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Knowing the Words You Pray

June 16, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 11:1-4 (NRSV)

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
+++Your kingdom come.
+++Give us each day our daily bread.
+++And forgive us our sins,
++++++for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
+++And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Focus

Sometimes we use words in prayer without really understanding them. God, who knows our hearts, isn’t grading or judging us. But if we want to pray in the way of Jesus, then we would do well to learn the meaning of the words he used in prayer. We need to know what it means, for example, for God’s name to be hallowed or for God’s kingdom to come. The more we understand what Jesus meant when he prayed, the more we’ll be able to pray in the way of Jesus.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

When one of Jesus’s disciples asked him to teach all of his disciples to pray, Jesus responded by giving a model prayer in words. Prayer, for those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is, first of all, a matter of communication with words. Yes, we can be silent in prayer. Yes, we can express emotions as we pray with cheers or sobs. And sometimes the Spirit of God helps us to pray “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). But, most basically, prayer is talking with God, and we talk with words.

If words are essential to prayer, then the meanings of the words we use are also extremely important. Now, to be sure, God searches our hearts so if we don’t the words quite right, God knows what we intend (Romans 8:27). God is not up in heaven judging our vocabulary, saying, “Ah, you messed up that word, so I’m not listening anymore.” But, when we pray, we should strive to say things that matter, truly conveying to the Lord as best we can what’s in our mind and heart. In fact, Jesus warned his disciples about saying things without meaning them: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

Sometimes, in spite of Jesus’s warning, we can use words in prayer without really understanding what we’re saying. For example, biblically-informed Christians will sometimes use the following words in prayer: “exalt,” “extol,” and “exult.” These are fine words from Scripture, but I have found that very few people know what they actually mean. We’d do better to learn the meanings of the words we use.

Years ago, I heard a humorous story from a friend about Christians using in prayer a word they didn’t understand. My friend had gone to a week-long prayer retreat led by Henri Nouwen. This retreat was filled with people who adored Nouwen and his teaching, understandably so. While leading the retreat, Henri prayed, apparently asking God to be with the participants “now and at the hour of our dess.” None of the retreatants knew what dess was. They thought is must be some deep theological concept. Some of them figured it was something like desolation.

It made sense to everyone to pray for God’s help in this kind of dess, so pretty soon the retreatants imitated Henri by repeatedly praying for God’s help “now and at the hour of our dess.” Near the end of the retreat, Henri heard people doing this and asked about it. They explained how they were asking for God’s presence in their desolation. Henri laughed, explaining that that was not what he was praying. He was actually using a phrase from the Catholic “Hail Mary,” though addressing this to God, not to Mary. Henri, in his thick Dutch accent, was actually asking for God’s presence “now and at the hour of our death.” Death, not dess! There is no such thing as dess.

I can chuckle at the sweet mistake of the retreatants, knowing that if I had been there, I would have been one of those enthusiastic folk asking God help in the hour of my dess. I’ve learned so much from Henri Nouwen that I would surely have wanted to imitate him in my prayers. Such imitation, as I suggested in yesterday’s devotion, is not at all a bad thing. But if we’re going to pray authentically and meaningfully, then it would be good for us to know what we’re saying.

Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4 contains lots of words that are familiar to most Christians. But, I wonder, do we really know what it means to say to our Father, “hallowed be thy name”? And what are we really asking when we say, “Your kingdom come”? Are we sure we know what Jesus meant by “daily bread”? And what about “everyone indebted to us?” Finally, what was Jesus thinking of when he used the phrase “time of trial”?

The point of learning the true meaning of the words of Jesus is not to score 100% on some spirituality test. Nor is it to show off our great learning. Rather, we want to learn what Jesus meant because the closer we can get to what Jesus intended, the better we’ll be able to pray in the way he wants us to. As we do this, our thinking, feeling, and, indeed, our souls will be formed by the words we say. We will know more intimately and truly the God who invites us to speak to him in prayer. And we will discover words that give expression to the deepest desires of our hearts.

So, as we continue our devotional study of Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4, we will focus on the words of Jesus. Doing so is not meant to limit our communication with our Heavenly Father, but rather to inspire it, guide it, empower it, and expand it. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

As you think about your own experience of prayer, can you remember a time (or times) when you prayed with words you didn’t quite understand? What was this experience like for you?

As you read Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4, are there words here the meaning of which is not clear to you? If so, which words? What do you think they might mean?

Why do you think God wants us to pray with words? Might it be better if we prayed mainly (or only) with silence? Why or why not?

Do you ever find yourself saying things in prayer that you don’t really mean? If so, when? If not, why not?

Are there certain words, phrases, or short sentences that you often use in prayer, perhaps when you need to offer a quick prayer at work, or when you need God’s help, or when you are struck by God’s grace to you? What are things you often say as you pray?

Act

Jot down a list of questions you have about the meaning of the words in Jesus’s prayer in Luke 11:2-4. When you have your list, ask the Lord to help you understand this prayer more deeply and truly.

Pray

Father, hallowed by your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive our sins,
+++as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: A Rosary for a Baptist


2 thoughts on “Knowing the Words You Pray

  1. Gillian Ware says:

    This just reminded me of how I first learned to say the Lord’s Prayer when I was about 8 at a school where we said it every morning at Reception. I somehow misheard the words « give us today our daily bread » as « give us TO STAY our daily bread », which I devoutly repeated for more years than I can remember, without questioning the exact meaning but knowing it was a thank you to God for our food. I can’t remember how I eventually realized my mistake! Funnily enough my bedtime book at present is Henri Nouwen’s ‘Love, Henri’, wonderfully compassionate letters in reply to those written to him.

    While I am here, since Easter I have been meaning to thank you for the joy your Stations of the Cross gave me, making Lent extra special. I loved your wife’s paintings as well as the personal angle you gave to each Station. Having been brought up in the UK and having an artist father who had a passion for church architecture, I constantly came across these special areas- often in circular side chapels-where the Stations of the Cross were displayed, usually in low relief sculptures. I always enjoyed following them round, so was excited about actually putting their purpose into practice, so Thank You!

  2. Mark Roberts says:

    Thanks, Gillian, for your fascinating comment.

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