The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer provide something of a puzzle for Reformed theologians. Why, for example, does Jesus instruct his disciples to pray that “God’s will be done”? Won’t God’s will be accomplished regardless of the prayers of mere humans? And while we’re at it, what about “thy Kingdom come”? The coming of God’s kingdom is a promise, not some hoped-for possibility that is somehow contingent on my prayer!
These kinds of questions are not the impertinent musings of the theological malcontent — the kid in the back of the class who simply wants to expose his teacher as a fool. These are precisely the kinds of questions that Jesus wants His disciples to be asking, and it is for this reason that the Lord’s Prayer is really quite remarkable. Though many of us recite it at least weekly, it continually challenges the worshipper to consider anew the power and privilege of prayer. In the course of six short petitions, Jesus not only provides the church with, as the Westminster Larger Catechism describes it, “a special rule of direction … as a pattern, according to which we are to make other prayers,” He at the same time challenges our assumptions about what prayer is and what it can accomplish. We have precisely this sort of challenge in the first three petitions, for here Jesus instructs us not only to pray to God, but also and preeminently to pray for God.
Godly Prayers are Prayers for God
Notice first of all that these three petitions, like the first portion of the Decalogue, are each radically God-centered in their subject matter. They are “vertical” petitions, in contrast to the more “horizontal” petitions that follow. Jesus opens in this way to remind us that all our prayers are ultimately not prayers for and about ourselves or our neighbors, but rather prayers for and about God.
Those words are not my own; they come from the 17th-century pastor and theologian Herman Witsius. After considering the variety of privileges with which prayer endows the believer, Witsius concludes in his Sacred Dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer that:
“The most wonderful of all, and one which almost exceeds belief, is that a man should be allowed to plead, not only for himself and for his neighbor, but for God,—that the kingdom of God and the glory of God should be the subject of his prayer,—as if God were unwilling to be glorious, or to exercise dominion except in answer to the prayers of believers.”
Jesus exhorts us to make the concerns of our heavenly Father — His glory, kingdom, and purposes — the first and preeminent concern of our own prayers. Even in our prayers we are to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33); “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” is also the chief end of prayer.
We can go a bit further, in fact, and argue that every petition we bring to our Father, whether for the safety and success of missionaries, or the healing of a church member, or even the comparatively trivial and mundane pursuits of ordinary life, is ultimately subsumed under these petitions. The first three petitions remind us that the last three (for daily bread, forgiveness of sins and deliverance from evil) must also be God-centered and kingdom- oriented prayers; we only ask for bread rightly when we ask for it in a manner that hallows the name of God and is submissive to His will (James 4:15).
Godly Prayers are Effectual
The God-centeredness of prayer is an important reminder, but the opening petitions also give us some profound theology to ponder. Returning to our opening question, for example, how can it be that my prayers are contingently significant in the outworking of God’s will, or the coming of God’s kingdom? There are deep mysteries embedded in each of these petitions, but the revelation that underlies them all — the encouragement and responsibility that Jesus wants us to appropriate — is fairly simple: our prayers are meaningful. Our prayers are not mere spectators of the divine decree, but rather a significant means by which God accomplishes His eternal purpose.
Take the first petition as a kind of case study. If God cannot be more holy than He is in and of himself, then what sense does it make for me to pray that He would “hallow” (that is, “make holy” or “glorious”) His own name? Can God be more glorious than He already is? Of course not! But, and here’s the rub: His name can be. The word “name” implies public reputation. God cannot be more holy, true, but His name can be more hallowed by His creatures; God cannot be more glorious, but He can be more glorified. So my prayer is causally connected to the actual hallowing of God’s name in space and time. Jesus is thus reminding us that His people are to be active and prayerful participants in the honoring and glorification of God’s name. In His providence, God has chosen to make the hallowing of His own name on the earth at least partially dependent upon the prayers of His people. What a privilege! What a responsibility!
We find the same dynamic at work as we meditate on “thy will be done.” For this one let’s invert the issue; instead of asking “Does God bring about his will in response to my prayer?” let’s ask “Are there real and genuine consequences when I fail to pray?” If I promise someone to pray for them, but fail to do so, is there any real loss or lack that would result in the outworking of their lives? Our personal practice betrays our subconscious answer: “not really.” If God wants to do something, surely He will do it whether or not I prayed about it. My prayer doesn’t really matter, and so my failure to pray likewise isn’t a big deal. God will accomplish His purposes regardless of my activity; indeed, He will accomplish them regardless of any contingency or “secondary causes.” But that’s fatalism, not confessional Calvinism.Are there real and genuine consequences when I fail to pray?
Acording to the Westminster Confession, God ordains whatsoever comes to pass in such a way that “the liberty or contingency of second causes [are not] taken away, but rather established.” That includes our prayers. (Now of course our prayers don’t change God’s eternal will; rather, God’s eternal will is accomplished as He genuinely and temporally responds to my prayer, but this does not change the fact that our prayers matter). Our prayers are meaningful because of God’s providence, not in spite of it. God genuinely responds to our prayers as He responds to all our actions. When we sin, He disciplines us; when we are righteous, He strengthens and establishes us; when we praise Him, He takes delight. When we pray, He answers. And when we do not pray? “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2).
Godly Prayers Delight Our God
One final lesson we can consider, related to both of the above, is that our prayers delight our Father (Proverbs 15:8). We might approach such a statement with a bit of suspicion. Why should the God of the universe want to hear from me? I don’t want to burden God with my petty concerns! Surely God only hears my prayer reluctantly; surely my presence in His temple is only tolerated, not delighted in.
The clear testimony of Scripture, though, is that God is pleased by our prayers. There are, of course, prayers that do not delight God — hypocritical prayers in particular (Hosea 6:6; 1 Peter 3:7) — but when we come to our heavenly Father as little children, full of faith and love and reverence, our presence is His joy (Matthew 19:13-15) and our request His pleasure to give (Luke 11:5-13). That may seem counterintuitive at first, but it actually makes total sense when we consider the first three petitions.
Godly prayer isn’t the nagging demands of spoiled children; it isn’t “me, me, me.” Godly prayer is prayer for God; it seeks the glory of God first and finds its chief enjoyment in the presence of God. Godly prayer makes God its chief end, just as God does so Himself (to borrow from Jonathan Edwards), and so of course God is delighted in the prayers of His people. Godly prayer is therefore not only a comfort and a delight for us, but also for our Father.Godly prayer isn’t the nagging demands of spoiled children; it isn’t “me, me, me.”
If all these things are true — that is, if all prayer has God and the concerns of God as its chief end, and if God has condescended to use our prayers in the accomplishment of His purposes, and if God is in fact delighted by our prayers — then what will hinder us from prayer? In our prayers we take up the most lofty of concerns (God’s own glory) with full assurance of success (since God will answer His people) and ultimately without cost or burden (being a delight not only to ourselves, but also to God). It is a wonder we are not more taken by this privilege.