Are We Getting Prayer Right?

This past Christmas I received a book that’s given me new eyes through which to read my Bible. The book is called “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” by Kenneth E. Bailey. It’s a commentary that goes through the gospels with incredible added depth. It gives layers of understanding through things such as cultural context, root greek words, etc. Bailey himself lived in the Middle Eastern countries for over 30 years and in that time he gained a great wealth of knowledge that he used to compile information for several commentaries to read alongside the Bible.

I’ve gone through lots of fascinating stuff already, but the part that I kept coming back to and knew I want to share more with you on is the Lord’s Prayer.

Growing up in a Church I knew prayer was important. I think most churches will put an emphasis on the importance of prayer and teach that we pray to communicate with God each day. That’s definitely true. We’re also reminded to pray for the sick and the suffering, to thank God, and to ask for our requests. Also true. We’re told to continue to be persistent in prayer even when we’re discouraged or don’t know exactly what to pray. Once again, none of that is incorrect. They’re all good things to pray for. But did a more meaningful depth to prayer get lost at some point between Jesus teaching his disciples to pray and us praying today? Was Jesus’ prayer much more than just a template? I must say that after reading the Lord’s Prayer “through middle eastern eyes”, I certainly think so.

If you’re already tempted to stop reading or are thinking, “how much more depth could there possibly be to such a simple prayer?!” I’d love to encourage you to keep reading!! I promise you will come away from it feeling intrigued at the least, and empowered at best. It’s a bit longer, but I promise it’s worth the read if you don’t have time to dig into this commentary yourself. Join me as I share some things I’ve learned in the last month!

First, some foundation.

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:26-28

We know that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. We understand intercede to mean “stand in the gap”. But what does that actually mean? When I used to visualize this, I’d imagine myself praying, the Holy Spirit receiving those prayers, and then relaying them over to God on my behalf. Don’t know if that’s just me…but regardless, I figured out that I don’t quite have the right idea.

The greek word originally used for the word intercede here in this passage was huperentungchano. As is in lots of cases, some of the original depth of meaning gets lost in translation. This word actually means “something greater overshadowing to enable something to happen. Superintending or directing. It is that which overcomes and enables.”

So why am I even sharing this? Because I realized that it’s absolutely critical to our prayer life to recognize this: that praying the way that we’re supposed to is only possible through grace. It’s only possible through the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

Is praying in the first place in my control? Absolutely. That’s my choice and totally up to me. But I didn’t realize that the praying itself shouldn’t actually be directed by me and my own strength, but by the Spirit of God!!! We are human and weak. We get distracted, we let our own mind and will take the lead, we can have selfish motives, and the list could go on.

So this is where I want to start with this post on prayer. The greatest way to begin with a new and healthy prayer life is to have the humility to say, “I’m weak, and I can’t do this. I struggle to pray the way you want me to pray- I need you to teach me and direct my prayers.” This is the beginning to a powerful and victorious prayer. God can enable and direct us to pray according to His will. The Spirit covers our weaknesses and allows us to do what we otherwise couldn’t in our times of prayer: Be warriors of prayer, be changed in time of prayer, and change the world around us during our time of prayer.

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Matthew 6:7-11

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray:

“Our Father in heaven, may your name be made holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen!”

Jesus’ Prelude to Prayer:

Right before Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, he starts with offering them some advice. He basically says, “don’t be fooled into thinking that many words equates with good prayer.”

You’ll actually notice throughout the gospels that the prayers of Jesus recorded are quite short. On the other hand, those same gospels also tell us that on occasion Jesus would pray all night. This raises a bit of inquiry into the nature of prayer. Did prayers for Jesus include long periods of Spirit-filled silent communion with God that was beyond the need for words?

The Fathers of the Eastern Churches definitely thought so. In the seventh century, some of them even wrote about “stillness during prayer” (we might refer to it as meditative prayer now), which they summarized as “a deliberate denial of the gift of words for the sake of achieving inner silence, in the midst of which a person can hear the presence of God. It is standing unceasingly, silent, and prayerfully before God.”

It’s sometimes easy to equate long prayer with good prayer and short prayer as immature prayer…but the gospel account actually contradicts this as Jesus tells them that many words aren’t what makes a good prayer.

