I think that in English classes we have lost a few things. One of those things is an attention to grammar that one really picks up when learning other languages. An attention to language itself. It sounds goofy to say it, but grammar really does matter. The Lord’s prayer is an example of this. For your convenience, here it is:
Our Father who art in Heaven
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory
Now and Forever, Amen.
I’m sure that you’re at some level acquainted with this or have at least heard part of it before. In the Gospels Jesus teaches this prayer to the disciples with the tagline “Pray like this…” That said I don’t know that I’d ever really heard the following: The verbs that I have taken in English as a request at best (“come”, “be done”, “give”, “forgive”, “lead”, “deliver”) are actually commands in Greek.
That’s to say that the prayer Jesus taught His disciples don’t feature questions that place God at a “respectful” distance. In this prayer we’re assuming a good deal of intimacy and a perhaps foreign concept to most of us in prayer. How is it that we command God to do anything?
Well, I don’t think there’s really much of a reason given explicitly why God would allow humans to speak to Him this way. However, nor is there a statement in which the Lord says to Moses, “Thou shalt speak to me like your overly-sensitive grandpa.”
I think for us to understand part of why Jesus teaches the disciples to pray like this we ought to read more of the Old Testament. People in the OT don’t pussyfoot around with God. Job comes just short of calling God a liar to His face, Moses tells God that if God is going to force him to go with the Israelites alone then God might as well kill him on the spot, the Psalmists talk to God with rage, sadness, joy and all the most profound human emotions possible.
So, it seems that we have a model for prayer that is already more real than most of us know how to speak to God. There’s an element of sheer honesty and presence before God that we don’t want to imitate. Who would talk to God like that? Well, most (if not all) of the people in Scripture, for one thing.
On the other hand, this doesn’t immediately solve what we find Jesus doing with the Lord’s prayer.
If we look closely at the commands that Jesus encourages us to make of God in prayer, we find that that we are in fact invoking things that God is constantly doing throughout the biblical narrative. God is the one whose will is done, God is the ultimate giver, God forgives His people, God leads His people, God delivers His people. In short, through what Jesus encourages, we are praying on the basis of who God has revealed Himself to be in Scripture.
This is something that happens often in the Psalms. The character of God is brought out in prayer as something that grounds what is asked of God.
You might think of the Lord’s Prayer as leveraging who God is in prayer against Him, but then again you might think of it more as demanding that He to do the things that already flow from who God is. The ancient church fathers talked about knowing God by what He does or His “energies”. They claimed that this is the only way to know who God is: by what God does.
I find it interesting that the name God gives to Moses is “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”. Shortly thereafter God shows Himself to be a rememberer of His friends, a deliverer of His people, a keeper of promises, and a liberator of the oppressed. What He does shows us who He is.
It seems like God is more than willing to be commanded in prayer to be who He is. I dunno that it’s ever going to be something that becomes comfortable and I think that’s good. God is always calling us forward into deeper intimacy. Intimacy with God (and others?) is always uncomfortable ground. Why should prayer be any different?