However, this understanding of the “prayer” does not fit with the biblical evidence we have. If the Lord’s Prayer constitutes the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, why do we not find it repeated at any other point in the New Testament – and why are all the recorded prayers given by his disciples after this point not the Lord’s Prayer?
The answer is doubtless that what we call the Lord’s Prayer was really an outline guide to the key subjects to be covered regularly in prayer. Once we realize this probability, we are able to understand many things about the prayer outline that we might otherwise miss.
A key aspect in understanding the thrust and intent of the Lord’s Prayer is that not only does it record things to be said, but also – directly or indirectly – it records things we are to do. When we look at the seven petitions found within the prayer outline, we see that each one asks for God’s intervention or action in a sphere in which we are also expected to act.
This is most clearly seen in the petition “forgive us our debts/sins” which specifically states “as we forgive our debtors/them that sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). We ask God’s forgiveness, understanding that it is linked to and to some degree dependent upon what we do. Although this request is the only one that directly includes a statement of our responsibility within the prayer itself, the remaining petitions can be seen to imply responsibilities in the way that Jesus refers to them elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount or in his other teachings.
This means that the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are all balanced with responsibilities that can be paired like this:
“Hallowed be your name” – we must not dishonor God’s name in our speech or lives.
“Your kingdom come” – we must work for the establishment of the kingdom in our own lives and those of others.
“Your will be done” - we must strive to fulfill God’s will in all aspects of our lives.
“Give us this day our daily bread” - we must work for our sustenance.
“Forgive us our debts” - we must forgive others if we are to be forgiven.
“Lead us not into temptation” - we must actively avoid tempting situations.
“Deliver us from evil” – we must do what we can to avoid or overcome evil.
Balancing what we ask God to perform and what we ourselves do is not the same as attempting to bolster our faith with works. Rather, it is simply fulfilling the clear biblical injunctions that can be found on all these subjects. “Give us our daily bread,” for example, is balanced not only by the general teachings of Jesus (John 9:4, etc.), but also by the apostle Paul’s explicit statement that “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Similarly, all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer may be balanced with Christian teachings – positively or negatively expressed – regarding what we are to do or not do to fulfill our responsibility in each area.
The principle is simple enough and is somewhat humorously summed up in the old saying that “we cannot sow our wild oats, then pray for a crop failure.” Our lives must match our prayers in each specific application.
This view of the Lord’s Prayer actually develops our trust in God far more than simply reciting its petitions and then “going our own way.” Understanding that we play a role in the fulfillment of each petition helps us not only to pray for God’s action in the world, but also to pray for the specific help we need in fulfilling our own part.
Ultimately, the Lord’s Prayer is not a simple list of requests that we can recite, then forget – it is a guide to asking God to fulfill his will in the area of every petition and to help us to fulfill our own part in what God intends.