After robbing a market, one of the arrested youths involved in the crime simply replied, “If you don’t look out for yourself, who will?” The root of theft is the failure to trust God as a provider. “But how can I trust God?” asks the homeless person who lost everything in a bad business deal, including his family, and has given up hope in God and people.
It is important to notice that our Lord first draws our attention to things heavenly: God and his name, his kingdom, and his will. Similar to the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer begins with our prayer concerning God and his name and then descends to contemplate our own needs and the world around us. Apart from God, the most important relationships between people and ideas are without definition, meaning, and purpose. When we begin with God, even the most mundane, common, every-day activities somehow become rooted in eternity.
Furthermore, we begin with God and things heavenly because, frankly, God is more important than we are. That is an odd thing to say because, on one hand, it seems so obvious to say and yet, on the other hand, it sounds too offensive. It cuts across the grain of our modern sentiments to think that God exists for his own happiness, not ours and that we, in fact, are merely part of that universal design to bring pleasure to the Holy One of Israel. By putting God first in the prayer, Jesus puts theology before our needs, that which is universally true before that which is practical for one’s own personal life.
Today, we want to run immediately to the “practical” or the “relevant,” as if God were irrelevant. What we consider practical is not the study of God, but the study of how we can become happier and more fulfilled. But here, Jesus insists that we be chiefly concerned with the glory of God and the holiness of his name and only secondarily concerned about our own needs, whether real or felt. This is a priority we must get right and a priority which, I fear, the church growth movement has gotten wrong in its insistence that the primary purpose of the church is to meet the “felt needs” of the unchurched rather than to teach and lead the unchurched to recognize their greatest priority as worshiping the one true God and believing his Word. It is God’s command (the Law) and God’s invitation (the Gospel) that form the community of faith, not our own felt needs.
Having said that, our needs are important. After all, just because they are secondary, it does not follow that they are unimportant. There are many things of secondary importance that are vital. For instance, an education for our children is very important, but it is not essential to their very existence, as the experience of countless people around the world and in our own country can attest. By petitioning God for “our daily bread,” we are engaging in an act of worship. God is pleased to see us acknowledging what is true whether we acknowledge it or not: that apart from his fatherly goodness and care, which he owes to no one, neither spiritual nor physical life is possible. The irony is that even the most bitter atheist depends on God for the oxygen he uses to curse him and requires divine provisions of food and drink to sustain his rebellious existence.
There are, it seems to me, two very important things we need to learn from this petition. First, that God is the source of our whole existence, not just of redemption. Second, that his providence extends over every person, not just believers and preserves culture, not just the kingdom of God.
First, God is the source of our whole existence. I have always liked Peter and found enormous personal comfort in knowing that the chief of the apostles was slow on the uptake. The first time he was confronted with the power of Christ to provide for daily needs was on a fishing trip. At this point, Peter was “Simon,” and had no idea and probably little interest in Jesus’ sermon as the Master stepped into his boat and continued teaching. “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch,” Jesus instructed. I have been on deep sea fishing trips with real fishermen and one thing I’ve learned, especially with those who have no aversion to using very strong language, is how important it is to keep my mouth shut. However many times Jesus had gone fishing, he was not as experienced as someone who had done this for a living. Nevertheless, with a characteristic boldness that came from his confidence that he was God incarnate, Jesus told Simon to put down the nets even though it was the end of a rather unproductive fishing day. But because Jesus was a rabbi and even the most irreverent sorts tipped their hats to the men of the cloth, Peter agreed to humor the man. You know the rest of the story. The nets began to break, they were so full of fish, and then another boat arrived and both boats began to sink with their booty. And then Luke records a most astonishing response from Simon Peter: “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'” (Luke 5:1-11).
That is a strange response, isn’t it? Imagine a healing crusade today, where the most common response was fear rather than joy. A strange power, this, and being in the presence of someone who had such control over common things surely must be divine and the presence of the divine is the presence of the holy. It is this presence that makes us uncomfortable. Notice that the most surprising miracles are not when we see God exercising power over the sun, moon, and stars, but when he intervenes in the most common, everyday affairs. In fact, it is more difficult to see God as active in the mundane than in the dramatic moments in history. We can very easily see the hand of God in an earthquake or in the collapse of Communism, but we often miss his fatherly hand in providing for us every day in kind and unusual ways.
