One could rightly say that any prayer that God listens to, likes, and most importantly, answers, is a “perfect prayer.”
How does one go about praying such prayers?
By Kenneth Westby
A little girl told her mother that her brother had set traps to catch poor, harmless birds. The mother asked if she had done anything about it.
“Oh, yes,” the girl replied, “I prayed that the traps might not catch the birds.”
“Yes, then I prayed that God would keep the birds from getting into the traps.”
“Was that all?”
“Then I went and kicked the traps all to pieces.”
The little girl answered her own two prayers with one simple action. She eventually acted on the proven principle: don’t expect God to do what you are perfectly capable of doing for yourself. Even when we need God’s blessing on our efforts (“give us our daily bread”) he expects us to go out and work for it. But prayer is much more than making requests of God.
Prayer is where heaven and earth overlap; prayer is where the creature calls upon his Creator. Prayer is mutual; God and we meet to address what is most important to us. Often our requests are beyond the scope of any specific action on our part (“deliver us from the evil one” or “please heal my sick child” or “please protect my husband on his trip”) and depend on Divine attention and action. Yet prayer is more about God than it is about us.
The disciples of Jesus often saw him go off to pray and on a few occasions heard his prayers. Quite obviously he was in close contact with God as his wise words and spectacular miracles continually demonstrated. The disciples knew Jesus’ prayers were real and effective, unlike the shallow or empty show-prayers common among the religiously pious.
Teach Us to Pray
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1) Clearly, the disciples had been discussing this among themselves and here was the perfect occasion to ask for help. Don’t we all need guidance on how to pray? I do. It is not a natural activity to talk to an unseen heavenly Being. How do we address God? What do we say? How do we say it? Then what? Apparently John the Baptist had done basic schooling with his disciples on how to pray and now Jesus’ disciples were ready for instruction. They wanted, and needed, a form of words which they could learn from and use.
Jesus promptly answered their request by giving them a model prayer, the so-called “Lord’s Prayer.” It is not so much Jesus’ own prayer (John 17 is just that) but an example to all who want to talk with God. I call it the “perfect prayer” as it is given by a perfect man and perfectly outlines how sons and daughters of God should converse with their heavenly Father. We must look at it line by line and then apply what we learn to make our prayers “perfect prayers.”
Here is the “perfect prayer” in its composite form uniting the versions found in Mt 6:9-15 and Luke 11:2-4. It should be noted that the doxology at the conclusion, “For thine is the kingdom…” (Using the form from the commonly recited and sung Lord’s Prayer) is not found in the two gospel examples, but does reflect an ancient tradition and follows doxologies frequently used elsewhere in the NT.
Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we too have forgiven our debtors.
Do not bring us to the time of trial,
But rescue us from the evil one.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
Now and forever. Amen.
(A composite translation by foremost New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright)
There is an important point to be made before we can continue: The only person who can pray it, as distinguished from merely saying it, are those who love and fear God and believe that he exists. Jesus did not teach this model prayer to everybody and he did not commend it to everybody. He gave it to his disciples, and I believe that includes you and me.
While Jesus in not suggesting a simple repetition of this prayer, he offers it as a model. However, praying it and frequently pausing to express your heart at each thought is a marvelous way to keep focus and effectively talk to God. There is nothing wrong with having a form of words composed by someone to guide and inspire our personal prayers. The Psalms of David are prayers in song and should also be guides for prayer.
Line by Line
After directing our prayer to the Father, there are three specific prayer requests addressing God, followed by three personal requests. Let’s slowly unpack the wisdom in this model, perfect prayer. Most of the things we want to pray about are taken care of within this prayer. Like Jesus’ parables, it is small in scale but huge in coverage.
“Our Father in heaven.” Jesus used the Aramaic word Abba (“dear Father”) in virtually every prayer he made to God. Abba would naturally be translated pater in the Greek texts which preserved and transmitted the NT from the first century forward. Against the customary patterns for addressing God, Jesus’ habit of addressing God as his own Father was unusual, and to some, shocking.
This opening designation establishes the kind of God to whom prayer is offered. He is a personal being, not some deep concept of an inner self, no mere “ground of being,” no amorphous spirit essence or impersonal “godhead” or generalized “divinity.” He is a caring Father (not a tyrant or an ogre) who has established a special, personal relationship with his sons and daughters. This Father-bond is powerful and coupled with his location in heaven conveys both tender, fatherly kindness and the power necessary to protect us and answer our requests.
Here is a good place to pause in prayer to consider how incredible it is that we should be a son or daughter of His Majesty in heaven. What a spectacular privilege and honor. Is there a higher title than to be called a “son of God”? Could we ask for anything greater than to have God as our Father?
