Here is the next-to-last series of questions and answers from my year-long attempt to offer reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism in honor of its 450th anniversary. They deal with the ‘middle’ section of the Lord’s Prayer, and are especially relevant in the midst of a Christmas season that often generates misplaced desires and longings about what we think we ‘need’. By way of contrast, here are the things for which our Lord instructed us to ask.
LORD’S DAYS 50-51
Q. 125. What is the fourth petition?
A. “GIve us this day our daily bread.” That is: be pleased to provide for all our bodily needs so that thereby we may acknowledge that thou art the only source of all that is god, and that without thy blessing neither our care and labor nor thy gifts can do us any good. Therefore, may we withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it in thee alone.
Q. 126. What is the fifth petition?
A. “And forgive us or debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” That is: be pleased, for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to charge to us, miserable sinners, our many transgressions, nor the evil which still clings to us. We also find this witness of thy grace in us, that it is our sincere intention heartily to forgive our neighbor.
Jesus’ prayer reveals a movement and model that is typically alien to our attempts at prayer, which usually begin with a fervently offered list of things that we need (or think that we need). It is only after we are to first pray that God’s name be glorified, that his will be done, and that his kingdom come that we are to then turn the attention to ourselves–but even that is done in a particular fashion.
By praying for “our daily bread”, we are asking God to provide for the necessities of life and the means by which we are to be sustained. It reminds us that our lives are in God’s hand, that he is the ultimate source of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17)–even if it is something as seemingly basic as bread. Yet “daily bread” is really a synecdoche for far more than just the loaf of baked grain that sits on your table.
Luther used to teach that when we pray for and thank God for our daily bread, we are implicitly giving him thanks for the seed and crops and weather from which the grain was produced, for the work of the farmer to plant and harvest, for the work of those who shipped and sold the grain, for the work of the baker who made it, and for that fact that it provides us with the health and strength that we need to do the things that the Lord has prepared for us to do. By praying for “our daily bread”, we are acknowledging that we are dependent upon the Lord for the most basic elements of physical survival. We are also, in a sense, repenting of the false trust that we often place in our finances, resources, or abilities.
Rather than think, “Of course I can make it through this day under my own power. I have the means and ability to purchase the food that I need and the resources to survive on my own.”, this little phrase serves to re-orient our hearts. It also reminds us that we are to pray that God would provide for our basic needs–like food, shelter, and health–rather than indulgent luxuries. This act of petition helps to lodge our trust in God alone, which is where it should be in the first place.
If the fourth petition is that God would be merciful to us in our physical life, then the fifth petition is that God would also be merciful to us in our spiritual life. We are to pray that God would be pleased, “for the sake of Christ’s blood”, to forgive our sins–and that his grace would be that which enables us to “heartily forgive our neighbor”.
[A brief aside on the whole “debts/trespasses” thing: I get asked about this a lot because my Methodist and Catholic friends, for example, say “trespasses”, whereas Presbyterians are among those who say “debts”. Here is a brief helpful summary. The point in either case is the same: we are praying for forgiveness of sins.]
I want to offer two thought on this front. First, in contrast to some traditions that either imply or outrightly teach that you only need to pray “the sinner’s prayer” once, we find the first of Luther’s 95 theses, which says that the entire Christian life is to be one of repentance. In other words, we are to continually flee from our sins and remind ourselves that it is only “for the sake of Christ’s blood” that they have been removed from us. Praying that God would “forgive us our debts” reminds us continually that we are indeed debtors and that God does indeed forgive us in Christ.
Second, it is also possible to err if we think that only the sins which we specifically confess to the Lord are those that he forgives, and that we are to continually pray for forgiveness lest we “miss” one and remain indebted to the Lord. While we are to confess specific sins to the Lord, we also echo the psalmist in saying, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).
So it is that we are to continually seek the Lord’s grace and mercy without thinking that it is a “once and done” action or thinking that we are in eternal danger if a long-forgotten sin remains unconfessed. It is this understanding that enables us to reach out and forgive our neighbors when they have slighted us. No one who has truly experienced the unmerited grace of God in Christ can continue to refuse to forgive a fellow sinner–especially when it is a certainty that the way in which they may have offended us pales in comparison to the degree by which we have sinned against our heavenly Father. Being forgiven means being forgiving.