READ : Matthew 6:11
Jesus teaches us to ask God to supply all our daily needs; not necessarily all our wants, but all our needs.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about prayer. In studying the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ model prayer from the Sermon on the Mount, I have been stressing the fact that the most important reason why Christians pray is simply to spend time with God. Prayer’s chief purpose is communion with our heavenly Father, so prayer focuses first upon him and his greatness and glory. The highest form of prayer is praise. But I don’t want to ignore the fact that prayer also involves asking God for what we need for ourselves.
We shouldn’t have so refined a view of prayer that it becomes all praise and no petition. We shouldn’t focus so exclusively upon fellowship with God that we think somehow we shouldn’t lower ourselves to praying for our own needs. It’s true that we start with God’s concerns: the glory of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will. But that does not mean we neglect to ask him for anything for ourselves. Maybe you remember the story of Joseph in Egypt. He was sent there by his brothers who sold him into slavery. He rose through a wonderful series of blessings of God to become second in command of the whole land, and then years later Joseph’s brothers were ushered into his presence to beg for food. They did not recognize him when they came before him. They bowed in reverence and did obeisance before the majesty of this mighty governor. But after they honored him, they still opened their grain sacks for him to fill. How foolish it would have been had they traveled all that way from Canaan and not sought the food they needed to preserve their lives. And how foolish for us, when we enter the presence of Almighty God and bow before his throne of glory, not to open our hands and ask him to fill them with good things. “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it,” says the Lord (Ps. 81:10, niv).
PRAYER MEANS ASKING
So prayer means asking. Prayer is the means ordained by God himself for us to seek out and receive his blessings, a truth we should never forget. Jesus didn’t. He was always urging us to ask God for things, and encouraging us with incredible promises. In the fourteen verses of the Sermon on the Mount which Jesus devotes to the subject of prayer, he uses the word “ask” no less than six times. Jesus also talks about asking in prayer in eight other places in the gospels. And two of his parables – the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11) and the parable of the importunate widow (Luke 18) – make the explicit point that we should ask persistently for the things we desire. Some of the promises Jesus makes are absolutely stunning: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13). “If you abide in me, ask whatever you will and it shall be done” (John 15:7). “If you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name . . . ask, and you will receive” (John 16:23-24).
Now that leads to an important question. If God gives us what we ask for, what things should we ask for ourselves? Jesus answers that in the final three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, where he tells us to ask for provision, pardon and protection. We are, in fact, commanded to ask, and “to ask for all things necessary both for [our bodies and our souls]” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 118). The first physical necessity is bread. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”
ASKING FOR BREAD
That is the fourth of the Lord’s Prayer’s six petitions. The first three all relate to God: to God’s name (we pray that it will be held in holiness), to God’s kingdom (we pray that it will come soon), and to God’s will (we pray that it will be done everywhere by everyone). But when we turn from God to ourselves, you might think that Jesus would start with our highest needs, the spiritual ones, and then sort of work his way down to more mundane physical matters. Except he doesn’t do that. Jesus starts out by telling us to pray for our daily bread. The early Christian fathers couldn’t believe he really meant that, so they interpreted the word bread differently. The bread of which Jesus spoke, they said, was sacramental; it was the bread of the Eucharist. Or it was symbolic, standing for the Word of God. But Jesus was using the word in the plain, literal sense. He tells us: start praying about the things that most immediately concern you, the needs of your earthly, physical life.
Of course, “bread” here stands for far more than simply food. It refers to everything we need: to food, and clothing, and shelter and the other necessities of life, to work and family, to safety and well-being. Martin Luther explained that our daily bread includes “everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property, a pious spouse and good children, trustworthy servants, godly and faithful rulers, good government, seasonable weather, health, order, honor, true friends, faithful neighbors and,” Luther adds (just in case he missed anything), “the like.” We must also be careful to remember that we are told to pray for bread, not caviar, that is, for the necessities, not the luxuries, of life. This may not necessarily mean the kind of comfortable middle-class existence Luther envisioned and many of us enjoy. But we do have the confidence that as we pray for our real needs, God will meet them.