“Hallowed be your name.” God’s name is a reflection of who he is. God’s name is God himself as he is and as he’s revealed himself. This is not a request that God may become holy for he already is holy, but that he may be treated as holy; that he may be acknowledged by all who dwell on earth as the Holy One. It is a prayer that all will come to know the one true God, his goodness, his righteousness, his mercy, his justice and worship and obey him. This is a prayer about God’s honor and glory and our desire to give him honor and to encourage others to revere him. It is an expression of praise and worship—a fitting way to begin every prayer.
“Your kingdom come.” The kingdom of God was never far from Jesus’ mind. It was his message; it is the gospel. We join Jesus in praying that the kingdom come…soon. This prayer is a way of saying Jesus has caught me with his good news of the coming kingdom and I want to be part of his kingdom-movement. We are praying that the kingdom that has broken into the world with Christ’s ministry will soon be consummated at the end of the age with Jesus’ return and the inauguration of the messianic kingdom.
If we are praying for the kingdom to come we must be preparing ourselves spiritually for its arrival. This should be an all-consuming goal and purpose that drives every area of life. By making this request to our Father in heart-felt sincerity, we are committing ourselves to work for and support its coming. This is not just a pleasant thought Jesus injects in a prayer liturgy, it is the heart of the gospel, the mission of the church, and the Christian hope. We must pray for, work for, support, and make the Kingdom of God our dream, our eternal hope.
“Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” What is God’s will? Here is another pause point to reflect on the Father’s will for mankind and for us personally. How are we getting in sync with God’s ways and mind? Can we sincerely ask that God’s will be done on earth and seek, as Jesus did, “that not my will but thine be done”? Jesus acknowledges that on the subject of his impending capture, torture, and death, he didn’t want it. Our will must yield to God’s. In this plea we are asking that the Father’s new creation begin with us conforming to his good and perfect will. This is a request of God to bring his plan to completion by bringing the entire world into the perfect harmony of his heavenly realm.
Savor in your mind’s eye the picture of a happy, carefree child, a little lamb, and a large lion peacefully lying together on a green pasture. Put yourself into that picture of paradise on earth. Think of how the daily news would be different; how marvelous that world without evil and tears. This is the coming reality and we can live it every day of our lives.
These first three petitions, though they focus on God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, are nevertheless prayers that the Father would act in such a way that his people will hallow his name, submit to his reign, and do his will. It is therefore impossible to pray this prayer in sincerity without humbly committing oneself to such a course.
God First, You Second
“Give us this day our daily bread.” These last three petitions explicitly request things for us. God welcomes and asks for us to bring him our requests. The first mentions “bread,” a common biblical term referring to all kinds of food. It represents a category of needs necessary to sustain us: food, water, shelter, clothes, safety, money, work, family, friends, church, etc. In the broader sense it could include whatever we need to prosper and be in good health and should also focus on the needs of others.
It is a prayer for our needs not our greeds. But our Father is not stingy as Jesus illustrates in the parables on prayer immediately following his giving of the model prayer in Luke 11; “ask and it will be given to you,” “which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish will give him a snake instead?”
Our heavenly Father is the great heart-searcher and he can sense needs our weak words insufficiently express (Rom 8:27). As we live in the daily present dealing with today’s needs and challenges and we must daily remain in prayerful conversation with our Father. He sustains us one day at a time with “today’s daily bread.”
“Forgive us our debts, as we too have forgiven our debtors.” Isn’t it remarkable that here, at the heart of the prayer, we commit ourselves to live in a particular way, a way we find difficult. It is not enough that the Father sustain us with “food,” we need more, much more. We need forgiveness of our sins, mercy, and God’s abundant grace. We all share the “human condition” with its many lusts and weaknesses; we stray from the paths of righteousness. We live in a world where evil is still powerful and sin a daily threat.
A cry for forgiveness must be accompanied with real repentance, not merely a self-regarding remorse for the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, or a perfunctory, rote repetition of a pious expression. Our sins are an offence against our Father and for them we must seek forgiveness.
Part of the selfish human condition is the tendency to minimize our offences and exaggerate the offences of others toward us. The Father wants us to extend the same forgiving spirit towards others that we seek him to have towards us. “As we too have forgiven our debtors” suggests a prevailing attitude of heart that makes forgiveness possible when others offend and sin against us. We must pass on God’s gift of mercy if we expect him to continually offer it to us.
The warm glance from our heavenly Father lets us know we are forgiven and safe in his protective hand. Forgiveness makes for a clear conscience, peace of mind, security, and the knowledge we are loved. The three key things all humans crave in relationships are: love, acceptance, and forgiveness. These we want from our Father, and these we must offer to our fellows.
“Do not bring us to the time of trial.” It helps to pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly, pausing every few words to hold before God the particular things which come from our hearts in that category. Prayer is where heaven and earth overlap. We are called to live in both spheres—God’s presence and future and this world’s present. The model prayer is simple in that a child can do it, but it is hard in the demands it makes of us as we go through it.
