For many of us Christians, a recurring desire is to improve our prayer lives. We all want to become better at intercession and building a vibrant and more meaningful relationship with God. Of course, the starting point has to be a deeper understanding of the Word of God, for true prayer is always a relationship built on knowledge of God.
If we only read the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6 on the surface, it is easy to miss the fact that there are certain assumptions about prayer that Jesus takes for granted as he teaches his disciples. These points act like the scaffolding that holds prayer in the right position. If we do not understand these issues, we will struggle to pray to God the way we should.
Below is a list of seven presuppositions that Jesus wants us to know about prayer in Matthew 6:
Lesson 1: Prayer is for an audience of One (verses 5-6)
Before Jesus taught his disciples anything about prayer, he warned his disciples about the danger of performing their prayers that they may be seen by others. This phrase is literally “to be watched by them”, the Greek word is the word “theathenai” from where we get the English word theatre. It is not all forms of public prayer that Jesus is condemning, for Jesus himself prayed in public many times. Rather, it is the ever-present urge we have to perform before others, to be validated by their adoration, for our focus to be on their praise rather than on God’s approval that is the issue here. For people who fall into this trap, Jesus warns them, they have received their reward already. They should not expect any answer from God.
Lesson 2: We are talking to our Father in heaven (verse 9)
There are many analogies the Bible uses to describe relationships between God and man. He is our Creator; we are his creation. He is our Master; we are his subjects. We are the clay and he is the potter. However, the relationship Jesus wants us to focus on when we come to pray is that of father and child.
Before Jesus came, nobody had ever been taught to approach God as a father. But Jesus tells us that for Christians, God’s fatherhood is the basis on which we approach him. Imagine you are the child of the President of Nigeria. On the one hand, you can approach him as your President, for he is. But you have an intimacy of access that other people do not, you can also approach him after office hours, in the privacy of his bedroom, and bring your petitions to him, sure that he loves you and would always be willing to answer your requests.
Lesson 3: Prayer is to align our will to that of God (verse 10)
Two things are clear from this petition. The 1st is that God has a clear will for our lives and for all of humankind. The 2nd is that what makes heaven special is that it is the place where God’s will is always done, where there is no rebellion against his wishes.
One of our major problems is that we have our own will and if we actually are honest, we want our own will to be done. Even where we know that our will conflicts with the will of God, we want him to bend our way. Therefore, God is teaching us to remember that he is infinite in knowledge, love, and power. His will actually is best, and we need to pray that God will help us to align our will to his. It is folly to resist His will and wisdom to discern and obey.
Lesson 4: We must rely on God for whatever we need every day (verse 11)
The point that God is the one who provides us everything we have: Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain (Ps 127:1). To ask God for bread then acknowledges that we are needy creatures that rely on him every day for his help.
Another point to note is how Jesus teaches his disciples to come and ask God for bread daily. For those of us who are middle class, we may miss this point, but it made sense for the original hearers of Jesus, for most of them would have been daily workers and they would not have been sure of having the money for food every day, hence the daily need for prayer. Even though we have food for next month, we must never take what we have for granted and we should daily come to God for his help.
Lesson 5: We are sinners in need of grace (verse 12)
This petition takes for granted a fallen world full of offenses and trespasses, a world where we men trespass against one another, and we men also offend against God and his laws.
Finding grace for our sins is the puzzle every human religion seeks to solve. Whether it is through animal sacrifice as in traditional religion or the “gospel” of “forgive yourself” or therapeutic religion, the goal is the removal of the stain of sin.
For us as Christians, we must never forget the beauty and simplicity of what Jesus asks us to do, all we are to say is “father forgive us” and our offense is removed never to be seen again. Hallelujah!
Lesson 6: God’s forgiveness is conditional (verse 12)
Uniquely among all the other petitions, the response to the petition to forgive is conditional. Yes, God has forgiven us our sins, but he also requires something of us. It is not that our forgiving of others earns us the right to have our own sins forgiven by God. Rather, the point is that God only forgives the repentant and a good sign of repentance is that we also forgive others.
If we fully understand the enormity of our sins against God and what it cost him to forgive us in Christ, then we will find it easy to see how little, in comparison, are the sins of our brothers against us and be able to forgive them for whatever offenses that have been committed. And that is the exact point Jesus makes in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt 18:32-35.
Lesson 7: We need the help of God to avoid temptation (verse 13)
This final petition may seem surprising to many people. You may ask: surely God doesn’t lead people into temptation? After all, doesn’t James tell us: Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. (James 1:13)? The answer lies in the fact that the Greek word used – peirazō – is translated differently in NT, depending on the context, as trial, test, or temptation. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God does indeed bring trials to his people to test them. The trial is supposed to refine them, the danger is always that the devil uses that same trial as a temptation to make people fall into sin.
When we pray this petition, we are saying to God: I know I need trials so that I can mature. When you send me these trials, please remember that my strength is small. Please don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tested. Please be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me.
In conclusion, let me tell you why I wear glasses. I do so because, without my glasses, I cannot see the world properly. It is not that I cannot see at all, but everything I see is distorted. We need to understand the assumptions behind prayer so that we can see the world the way God sees it.
May we become better at praying.