It’s also interesting to note that the speaker in Ecclesiastes says, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5:2)

In our culture in the day to day we encounter an unfathomable amount of words. We’re immersed in words and in the process they’ve actually become cheap. I think to start off with Jesus’ teaching on prayer, he wants to invite us to step into a world where words are few and powerful. In order to do that we need to give thought to each word that we speak and let it have meaning and not become redundant or habitual.

The first change that happens to what would have been a pattern of prayer for the Jews in that time, is that Jesus draws away from praying three times per day on a schedule. At that time they would always pray at sunrise, 3pm, and sundown. This practice was widespread long before Jesus’ time. Yet nowhere in the gospels does Jesus suggest any special times for prayer. By its absence, this is the first change.

The form of daily prayer in that time also always began with recital of a passage in Deuteronomy, and then a series of eighteen prayers called the Teffilah.

The author points out that there are important similarities AND differences between these eighteen prayers and the Lord’s prayer that is now introduced by Jesus. We’ll notice some of those as we go through each section of the prayer now! Stick with me, it gets even more interesting 😉

“Our Father in heaven…” 

Abba, Father.

It’s neat to first note that out of the eighteen prayers at that time and the various introductions used, Jesus chose “Our Father”.

When he taught the disciples to pray Abba, he affirmed a new vision of a family of faith that went beyond the community of those who claimed a racial tie to Abraham. All have access to God as Father, there is no racial or historical “insider” or “outsider” with the word abba.

During this time, Jews (who spoke Aramaic) were accustomed to reciting prayers in Hebrew. In fact, the public reading of the Bible and prayer were only in Hebrew. Muslim worshipers always recited in classical Arabic. Both Judaism and Islam have sacred languages. Jesus wanted them to know that Christianity does not have a sacred language. This was a major upheaval at that time because it meant that the Jews’ assumption about a sacred language being “the language of God” was wrong.

Jesus inaugurated a new age by praying in Aramaic. Using this as his opening was very unexpected at this time. It seemed too casual and personal. Jesus used this not only to show them that God is personal and yearns to be known, but also to indicate that there’s no superior culture in Christianity…no sacred language. Jesus actually endorsed Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship and opened the door for the New Testament to be written in Greek (not Hebrew) and then allowed for the translation and spreading of the gospels throughout the world!

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“May your name be made holy…”

When we read this part of the prayer I think we often think it’s simply an expression of God’s holiness. While praying “Holy be your name” is definitely a prayer of worship, it was intended for much more than that in Jesus’ prayer.

Bailey goes into a lot of detail about semantics in his book, far beyond what’s necessary for the purpose of this post, so I’ll just share that he goes into great detail explaining why this phrase of the prayer that we often read as “hallowed be thy name” should really have been written as “may your name be made holy” to uphold correct semantics.

You might be wondering, but how does that make sense? I know, I thought the same thing. How can we ask God to make his name holy?? Isn’t he already holy? And how can we, by praying, make him more holy? Long story short, yes He is already holy. God’s holiness is the essence of who He is. But his holy name can be defiled by the disobedience of his people.

We see in Ezekiel an example of this as God explains to Israel that His holy name was profaned by them. To profane means to treat with irreverence, disrespect, or to make worldly and secular. He goes on to say that He will act for the sake of making his name holy. Here’s the actual passage in Ezekiel 20: “I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I bring you into the land of Israel.”

Here’s another way to say it: Make your name holy = demonstrate Your holiness.

The name of God being made holy is an act of God Himself, and He makes his own name holy by demonstrating it through mighty acts.

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To help you understand this a bit better on a personal application level, I have two more examples in the Bible. One in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament.

