Thursday, March 12, 2015

Teach Us to Pray, Part 3

[This was shared last evening with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, during midweek Lenten worship.]

Isaiah 25:6-8
Psalm 37:4
Matthew 7:7-8
Ecclesiastes 3:11

"Give us this day our daily bread..."

In his book, The Journey of Desire, author John Eldredge addresses the ambivalence Christians feel about what we want, the things we desire. Because the ninth and tenth commandments tell us not to covet our neighbors’ property, spouses, servants, or possessions, some Christians seem to have the mistaken notion that it’s always wrong to want anything. But, Eldredge reminds us that desire isn’t bad in itself. To have desires is part of what it means to be human.

And we have enormous desires. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “has...set eternity in the human heart…” In other words, we were made by God for wanting a lot more than stuff. Though we may try to fill our lives with the stuff of this world, the fact is that you and I have a craving for what only eternity with God can give to us.

So, what does all of this have to do with the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

Martin Luther is right, I think, to say that, “daily bread includes everything needed for this life…” Luther included things like food, healthy family relationships, work, and so on.

But I also think that if these daily blessings are all God had in mind for us, Jesus would not have been born, wouldn’t have died for us, wouldn't have risen from the dead. Truth be told, we need more, much more, than all these things.

If the earlier petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are to be believed, God believes that we need these blessings now. We need God’s kingdom to come to us now, today. We need God’s will to be done in our lives as it is in heaven, now, today.

He also believes that we should, through the ministry of the Church, have a taste of the rich futures belonging to all who trust in Christ. God thinks that you and I need eternity! In Isaiah 25:6-8, God paints His promises for the eternal future of those who follow Him: He will feed us with the best meats and the finest of aged wines and death will be swallowed up forever and God will dry all our tears!

But there’s a problem. The condition of sin distorts our desires.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to eat food, for example, until sin turns hunger into gluttony.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the sexual intimacy that God engineered into our beings, unless we seek it outside the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman.

There’s nothing wrong with desiring to better ourselves unless the desire becomes covetousness or a drive to look down our noses on other people.

The human problem, from God’s perspective, isn’t that we want things. Many of the things we desire are good things, things created and given by God. But sin happens when we desire or take good things at the wrong times, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. Food, sex, and success, along with orderly communities, good governments, and positive reputations are all legitimate things for us want, to ask God to grant to the times He ordains, for the reasons He ordains.

This is important for us to remember when we pray because some people refuse to acknowledge their desires to God. A person once revealed to a group of us that she never asked God for anything. “I don’t feel that I can do that,” she told us. “God has already given me so much. I just don't want to bother him for more.” Thankfulness is a virtue, of course. But that individual underestimated God’s love for her.

When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer as a model for our prayer lives, He didn’t mean for us to eliminate asking Him for the things we desire. He teaches us, in fact, to pray for them.

But He also put this petition--”Give us this day our daily bread”--in a larger context. Often, our praying is sporadic, episodic. We pray when we’re desperate for the needs we see in our own lives or in the lives of others we know and care about and then more or less shut down the prayer hotline. We risk turning God into a cosmic ATM.

In the Lord’s Prayer though, Jesus shows us that God wants to have an ongoing, eternal relationship with us. He teaches us to pray, Our Father, not Dear Sir. In intimate relationships, you don’t feel restrained in asking for things. Everything is on the table. So, Jesus doesn’t tell us to stop asking God for things. In fact, in Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus tells us: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

The way I see it, Jesus doesn’t want us to reduce what we ask for, but to ask for everything with trusting hearts. He wants us to come to God with the same confidence that a child who is loved has when she comes to her mother or father, but also with the same submission, the same surrender. A trusting child will feel free to ask a loving parent for anything, but will, at least on reflection, also want to submit to her parent’s judgment, love, and will, when the answers are no, wait, or maybe.

In the context of a relationship with the Father we know through Jesus Christ, God’s and our perspectives begin to meld. We begin to see things as God sees things. We start wanting what God wants. We desire what God desires. Our laundry lists continue; but as we continue in a relationship with God, that relationship changes our lists.

When I was a young Christian, I struggled with the meaning of a verse in the Psalms. It’s Psalm 37:4: “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I knew that my desires were infinite and not always pure. Did that mean that God would give me anything I wanted, even things that may seem good on the surface, but in the end would lead to my own undoing or to my separation from God?

Then I took a closer look at the verse. God will give us the desires of our hearts when we take delight in Him, when nothing and nobody is more important to us than God Himself…when our relationship with God is central to our lives. That’s why three petitions--“hallowed be Thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”--come before “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The more intimate we allow our relationship with our Father to become, the more similar God’s desires and our desires will become. And the more we realize that in telling us to pray for our daily bread, Jesus isn’t commanding that we ask for or to expect less. He’s commanding us to ask for every good and perfect blessing God has in mind for us every single day we live. Amen

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