The Paradoxical Pastoral Piety of the Lord’s Prayer

Pastoral ministry is a true paradox. Pastors must be tough enough to “wage the good warfare” while also remaining gentle enough to resemble “a nursing mother taking care of her children” (1 Tim. 1:18; 1 Thess. 2:7). Our call is to fight off the fierce wolves who would not spare the flock, and also to seek out the lost, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak (Acts 20:29; Ezek. 34:16). We must act like men and be strong, but not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick (1 Cor. 16:13; Matt. 12:20).

Every sincere pastor knows the difficulty of striking this balance in the heat of spiritual battle. In our sinful flesh, we are quick to pick a fight and, perplexingly, just as quick to retreat into passivity. Yet, as willing as our spirit may be, our flesh is weak—indeed, incapable—of speaking perfect truth in perfect love (Matt. 26:41; Eph. 4:15).

In this article, we will consider weapons for spiritual warfare that the Lord has given toward this end—not weapons of the flesh, but weapons of divine power (2 Cor. 10:4). Specifically, we will explore the Lord’s Prayer as a resource for cultivating paradoxical pastoral piety of fierce humility and meek boldness.

The Paradoxical Preface of the Lord’s Prayer

The preface of the Lord’s Prayer immediately establishes a balance between these seemingly contradictory values of boldness and humility: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” To begin, Jesus teaches us to pray to God as our Father, coming to him with “all…confidence, as children to a father able and ready to help us” (WSC 100). When my children need something, they do not care in the least what I am doing, whether working or sleeping. Instead, they burst directly into my presence to make their requests. Jesus says that we should approach our Father like uninhibited children.

Nevertheless, Jesus also teaches us to acknowledge that our Father is in heaven. If our God is in heaven, he does all that he pleases, and we would be fools to run our mouths with many words in his presence (Ps. 115:3; Eccl. 5:1–3). Therefore, we come with confidence as the children of our Father, but we also pray humbly, with “all holy reverence” (WSC 100) as the unworthy servants of Almighty God (Luke 17:10).

Thus, Jesus characterizes true piety—including true pastoral piety—as prayer from two postures: in boldness as sons and abasement as slaves. Jesus splits up the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer into two sets of three petitions, working out the full implications of the two-sidedness of our posture in prayer.

Our Fierce Humility for the King and His Kingdom

The first set of three petitions teach us to pray in a posture of humility, but a kind of humility that fights. To do this, the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer reorients our attention and desires away from exalting ourselves, and toward glorifying the King and his kingdom.

First, we pray that God’s name would be “hallowed” or “sanctified.” By this petition, God lifts our eyes from the battles that rage around us to the “King of ages, immortal, immortal, invisible, the only God,” to whom “be glory forever and ever” (1 Tim. 1:17). If we do not have a clear vision of God’s glory, we will lack proper motivation and proper direction for our spiritual warfare.

Second, we pray that God’s kingdom will come. As I pray this second petition, the Lord often convicts my motivations for prayer: too often, I seek God’s help to build my kingdom. From these motivations, I fight wrongly to advance my own interests or to retreat from personal pain, humility, and sacrifice. Jesus teaches us to pray this petition so that we may relinquish our personal kingdoms in order to seek first his kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33).

Third, we pray that God’s will may be done on earth, as in heaven. Our Lord drew upon this petition in his own hour of dark trial in the garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed three times, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). In the anguish of his humanity, Jesus set an example for us to fight within our souls for single-minded devotion to the will of God, regardless of the cost.

These first three petitions stir in us a fierce humility: fierce devotion to God, yet humility under the glory of our King’s majesty. Each time we pray, we re-learn that our position is lowly, and that our God is exalted in the heavens.

Our Meek Boldness as the Children of our Father

In the second set of three petitions, Jesus does not teach us to bring a laundry list of requests to God. Rather, our Lord teaches us to acknowledge our absolute frailty and dependence upon him.

So, the fourth petition acknowledges our physical neediness: “Give us this day our daily bread.” While many of us in the West have never lacked food in our lives, the disruptions of the last few years have demonstrated the precariousness of our plenty. We are constantly and utterly dependent on God’s provision. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 17:5).

The fifth petition acknowledges our spiritual neediness: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Our bodies cannot survive without daily bread, and our souls cannot stand before God without forgiveness (Ps. 130:3). Furthermore, we cannot proclaim the gospel of grace to other sinners if we have not laid hold of the blood and righteousness of Jesus for ourselves.

The sixth petition acknowledges our spiritual weakness: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Later, Jesus taught Peter that he must be vigilant to watch and pray (Matt. 26:41). Thus, we should be watchful through prayer, by asking “that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support and deliver us when we are tempted” (WSC 106). If Peter could deny his Master despite being an apostle and “a fellow elder” (1 Pet. 5:1) with us, then we must be all the more watchful in our own lives and ministries.

The Resolution of the Paradox in Kingdom Prayer

“Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Pastoral ministry is overwhelming and unrelenting, and in the flesh, we have no sufficient weapons to wrestle against the “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12). In the face of such discouragement, the conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer “teacheth us to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise him, ascribing kingdom, power and glory to him” (WSC 107).

It is by prayer, then, that we fight the good fight with absolute humility. In prayer, God trains us to leave behind our personal vendettas, and he realigns our hearts to treasure Christ and his kingdom. Through prayer, God assures us that “he is able and willing to help us, so we by faith are emboldened to plead with him that he would, and quietly to rely upon him, that he will fulfill our requests” (WLC 196).

Beloved brothers, let us remain steadfast and immovable as we abound in prayer (1 Cor. 15:58). Let us fight from our knees in paradoxical meekness as we lay hold of Christ’s grace and favor through faith. “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (2 Chron. 20:15).