September, 2017

Prayer – Our Daily Bread

Often when we think about our need for prayer it relates to a particular request in our lives. As a church family, we will send out prayer requests for those who are ill or facing difficult circumstances. When there is a need in our church body, we’ll ask the people to pray. When we think about prayer, I believe it is fair to say that we’re most often thinking about this type of intercessory prayer. We are to pray for God to intercede and provide for our needs. When we are lacking in some capacity, we should ask God to fill that deficiency. This is a good type of prayer. But it isn’t the only type of prayer.

As Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, there is an order to that prayer. And intercessory prayers are not first in that order. First we are instructed to pray, “Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” This order rightly emphasizes and prioritizes that which is most important, God’s glory. We are often tempted to run to our needs, wants, and desires before we acknowledge the sufficiency and satisfaction that is found in God alone. Augustine noted in his Confessions, “He loves thee too little, who loves anything as well as thee which he does not love for thy sake.” Augustine is highlighting that if when we place things, even important things like our daily bread, before God then we are guilty of loving God too little. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see it as outright idolatry when we love the gifts of God more than God himself. But Augustine also notes that there is a proper order and place for desiring, loving, and praying for the things that God gives. We must cherish the gifts and blessings of God for God’s sake.

The early 17th century English poet, John Donne, captured a similar sentiment in his poem A Hymn to Christ. Donne’s spiritual life is hard to quantify. He was a Roman Catholic in the late 16th century England, when it was not popular to be Roman Catholic. He converted to Protestantism, but had lived a wild and promiscuous life. He eventually was converted and became a minister in the Church of England, serving at St. Paul’s in London. His early poetry was considered “pornographic” by contemporaries but his later works turned that love and amorousness toward God, much like the Song of Solomon. His A Hymn to Christ is an ode to God declaring his desire to separate from anything that might distract his heart from God. The final stanza reads, “Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All, / On whom those fainter beames of love did fall; / Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee / on Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.” Our “beames of love” often fall on “false mistresses” but we pray that they would be married to God only. Our loves and desires for the Creator and for the creation must be rightly ordered.

The second aspect of this fourth petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” is that we are to pray for things needful in this life. The matter of order does not eliminate or remove the reality that we need certain material things for life. Once rightly ordered, it is not only appropriate but required that we ask God for the material needs of our life. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me” (Prov 30:8). This is not a petition that can simply be spiritualized. This is a call to God for real, material, and tangible goods. The apostle John prays for Gaius in 3 John 2, “that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” It is good to pray for the prosperity of our souls and our bodies. We are not either bodies or souls, but we are bodies AND souls. And bodies need bread.

When Jesus taught us to pray for “bread” he meant all manner of food and livelihood. We are to ask God to give this to us. This implies that we do not already possess this bread, but that it is the possession of God. We ask because we cannot simply produce this bread on our own. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Ps 104:14, 15). We have no right to bread neither have we merited it, but God is gracious and generous, and he provides abundantly for us. We pray with full expectation that God will give us this bread. He is our Father and as our Father he will give what we need. “Which one of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9).

Lastly, we pray for our “daily” bread. Our prayers for those things needful in life are to be marked by a confident dependence on God. We should be good stewards of all entrusted to us. We should save, plan, and prepare for the future. But we must always do so in a way in which we express our trust not in savings accounts or storehouses, but in God’s consistent provision. We should pray satisfied with the present and unconcerned about tomorrow, because God will provide for tomorrow tomorrow. “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt 6:27). “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Ps 127:2). If we really grasp this, then anxiety and fear should melt away.

Prayer – Thy Will Be Done

The human tendency toward superstitions is strong. We often spiritualize objects, beliefs, and patterns without thinking. The professional athlete may be the most superstitious person today. Their routine and equipment can take on an almost religious devotion. Others cling to objects or talismans to protect them from wrong decisions or bad luck. Sometimes we can even make our devotional life into a superstitious pattern.

This is often the case because, as Dr. Scott Redd has noted, life is complex and confusing. Superstition simplifies this complexity into an input-output equation.[1] Do this and it will go well. Don’t do this and it will not. In this way we can pretend to have control. We can pretend to manage things beyond our control. But this sense of control is false.

As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the third petition in the Lord’s Prayer instructed them to pray for God’s will to be done. “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). This simple prayer is both an acknowledgement and request. It acknowledges that we need God to be in control. And it requests that God would bring his will to bear upon our lives. In a seemingly chaotic and confusing world, we need this prayer.

What is God’s will? Only man, created in the image of God, can know God’s will. The rest of creation is unaware of God’s will. This will was intuitively and clearly known by man because it was imprinted upon him. But in the fall everything became corrupted and distorted. Man’s alienation from God created a rift or division between him and God. Pharaoh expressed the sentiment of every sinner’s heart, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice…I do not know the LORD” (Ex 5:2). Man began to rule his life according to his own lusts and desires. He declared himself to be his own master. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

But when a person is converted, his own will becomes “burdensome and grievous to himself.” He realizes that he no longer follows and lives by God’s will, but his heart is changed such that he desires to follow it. “Since he knows that both he and all other men are unworthy, impotent, and incapable of this, and that such obedience is a gracious gift of God, he therefore avails himself of prayer and prays in humility, ‘Thy will be done.’”[2]

When theologians speak of God’s will, they typically speak about two aspects of it; God’s decretal will and his preceptive will. God’s decretal will is also known as his sovereign, secret, or hidden will. This is the will of God by which all things ordained by God come to pass. God chooses to permit all things that happen. There is no thing that occurs outside of God’s sovereign gaze. Anything that happens, happens because God has willed it to be so. This is not what is prayed for in the third petition.

The second aspect is God’s preceptive will, that is his revealed will. God has made certain parts of his will known to us by revealing them through his Word. It is God’s will that we worship only God, that we do not commit adultery, that we be holy, that we repent of sin. We know this through God’s Word and our conscience because the law has been written on our hearts. This revealed will informs us as to what God would have us do. While we cannot thwart God’s decretal will, we can thwart his preceptive will. God allows or permits our sin because he will use it for good purposes. We have the power to violate his preceptive will, but not the authority. We are morally culpable when we break it.

This is why we must pray for God’s will to be done. It is not for his decretal will. That will happen regardless. We pray for his preceptive will to be done. And for it to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven the power and even the very presence of sin is gone. “Alas! How defective are we in our obedience here! How far we fall short! We cannot write a copy of holiness without blotting. Our holy things are blemished like the moon, which, when it shines brightest, has a dark spot in it; but in heaven we shall do God’s will perfectly, as the angels in glory.” We long for the day when we see the holiness of the kingdom of God fully bear upon all that is broken and fallen in this world, especially in our own lives. So we pray for “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

[1] Scott Redd, “Don’t Be a Superstitious Christian,” TGC – The Gospel Coalition, accessed September 6, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dont-be-a-superstitious-christian.

[2] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.524.