In our latest sermon series we’ve been talking about prayer, which is, as John Wesley called it, “the grand means of drawing near to God.” We’ve talked about praying big prayers, which is where the story of Honi the Circle Maker challenged us. We’ve talked about praying with persistence and about praying for the long haul, planting seeds in our prayers that may not be harvested in our lifetime.
But the question I want to deal with today is the practical application of all of what we’ve been talking about. That is, how do we pray? We know that prayer is a vital part of the Christian life, that God honors bold prayers, that God invites us to persistent prayer or, as Paul puts it in our New Testament reading today, to “pray without ceasing.” But the real question is, on a daily basis, how do we pray? What’s the structure for our prayers? What kinds of prayer can deepen our relationship and dependence on God and unleash God’s will and Spirit in us?
There are lots of techniques out there. When I was a youth I was taught the ACTS formula of prayer—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, which we were to use whenever we prayed. On the flip side, I’ve gone to monasteries where the Benedictine pattern is to pray seven times a day using the Psalms as the primary content of the prayers. That was a marvelous, ancient way of praying, and I’ve used the Psalms in my own prayers (though not at 3:30am, like the monks do!). I’ve been to workshops on guided prayer and meditation, used the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books, and lots of other techniques to try and deepen my own life of prayer. All of these methods have things to commend them and many Christians have used them to great effect throughout history.
But what I have longed for is not just another way of praying, but more intimacy with God—to see it as a means through which God’s grace is communicated in a deep and abiding way. I have a shelf full of prayer books in my study at home, but somehow none of those books has actually brought me closer to God.
Recently, however, I’ve been drawn to looking at the best model we have for prayer, which is Jesus’ own life of prayer. Jesus was part of the Trinity, of course, so it seems strange that he would need to pray. One question I get a lot is, “When Jesus prayed, was he actually praying to himself?” Well, yes, in some ways but not in others. What we forget is that the nature of God, the nature of the Trinity, is actually a relationship. God’s very nature is expressed through the three-ness and the one-ness of a divine community; the nature of God is a family. When Jesus prays, then, it is an expression of the depth of that relationship. The human Jesus, God in the flesh, communes with the Trinity as a natural part of his earthly life.
Look at the gospels and you’ll see how Jesus prayed. He often went to the “lonely places” to pray, often slipping through the crowd of admirers and going away. He seemed to realize that his primary relationship was not with the crowd, but with his Father. In our selfie, Instagram culture it’s hard to imagine not wanting to call attention to yourself and bask in the admiration of many friends and followers, but this is exactly what Jesus did. The only ones he ever sought to please were the members of his divine family, the Trinity.
The disciples watched Jesus at prayer many times and it was clear to them that his prayers were deeper and more effective than they could imagine for themselves. In the first verse of Luke 11 we see that Jesus was praying “in a certain place” and after he finished one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” John the Baptist had instructed his disciples in prayer, possibly to give them a particular form of prayer. This was fairly common in the first century Jewish world—a prayer discipline that marked out people as a member of a certain community. Jesus disciples wanted a similar way of praying, and he offers it to them.
We know the prayer that follows as the Lord’s Prayer, which is actually a bit of a misnomer. It would be better to call it the Disciple’s Prayer because Jesus offers it for their use. The Lord teaches it, but it’s his disciples who are actually called to pray it. There are two versions of the prayer in the Gospels: Matthew’s version, which is the most familiar to us because we pray it in worship each week, and Luke’s version which is more concise.
It’s a prayer that’s so familiar that it gets “prayed” in contexts that seem out of place, and it’s become kind of a repeated mantra. Football teams pray it in the locker room before heading on to the field. In Tennessee last week, some cheerleaders prayed it before a game, which caused a ruckus in the media. The prayer has become as ubiquitous as the pledge of allegiance or the college fight song—something to be repeated over and over again.
But did Jesus mean for the disciples to pray the prayer itself over and over again like a mantra, or was it something else? Were we to pray this exact prayer in every context, including our worship, where we pray it weekly in ways that sometimes seem a little too regimented and rote? I don’t think Jesus meant that at all, and neither did Luke or Matthew. Notice in Luke 11:2 (as well as in Matthew 6:9) that Jesus says, “Pray in this way…” Jesus was not simply offering them a single prayer to pray but a communal way of praying, a way of cultivating intimacy with God in the way that Jesus himself had done.
What Jesus offers here is a pattern of prayer—a way of praying that goes beyond a formula or a mantra and goes straight to the heart of God. It’s a way of praying that models for us the fact that what God desires in our prayer is not simply a list of petitions but a deep and abiding intimacy with him. Ultimately it’s a way of prayer that draws us in and shapes us as the people God created us to be.
We’ve been talking a lot about circles in this series and today I want to offer you another shape—a hexagon, which is like a sided circle, if you will. I learned this during the discipleship training we’ve been doing with a group called 3DM and it really resonated with me as a way of praying in the way that Jesus taught us—so much so that I now use it in my own daily prayer life. I thought it might be helpful for you as well.
