This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(125) Q. What does the fourth petition mean?
A. “Give us this day our daily bread” means: Provide for all our physical needs so that we may recognize that you are the only source of everything good, and that neither our care and work nor your gifts can do us any good without your blessing. Therefore may we withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it in you alone.
For many people around the world, today and throughout history, the meaning of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is obvious. Famished and malnourished people have little illusion about their ability to provide for themselves. “Give us this day our daily bread” means just what it says: “God, feed us!”
But what do Jesus’s words mean for people who have never prayed for food with anything like a sense of panic? Many of us live as though we can meet our own needs. We aren’t starving or impoverished. But Jesus is saying the same thing to us as to the poor and hungry. For all our material wealth, we too are just a few steps away from dust and ashes. No matter our situation, this request calls us to stop trusting in human strength and ingenuity and look to God for everything we need.
Pray for Physical Help
Scripture presents bread as a dietary staple; without it people died (Jer. 38:9). So in Jesus’s prayer, bread stands for resources essential for human flourishing. He wants us ask God to “Provide for all our physical needs.”
Jesus is reminding us of our humanity. We are made of body and soul; the connection between the two is so intimate that only death separates them. God’s creation of Adam reveals the beautiful symbiosis of the two constituent parts of humanity. God “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7). Without souls we would be inanimate shapes; without bodies we would be little more than wind. But we are living creatures, beautifully shaped and energized by a loving creator (Ps. 139:13–16). God loves bodies! Jesus promised rest for weary souls (Matt. 11:29) and provided food for hungry stomachs, commending the practice also to his disciples (Matt. 25:31–46). At the resurrection, God will re-form our dusty bodies into glorious, powerful ones (1 Cor. 15:43).
We may not so spiritualize the Christian life that we neglect the body. Our spirituality matters. But so does our physicality. So into a prayer packed with spiritual concerns, Jesus injects a request for our most ordinary physical needs. We live out our callings in bodies. And the state of our bodies can powerfully affect our spiritual life. When hungry, we might be tempted to steal (Prov. 30:8, 9) or lash out in anger. When sick or tired, we might have less physical stamina to resist temptation. Chronic pain can contribute to spiritual discouragement. Satan made a reasonable bet when he told God, “Touch [Job’s] bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 2:5).
Life is more than food, and drink, and clothing (Matt. 6:25). But we do need those things! God knows it (Matt. 6:32). And he invites us to pray for the bodies he made, sustains, and will recreate.
Pray for Spiritual Understanding
The ultimate goal of the fourth petition is not that we would be well-fed but that we would better know and trust God. So as we pray for our daily bread, we also pray for a healthier spiritual life.
Pray for diminished confidence in human labors.
Especially affluent people put too much confidence in the power of human achievement. The caution is always relevant: “If riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Ps. 62:10; cf. Jer. 17:5, 7). But we do. “Deep down we feel secure when we have money in the bank, a healthy report from the doctor, and powerful people on our side. We do not trust in God alone.” Our prayerlessness reveals our “strong confidence in our ability to take care of ourselves without God’s help.”[i] God gave the Israelites this warning: “Beware, lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deut. 8:17). They forgot. In truth they did not build or furnish their houses, dig their cisterns, or plant their vineyards and olive trees (Deut. 6:10–11). God freely provided them. And it’s always that way. No one prospers by mere human might.
We must labor with wisdom and diligence to provide for ourselves and others (Eph. 4:28). But none of our efforts will matter if God does not bless them to our good (Ps. 127:1–2; 90:17). We can eat healthy food and still get cancer; we can receive the best cancer treatment and still die. We can work hard to earn money and still be poor; we can gain riches and still be miserable. It is true in every possible way: “Naked, [we] come to thee for dress; helpless, [we] look to thee for grace.”[ii] As we pray for God’s fatherly care, we ask for hearts that truly believe that we need his fatherly care. We plead with God to help us “withdraw our trust from all creatures.”
Pray for greater trust in God’s work.
God is “the only source of everything good.” So we should place our trust in him alone. In our physical neediness, we pray for help to “give ourselves over to his care, and entrust ourselves to his providence, that he may feed, nourish, and preserve us.”[iii]
Trust is a learned behavior. God calls us to cast our burdens on him, trusting him to sustain us (Ps. 55:22). Only by a habit of asking God for our basic needs and practicing awareness as he regularly meets our needs will we develop a reflex of trust and a consciousness of gratitude. If we pay attention, good gifts will witness to the goodness of an invisible God (Acts 14:17). Every blessing is an opportunity to give credit to God (James 1:17).
And when we pray for physical needs, we will develop deeper trust even when we go without. God sometimes humbles us with less than we would like to make us know that “man does not live by bread alone; but … by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Satan was wrong: Job didn’t curse God to his face! Looking forward to the resurrection, Job had hope beyond bodily well-being (Job 19:25–27). As we learn to trust God to care for our physical bodies in this life, we will also learn to more strongly anticipate glorified bodies for the life to come.
The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is a testimony to what is just so: we cannot provide for ourselves. But we can ask for help from a God who is more than able to meet our needs. Ask your heavenly Father to give you what he deems best. And ask him to teach you to give him all the credit, to depend on his blessing, and to learn to trust him more.
[i] Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot, 232.
[ii] Augustus M. Toplady, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 452.
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.44