“Pray then like this:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done—on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Why return to an older version of English when praying this prayer? We know that there are no magic words; we know that God does not want to hear us babbling like pagans. Why, then, do so many Christians pray these exact words in this exact way? Why do we memorize these words, teach them to our children, and say them exactly this way when we gather for church services?
Sometimes, as Christians, we pray together. We unite our voices in prayer to God. When we join together for prayer, we find it helpful to say the same words, rather than each believer speaking a different prayer. Jesus himself gave us these words, although Matthew first wrote them in the Greek language. We use a translation into English that is four hundred years old. We do not update these words for the sake of those believers who learned them this way long ago. Moreover, we maintain this antique language and grammar in memory of those who prayed these words before us. The saints in Paradise prayed these words, and their voices from the past mingle with ours in the present when we approach our Father in the prayer that Jesus gave to his one true Church.
When Christians pray together, we unite around these words. When we go into our rooms and close the door to pray secretly to our Father, we are not bound by these memorized words. Jesus does not want to hear us rush through the words of this prayer, saying them as quickly as possible. Instead, Jesus intends this prayer to be an outline upon which we can hang all our joys and worries, hopes and fears, and everything we might want to discuss with God.
Many books have been written about this prayer. Martin Luther once said that, when he prayed this prayer properly, he could not finish in less than an hour. Many times he would pray only one portion of the prayer and leave other parts for the next day. This prayer is meant to be a very personal prayer; yet, it remains our prayer as we talk with our Father and ask him for our daily bread and to forgive our sins. When we pray this prayer, we pray not only for ourselves but for all the members of the Church on earth, those we know and those we have not yet met.
Jesus has us begin the prayer by talking to God about God. We call him Father, remembering that Jesus has paid to adopt us into his family. We celebrate his name, his kingdom, and his will. For many Christians, the hardest words to pray are, “Thy will be done.” We give God permission to do what he knows is best. When Jesus prayed those words in Gethsemane, he knew that his Father’s will for Jesus included the cross. God’s will may permit trouble, suffering, and even death in our lives. Binding the first half of the prayer together, we ask that God’s name be honored and his kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Then we speak to God about our needs. We pray for daily bread (not mine, but ours)—not cake and ice cream, but bread; not a year’s supply, but enough for today. Tomorrow we will pray about tomorrow’s bread. Next, we ask for the forgiveness of our sins, which is also a daily need. Yesterday’s sins were forgiven yesterday. We prayed about them yesterday; God has already forgiven them and forgotten them, so we do not need to mention them again. We promise to forgive others the same way we have been forgiven, which is also a daily concern. We have already forgiven the sins committed against us yesterday; we do not remember them today. Today we ask God for help to forgive those who have hurt us today. We ask God to lead us today, to keep us far from temptation. We ask God to rescue us today, to keep us safe from evil. We ask these things for ourselves, knowing that we will receive them, because each of them is part of God’s will for us.
Some Christians pray about the kingdom and the power and the glory; others do not. Some copies of the Bible have these words; others do not. Palestinians Jews frequently ended their prayers with a similar expression in the first century. Whether Jesus included these words as he talked about prayer does not matter, because prayer is not a magic formula that must be said in one precise way. These words are fitting because they echo the thoughts spoken at the beginning of the prayer. No harm can come from saying them; no harm can come from leaving them unsaid.
Christians have a custom of ending every prayer with a Hebrew word—“Amen.” This word expresses confidence and hope. It says that we know that God has heard our prayer and is answering our prayer. No magic resides in the word “Amen.” A prayer is no less a prayer if the word is not said. We want to express our confidence and hope, especially when we pray together. We affirm that we agree with all the requests spoken in the prayer, but especially we affirm our faith that God has heard our prayer and is answering it.
If you should pray at bedtime and should fall asleep before you reach the “Amen,” do not fear. God still hears your prayer. He will still answer your prayer. What could be more beautiful than falling asleep in the lap of your heavenly Father? J.