of God as if they attribute even the most mundane functions of daily life to his direct agency. Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, are essentially deists; it is their view that after having created the world and revealed the divine will in its structure and the laws of nature, God cannot be looked to for further intervention.

For my own part, I suppose I am -- to use a term originally intended as a putdown -- an occasionist. I believe in the "times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority" (Acts 1:7) I believe that in fact God does act in the world, that he raises up prophets, that he answered Israel’s deepest prayer for deliverance and sent his son. I believe that the disciples of John did indeed "hear and see" what Jesus told them to report: "The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matt. 11:4-5). I believe in the resurrection, in Pentecost -- I sometimes find myself surprised at just how much of the Bible I do believe.

In my own life I have felt the guidance and protection of God. But I have also know what it is to be alone, with dead, flat prayers finally sinking into prolonged silences. God can in the economy of his providence directly affect our lives and yet at other times effectually leave us quite alone. My parents loved me, but neither of them was above saying, "Don’t bother me; go out and play." Certainly no amount of prayer can alter the mortality of our flesh. Even when Jesus raised up the dead, he simply delayed the consequences of the iron law of existence. To be born is to die. If our prayer is that we be spared the ultimate human catastrophe, the answer is No. God’s eternal mercy is wrought out in the context of our finite dying.

Once we have a chance to reflect upon Jesus’ prayer, it all seems so obvious. Of course we should ask only for that which God already knows we need, and beyond that we should ask only for that which we need absolutely. True prayer is a statement of the obvious. Jesus’ prayer is basically a rehearsal of the terms of our existence as we stand under God. Petitionary prayer reflects our awe and gratitude before the fact that God continues with us in spite of the breach between him and ourselves. At root, what every Christian prayer is asking for is God’s presence. To pray for a Cadillac or for a football victory would be a blasphemy were it not so comic.

The fact that the ultimate request of our petitions is for God himself is borne out by Jesus in the high drama of Gethsemane when he says, "Not my will, but thine, be done," or in his various prayers and cries from the cross. But beyond the drama of these moments that put Jesus’ "instructions" to the test, there are his words uttered in the relative calm of the teaching situation. After giving us his illustration of prayer, Jesus concludes his general advice to persevere in prayer with this promise (cited above in part) : "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13)

Perhaps the reason that God makes prayer so hard for us and so often withholds his Spirit from us is precisely because true prayer entails the fire of the Holy Spirit, a fire that consumes great masses of dross in its purifying flame. God’s silence is a way of identifying the dross that needs to be burned away.

Were we to cry to God night and day and were the Holy Spirit given to us, what the Spirit would teach us would inevitably come to us as a surprise. Yet it ought not be a surprise, for in fact what we would hear from the Spirit we have known in our guts all along. Ironically, what the Spirit would grant us is the very thing which in petitioning God in the first place we had secret hopes of avoiding. As the Spirit is God’s complete answer to prayer, the Spirit is also the content of prayer. The Spirit’s perfect gift is the capacity to say with Jesus, "Not my will, but thine, be done." In the final analysis -- with Jesus’ completed ministry as the basis of that analysis -- if Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is to be faulted, it is plainly not to be faulted for its brevity. A more apt charge might be that it is verbose, for Jesus was able to say precisely the same thing in fewer words -- seven, to be exact: "Not my will, but thine, be done."

If we were in the spirit of God, then we would take both God’s Yes and his No with the same complete confidence and ultimate joy, knowing "that in everything God works for good with those who love him" (Rom. 8:28) The heart of true prayer is surrender to God’s redeeming will. Could it be that it is precisely at this point that we come face to face with the reason we so often do not pray? Perhaps the obstacle is not so much God’s silence as our own fear that God might in fact respond. What if God answered that he wills to bless us by revealing to us a cross to bear? Perhaps our problem is not that we don’t know what to pray, but that we don’t want to know what to pray. Even though we don’t need God’s help with the mundane needs of life in our fleshly "pursuit of happiness," God needs our help to bear Christ’s cross in the world. We don’t want to be told that God can bless us as much through his No as through his Yes. We don’t want everything to work for good; we want only good things to work for good, at least in our own lives.

Our civilization has managed to keep God at arm’s length. We generally don’t need God, and we clearly find his ways strange. Then why worry about it? Why pray at all? The answer is, of course, that our souls cannot be content with our situation. We’ve never had it so good. We are addicted to the good life, yet we can’t get Christ out of our craws. We fear we have sold our birthrights. We know that there is no way out of our dilemma that does not begin in prayer, yet we are afraid, without faith and preoccupied.

Sweet Jesus! Teach us to pray. We cannot be silent and we cannot speak.