One thing I took away from Tim Keller’s recent book on prayer, when I read it earlier this year, was to use the Lord’s Prayer as an outline to guide my own praying. Martin Luther, for one, did this. The point is not to recite the Lord’s Prayer by rote, rather, to ensure that my own prayers include these component parts, and in this particular order.
This doesn’t come naturally to me. My natural way of praying is to begin with confession of sin—as if I have to clear the air before I’m “worthy” for God to hear the rest of my prayers. But notice Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray this way. Confession doesn’t occur until nearly the end of the prayer—even after we’ve petitioned God to give us or others what we or they need. So we’re not asking God to do good things for us on the condition of promised future good behavior. Surely this communicates something important about grace! We who are God’s children by faith in his Son are already accepted by God; nothing—not even the sins for which we need to repent—changes that.
Be that as it may, here’s how following the outline of the Lord’s Prayer works out for me: My prayer begins with acknowledging God as Father. I consider the way that I, imperfect parent that I am, love my own kids. If God’s love is like that, but even more so since God loves us perfectly, then God must really love me. I reflect on that for a moment, which leads naturally to the next part of the prayer, praise and adoration.
To assist me with this, I think about things that have happened over the past day or two for which I can or should be grateful. I praise God for those things. Perhaps this is childish—perhaps we should praise God for being God himself, rather than for the things he does for us, but that’s too abstract for a 30-year prayer novice like me. Maybe when I ascend the heights of prayer I’ll be able to pull that off.
Next comes the petition, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What does this mean for my daily prayers?
First, I remind myself daily that Christ will return. I might say, “Father, if Jesus returns today, let me be ready. Let me be found doing the good work of your kingdom.” I next pray that I will be faithful in doing the tasks that God has appointed for me to do.
Finally, I ask God to help me accept that whatever happens to me today happens because God wants it to happen. Yes, this is my unfashionable, renewed belief in God’s sovereignty rearing its (beautiful) head. Indeed, as I’ve blogged about a lot recently, everything does happen for a reason, according to God’s providential timing and will. So I pray that I don’t resist it but accept it as a gift from God.
It is in relation to this part of the Lord’s Prayer, however, that I recently realized something about myself that needs to change:
Mostly, I don’t believe that anything I can do will please God. Mostly, I believe that all I can do—at best—is to prevent God from being displeased with me. Mostly, I don’t experience God’s pleasure in me so much as the absence of God’s wrath toward me.
Believe me, I see how harmful these beliefs and feelings are. But I had never verbalized them until recently.
One of my favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. In one scene, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddell tries to help his sister understand why running is important to him. She believes that his running career distracts from his “true” purpose. He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
When I run, I feel his pleasure.
Is it possible that I could feel God’s pleasure—in me—despite my past, despite my sin, despite my failures?
In other words, whether I “feel” it or not, is it possible that I can and do please God?
I had to consult scripture. Here are a few verses that convince me that it is possible: 2 Corinthians 5:9, Ephesians 5:10, Colossians 1:10, and 1 Thessalonians 4:1. There are probably a hundred others besides. After all, Jesus and Paul both talk about “treasures in heaven” based on our actions on earth. Why wouldn’t it bring God pleasure to reward us with these?
So how will I apply this to my life today?
Here’s one way: Being a pastor is more satisfying than any job I’ve ever had. But believe it or not, every moment of my job isn’t satisfying. I don’t always want to do everything I have to do. Being a pastor, as good as it is, still feels like a job much of the time.
But here’s some motivation for me: What if, when I’m doing something I don’t want to do but need to do, I tell myself the following: “Doing this thing brings God pleasure. God enjoys when I obey him. He likes to see me do the good work of his kingdom”?
Shame on me, but I’ve never thought of it like that before. Is it just me?