As we begin a new year, it is traditional to evaluate our lives and make resolutions for improvement. Although we are already a few weeks into the year, this is a good time to evaluate the disciplines that structure our spiritual lives.
Spiritual disciplines are practices that we engage in regularly to help us grow as disciples. The ones we hear about most often are prayer and Bible reading/study, but if you are serious about growing your spiritual life there are many more you should be practicing, at least occasionally.
My purpose here is not to do a survey of spiritual disciplines. Instead, in this article and the next, I would like to focus on two specific practices that go back to the earliest days of the church: regular times of daily prayer and weekly times of fasting.
Prayer in Second Temple Judaism
To understand the early church’s prayer practice, we need to look at prayer in Judaism in Jesus’ day. Centuries before, on the return from the Babylonian Exile, Ezra established three times of prayer each day; this was later made mandatory for all Jews in the Talmud. Observant Jews in Jesus’ day prayed a set of prayers known as the Amidah, or the Twelve Benedictions (later expanded to eighteen) at each of these three times of prayer. The rabbis believed this to be a sacred obligation on all Jews, and thus failing to recite the prayers was a sin.
These prayers took a good deal of time, however. Rabbis and other “professionals” would recite them completely, but praying the entire Amidah three times a day was a burden for the average person with a job and a family. Students thus asked rabbis for a more concise version of the prayers that would be more practical for them to say while still avoiding sin.
For example, Rabbi Eleazar, a younger contemporary of Jesus, gave this version to his disciples:
May your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you [on earth] below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O LORD, who answers prayer.
Jesus’ Example and Teaching on Prayer
Prayer was central to Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospels frequently tell of Him withdrawing into the wilderness for prayer and even spending entire nights in prayer, such as when He needed to make decisions about the direction of His ministry (e.g. Mark 1:35–39) or before appointing the Twelve. But we can be sure that as a rabbi, Jesus also recited the Amidah three times per day. Failing to do so would have been seen as a sin, and yet there is no record of His opponents ever faulting Him on His prayer practice.
Jesus’ practice of praying the Amidah helps explain what was happening in Luke 11 when Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked Him to teach them to pray the way that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray: the disciples wanted to find the core of the Amidah that they could recite three times daily. Jesus’ answer was to give them the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the phrase, “may your will be done … in heaven” in common with Rabbi Eleazar’s abbreviated version above.
For Jesus, then, the Lord’s Prayer was the distilled essence of what prayer should be, and not surprisingly, it can be viewed as a summary of His entire message and ministry since He is the final answer to all our prayers. And as the core of the Amidah, He intended His disciples to recite it three times each day, morning, afternoon, and evening.
The practice of the early church confirms that this was Jesus’ intention for the Lord’s Prayer. In chapter 8 of the Didache, the earliest surviving Christian writing (c.96 AD) aside from the New Testament, we are given these instructions for prayer and fasting:
But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday). Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:
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 today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory forever.
Pray this three times each day.
Along with its connection to the Amidah, there is a practical reason for praying three times each day: it keeps bringing our minds back to God. We are easily distracted by our responsibilities in this world, and having a regular schedule of prayer helps us keep our focus on Him throughout the day.
At this point, someone is going to object that Jesus tells us not to pray using “empty repetitions.” The context of those words is Matt. 6:7-15. Here, Jesus tells his followers not to pray like the Gentiles (not the Jews!) by piling up lots of empty words in the hope that the shear length of the prayer will induce God to answer. After warning against that, He again teaches the Lord’s Prayer. It is hard to argue that right after warning us against empty repetitions He gave us a prayer that amounts to empty repetition!
At the same time, the sense of this passage is a little different from Luke 11. In Luke 11 His words are, “when you pray, say ….” Here, it is “pray like this….” The difference is significant. Luke 11 tells us to recite the prayer; cultural context tells us we are to do that three times each day. Matt. 6 tells us that this is a model that we should use as a guide and outline for our own prayers. In other words, the Lord’s Prayer tells us what Jesus’ prayer priorities are and what ours should be when we engage in extemporaneous prayer.
Many Christians can repeat the words of the Lord’s Prayer and yet, when we pray in our own words, we generally miss the prayer’s key themes. Consider, for example, Jesus’ top three prayer priorities—God’s glory, God’s Kingdom, and God’s will—and compare them to our own. I suspect that our interests are a far higher priority in our own prayers than God’s.
Jesus had much more to say about prayer, of course. In fact, He taught more about prayer than about any other subject except the Kingdom of God. We also know that both He and the early church prayed the Psalms, and the great prayers that we find recorded throughout the centuries are saturated with the words of the psalter. We find profound and powerful prayers recorded elsewhere in Scripture, such as in Paul’s epistles, but in all cases they reflect the petitions and priorities of the Lord’s Prayer.
Putting It into Practice
So, here’s a challenge for you: look at your schedule and find times throughout the day when you can pray. Key these prayer times to your regular routines, such as when you get up, when you drive to or from work, when you get home, at bedtime, etc. Include the Lord’s Prayer in at least some of them, and pray it mindfully, pausing with each petition and thinking about it.
From there, it is a small step to begin to insert your own more specific petitions into the Lord’s Prayer, effectively using it as an outline cf. Matt. 6. You can also do this in your more extemporaneous prayers since everything you need to pray about is included in one of its petitions. Reorganize your prayer around Jesus’ priorities and see if it doesn’t make a difference in your prayer life.
In the next article we turn to fasting, which Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount right after giving us the Lord’s Prayer and which was a central part of the spiritual practices of the first century church.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.