Notice too that Jesus also used an adjective in the petition; he said to pray for our daily bread. That’s a difficult word to translate. It could mean either “bread for today” or “bread for tomorrow”; but either way, the point is the same: we are to look to God for support each and every day. Jesus and his disciples lived in a subsistence culture, in which the ordinary worker earned enough each day for just one day’s needs. So God really doesn’t want us to pray for long-term security, so that we can ignore him for great stretches of time; he wants us to come to him daily with our needs, the way the children of Israel looked out each day for their manna in the wilderness. John Wesley has a fine statement on this word daily. He writes,
For we are to take no thought for the morrow. For this very end has our wise Creator divided life into these little portions of time, so clearly separated from each other; that we might look on every day as a fresh gift of God, another life, which we may devote to his glory; and that every evening may be as the close of life, beyond which we are to see nothing but eternity.
TRUTHS TO REMEMBER
Let me suggest to you three very important truths of which Jesus’ instruction to pray for our daily bread can remind us. The first is this: the prayer for daily bread reminds us of our dependence on God. To be honest, this petition often seems irrelevant. When many of us need to pray for the discipline to stop overeating, when we have so much food in our pantries and freezers we could easily go a month without shopping, when there is a supermarket on every other corner crammed with goods from floor to ceiling, our dependence upon God for daily bread is not always readily apparent. It may have been good to pray this way in Palestine in Jesus’ day, or in Somalia or Sudan today, but we think we can pretty much take care of ourselves.
This, of course, is completely false. Modern science and technology have allowed us to manage our environment and produce an abundance of things beyond our ancestors’ wildest imaginings, but in doing that they have created the illusion of human independence and self-sufficiency. But we are still utterly dependent upon God for everything, just as all people have always been. Our times, our health, our prosperity, our very lives are in God’s hands, and he has only to withhold his rain for a season or send some mighty calamity to remind us that this is so. Christians always remember that God is “the only source of everything good, and that neither our work and worry nor [his] gifts can do us any good without [his] blessing” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 125).
Second, the prayer for our daily bread reminds us of our responsibility. Notice again that the first-person pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer are all plural. We ask for our daily bread from our Father who is in heaven. You cannot sincerely pray that for yourself without also remembering others and their needs, in particular the hungry, the cold, the homeless and the refugee. You cannot in good conscience pray this prayer without resolving to do whatever you can to help the needy of the world, whether that is your next door neighbor or a starving child half a world away. God uses means to supply our needs. His normal practice is not to drop food or clothing direct to us from heaven; he uses other people: farmers, fishermen, employers, customers, whole networks of production and distribution. And he uses us to help others. Ask yourself this question: Why has God answered your prayer for daily bread with a superabundance of goods, far more than you need for just yourself? Was it so that you could indulge your every whim? Was it so that you could live in luxury while others scratch and struggle to survive? Was it so that you could build up the security that will insure a prosperous life not only for you but for your children after you? Or was it so that you could share with those who have little?
Finally, the prayer for our daily bread reminds us not to be anxious. There is something wonderful here. Jesus takes us straight from exalted thoughts about God (“Your kingdom come, your will be done”) to prayer for our daily needs. Do you see what that teaches us about the God we worship, the God to whom we pray? The same God who sits on the eternal throne of heaven, ushering in his universal kingdom and executing the decrees of his omnipotent will, the same God to whom, in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales.
(Isaiah 40:15, rsv)
– this God is concerned about all the little details of your life and mine. He knows our smallest needs, and he has told us to depend upon him for them. “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, or about our body, what you will put on . . . your heavenly Father knows that you need all . . . these things” (Matt. 6:25,32-33).
Pray for whatever you need to maintain your life, and God will give you what you ask – that is, unless he gives you something better. Sometimes when we pray for earthly blessings, God answers us with heavenly ones. He always reserves the right to give us better than we ask for.