With only a few sets of questions and answers left, I’m nearing the end of my year-long attempt to offer reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism in honor of its 450th anniversary–which just means that I’m going to have to come up with a new blogging project. In any case, here are the Lord’s Day questions that deal with the first few parts of the Lord’s Prayer.
LORD’S DAYS 46-49
Q. 120. Why has Christ commanded us to address God: “Our Father”?
A. That at the very beginning of our prayer he may awaken in us the childlike reverence and trust toward God which should be the motivation of our prayer, which is that God has become our Father through Christ and will much less deny us what we ask him in faith than our human fathers will refuse us earthly things.
Q. 121. Why is there added: “who art in heaven”?
A. That we may have not earthly conception of the heavenly majesty of God, but that we may expect from his almighty power all things that are needed for body and soul.
Q. 122. What is the first petition?
A. “Hallowed be thy name.” That is: help us first of all to know thee rightly, and to hallow, glorify, and praise thee in all they works through which there shine thine almighty power, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, mercy, and truth. And so order our whole life in thought, word, and deed that thy name may never be blasphemed on our account, but may always be honored and praised.
Q. 123. What is the second petition?
A. “Thy kingdom come.” That is: so govern us by thy Word and Spirit that we may more and more submit ourselves unto thee. Uphold and increase thy church. Destroy the works of the devil, every power that raises itself against thee, and all wicked schemes thought up against thy holy Word, until the full coming of thy kingdom in which thou shalt be all in all.
Q. 124. What is the third petition?
A. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That is: grant that we and all men may renounce our own will and obey thy will, which alone is good, without grumbling, so that everyone may carry out his office and calling as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.
“Lord, teach us to pray”, Jesus was asked (Luke 11:1), and his response not only reveals to us the elements and attitudes that ought to be present in our prayers but also presents us with the chief model by which we are to approach our God in prayer. The way the catechism expounds the various components of the prayer indicates that Jesus was not giving us a set of mystical words to be relentlessly repeated or mindlessly mumbled, but teaching what a right focus, motivation, and approach to prayer looks like. This series of questions covers the address and first three ‘petitions’.
In prayer, we are to address “Our Father, who art in heaven”. Again, this doesn’t mean that we always have to use those exact words, but it does indicate several important ideas. Biblically, the models of praying that we see are addressed to the Father, in or through the Son, and by the Spirit. Certainly there are times when prayers are addressed directly to Jesus Christ (think Stephen’s dying prayer in Acts 7:59, or the wonderfully simple prayer of Revelation 22:20: “Come, Lord Jesus!”), but most prayers we find, as Jesus indicates here, are directed to the Father.
That term itself is of inestimable value. It is amazing to know “that God has become our Father through Christ”, and that we can confidently call on his as such. Calvin used to say that in Christ, the God we previously only knew as Judge is now the one whom we can call Father.
Lest we take that sense of casual familiarity too far, however, we are balanced with the reminder that he is our Father “who art in heaven”. All earthly conceptions–whether good or ill–fail at some level when attempting to apply them to God. Yes, we know him intimately as Father. Yes, he is still the Holy One enthroned on the praises of his people. Both components are essential to keep in mind.
After the address, the prayer moves into its opening petitions (which could be literally translated ‘Let thy name be hallowed; let thy kingdom come; etc’). They are the penitent requests of a prayerful heart, and here we see what the first things for which we should pray are.
Our first desire in prayer, Jesus indicates, should not be for ourselves or our ‘felt needs’, but for the glory of God’s name and that we may know more fully how we can honor God through “our whole life in thought, word, and deed” and that the Lord’s name “may never be blasphemed on our account”. To see God glorified should be the primary thing for which we pray.
The second petition is similar: that God’s kingdom–which he is building by Word and Spirit–be advanced and that we learn to submit to his rule with joyful reverence. There is to be in our prayer life an earnest desire to see God glorified as his gospel spreads.
The third rounds out this attitude: that the Lord’s will, carried out faithfully now by the angels in heaven, be obeyed equally well here among his people. We do not pray that our wills be made manifest in heaven, but that the will of the one who rules heaven be made manifest in our lives. The catechism even hints at the primary forum in which this is to take place and a Reformed concept of vocation when it says, “so that everyone may carry out his office and calling”. Wherever the Lord has placed us in life, and whatever it is that he has called us to, we can do that in ways that honor him and are obedient to his Word.
I think there are a few important observations to be made about this first ‘half’ of the prayer. For one thing, it is instructive to note that nothing has yet been said about our personal needs or desires (typically the first topic we broach in prayer), but it all has to do with establishing the relationship with the one to whom we pray (“Our Father, who art in heaven”) and directing our hearts and minds to the thing we are to desire above all else (his glory and the joyful obedience of those who live within his kingdom). There is a time and place and even parameters when it comes to asking about ourselves–which the prayer addresses–but it is not yet.
The other thing to note again is that Jesus’ response to the disciples was not his way to provide us with a rigidly formulaic set of exact words that we are to say at precise times or in various quantities, but to reveal to us the motives and attitudes that a truly prayerful heart will display. So while it is a good and beneficial thing to pray the Lord’s Prayer either privately or in corporate worship, it is an even better thing to cultivate a emotional posture of prayer that evinces these understandings.
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