The disciples once witnessed Jesus praying. When He was finished, one of the twelve asked Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). In answer to that question, the Lord told His disciples –by means of what we call the Lord’s Prayer– that the focus of all prayer to God was to be that His Name be hallowed the more. That hallowing of God’s wonderful name occurs in a context of war; in God’s kingdom are many rebels, persons who don’t acknowledge His kingship. He taught also that God’s kingdom is made to come and His name is given the glory when sinners obey God’s commands. Hence the third petition: ‘Your will be done.’ And in order that the disciples have the where-with-all to do the will of God (that in turn His kingdom is made to come and His name glorified), they needed to ask God to "give us day by day our daily bread."
This request for bodily needs was not the last petition Jesus taught His disciples. It could not be the end of Jesus’ instruction about prayer because the disciples invariably misused the good gifts God gave in answer to the fourth petition.
Jesus gave His instruction about prayer on a particular day. The twelve disciples –and they were all gathered around Jesus listening to His instruction– had all received so many bits and pieces earlier in the day already. They’d received from God’s hand the gift of sleep, the health to get out of bed that morning, clothes to put on, breakfast to eat, strength to do their chores, etc. It had all come from God’s hand, and had been given so that Andrew and Nathaniel and Matthew and Thomas and the rest of the disciples might obey God’s commands for them in their circumstances – so that in turn God’s kingdom was made to come and His name be glorified.
But: what had the disciples done with the many good gifts God had given that day? The Bible is so clear on the point: the disciples invariably had not used God’s good gifts only for the praise of God’s glorious name. The Scriptures of the Old Testament speak of every person being evil, of none being righteous, of none seeking after God, of all having turned aside to do their own thing (Ps 14:1ff; cf Rom 3:10ff). Indeed, even our best works are defiled with sin (Is 64:6). In the words of Lord’s Day 51: men are "wretched sinners". This was material the disciples could know from their Bibles; God taught them that they had invariably misused all the "bodily needs" God had given them that morning already.
The disciples could know also that God hated this misuse of His gifts. They were familiar with passages of Scripture as Deuteronomy 32. The passage relates the fact that God supplied Israel’s bodily needs most abundantly; God gave
With fat of lambs;
And rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats,
With the choicest of wheat…" (vss 13f).
And He said: ‘I will hide My face from them.’"
On the particular day when Jesus spoke to His disciples about prayer, they had received so much already from the Lord. The disciples knew from Scripture too that they had not used it all to God’s glory. More, they knew from Scripture what God’s reaction was to their misuse of His gifts. Given that they knew this, how could they seek God’s face in prayer?! Given that they had misused so much of God’s gracious gifts to them, how could they ever ask God again for daily bread – even if they ask it so that they might have the where-with-all to do God’s will, to make His kingdom come, to hallow His name? They dare not seek His face any more with such a petition, simply because they’d misused the gifts God had already given today. Then ask for more daily bread tomorrow?! That’s not on! It’s exactly our dogged misuse of God’s gifts that makes praying so difficult!
In this setting, Jesus’ instruction about prayer is surprising, encouraging! It is as if Jesus tells His disciples, ‘I know that God has given you much this morning already, and I know also that you have not used all God’s gifts simply and only for the glory of the Giver. But, My disciples, that does not mean that you should despair, that you should quit praying. Rather, the fact that you have misused Father’s gracious gifts to you today –be it the gift of energy, of food, of health, of speech, of intellect, etc– should prompt you to pray for forgiveness.’ Says Jesus to His disciples: ‘it is true that you have chalked up a debt with God through your misuse of the bodily needs God gave to you this morning. But,’ Jesus adds, ‘don’t let the existence of the debt stop you from praying. Rather, mention the reality of the debt to Him. Tell Him in so many words that you have a debt with God. Tell Him that you’ve misused His gifts, tell Him that you have not used His gifts to obey His will alone, tell Him that you’ve used the tongue He gave you to speak evil of another, tell Him that you’ve used the energy and the intellect He gave you in order to build up your own ego and reputation. Remind Him of that debt – go ahead.’
Jesus goes further than instructing the disciples to remind God of the debt. Jesus tells His disciples not just to confess the reality of having a debt; He tells them also to ask God please to forgive that debt!
What might the notion of ‘forgive’ mean? The request that God please ‘forgive’ is not a plea that God please ignore the debt we’ve accumulated with Him through our misuse of His gifts. Nor is it a plea that God simply write off that debt. Both those concepts –to ignore and to write off– imply that the debt leave its traces on God’s books, is still ‘discoverable’ so that it can one day be dragged up again and possibly be held against us. The concept ‘forgiveness’ has a far richer content. ‘Forgiveness’ captures the notion that sins are gone, irretrievably gone. I think of the words of David in Ps 103:
So far has He removed our transgressions from us" (vs 12).
The prophet Micah speaks of sins being "pardoned", "passed over", and
then describes these sins as being "cast…into the depths of the sea" (7:18f).
Again, with today’s technology one can retrieve what is cast into the depths
of the sea. It was not possible, however, in the days of Micah. And that’s
the point: sins are removed, irretrievably removed so that they
cannot be dragged up again. Consider the gravy left over on your dinner
plate. Once that plate is washed, the gravy washed away, you cannot retrieve
it, cannot reconstruct the mess on the plate. It’s washed away, gone, irretrievably
gone. That’s the notion of ‘forgiveness’. And that, says Jesus to His disciples,
is what they are to ask God to do with the debt they’ve piled up with Him
through their misuse of the breakfast, the energy, the money, the time,
the talents, the ‘bodily needs’ God gave them that day.