  1. Isaiah 6. I recommend giving the passage a read, but I’ll summarize it for you. After King Uzziah died, Isaiah is in the temple and receives a vision. He sees God sitting on His throne, His robe overflowing and filling the temple. He was surrounded by seraphim who called out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” It was such a magnificent sound that it shook the entire temple. Isaiah was so greatly impacted by this. He saw God’s glory and holiness, and it caused him to see his own shortcoming and cry out “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” A seraphim flew down to touch his lips and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Afterwards Isaiah heard the Lord ask whom He should send to go out on His behalf, and Isaiah’s response was, “Here I am. Send me!”
  2. Luke 5 and John 21. Luke 5 is still close to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry here on earth. This is where we see the commissioning of Simon Peter. Jesus comes to the lake where Simon and his crews have been fishing all night. It’s morning now and there are many people on the shores. Simon Peter comes back in to shore, and Jesus asks him to row him out so that he can preach to the people. I imagine that Simon was tired, and maybe even annoyed that Jesus was asking him to row back out. But he owed him a favour. As per middle eastern custom, if one person helps in some way (Jesus had very recently healed Simon’s mother), then the other is able to claim a returned favour which should not be refused. So Simon rowed Jesus out and Jesus had a chance to speak to the people on shore. Immediately afterwards, he turns to Simon and tells him to put his net down on the other side of the water and catch some fish. Simon responds in a way that showed a bit of frustration and arrogance, saying “Okay boss. We’ve been fishing all night and haven’t caught anything, but I’ll give it a try.” Here’s a highly experienced fisherman being told by a carpenter preacher how to fish. He casts his net down and ends up with so many fish in his net that it begins to break and he needs to call his other boat crew over to help. He is so struck with awe at who this man in his boat is. His response is one of deep humility. We read that he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”. He was astonished. Jesus responds telling him not to be afraid but to follow him and become a fisher of men. Later in John 21, shortly after the resurrection of Jesus, we see a similar scene. Peter and his men had been fishing all night and caught nothing. They don’t recognize Jesus on shore. I imagine that although He had already revealed himself to his disciples two times, they were still struggling with believing Jesus had really risen from the dead. Jesus calls out to them from shore and tells them to put their nets out on the other side, and once again they catch an overflowing abundance of fish. They’re in awe and recognize that it really is the Lord. They see his holiness and majesty afresh. And Jesus once again commissions them, “Follow me.”

Whew. Sorry that was a lot of words! Thanks for sticking with me. I didn’t want to skimp on detail for this part because it hugely blessed and impacted me. So here’s the bottom line: We’ve determined that for God to make his name holy means for Him to demonstrate his holiness. But that’s not the end of it. What should be the effect of this on us? What’s the relevance of Jesus including this in his prayer?

Simply put: When we see a demonstration of God’s holiness, it should never leave us unchanged. This is why we should pray this. Seeing God’s holiness and worthiness afresh should provoke confession, cleansing, a challenge to mission/change, and a response. He calls us to walk as his disciples. I believe that this part of Jesus’ prayer teaches us to constantly seek revival in our walk with Christ. To ask God to continuously remind us of His glory and holiness and move forward changed as a result.

“Let it come- thy kingdom…”

How we interpret “the kingdom” is integral to how we understand this part of the prayer. There are three different paradoxes within scripture that allow us to see different perspectives of the the kingdom.

In his book, Bailey outlines these three paradoxes this way:

  1.  The kingdom has already come in the person of Christ, yet his was only the first coming. It has already come, but we also pray, “may your kingdom come”
  2. The kingdom is still in the future. We’re told that it’s near, yet far away
  3. The kingdom is already here in the form of the disciples of Christ. The kingdom is in our hearts. Yet Jesus also says in scripture that “only the Father knows the mysteries of the kingdom.”

Of course it’s important to thank God for bringing the kingdom to earth in the form of Jesus Christ. Of course it’s important to live and make our decisions with the Kingdom in mind. We also long for the second coming of the Kingdom on earth. But what stuck out to me was the fact that WE are also the Kingdom. You and I are God’s kingdom here on earth.

Guys…we have the ministry of the holy spirit within us, empowering us to be the kingdom here on earth!! We are commissioned to be the hands and feet of Jesus. To be His love and grace to others. To spread the peace and aroma of Christ. To be His eyes and ears. When we pray “Thy Kingdom come”, we’re also praying for His Holy Spirit to empower us as His Kingdom during our time here on earth. We’re not just waiting to claim our “free pass” to heaven that salvation granted us….rather, we’re living out our commission as disciples of Christ- God’s Kingdom on earth.

