The Lord's Prayer: You’re Doing it Wrong
Instead of mindlessly repeating the words, learn what Jesus was really trying to tell us about prayer.
I grew up attending a Presbyterian church (one of the relatively conservative ones that resisted much of the nonsense that now pervades the denomination). Through that experience, I learned that Presbyterians despise novelty and prefer order. Consequently, the Presbyterian liturgy is quite structured. While the hymns, responsive readings, bible verses, and sermons change from week to week, some portions of the liturgy are darn-near fixed in stone. Among those are the Gloria Patri, the Doxology, and the Lord’s Prayer.
The Gloria Patri is a short prayer that is sung to a tune.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen.
Similarly, the Doxology is another short prayer sung to a tune. Technically, a Doxology can be the Gloria Patri, but many protestant congregations use the following.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
After many years attending church weekly, these things get burned into your brain. The accompanying tunes really assist your memory. Even now, decades after I’ve attended a Presbyterian service, I can still sing them both.
The Lord’s Prayer
And so it was with the Lord’s Prayer. It’s part of the order of worship and we would recite it every week.
There are two recordings of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament, one in Matthew 6:9-13 and another in Luke 11:2-4. Most everybody recites the version from Matthew. And most everybody recites it in the original King James English (just like Christ himself, or so they say).
Come on, say it with me. You know it by heart.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
There are a few variations of the Lord’s Prayer that you’ll find out in the wild, particularly in verse 12. You can replace “debts” with either “trespasses” or “sins,” for instance. When you attend another denomination, possibly with your extended family or because you go with a friend, you have to mumble your way through verse 12 until you figure out which variation this particular denomination is committed to: “And forgive us our… wait for it… deh… sih… tres… there it is… passes, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Similarly, you can add an optional flourish in verse 13: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” As if “forever and ever” is somehow more emphatic than just “forever” by itself. In general, Presbyterians, who are modest people with no need for flourishes, just go with “forever” and leave it at that.
Misusing the Lord’s Prayer
I’ll be honest, though. When I hear a congregation praying the Lord’s Prayer in unison, as part of a standard liturgy, I can almost see God the Father leaning to his right and saying, “They just don’t get it,” and Jesus responding, “I know, I know. They always ignore the first half of verse nine.”
What’s wrong with the Lord’s Prayer? Well, nothing is wrong with it. But I don’t think we’re using it the way that Jesus intended that we should.
First, I think reciting the same memorized prayer by rote every week robs the prayer of its power. Prayers are not mystical spells, where the very act of reciting the sounds that make up the words causes something to happen in the spirit realm. Rather, prayers are the human part of a conversation with God himself.
Imagine walking into the kitchen of your childhood home, seeing your parents, and reciting the same few sentences you did yesterday, and the day before, and then walking out without listening to any sort of response. What kind of relationship would you have with your parents at that point? Would they really understand you and what you’re struggling with? Would you know them deeply? What would they think of you?
I think your relationship with them would be poor, and they probably would stop listening to whatever you were saying after the first few times, as it became obvious what you were going to say and the fact that you didn’t care about listening to anything they had to say in response. I think God probably feels the same way.
Further, when you do it by rote, it all becomes mindless. You can literally do it while thinking about almost anything else. Some part of your lower reptilian brain starts your lips moving, and then one word tumbles out right after the next, while the rest of your higher consciousness contemplates the best restaurant for a post-church brunch, and by the way, which NFL teams are playing on television this afternoon?
Are you really engaged with God Almighty, creator of the universe? Nope. Not at all.
Second, I don’t think Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 6:9-13, is saying “Blindly repeat these exact words over and over, weekly.” Rather, the first half of verse 9 says, “After this manner therefore pray ye…” This is one of those times that I think the King James actually captures it well, even if it’s a bit archaic.
The key words are “After this manner…” In modern language, I think Jesus is saying, “This is a model template for your own prayers. Make sure you cover these sorts of topics, in this sort of order, when you come to God in prayer. Pray something like this.”
Understanding the Lord’s Prayer
Let’s analyze the Lord’s Prayer a little deeper to try to understand what Jesus meant. Specifically, let’s look at the order and topics that Jesus included in his template.
If you look at verses 9 and 10, they are affirmations of who God is. They are effectively a form of worship, similar to the praise that we saw when we looked at the three daily habits.
In the New David Roberts Translation (NDRT), which is easier to understand than King James English, verses 9 and 10 say:
“Father God in heaven, your name is holy. Let your kingdom come and all of creation conform to your will everywhere, both on earth and in heaven.”
These words don’t tell God anything that he doesn’t already know. He knows he’s in heaven and that he’s holy. He knows that he’s going to do whatever he wants to do with his expanding kingdom and that all of heaven and earth will be part of it.