You might recall that we did a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer a while ago, and in that series I laid out the way in which the prayer acts a summary of the kingdom life to which Jesus calls us. It’s a concise statement of the pattern of life to which Jesus calls us—praise of God, work for his kingdom, relying on God for our daily provision and the need to share it with others so that they have their daily bread as well, forgiveness of sins, perseverance in suffering, and the defeat of evil. These are all essential elements of Christian faith.
But Jesus doesn’t invite his disciples to merely learn these aspects of being a disciple, he invites them to pray through them so that they might become activated in their lives individually and as a community. By praying through this pattern, we become immersed in the way of the Father, just as Jesus did, and when we pray this way daily it begins to shape us and draw circles around us that put us within the mission of God. We pray not merely to offer a list of petitions to God, but to be immersed in the presence and work of the Father himself.
Jesus begins by teaching the disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” The word “Father” establishes the fact that prayer is first a relationship—an intimacy with God. The hallowing of the Father’s name reminds us that God deserves our respect, our praise, and our faith. God’s name is hallowed because God is good. So, we begin the disciple’s prayer with a reminder of the character of the Father.
Next, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a way of saying, “Father, we want what you want.” This part of the prayer grounds us in the Father’s Kingdom, the reign and rule of God on the earth, the uniting of earth and heaven together, which is already breaking in but is also coming. We pray for the Kingdom and then we go out and work in light of its coming.
Then Jesus instructs us to pray for “our daily bread.” As we’ve said before, it’s not about praying for bread for a lifetime, but a recognition that we are dependent on the Father’s provision for our lives every day. When we pray this way, we admit that we have needs, and we not only ask God for our daily bread, but we also learn to share it with others. When we pray like this, we learn how to trust God to provide all that we need every day.
Next, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Here we admit that we have sin and are in need of the Father’s forgiveness. The Father has offered us the ultimate forgiveness in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but we also remember that we must forgive others with the same measure that we have been forgiven. Forgiveness restores our relationship with God and with each other as God’s grace comes to us on its way to someone else.
Next line, “lead us not into temptation.” Here the prayer changes from dealing with our relationship with the Father and focuses on our relationship with the world around us. As we prepare to move out to serve Jesus in the wider world, we pray for the Father’s guidance and for strength to avoid sinful behavior. There is much to distract us, but we remember that while we are in the world, we are not from the world. We are born from above, as Jesus told Nicodemus. We pray for the Father’s guidance that we will not give into temptation, but serve him and others with pure hearts focused on his kingdom.
And lastly, we pray for the Father’s protection. “Deliver us from the evil one” is a way of praying for God’s strength to live out our faith despite persecution, attack, or risk. We don’t have to look far to see the evil one at work. We know that evil is destined for defeat, so we go boldly into the world in the strength of God’s ultimate victory.
There you have it—a hexagon/circle model for prayer. How do we pray in this way? Well, what I do is start by working through the circle. I begin by praising God for his love for me and for the world. I acknowledge that I am not the center of the universe, but I am privileged to be able to come into his presence. I thank the Father for all he is doing and his mission in the world and in my life.
Then I pray for God’s kingdom to come and that today I might join in that work. I think through my day and look for opportunities I have to make earth look a little more like heaven and pray that God would empower me to do his will in and through me. I think of the news and pray through that, praying the peace of God’s kingdom to come at last.
Next I pray for the needs of that particular day. I pray that God would meet my needs that day—physical, emotional, spiritual—and also the needs of those in my family, church, and community. I pray for those who are sick and hurting, that God would supply them with what they need for today. I pray for those who are hungry and broken and ask that God use me to share with someone that day so that they might receive what they need.
And I pray for forgiveness. Here I confess my own sins of thought, word, and deed, and I look at the ways in which I have failed to forgive others. I ask God to forgive me and also to help me forgive others, since my forgiveness is contingent on the measure to which I forgive others.
I then pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for the day—that God would keep me from distraction and give me the strength to carry out the work he has for me. I pray that I would recognize when evil is prowling at the door and for God to guide my thoughts and desires in ways that honor him.
And lastly I pray for God’s protection on me, on those I love, and on his people. I pray that God would give me holy boldness to speak his truth and not fear the consequences. I pray for the defeat of evil in the world and for God’s ultimate victory to come soon.
It’s not about praying a long prayer. In Matthew 6, in fact, Jesus cautions against that. Rather, it’s about praying in a way that reflects my dependence on the Father, just as Jesus acknowledged his dependence and interdependence as well. I find that this way of praying shapes me and shapes my day, which is the reason why Jesus taught us to pray in this way.
So I encourage you to try and pray this way every day for the next week. See how it focuses your prayer and how it shapes you. Yes, we will still pray the Lord’s Prayer each week, but I hope you’ll pray your way around the circle every day. Be persistent, as Jesus tells us to. Ask, seek, knock. This is the Father’s invitation to prayer!