Ethics and prayer (part 1 of 2)

If we are faithful in the way we follow Jesus, then our deepest and truest desires will find their expression in godly, counter-cultural, justice-shaped prayers passionately aligned to the kingdom and mission of God. Our best prayers will be ethical prayers.

In this and my next column, I want to explore the relation of ethics to prayer – what’s distinctive about ethical prayer, and how to do it well for maximum effectiveness and social impact.

We all pray, some more intelligently and strategically and often than others.   And we include ethical considerations in our prayers, whether public or private, silent, written or spoken.

We pray for peace in place of conflicts large and small. We pray for the defeat of evil and the triumph of good. We pray for our political leaders, and for electoral and legislative processes. We pray that God will intervene and bless people suffering in the face of natural and human-induced disasters, epidemics, famine and poverty.

We pray for practical divine demonstration of justice and mercy in our world. And sometimes we pray for the necessary wisdom, money and human resources to sustain moral communities and extend the ethical dimension of the kingdom of God in the world.

Prayer is an indispensible part of the life of a Christian, and intercession on ethical issues is indispensible to prayer (e.g. 1 Tim 2:1-4). When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, the pattern prayer that he gave them was profoundly ethical in its orientation and content (Mt 6:9-13).

The Lord’s Prayer comes to us in the form of seven ethical petitions. The first three focus on God and God’s mission in the world, while the remaining four are requests for God to meet our everyday needs.

The first petition may not at first seem to have anything to do with ethics. Yet faith in God, respect for God, and appreciation of God’s truth and justice and love are the normative foundation of an ethical life. Without God we are nothing, we have nothing, and we can do nothing.

To pray that God’s name may be kept holy is an invitation to align my whole being with the heart and mission of God, to honour God, to share fellowship with God, and then to extend the invitation to other persons of faith and to all. Christian ethics is by nature universal. If we fail to understand this, there is no point proceeding with the rest of the prayer.

The second petition builds on the first, and provides a missional mandate and an eschatological context for the third. When I pray, “Your kingdom come…” I acknowledge that my world and all its structures and achievements are incomplete and far from perfect.

The world as we experience it is not the world as it is meant to be. As we perceive this truth, we cry out to God to draw us, as a community, slowly but surely toward God’s ultimate goal, what the Bible calls shalom: the full realization of God’s kingdom and will.

If prayer for the arrival of the kingdom of God is a compass pointing us in the right direction, then praying that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven” offers a map to shape our prayers. Following Jesus every day, surrendering to his will, has the effect of renewing our hearts and minds, enabling us to “test and approve what God’s will is” (Rom 12:2).

As this occurs, we join hearts and hands with others, praying for God’s will to be discerned and obeyed by people of influence in the institutions and structures on which we all depend for mercy and hope, peace and justice.

To pray, “Give us today our daily bread” is to acknowledge our dependence on God for basic needs, confessing God’s sovereignty, and reminding us to trust God for his mercies large and small.

It is also a prayer calling for justice, for employment and social welfare, and by implication for actions to curb the injustice and corruption that arise from power, greed and ignorance. The Lord’s Prayer has an inescapable social justice dimension.

The fifth petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” is firstly about becoming morally virtuous persons. It calls for a culture of forgiveness and freedom from various kinds of debt. It celebrates the grace we find through positive relationship with God and with others. It marks us out as ambassadors of reconciliation – not the recovery of what is owed to us but the restoration of right relations in a community torn and bruised by human failings.

Those unwilling to seek forgiveness, and to forgive, cannot know God and cannot share in the realization of his kingdom. This part of the Lord’s Prayer demands humility, maturity, courage and compassion.

Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. In Part 2 of this post, he concludes his reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, and discusses the tactical use of prayer and the place of prayer in public life.

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