So, why should we say that stuff?
Because these words are for us. They help us remember who God is and they align our view of him with true reality. When you tell God these things, you’re saying, “I know who you are and I know my place in relation to you. You’re God, and I’m not.” You’re affirming the truth.
Verses 11, 12, and the first half of 13 are where we ask God for the things we need. The NDRT reads:
“Meet our daily needs. Forgive our sins and help us forgive those who sin against us. Help us avoid temptation and protect us from Satan.”
The last half of verse 13 then goes back to praising God. In the NDRT it says:
“Your kingdom, your power, and your glory are yours alone, and so it shall be for eternity.”
Again, we’re not saying anything God doesn’t know already, so those are praise words, to demonstrate that we understand who God is and that we have aligned our spirit with his.
So, the structure of the Lord’s Prayer is pretty simple:
First we praise God for who he is. We demonstrate that we understand him and that we want to align ourself with his will. This is the creation worshiping the creator.
We ask for the things we need. It’s important to note that this happens second. Praising God is more important than asking for things. Praise comes first; requests to meet our needs come second.
We ask for his protection to accomplish the things that he wants us to accomplish. Satan is a powerful adversary, and if you’re unprotected, you’re going to be hurt badly.
Then, we close by praising God again. We affirm who he is and what he’s doing.
Do Your Prayers Measure Up?
Now, think through your own prayers. Do they take on the same structure as the template Jesus gave us in the Lord’s Prayer?
Honestly, for most of us, the answer is no. Most prayers seem to be more of a quick drive-by. You could probably text them to God:
“God, I want X. kthxbye”
Think about how any person would react to getting a text like that. Imagine a never-ending stream of them. Again, what sort of relationship would you be developing with such a person? If that’s how we’re going to pray, why would our relationships with God be any different?
Putting it Into Practice
If you want a richer relationship with the creator of the universe, then stop saying mindless prayers by rote, and stop throwing up “I want X” drive-by prayers. Instead, take a tip from Jesus and structure your prayers the way he told you to:
Spend more time praising God. Do this first, right up front. Show God that you know who he is and you desire his reign on the earth and in your life. Loving God with all your being is the greatest commandment, so do this before you do anything else.
Once you’ve praised him and aligned your spirit with his, take him your daily needs. He loves you, and he has promised to give his children good gifts. Ask for what you need boldly, knowing that he wants what is best for you. Recognize that there is a difference between your daily needs and your daily wants. You may want a new luxury car, but is that what God wants for you? A car is a far cry from the daily food that Jesus tells us to pray for in verse 11.
Ask for forgiveness. Tell God that you understand that you have sinned. Be specific. Repent. Ask for help in forgiving those around you. God wants a clean ledger with you and for you to have a clean ledger with the people in your life. No debts, no trespassing, no sinning.
Ask for his help and protection. Remember, being a Christian is simple but not easy. You absolutely cannot do it alone. You need his spirit to guide your walk, and you need his protection so that Satan won’t destroy you.
Finally, give him more praise. Affirm who he is. Show that your spirit is aligned with his.
Then, shut up and wait. Don’t run off to your next meeting. Don’t fiddle with your phone. Don’t think about sports. No “kthxbye.” No “Peace, out.” Just wait for God to speak. Spend twice as much time listening as you did praying.
When God says something to you, say something back. Then stop and listen again.
Now you’ve got a conversation going with the Almighty.
This will radically change your prayer life (and your whole life).
What do you think about the Lord’s Prayer? Leave a Like or a comment.
If you haven’t already subscribed, please do so. You’ll get future articles in your email.
Is there somebody in your sphere of influence that needs to hear this message? Please forward this to them.
Thanks for reading Simple Christianity! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
This is perhaps my favorite piece of writing about my favorite prayer. I am changed and grateful. Brilliant.
David - the Gloria Patri and the Doxology are ingrained in my memory. We said them in the Lutheran church which I attended for a few years - don't really remember how many. Clearly in the years where our brains soaked up so very much, so very easily. It's fascinating that I can still recite them over 50 years later, word for word.
Thank you for this. I will read it again and again. I remember my dear daddy told me to always be in fellowship with the Lord when you pray - to ask for His forgiveness because all of us sin, every single day. No coincidence that we "met" through a Substack comment, right????? God bless you
PS - on a funny note. We used to say this prayer before dinner (without fail, we always sat down to dinner as a family). Gracious Lord, bless this food. That may serve thee in health and strength. Amen. We said it so fast, anyone who didn't know that prayer would have no idea what we were saying!
Gosh how my heart aches some days for those precious, simpler times.