Last week I was blogging about the guidelines for prayer offered by the Heidelberg Catechism and I whizzed right by one that some may find troubling. When we pray, says the Catechism, we are supposed to ask
“for everything God has commanded us to ask for.”
It sounds like we are playing the spiritual version of the old children’t game “Simon Says.” You remember: One kid gives the orders.
“Simon says: ‘Hands on your head!’”
“Simon says: ‘Stick out your tongue.’”
You only stay in the game if you do exactly what Simon says.
Is Heidelberg saying prayer is like that? God barks commands and we jump to it? Pray exactly what God says to pray or you are out of the game? Heaven help you if you just pray for what you think you need. Okay, that doesn’t work. Heaven is only helping if you ignore what you think you need and ask for what God says you need.
The next question relieves my fears.
118Q. What did God command us to pray for?
A. Everything we need, spiritually and physically,
as embraced in the prayer
Christ our Lord himself taught us.
The next question quotes the Lord’s Prayer in full. This is an altogether new version of the children’s game:
God says, “What do you need?”
God says, “Ask for it!”
And then, if we don’t know what to ask for,
God says, “Take a look at the Lord’s Prayer.”
To take this advice from the Heidelberg Catechism we have to think differently about the Lord’s Prayer. Basically we need to stop thinking of it as a little ditty we rattle off in worship without thinking. We need to think of it as a broad list of topics that Jesus invites us (commands us, really) to pray about.
That was maybe more familiar to 16th century Protestants — Luther wrote several commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer to help his followers learn to pray this way. He wanted us to take each line in turn and spend some time praying on its topic in our own words. (I have a chapter on this approach of Martin Luther’s in my book, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.)
When you take it this way, praying for what God commands us to pray about is not restrictive. It is a really broad invitation. We are to bring God all our needs and troubles, from mundane matters of the food we’ll eat today to things as grand as the coming of God’s kingdom.
This counter-cultural emphasis on praying what God commands us to pray for is potentially really helpful. If I don’t know what to pray for, or fear God doesn’t want to hear from me, the command of Jesus gives me a push.
The Catechism pictures prayer as a really rich, fully engaged conversation with God. And it portrays prayer as crucial to the Christian life: It is nothing less than the most important part of the gratitude we owe God. And Heidelberg devotes its last ten questions to the Lord’s Prayer to prompt us to give it the attention it deserves. I’m going to blog my way through those questions over the next while — with other topics mixed in, of course.
- Have you ever tried using the Lord’s Prayer as an outline of topics? What was it like?
- What lines of the Lord’s Prayer sound challenging or confusing as topics?
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