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“…Let it be done- thy will.”

The will of God- never an easy area to talk about! Bailey tries to break it down and simplify it: “On the simplest level, the will of God is God’s desire for the good of all his people. God’s rule is an exercise of that will.”

God desires good for us because he is holy, perfect love. If God is God and his nature is holy love, then what he wants is surely going to happen. God is sovereign over history and the course of our lives….and yet it’s important to also remember that we have free will over our lives. Our free will allows us to make decisions that can end up being destructive, harmful, and unedifying.

In this yearning for God’s will in this part of the prayer, we see and recognize that while we’re free to direct our lives, we’re seeking to live in conformity to the divine will of God!

So (like we talked about at the beginning) praying this is an act of humility to allow God to direct our prayers, and cause everything flowing from our lives to be a direct result of our hearts reflecting the will of God.

I know this area of prayer can be frustrating…I mean, hardly is it ever really this cut and dry. There have been times where I’ve felt agony and frustration over having prayed for something and feeling like God didn’t hear me or said no. Maybe you’ve had those moments too where you’ve thought, doesn’t the Bible say ask and you will receive? I really desired healing or extra finances or that job or a relationship….you could fill in the blank for yourself. I think the key is to remember that God always says yes, but sometimes it’s a greater yes. Sometimes it’s a yes cloaked as a no in the moment. His promise that He always works for the good of those who love Him is a promise we can count on, even if we don’t understand the good in it right away. I can personally attest to countless times where I’ve looked back and seen God’s goodness in the way He’s answered prayers. It makes it that much easier for me now to pray “May your will be done”, fully trusting that His best is much better than me choosing what seems good in the moment.

If this is an area you especially struggle with, I recommend listening to this awesome podcast sermon by Eric Ludy.

“Give us this day our daily bread…”

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I found it super fascinating to find out that the original greek word for daily was epiousios, which we’ve somewhat misguidedly interpreted as daily bread.

The early middle eastern Church understood epiousios as “lasting, never-ceasing, and never-ending”

Bailey shares more detail on this in his book, but together with other commentators he believes that in light of the original greek root word, this passage can be read as “give us today the bread that doesn’t run out.” 

This prayer is about provision. It imparts a sense of confidence and peace, because we recognize we don’t need to worry about “will I have enough strength? Will I have enough money? Will our family have enough food? What if I lose my job? What if my child gets sick? What if…”

“To pray for bread that doesn’t cease is to pray for deliverance from the existential angst that there will not be enough of something supplied. This fear can destroy the human spirit.”

So this is a twofold prayer…a prayer for provision, but also (and more importantly) a prayer for release from that fear! When we pray for the provision of “bread”, we have this confidence that God isn’t just giving us a slice of toast on the table and saying “this is enough for you to survive today”. No- instead, he’s got a loaf on the table and a loaf in the pantry, and once that’s gone there’s already more in its place before we can worry about it. This prayer allows us to remember that in Him, there is immeasurably MORE than we can ask for or imagine. 

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

In this part of the prayer, Jesus once again departs from the tradition in which he was raised by connecting our relationship with God and relationship with others in this way.

The Tefillah (the eighteen jewish prayers) include a prayer for forgiveness from God, but that forgiveness is not connected to forgiveness for others. Jesus makes this connection not only in this prayer, but also in his parable found in Matthew 18 (the servant whose master forgives his huge debt, but then the servant refuses to forgive a small debt from a fellow servant). This is the first time Jesus makes this interconnectedness between our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15

The different gospel accounts use different words: Matthew uses only the word “debts”, Luke’s talks of both “sins” and “debts”.

Matthew’s word “debts” refers to unfulfilled obligations toward God and our fellow human beings- in other words, things we have left undone. Such as failing to reach out to our neighbour in compassion. On the other side, we’re also faced with “those things we shouldn’t have done” or acts committed that are not in harmony with the will of God: trespasses.

Why the difference?

In Aramaic, Jesus had available to him the word khoba, which means both debts AND sins. Greek is like English, where two separate words express these two ideas. So Matthew chose debts, while Luke chose both. It was a matter of personal preference.

