“Lord, teach us how to pray.” The request has a familiar, biblical ring, but something is not quite right about it. What the disciples asked was, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). They wanted to learn to do it, not how to do it. One of Satan’s clever tactics is to get Christians bogged down in discussions of “how” to pray. He even can get them to quarrel about it. What they need to learn is to pray, to do it.

The model prayer in Luke 11 is our Lord’s most comprehensive lesson on prayer. It gives us the basis of prayer: “Our Father”—we pray as children. Our relationship to God in Christ gives us the right of a child, the right of a son, to speak to the Father. All that a father ought to be to his children, God is to us.

The model prayer gives us the basic concerns of prayer: “Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.” The glory of God’s name, the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of God’s will—these are the overriding concerns of true prayer. They comprehend all other desires and requests in prayer. The finest, the largest, the highest aspirations of mankind are implicit in God’s glory, God’s kingdom, God’s will. The more our prayers conform to these concerns, the larger our praying will be. All the social, economic, and political systems invented by man to benefit the largest number with the greatest good are dim reflections of the glory of God’s name, the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of God’s will.

Some think of “according to God’s will” as a kind of inhibiting condition to prayer, as though God were to make a big promise regarding prayer and then, in fine print at the bottom of the contract, add a limiting requirement that prayer must be “according to his will.” It is as if praying according to God’s will somehow reduced the possibilities in prayer. The opposite is true! Only as we begin to comprehend God’s glory and kingdom and will, only as our prayers begin to conform to them, do we really think big, ask big, pray big, expect big!

The model prayer teaches us that our heavenly Father is concerned with the mundane details of our lives: “Give us day by day our daily bread.” No concern of ours is unimportant to him. Jesus taught of our heavenly Father’s concern for the lily of the field and the sparrow in the sky. To say that God doesn’t want to be bothered about the small details of our lives suggests the presence of a subtle, perverse human pride that refuses to admit dependence on God. It is a simple expression of original sin. Our heavenly Father is not only the God of the macrocosm; he is God of the microcosm as well. He is Lord of the infinitesimal as well as the infinite, God of the universe and God of the atom. Nothing escapes his notice. Our total lives are under his scrutiny and care.

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The model prayer teaches us that reconciliation is fundamental to prayer. We ought not to allow anything to alienate us from him or from others: “Forgive us our sins; for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” When Jesus had completed the model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, he lifted out of it this one petition as if to say that this was basic to all the rest. He said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14, 15). That is plain language. If we refuse to forgive those who offend us, we are in no position to receive the Father’s forgiveness. Our unforgiveness prevents the Father from forgiving us.

The true Christian community is a reconciled and a reconciling community. This is where its power lies (Matt. 18:15–35), and this is the structure of its mission (2 Cor. 5:11–21). Apart from this, talk about love is meaningless: “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Here is one prayer you may be sure the Father is answering: “Forgive us our sins; for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.”

The model prayer teaches us never to be presumptuous about temptation: “Lead us not into temptation.” There is a kind of bumptious security about some Christians that borders on the “presumptuous sin.” Jesus refused to be misled even when Scripture was quoted: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you’; and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’ ” (Luke 4:9–11). Jesus was not deceived by this use of the Scriptures. He rejected the temptation as presuming upon God’s care. We are not to use God’s love and forgiveness, his grace and mercy are longsuffering, as license to sin. We pray to be led, not into temptation, but away from it.

Having given the model of prayer, Jesus then suggests the reason for prayer. He tells of one who was embarrassed at midnight because visitors came unexpectedly and he, having nothing on hand to give them to eat, was forced to awaken a neighbor asleep with his family (Luke 11:5–8). Apparently the neighbor had young children. Most parents would agree that getting young children bedded down for the night is an accomplishment they wouldn’t want to have to repeat that same evening. Nevertheless, the neighbor responded to the situation, “[not] because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity.” Need is the reason for prayer. We pray because we are in need, a fact that human pride is often reluctant to acknowledge. To think oneself without need in one’s relation to God is a perilous situation (see Revelation 3:15–17).

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Asking is a difficult thing to do, but it is the basis of all prayer. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened unto you” (Luke 11:9, 10). The person who prays is a petitioner, one who stands in need before another. This position seems to be repugnant to human nature. Its rejection is the heart of humanism, probably the most attractive, effective religion known to intellectual man. Humanism insists on the self-sufficiency of man despite all the failures of his organizations, legislation, and education. Man seems willing to turn anywhere except to Christ if his belief in himself fails, even to grim pessimism and cynicism. He seems willing to do almost anything but ask and seek and knock. For to do so humbles him and forces him to acknowledge his dependence upon God, a fact he will do almost anything to deny.

In another context (Mark 11:24) Jesus said, “What things soever you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them.” Notice that the desire is qualified by prayer: “What things soever you desire, when you pray.…” Our desires, our askings alter as we pray. God is able to guide us in our thinking as we continue in prayer: we find our desires more and more expanding to correspond to his will. As we experience this, our faith responds. We believe God hears, and we believe that he will answer our prayers. Inevitably we get what we desire or ask for because God-guided prayer stimulates desires that conform to God’s will, the experience generates faith, and the one who prays in effect receives what he asks for before he gets it. This is really the point of the illustration with which the Lord ended his lesson on prayer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

We have come full circle. When we pray we give God the opportunity to lead us in prayer. We put ourselves in the place where God can use us as instruments of prayer. He can in effect pray through us, which is what prayer, rightly understood, is. True prayer is not initiated by man; it is initiated by God, offered through a receptive person, and responded to by God. When a believer prays, he allows himself to be God’s servant in prayer, and in so doing he becomes a channel through which God can answer and one to whom God can respond.

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