From the crack of the starting pistol, we get into trouble with the Lord’s Prayer. This is one of those funny situations where you’re only lost if you’re paying attention. Our? Why the plural? Who is included in this “our”? It’s like trying to follow directions that begin with, “Step 1: Combine said ingredients.” Assuming we missed a step, we begin shuffling through stacks of papers looking for the lost front page.
Most of us naturally fall into two camps: those who would like to address the Lord as “My God” and those who feel more comfortable with a respectfully distanced “Mr. God, sir.”
The “My God” people like praying. They feel cozy with God. He’s like that fantastic third-grade teacher who would wink at you when the rest of the class didn’t understand the lesson but you both knew you did. There’s something wonderful about being this sort of person. You get the approachability of God. You love that God is always available, always present, always ready to listen. You feel like a child of God, and the next word in the prayer—“Father”—flows naturally off your tongue.
The “Mr. God, sir” people generally don’t like praying. They prefer the pastor do their praying for them. There’s something wonderful about being this sort of person as well. You get the awful, terrifying otherness of God. You respect that he’s beyond you and therefore shouldn’t be approached too casually. God isn’t a golden retriever, and you know it. God is more like a Clydesdale draft horse. Entering his field is dangerous—you might get a hoof through your skull. To use the biblical metaphor, God is a lion and prayer feels like entering his territory. Better to leave such dangerous work to the professionals.
If you’re either type of person, that little word “our” may trip you up. “Our” tells you God is neither your God nor someone else’s God. He is not private or borrowed; he is shared. The plural “our” immediately shows us that prayer isn’t a one-on-one conversation between us and God. It involves other people.
God is not private or borrowed; he is shared.
Who are these other people? Well, given that we’re about to address God as “Father,” the logical answer would be that all the children of God are included in the “our.” As the beloved disciple John wrote, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
The Anglican Catechism puts it succinctly:
Q: Why does Jesus teach us to pray “our” Father?
A: Jesus teaches us always to understand ourselves not only as individuals but as members of God’s family of believers, and to pray accordingly.
So the “our” is all the children of God. “Our” sets us in a family. Easy enough, right?
We’re All in This Together . . . Right?
For many, there’s something offensive about the word “our.” When we slow down and think about who might be included in this, we start to get uncomfortable. There are people I find rather obnoxious, and I’d rather not pray with them. I may even get uncomfortable thinking about the fact that I am included in that “our.” Groucho Marx may have had the church in mind when he quipped, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
After all, the children of God are an unruly bunch not always known for their virtue: “‘Ah, stubborn children,’ declares the LORD, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine’” (Isa. 30:1). When the disciples considered who might be included in this “our,” no doubt they squirmed. Could the “our” include former prodigal sons and elder brothers? Tax collectors and prostitutes? Pharisees and Roman soldiers? Rich young rulers and impoverished widows?
In our current cultural moment, what could the list of deplorables read?
- Christians of other denominations and tribes?
- Political liberals and conservatives?
- Activists and pacifists?
- Urbanites and country folk?
- People who listen to Nickelback?
- Millennials and boomers?
No doubt you can think of a few people who shouldn’t be allowed in, who shouldn’t be allowed to use “our.” The “our” is fundamentally offensive because it places us in the same category as people we’ve spent our lives working hard to differentiate ourselves from. After all the time, money, and energy I’ve put into becoming the “right kind of person,” the “our” tells me I’m just going to be lumped in with the flotsam and jetsam of the church! I’m glad to pray for those who have somehow managed to make their way in, but do I have to pray with them? Do I have to identify with them?
The answer from the Lord Jesus is a quiet, warm, and simple “yes,” which at first feels disappointing but which bears within it a wonderful privilege.
Jesus is part of the “our” too.
When we say “our,” we’re not only put into the gang of illegitimate children of God; we’re also put into siblinghood with Christ, our older brother. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to address God in union with Jesus himself. If we would pray with Jesus, then we must pray with his people—all of them—even (and perhaps especially) with those we don’t much like.
The ‘our’ places us in the same category as people we’ve spent our entire lives working hard to differentiate ourselves from.
This is why, if a congregation embraces the practice of praying the Lord’s Prayer in corporate worship, it provides a means by which people of differing political and cultural convictions can move toward unity in Jesus. It might not hold the disparate groups together forever. But if all understood the radical “our” coming out of their mouths, they would at least experience a weekly reminder that there can be no private access to Jesus that doesn’t inherently include a family relationship with other sinners.
Jesus looked out on his disciples who were hungry for the best way to pray, thirsty for a way of praying that would give them a spiritual leg up in the world. He perceived the same tendency toward a competitive, judgmental spirit in them that he rightly perceives in us. But he doesn’t sigh with exasperation. Rather, like a patient parent, he thinks, Let’s back up and try this again, shall we? When you pray, say “Our . . .”
“Our” subverts our preferences and assumptions about who’s in and who’s out. Jesus doesn’t give us a detailed list. He simply instructs us to say the word with him, leaving it to us to reflect on who else might be saying “our” as well.