Few words in the English language ring as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer. Often that keeps readers (and reciters) from thinking about the words. R. Albert Mohler Jr. wants to change that. His new book challenges the church in 2018 to re-examine the radical claims in the Lord’s Prayer. Southern Seminary Magazine writer Andrew J.W. Smith sat down with Mohler, who is president of Southern Seminary, to discuss The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down.
Why write a book on prayer now? Was there kind of a motivating factor?
There’s a motivating factor deeply rooted in history. There has been throughout the history of the Christian church the knowledge that there is a three-fold stool on which Christian instruction rests: the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed. So within a short amount of time, I will have written books on the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed. It is because I want to continue that tripod of historic Christian teaching. We need the law and we need prayer and we need the gospel in the Apostles’ Creed, the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
At a basic level, what is the Lord’s Prayer?
We call it the Lord’s Prayer, but the quintessential Lord’s prayer in Scripture is John 17, the high priestly prayer of the Lord Jesus. What we call the Lord’s Prayer is really a model prayer. It isn’t so much how he prayed. In John 17 we come to understand how he prayed. But he is the very Son of God, the Son in human flesh; his intimacy with the Father is different than ours by definition. So we really need to learn, as Jesus taught his disciples, to pray. We might call it “the disciple’s prayer.”
Why is it significant that Jesus taught his followers to pray?
We have expectations of prayer that involve some evangelical reflexes that are perhaps not the most healthy. We have some reflexes that are probably based in legitimate concerns, but they come out as distorted maxims. For example, many who are resistant to any prayer that’s not spontaneous. Certainly in the Christian life there will be spontaneous prayer, but there’s an idea that if we premeditate what we’re going to say then it’s performance or it’s artificial. But I don’t think that’s always true.
Then we have the notion that our prayer is to be conversational in the same way we have other conversations. You even have very popular books with very problematic theology, which are supposedly made up of conversations with Jesus. It’s very interesting that throughout history Christians have prayed disciplined by particular forms of prayer. I think of the staying power of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but even more importantly the prayers found in Scripture, most importantly the Lord’s Prayer.
The prayer seems to be so culturally familiar. How do we break through some of that familiarity?
That familiarity is not the curse many people assume it to be. A husband and wife who have been married for decades say, “I love you.” There are only so many different ways to say, “I love you” with words. But the fact is those words are now accompanied by fidelity and relationship and love and raising children together and walking together and being Christians together. Should a couple stop saying, “I love you” because they’ve said it so many times? No. Do the actual words change from when they first came to know love for each other until now? No. But the words actually become more freighted with meaning. That’s the way the Lord’s Prayer should be.
I wrote the book because I don’t want to leave it with familiarity, I want us to think about what we’re saying. The whole point of the book is that the Lord’s Prayer is actually, as I call it, the prayer that turns the world upside down. I think the greater danger is not familiarity. The greater danger is not understanding what we’re saying, no matter how familiar the text may be.
The most revolutionary words human beings could imagine are the words “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” With those words every empire falls, every throne other than the throne of Christ is shattered. And we should understand what it means when we’re praying “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That relativizes every earthly allegiance. It puts into context every political power, and promises the doom of every political power.
There seems to be a communal aspect to that, too. We see that in the description of “our Father in heaven.”
There’s a strong corrective in the Lord’s Prayer of the modern idolatry of autonomous individualism. We’re a society that idolizes individualism, then becomes even more idolatrous in making the individualism autonomous of every other claim, every other relationship, every other truth or reality. The Lord’s Prayer begins with, “Our Father, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins.” It’s not wrong to pray in the first person singular; it’s evidently wrong to pray mostly in the first person singular. Our reflex is the first person singular.
What are some practical ways we can cultivate that communal aspect to prayer in our own prayer lives?
In the English language, you might think you’re talking about two different things — “communing with God” meaning being relational with God, and “communion” as in communion with the saints. Both are true.
Communing with God means, first of all, worship. It’s based on our dependence upon God, his transcendence, our earthly reality, his infinity, our finitude.
The other communing, of course, the communion of the saints. We pray with the saints, which doesn’t mean we pray with the cult of the saints as in the Roman Catholic church. It means we’re always praying with fellow believers, even when we’re not with them. It’s important to recognize that, by definition, we are praying with fellow believers in Christ.
We often pray in order to receive something from God. What is unhealthy about those ways of praying, and how can we remedy that?
Those ways of praying are not always unhealthy. Jesus said we are to bring our concerns before God. Paul says that we are to bring our supplications before God, and we’re to do so, not merely by invitation, but even by command.
But, to put this in a different context, if we had a close friend, or if a parent were thinking of our children, and the only conversation we had from our children was a request or a want, even an urgent request, we would think that to be an unhealthy relationship.
The Lord’s Prayer includes, “Give us this day our daily bread,” a very humbling realization, deeply rooted in the storyline of Scripture. When you say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it makes very clear we’re the creature, he’s the Creator, we’re the needy, he is the provider. It reminds us of Israel in the wilderness and the bread which came in the form of manna each day. Give us each day our daily bread. So there’s every reason every day to pray that God will meet our needs. There’s every reason to bring our concerns before him. But in this prayer Jesus gave his disciples, that’s just one clause in an entire prayer.
How do we cultivate a dependence on the Lord in our prayers when we live in the age of plenty?
The point I make in the book is that we need to read the Bible understanding how most Christians have and do read the Bible. Right now, most Christians are in a situation of food insecurity. Christians have more often been hungry than well-fed. The Bible is primarily written to poor, hungry people. So “give us this day our daily bread” is an urgency. But just in case we forget our dependency, which we could just as easily, bread is a metaphor in Scripture for provision. Think of something like, “Give us this day our daily oxygen.” “Give us this day our daily heartbeat.” Our need is comprehensive; not one of us is self-sufficient.