I once heard Eugene Peterson talk about how Jesus transformed the prayer lives of his followers.
As far as we can tell, most people who came to Jesus in the Gospels did so because they wanted something from him – usually healing. There is no evidence that Jesus discouraged this; in fact, several times he asks people ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ If we can describe these requests for help as prayers, then almost all praying people in the gospels prayed out of a deep sense of personal need. And Jesus was happy to answer those prayers.
However, some of those people went on to become disciples of Jesus – as members of ‘the Twelve’, or of the larger group of those who followed him. These were obviously people who were beginning to move beyond self-interest and learn from Jesus to ‘seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33 NIV). And as we saw yesterday, these people were attracted by the quality of Jesus’ prayer life, and so at a certain point some of them came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 NIV). In response, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, and two things about that prayer stand out.
First, it’s a prayer that starts with God’s concerns: ‘Hallowed be your name…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In this prayer we learn to delay our own felt needs and focus first on God’s vision – the glory of God, the love of God, the healing reign of God. ‘Not my will, but yours’.
Second, it’s a prayer that replaces the word ‘me’ with the word ‘us’. “Our Father…Give us each day our daily bread…Forgive us our sins, as we forgive…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. Christian prayer may take place from time to time in a solitary place, but even when we pray alone, we don’t really pray alone; we pray as part of a community. And the fundamental prayer in the New Testament seems to be community prayer, just as it was for the Old Testament people. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV).
Still today, Jesus is happy to teach us to pray. When we start out in our journey with him, we tend to come out of need – forgiveness, healing, comfort, strength, loneliness, fear etc. And Jesus is happy for us to start there; he has not one word of reproach for us.
But he’s not happy for us to get stuck there. Growth for us is going to mean growth in learning to seek God’s will ahead of our own, and learning to see ourselves as part of a praying community, not just as isolated individuals. So when we ask him to ‘teach us to pray’ (and I hope we all continue to do that), here is his guidance: first, pray, about God’s will ahead of your own, and second, find someone else to pray with.
Lord, help us put these things into practice today.