Regardless of which one you choose to pray, it’s valuable to remember that we need to not only ask forgiveness when we fail to fulfill what God requires of us (debts) but also for failing to do the right thing when we did act (trespasses).

If individuals and communities, especially in the church, are unable to forgive each other and seek God’s forgiveness, there won’t be unity and peace. In the application portion of this prayer, we need to also recognize how much our relationship with God is affected by our willingness to forgive and ask for forgiveness of others.

“…And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

While English translates the word tajriba into either trial or temptation, the original greek translation united both words. The difference between the two is subtle, but important. God tried or tested Abraham, but did not tempt him (Gen. 22:1-9).

God will never lead his people into temptation. So then how should we understand this petition as both trial AND temptation??

Kenneth Bailey gives three different views, based on his own experience, and the writings of historical Aramaic, Jewish, and Egyptian writers.

  1.  Bailey shares a story of when he was in Egypt, planning an excursion into the Sahara desert by camelback. A guide is necessary for this type of trip. He and his group selected their guide with great care, having full confidence that he would know how to lead them safely to the destination and not play “Russian roulette” with their lives. He shares how as they left the village into the desert he had an inner nervousness causing him to blurt out to his guide, “Uncle Zaki, don’t get us lost!” But what he really meant was, “We don’t know the way to where we’re going, and if you get us lost we’ll die. But we’ve placed our total trust in your leadership.” He goes on to say, “This phrase in the Lord’s Prayer expresses the confidence of an earthly pilgrim traveling with a divine guide. The journey requires the pilgrims to daily affirm, “Lord, we trust you to guide us, because you alone know the way we must go”. This is an affirmation of the trusting traveler journeying with God.
  2. The original greek word for “lead us” is eisphero. The Aramaic equivalent to this greek word is nisyon, which has two shades of meaning: one is causative and the other is permissive.

causative= “do not cause or lead us to go into temptation”

permissive= “do not allow or permit us to go into temptations or trials”

On our faith journey, our humanness causes us to want to have the tendency to turn off our path into temptations. So when you pray the permissive prayer, you’re saying “Lord, please hold us back and don’t let us take that path.” You’ll recall in Mark 14 when Jesus tells Peter “watch and pray that you do not enter into temptation.” This part of the Lord’s Prayer might be a request to God for help in avoiding this self-destructive tendency. When we’re conscious of our own weakness, we ask to be defended by God’s protection, that we may have an untouchable position against all devices of Satan!

3. The third position by Egyptian Matta al-Miskan reflects on the story of Job. Job was called a righteous man, and he was severely tested by Satan with the permission of God. 

In Luke 22:31-32 Jesus says to Peter “Satan wants to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith might not fail.” Jesus doesn’t promise Peter that there will be no time of trial. Peter pledges his allegiance to Jesus, but then ends up falling asleep. Jesus wakes him up and tells him to watch and pray that he might not enter into temptation, but Peter doesn’t pray and afterwards we know he ends up failing in his “time of trial” by denying Jesus three times.

Matta suggests here that when we pray, we are protected by Jesus and his cross from Satan and his attacks. Satan is not prevented from his work as “the accuser” or “tester”, but the disciples are instructed to pray for deliverance from the times of trial that evil brings. Praying against falling into temptation is something that requires us to be active, not passive.

It’s possible that we can understand this part of the prayer as a combination of all three of these comments.

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

There are completing remarks of praise, reminding us of the importance in praising and thanking God in our time of prayer. It’s short and sweet, and there’s not much extra to add in comment to this. But that shouldn’t take away from the importance of it. When we thank and praise God it changes us. It changes our perspective, the lens through which we see life, and it causes us to live in gratitude rather than dissatisfaction, worry or fear.

 

Sorry for a super long post, but it was super tough to summarize the amount of info in the commentary into a blog!

My hope is that you feel excited and empowered to change the way you pray. I pray that you’d embrace the challenge to grow in your prayer life. I hope you’ll never look at the Lord’s Prayer the same way ever again- I know I sure won’t! Remember: The Holy Spirit is interceding on your behalf- covering your weaknesses and inabilities and giving you the words to pray, the strength to pray, and the ability to have powerful and victorious, life-changing prayer.

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Be blessed this week!

Jen

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