Reading Notes: Prayer by Karl Barth (part four) 1

Barth PrayerVI. The Last Three Petitions: Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one”

We pray first for God’s cause, but we can’t forget our own. But our cause comes after God’s, cause when we pray for God’s ways to triumph, then we can properly ask that our plans would find their place in His Plan. The last three petitions also do away with the modern misconception of a sacred and secular divide. God is Lord over all, and so there is nothing that it is off limits for us to pray for. As Barth reminds us:

We are not only there for God’s cause; we must bring forward our own cause also, while making it fit into God’s. it would therefore be dangerous to omit the last three petitions, for there would be, on the one hand, an ecclesiastical, theological, metaphysical sphere, and on the other hand, a sphere concerned with money, sex, business, and social relationships (29).

There are not two hermetically sealed compartments: God’s cause and our own. God has obliterated the illusions of any such distinction in the Incarnation. God doesn’t care only about His realm and His cause, but has fully identified Himself with out world and our cause. “God has accepted us as his co-workers…He has made our cause his own” (45). Because of this we are bold in asking God for what we need.

The prayer for our daily bread includes all that we need for our existence: food, shelter, employment, recreation, rest, etc. But Barth doesn’t want us to consider bread only in this expansive sense, but also in its most basic meaning as the core staple food needed for our daily survival. Thus when we pray for bread we pray for what is absolutely necessary. Barth also wants us to consider that bread is also a “temporal sign of God’s eternal grace” (48). So the image of bread contains not just the basics of life but the promise of eternal life. When we pray for our daily bread, we pray for both these things.

“Give us…our…bread” means then: “Give us the minimum which is necessary for the present moment; and at the same time, give it to us as a sign, as a pledge anticipating our whole life. According to thy promise which, which we are receiving at this moment, we receive also thy presence and eternal goodness, the assurance that we shall live with thee” (49).

The prayer for daily bread is a prayer within the anxieties of life. Will we really have what we need? Will God actually provide? It is the anxiety of the uncertainty of our existence that is so often a barrier to our prayer, it is a force that drives us away from prayer. But the prayer for daily bread is a prayer that stands in the place of anxiety. When we’re worried about these things we must pray for them. “The children of God are not anxious about work. They work because they pray” (50). A mark of our maturity in Christ is when we find that anxiety drives us not to worry but to prayer.

The prayer for daily bread also unites us with those who hunger. That we can plumb the depths of meaning within the petition for prayer is a luxury that can’t be taken for bread in many parts of the world. One of the great evils of our time is that there is enough food for everyone on this planet, yet some still go hungry. Why? How can we be instruments of God answering this prayer for those who not just hunger, but starve for bread? How can we make their cause our own? Because their cause is the cause of Christ.

The prayer for forgiveness of our debts is our acknowledgement that before God we stand in default. We are indebted to God because of our sin, and we haven’t the means to repay Him our debt, nor will we ever left to our own devices. The mortgage bubble has nothing on the sin bubble. We are infinitely and externally upside down, buried beneath the weight of our debt. The housing market will recover, we won’t. A foreclosure only goes on our credit report for seven years, our debt to God will never go away.

“Forgive us!” This request excludes any sort of pretense on our part. It debars us from the right, no matter how small, of making any claim whatever with God. Neither human debt nor human beings themselves as debtors can be pardoned. The human race is insolvent, and has no right to claim remission of its debt (54).

The good news is that though we can make no claim on God, God has claimed us through the work of Jesus Christ. The forgiveness that we pray for is possible because Jesus has declared on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). The debt is paid, and all who belong to Jesus receive the remission of this debt, we can’t make claim to it, it claims us.

And so we are called, or rather, commanded, to forgive those who are indebted to us. This is a hard word for those of us who have been horribly and deeply wronged. Can Jesus really ask us to forgive those who owe us such a great debt? Humanly speaking, this is impossible. That is why we pray for God’s help. “Even if the debts of our offenders appear to us to be very heavy, they are always infinitely lighter than ours with God” (55). We can never forget that fact, especially when we are confronted with forgiving what seems to be the impossible.

Finally we pray for God to lead us away from temptation and rescue us from the evil one. We aren’t concerned with minor temptations that we can resist on our own volition, or the little trials that we face that build character, perseverance, and faith. We are here concerned with the Great Temptation that delivers us into the hands of the Evil One. The Great Temptation to become a co-worker of the One whose purpose is to annihilate creation, to overwhelm everything with chaos, nothingness, and meaninglessness. This is a great temptation in our current circumstances. Believing in anything is suspect, there is a tacit acceptance of the narrative of nothingness, the story about our world that says that it is here by sheer blind chance, and so life has no meaning, and so our task is to eat, drink, be merry and carve out for ourselves and whoever is a part of our tribe as a big a piece of the happiness pie as possible. This is a world without hope, a world without the Jetsons, a world of endless dystopian futures. When we believe in nothingness we become an agent of the Evil One, a nihilist in the truest possible sense, like the scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton’s character mercilessly beats another member of the club so that his face is a bloody pulp. The reason Norton’s character gives for this senselessly destructive act is that he merely “felt like destroying something beautiful.”

God has an enemy and so do we. This enemy is the Devil, a reality that exists, but is better left unacknowledged and unexplored. We aren’t to know him, but to flee from him as far as possible. The Devil seems like an irrational carryover from the premodern world and so that Jesus talked about him is a source of embarrassment for us. How can we explain or allegorize this belief away? We can’t. And after a century of two world wars, genocide, nuclear weapons, and totalitarian brutality we shouldn’t. The reality of the Devil in the modern world is captured in the Rolling Stones classic “Sympathy for the Devil.” Or as Keyser Söze says in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

When we pray this petition we are praying for God to annihilate him whose greatest desire is to annihilate us, we are praying for God to deliver us from this present darkness into the light of His Son, who is the light shining in the darkness that the darkness in its total nothingness can never overcome. Sheer inexistence is shallowed up by the pure existence of Christ.

VII. Doxology

The Lord’s Prayer ends in praise. Praise because God has already given us what we’ve asked for. His name is holy, His kingdom has come, His will has been done, He’s given us our bread, He’s forgiven us our sins, and He’s delivered us from the evil one. All that is left to say to God is Amen – let it be so God, because you so desire.

VIII. Closing Thoughts

As with all of Barth’s works this little book was dense and rich with meaning. It caused me to reflect on my own prayer life, and the secondary role I have accorded it in my Christian walk. I’ve given prayer more lip-service than actual time on my lips. This is a shame, because I’ve cut myself off from the very breath I need to have a living faith. When God formed Adam from the dust, he wasn’t alive until God breathed into him. Without God’s breath we can’t live, and without prayer faith can’t live. Christians don’t pray because we believe, we believe because we pray; and if we’re not praying we’re not believing. A complete recommitment to prayer is what will renovate my soul. Not more books on prayer, just more praying.

One comment on “Reading Notes: Prayer by Karl Barth (part four)

  1. Reply Amy Mar 1,2013 11:39 pm

    As someone who rarely goes a day without talking to God, I found this to be convicting nevertheless. Giving prayer less lip-service and more time on my lips resonated with me . As much as I try to convince teenagers that prayer is necessary, couldn’t I be doing more to make it an essential part of my faith and not just something I do out of habit before falling asleep? I long for the days that I would talk to God throughout my day; how was it that it came so naturally to me? I stand at the crossroads of having good intentions and being intentional. My prayer is that I would be intentional.

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