The Lord’s Prayer: Reimagining God as Shared

D. J. Marotta
header for The Lord’s Prayer: Reimagining God as Shared

The opening invocation of the Lord’s Prayer seems a bit of a false start. The collective pronoun “our” immediately challenges what I think I know. I think I know who I am and who God is. I think I have a decent grasp of who the good guys and the bad guys are out there in the big scary world. And when it comes time to talk to God, I think I know what I need. However, the Lord’s Prayer tells me I am wrong on every point. Thankfully, in God’s kindness, He does not slap my folded hands or roll His eyes in annoyance. Rather, like a patient parent whose child has just burst into the kitchen demanding a snack, God smiles at me and gently says, “Let’s back up and try that again, shall we?”

This may be the best way to understand the tone of Jesus’ voice when His disciples ask Him to teach them to pray and He responds, “When you pray, say.” It was expected for first century rabbis to teach their disciples proper technique in prayer; and thus, the disciples’ request was not an unusual one. Of course, not much has changed in two thousand years. People continue to ask pastors, rabbis, shamans, and gurus for advice on prayer technique, and all too often, we vendors of spiritual goods and services are eager to dispense our wisdom of the mysteries of the universe. Two things are true here:

1. Books proposing to offer a brilliant, secret, new way of praying will always be top sellers.

2. Those same books will soon line the shelves of Goodwill thrift stores.

My offer to you, the reader, is not a new, hitherto undiscovered form of praying that will unlock the treasures of divine pleasure, as if God were a cellophane-wrapped candy bar whose sweetness you could enjoy if only you could just find that invisible edge of the plastic and start pulling. Rather, the audacious idea here is to offer something that is not new, but old, and not secret, but public. The Lord’s Prayer is very old and very well- known. Case in point, people who openly mock the church have the Lord’s Prayer memorized. Clearly it doesn’t work very well.

Or does it?

G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult, and left untried.” In the same way, I propose that the Lord’s Prayer has not been prayed and found ineffectual; it has been found unimpressive and left un-prayed.


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”?

From the crack of the starting pistol, we have already gotten into trouble with this prayer. It’s like trying to follow directions that begin with, Step 1: Combine said ingredients. We think we must have missed a step and 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 God 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 that 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 do not like praying. They prefer for the pastor or priest to 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 God is beyond you and therefore shouldn’t be approached too casually. God is not 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 like a lion and prayer feels like entering His territory. Better to leave such dangerous work to the professionals.

For both types of people, that little word “Our” may trip them up. “Our” tells you that God is neither your God, nor is He someone else’s God. He is not private or borrowed; He is shared. The plural “Our” immediately shows us that prayer is not a one-on-one conversation between us and God, it involves other people.

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, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  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 there. The “Our” is all the children of God. “Our” sets us in a family. Easy enough, right? Maybe not. For many, there’s something offensive about the word “Our.” When we slow down and think about who all might be included in this, we start to get uncomfortable. If we dwell on it too long, we may even break out in hives. Personally, 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 said, “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 and not exactly known for their virtue: “‘Ah, stubborn children,’ declares the Lord, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine.’” When the disciples considered who all might be included in this “Our,” no doubt they squirmed. Could the “Our” include: Prodigal sons and elder brothers? Tax collectors and prostitutes? Pharisees and Roman soldiers? Rich young rulers and impoverished widows?

“Our” Is Offensive

In our current cultural moment, could the list of deplorables read: Christians of other denominations and tribes? Liberals and conservatives? Activists and passivists? Urbanites and country folk? People who listen to Nickelback? Millennials and Boomers?

No doubt you can easily 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 cat- egory as people we have spent our entire lives working very 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 get 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 into the church, 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 a part of the “Our.”

When we say “Our,” we are not only put into the gang of illegitimate children of God, but we are 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. This is why, if a congregation embraces the practice of praying the Lord’s Prayer weekly 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” that was coming out of their mouths, they would at least experience a weekly reminder that there can be no private access to Jesus that does not inherently include a family relationship with other sinners.

Jesus looks out on His disciples who are hungry for the best way to pray, thirsty for a way of praying that will give them a spiritual leg up in the world. Jesus perceives the same tendency toward a competitive, judgmental, and spiritual consumerism in them that He rightly perceives in us. But He does not sigh with exasperation. Rather, like that patient parent from earlier, 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 is in and who is out. Jesus doesn’t tell us that we’re wrong or give us a detailed list of who’s in or out. He simply instructs us to say “Our” with Him, leaving it to us to reflect on who else might be saying “Our” as well.

For Further Reading:

Liturgy in the Wilderness

by D. J. Marotta

What you pray . . . shapes what you believe . . . shapes how you live. The Lord’s Prayer is a beautiful, subversive passage of words...

book cover for Liturgy in the Wilderness