When You Pray, It’s Okay to Plagiarize

“Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:9-13).

Though we know it by rote through overlearning, we can never exhaust the theology of the Lord's Prayer. It therefore retains deep endless value and profound meaningfulness throughout our lives. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we're not just repeating what he has given us to say; we are actually praying. More precisely, we are praying what he wants us to pray his will, not ours; for his reasons, not ours.

The Messiah had a very good reason for us to take this prayer upon our lips and entrench it within our hearts through overlearning: "For we do not know what to pray for as we ought" (Rom. 8:26). And so, there is a divine expectation that we converse and commune with God, but we do not and cannot pray as we ought since we are as Luther put it always a sinner and constantly sinning in thought, word, and deed, even while justified in this life by Jesus' imputed righteousness. Therefore Christ must redeem us and fulfill even the "law of prayer" on our behalf. He not only fulfills the law of prayer and wins for us the Holy Spirit who makes intercession for us, he also bequeaths to us the perfect prayer as an availing entreaty to our heavenly Father.

Fabricating a prayer as one "ought" is an impossible task. Christians feel, in a visceral as well as cognitive way, the insufficiency of their prayers that is our "always a sinner" nature. Our words are failing and ill-suited because we so often live by sight and not by faith. Our approach to the Holy One is undeniably contrived and ill-mannered, our speech muddled and imprecise. But thanks be to God that Christ has liberated us from even the work of prayer and, with his own words, has transformed our ignorant stammering into a soul-satisfying communing with God through the plagiarized words of that Word made flesh.

The gift of the Lord's Prayer frees Christians from the unrealistic expectation of posturing a strong faith and spiritual answers when people seek words of comfort and hope. The reality is that more times than not the words aren't there. We are usually at a loss regarding what to say to God on behalf of another person or, alternatively, to God himself regarding the fulfillment of his purposes in the world. The Lord's Prayer frees us from the tyranny of spiritual creativity and allows us to rest in the confidence of something certain and true. Instead of fabricating something snappy to garner God's attention, Jesus would have us lose all such originality and simply plagiarize.

The call of Christ, then, is to think differently from the way we usually think about prayer: originality isn't necessarily a virtue, and plagiarizing isn't necessarily a vice. Move from the propensity toward sinful subjectivity and enter into the realm of divine objectivity by taking license to steal, at the behest of the Lord himself.

Jesus steers us into the sphere of communing with our heavenly Father through prayer that is not based on anything we could or would fabricate, precisely because our creative prayers are the product of sinful hearts. He may have been thinking in the category of Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Our prayers naturally arise out of our own desires, and our own truncated and anthropocentric vision of reality; and Jesus more than anyone understood the hearts of men (cf. John 2:25). Consequently, when our hearts and minds are the fountainhead of prayer, the conversation with God starts off on bad footing.

But there is another source untainted, vital, and true. That source is God. More specifically, it's God as revealed in the Bible. We could get even more specific in that it is God revealed in his Son, Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh. When we say that God is the source for our prayers, we need to understand that our prayers need to be plagiarized prayers. We need to be praying for what God wants us to pray that is, what we ought to pray. That means taking the words of the Way, the Truth, and the Life and putting them into our mouths.

You will be able to pray in a godly fashion something that is true, something according to God's will, something purposed toward the manifestation of God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. You will be praying what God desires to hear. Again, this is the disciple's confidence: praying the Word of God back to God allows you to say that which is most certain and true nothing doubting.

The Lord's Prayer cannot be outgrown, rendered redundant, or denominated as outmoded. One simply cannot come to the point where this prayer has been mastered or where it is merely a didactic device, if for no other reason than it entreats the Lord for forgiveness, for necessities of life, for the prospering of the kingdom of God in the here and now in hope of the not yet. While the Lord's Prayer is simple, it encompasses all of prayer, adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. Even if it were just a simple thing, there would be nothing greater in praying to God than what he has given us in this prayer if for no other reason than the sufficiency of Scripture begets the sufficiency of this prayer, so that it can be said that the Word made flesh gave this Word for those in the flesh that our flesh may be conformed to this Word.

Approach the throne of the great King telling him what he said, what he loves to hear, what he knows to be his good and perfect will. If you have ever wondered whether God answers your prayers, then wonder no more. By praying to him what he has given you to pray, you are assured he not only hears but answers your prayers according to his good and perfect will.


Adapted from John J. Bombaro, "Plagiarizing the Lord’s Prayer" Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec 2011. Used by permission. 

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John J. Bombaro

John J. Bombaro is pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, a congregation in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. He has served this congregation since 2007. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as an author and US Navy Chaplain. He and his wife Melinda live in San Diego with their four children.

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