In defending the elements in the corporate worship of God's people, justifying the use of the Lord's Prayer irks me most. Yet, people still struggle with the use of the prayer in worship. Many accuse those who use it of engaging in popery and not having escaped the siren call of Roman Catholicism. How could there be any elements of any false doctrine in the very words Jesus used to teach His disciples how to pray? These are the very words of scripture. When you challenge their use in worship, you attack the very nature and source of worship, the Bible.
Only one argument against the use of the Lord's Prayer bears consideration. Some argue that repeated use of the Prayer leads to the hazard mentioned in Matthew 6:7, "use not vain repetitions." They assert that the regular use of the prayer lessens its importance in the minds of the worshipper and become mere pretense.
The repeated use of the Lord's Prayer seems to violate this principle if we use it without understanding that for which we pray. If our use of it becomes mere rote, we engage in superstition. We can see how this often appears in the penitential system of the Roman church. One method of penance includes the repeated saying of the Lord's Prayer or Pater Noster (Latin). Saying this prayer supposedly eliminates, expunges, or expiates the penitent's sin after confession. Such superstition must be rejected, but does the weekly recitation of the Lord's Prayer violate Jesus' prohibition against "vain repetitions"?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught His disciples godly behavior and practice. He begins His teaching on prayer with these words.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
Matthew 6:5-8Jesus instructs His disciples first what elements ought not appear in Christian prayer. Jesus levels the chief prohibition against hypocrisy. This dealt with something evident within the experience of the first audience. They knew the activities of those who prayed out loud for the hearing of the people around them. They saw hypocrisy daily. Hypocrisy is the use of masks. It disguises our true intent from others. Nothing insults the honor and glory of God more than ignorantly arrogating to man the ability to hide his true self from the gaze of God. This is nothing new, for man's first activity after the fall was an attempt to hide from God.
Now, after this discussion of hypocrisy, Jesus began to address a different issue. The second warning comes from the practices of the pagans, one which the disciples may be tempted. One of the common practices for the pagans to address their gods included the reception of petitions. There is an example of this in the Old Testament. I Kings 18 contains the famous "power encounter" between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The depiction of the prophets of Baal includes this repetition of prayer to Baal.
Jesus includes the mindset behind these vain repetition, "for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking." This attitude flies in the face of the nature of God. God is not impressed with the number of times you make a request. He is not hard of hearing that He needs you to repeat your request because He missed it the first time.
We then can perceive two possible errors in the repetitive use of the Lord's Prayer. If it becomes mere superstition or if we think it necessary to gain God's attention or favor, we use any prayer inappropriately. Although these dangers apply equally to the Lord's Prayer, some of its features militate against them. First, Jesus Himself does not view the His prayer as violating the very instructions He addresses. After issuing His warnings on improper prayer, in the very next passage, Jesus narrates the Prayer. It seems unlikely that He would warn His disciples about the dangers of improper prayer and then deliver a prayer that risks those dangers.
Second, the Lord's Prayer exhibits the best holistic prayer in existence. This is a large claim, but well-founded. Though noted for its simplicity, it encompasses the totality of topics necessary for Christian prayer. Some have called it less a prayer and more a skeleton to provide a foundation for prayer, the structure upon which all prayer should be built. I think this limits the importance of the the Lord's Prayer but reminds us of its universal scope. Let's look at the prayer.
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.Matthew 6:9-13
The prayer first addresses God. It reflects on His name, His relationship with us, His intimacy with us, and His transcendence. The first petition includes the glory of God's name and character. The second petition simultaneously reminds us the chief instrument of the progression of time and calls upon its ultimate fulfillment. The third petition longs for the accomplishment of God's will, knowing that His will means the best for us regardless of whether or not we receive what we request in the rest of the prayer. The fourth petition reminds us that everything we need for life we receive from God daily, and so we request it from Him. The fifth petition reminds us that our chief need from God is forgiveness and restoration of relationship with Him. The sixth petition indicates our desire to become more like Jesus. His prayer closes with a declaration of the universal goal of creation, the glory of God.
Thirdly, notice the pronouns. The pronouns are plural. It is not an individual prayer but the prayer of the church. The prayer anticipates a collective use. Thus, we ought to consider its use in corporate worship as presumptive rather than exceptional. The Lord's Prayer reflects that communal reality which regularly appears in scripture.
No argument against the use of the Lord's Prayer in worship withstands the testimony of God's Word. Instead, the richness of the prayer demands its frequent repetition in our minds, hearts, and mouths. Ignoring this foundational teaching on prayer reveals our lack of prayer or weakness in it. To be people of prayer, let us return to the heart of prayer, the prayer our Lord taught His disciples, even us.