The word “temptation” (peirasmos) in the common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer does not carry the connotation of temptation to sin or do evil. It more precisely refers to “testing” or “trials.” James assures us that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone [with evil]” (Js 1:13-14). In this light, to pray God would not do what in fact he cannot do, is akin to praying that God would not sin.
Asking God to deliver us, to save us, out of trials that could overcome us is important to navigating successfully the mine field the enemy has laid out. This is a request of the Father to spare us, not from trial or testing as we see that is part of life even for a Christian, but from failing; being spared from a trail or temptation that results in our fall. Jesus prayed a similar prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane for himself, and asked the disciples to do the same lest they fall into temptation and fail. They didn’t and failed and fled, Peter even disowning Jesus. Jesus prayed that God would see him through the hour of trial to victory, and God did.
This plea to the Father is that we not fail under trials that without his help could overwhelm us. I’ve seen friends give up their faith while undergoing severe trials; falling under trials of sickness, finances, divorce, the death of a child, disillusionment with churches and leaders, addictions, etc. We are not strong enough on our own to survive some of the difficult trials the future, and the evil one, may bring. We won’t fail if we tightly hold God’s hand.
“But rescue us from the evil one.” Completing the thought of the previous request Jesus speaks plainly that the source of many of our trials, though not all, is the evil one—Satan, the adversary. It is regarded as sophisticated and modern nowadays to ridicule the idea of a literal devil and to call him a silly superstition, or to spiritualize evil or the evil one as nothing more than our lower nature or simply the absence of good. Jesus tolerated no such ignorance. His explanation for the source evil is Satan, not God or man.
Satan brought evil into the world and has brought much of mankind to drink from his poisonous cup. The Bible acknowledges both angelic and demonic kingdoms in continual conflict. Jesus, who dealt with Satan, was tempted by him, and would eventually be slain by his minions, warns us to pray for God to keep us safe from the evil one. Jesus successfully defeated and dethroned Satan rendering his evil null and void when by the power of God he was raised from the dead, glorified, exalted, and given eternal life.
An ignored theme of Scripture is that of “God at war,” which theme should be plainly apparent from the Garden of Eden to the last chapters of the Book of Revelation. There exists an adversary determined to thwart God’s plan by tempting and destroying those made in the Creator’s image. Jesus’ ministry began by confronting the Devil—a battle Jesus won. As he traveled about Judea preaching the Kingdom of God, casting out demons, and healing all who came to him, he continually demonstrated that the Prince of the Kingdom of Darkness has been defeated. In the words of Martin Luther’s triumphal hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure….
By requesting the Father’s protection from Satan we are agreeing to “submit to God, resist the devil,” and we have God’s promise that the devil will “flee from you” (Js 4:7). By this request we are also agreeing to forsake the devil’s enticements to indulge the lusts of our flesh and reject his cunning appeals to disobey our heavenly Father. We need to take the threat of evil seriously and pray for God’s strength to resist and keep us safe from the Devil’s strength and wiles.
“For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.” To close this model prayer what could be more fitting than a praiseful request that God’s will prevail now and forever. We, of course, have only power to let God’s will prevail in our lives, but we should also use all our strength to proclaim the Father’s kingdom to all within our reach.
Will God Hear Your Prayer?
A blind man healed by Jesus wisely said, “We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will” (Jn 9:31). But we know that all men are sinners, yet God hears their prayers. The sinner God listens to is the one who wants to do God’s will and repent of his or her sins. God hears repentant sinners, not unrepentant sinners. Jesus said the sinner who prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, would be “justified before God” (Lk 18:13). The Father’s goal is to save sinners and he begins that work by listening to their prayers. Our Father listens to our every word if we come with a humble, repentant heart seeking his will and his help. Following Jesus’ advice on prayer is strong assurance that God is listening.
Every Prayer an Answered Prayer
Several years ago my friend Ken Ryland opened up my eyes to an important truth: God answers every prayer. If he listens to a prayer (see above), he answers. How is that? Well, he can answer “no,” “yes,” or exercise a “line item veto” by granting some requests and rejecting others. He makes his decisions on the basis of what is in harmony with the righteousness of his will, what is ultimately best for us, and the sincerity, honesty, motivation, and perseverance of the petitioner. He regards our needs and can see the immediacy of our situations. God with wisdom chooses the timing and manner in answering our requests considering factors far beyond our horizon.
Keep in mind that some prayers, and promises of God, are answered after death (i.e. blessings on our children and grandchildren, the conversion of a loved one, a child, the Gospel reaching a people, freeing an oppressed one, and of course, bringing the Kingdom of God, and “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20) . The effects of some prayers may reach out for generations to come. Jesus prayed for you and me two thousand years ago and now in the 21st century they are being answered daily (Jn 17:20).
Our heavenly Father will not ignore the prayers of his children. Talk with him daily in perfect prayer. Amen.