How to pray: a review of Justo Gonzalez’s *Teach Us to Pray: The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church and Today* (Part 1)

Read this entire review series here.

Many politically-minded evangelicals, most of them Trump supporters, have been doing a lot public praying lately.

For example, Jim Garlow, an outspoken court evangelical during the last administration, began holding ZOOM prayer meetings for “election integrity” after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. Pro-Trump radio host and author Eric Metaxas has been a regular “attendee.” During one of these meetings, Metaxas prayed that God would bring a miracle before January 20, 2021 (Inauguration Day) to stop the peaceful transition of power from Biden to Trump. He even asked God, in a reference to the early Christian martyrs, to raise up “courageous” Christian patriots to go “to their deaths singing hymns” to save the republic.

Trump spiritual adviser Paula White infamously prayed that angels from Africa and South America would come to the United States and do battle with the “demonic confederacies” attempting to steal the election from Trump.

Some of you may remember the Christian nationalists who made it into the Senate chamber on January 6, 2021. A few of them, including the so-called “QAnon Shaman,” stood behind the vice-presidential desk and prayed to Jesus.

Yesterday I saw a CNN story showing a Christian anti-vaxxer named Charlene Bollinger praying at a pro-Trump rally on the day of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. In this video, Bollinger prays: “We pray for the patriots that are there now trying to get inside the Capitol. Lord, use these people to eradicate this evil, these swamp creatures, this cesspool of filth and waste….”

During the December 12, 2020 “Jericho March” in Washington D.C., I heard several people take the stage to pray. A Catholic priest asked God to save America from demons (I assume he meant the Democrats). Metaxas urged the crowd to use their “prayer language” in the hopes of overturning the election results. The crowd prayed the Lord’s Prayer on at least one occasion.

Speaking of the Lord’s Prayer, I have always understood it as a model. As a Christian, I try to pray it several times a day. While it is not the only prayer one can pray, its words capture the true spirit of Christian prayer. Luke 11 describes a disciple approaching Jesus and asking him to “teach us to pray.” Jesus responds with what has now become the Lord’s Prayer. I grew up Catholic, so I pray it this way:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

I just completed Justo Gonzalez‘s Teach Us To Pray: The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church and Today. It was hard to read this book and not think about the way some evangelicals have manipulated the practice of prayer to serve political ends. Teach Us To Pray not only interprets the Gospel passages (Luke 11 and Matthew 6) in which Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, but it also draws heavily on the ways the church fathers and reformers– Cyprian, Luther, Augustine, Aquinas, Gregory of Nyssa, Tertullian, Origen, John Chrysostom, Calvin, etc.– understood the Lord’s Prayer.

This short book is extremely valuable for the way it breaks down each word or phrase in the prayer. Gonzalez begins with the word “our,” as in “Our Father.” He quotes John Chrysostom:

For he saith not, “my Father, which art in Heaven,’ but “our Father,” offering up his supplications, for the body in common, and nowhere looking to his own, but everywhere to his neighbor’s good. And by this He sat once takes away hatred, and quells pride, and casts our envy, and brings in the mother of all good things, even charity, and exterminates the inequality of human beings, and shows how far the equality reaches between the king and the poor man, if at least in those things which are greatest and most indispensable, we are all of us fellows.

The use of the word “our” suggests that God is the “Father” of not only of one particular nation, but of all believers. Prayer should not be used to promote tribalism or nationalism. As Gonzalez writes, when we say “Our Father” we “are praying in the name of a reality that is much wider than any one of us.” Those who recite the Lord’s Prayer are globalists.

When we pray, we are also calling upon a God “who art in heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer is a reminder of God’s distance, his mystery, and his total otherness. Yes, we can know him through prayer, the scriptures, and the indwelling Holy Spirit, and we can see him made manifest in the world around us, but Jesus makes sure to remind the disciples that he is also “in heaven.” Gonzalez, borrowing from 20th-century theologian Karl Barth, notes:

…the heavens are all that we cannon know, not simply in the sense that we don’t understand it yet, as is the case, for instance, with a law of physics, but rather because the very nature of heaven is a mystery beyond our capabilities. As Barth says, in contrast to earth, which is the sum of all that we can understand and explore be it on the planet where we live or in the most distance space, heaven is mystery beyond our understanding, beyond our expressions, and even beyond our imagination.

I like how N.T. Wright puts in his book The Lord & His Prayer: “there is good scriptural warrant for finding prayer puzzling and mysterious” (Wright cites St. Paul in Romans 8:18-27). Yet many evangelicals pray in public with a sense of certainty and an arrogant belief that they are offering their prayers to God, “who art in heaven,” from what they might call “the right side of history.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of this review.