The Enlightenment had a lot to do with the way we look at God’s involvement in daily affairs, Deism insisting that God is the creator who sets things into motion, but leaves the real running of the universe to laws of nature. Ironically, even those today who so emphasize “signs and wonders” and think they are defending the biblical supernaturalism against deistic naturalism so easily fall into the Enlightenment way of looking at things. When, for instance, Pat Robertson writes that instead of praying for things, “We are to command the money to come to us…” (Answers, CBN Edition, p. 76) and that poverty “is a curse that comes upon those who either have not served God properly, or who are not following certain laws of God,…” (ibid., p. 155), and suggests “spiritual laws” that are just as real as physical laws, he is accommodating the Christian idea of miracle to the deistic, Enlightenment notion. When miracles depend on laws and principles, they are easily controlled, manipulated, predicted, and obtained through technical know-how. But then, it is not a miracle. One does not expect a miracle! A miracle astonishes, as Simon Peter was astonished. A miracle contradicts laws of nature as well as our expectations of the way things should happen, rather than conforming to them. Ironically, the “signs and wonders” movement has probably done as much to undermine a supernatural view of miracles (since it is merely a mechanical thing dependent on laws) as accommodation to the Enlightenment rejection of miracle. It is important for us to recover the doctrine of providence.
When legs are lengthened and the blind can see, we say, “Ah! Now there’s God at work!” But when we go to work or enjoy a good meal with friends or raise a family, these are mundane, common, everyday things that don’t really demand God’s involvement. But this is far from the biblical view, which presents God as active in the most minute details of our lives, even the most trivial. For instance, “The lot [dice] is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). (You were looking for someone to blame for the outcome of that trip to Vegas, weren’t you?) “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asked. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:29-30). Paul told the Athenians the identity of the “unknown God”: “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:25-26). God is as much at work in the days we forget as in those we remember; he is always there, providing, caring, ruling, and protecting. He has been there all along, even in our suffering and lack.
He Cares for Everyone
So much is said today as if God took care of the believer and one reason for becoming a Christian is that God brings blessing and prosperity their way in material terms. Nevertheless, providence is not, like redemption, something that is limited to the realm of believers. While God’s saving grace extends only to the elect, his common grace or providence does not ask whether one is a believer. In fact, our Lord uses this kind of “common” love or favor as an example of how we are to love our enemies. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). You love your friends? Big deal, Jesus says. “Love your enemies” (v. 46).
This helps us when we realize that there are many who never pray for God’s name to be hallowed, but instead profane it; who could care less about God’s kingdom and will, as they are too preoccupied with their own. And yet, these same people have the provision of their daily bread, just as the Christians. That almost doesn’t seem fair, does it? And yet, we must remember that creation and providence embrace all of humanity. Every person is created in the image of God and every person is cared for by that Creator because of his goodness. Redemption and providence are two distinct categories, and this is why some pagans enjoy prosperity, while some believers have to serve them in poverty and disgrace. If this still doesn’t seem fair to us, we ought to remember that God is giving us all more than we deserve even if all we have is breath.
Who Is This?
I mentioned at the beginning that Simon Peter experienced at least two life-changing trips out on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus. The second one is recorded in Mark 4:35-41. One night, Jesus and his disciples set sail to the other side of the Sea and got caught in a furious storm. Sleeping on a cushion while the boat was being swamped, Jesus was awakened by his desperate disciples. He stood and simply commanded, “Quiet! Be still!” “Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” Again, the response was astonishment rather than joy. More important than realizing their lives had been spared was the realization that there was somebody on their boat who had more power over their lives. Perhaps this gave a bit more definition to Jesus’ statement, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5). With good reason, the disciples were more worried about the man in the boat than the storm in the Sea. “They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'”
Just as we often like to think we are responsible for our being saved, so we also like to take the credit for our advancement at work, our success at school or in raising a family, our health or prosperity. It is almost easier for the poor and suffering believer to trust God as his or her daily provider because the hand of God is most clearly seen in the presence of lack, not plenty. When we do not have it, we tend to blame God; when we do have it, we tend to praise ourselves. And yet, it is time we put ourselves out on that boat, where we realize that we are actually joined in an inseparable union to the Creator, Sustainer, Provider, and Redeemer of the world. If we recognized him as the author not only of the dramatic (our salvation, a miraculous recovery, etc.), but of the mundane (our daily provision and delights), we would see him as powerfully active in providence as he is in miracle. Perhaps we could even see every day as an opportunity to marvel, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”