In feast or fallow: How to pray for our daily needs

“Did we pray yet?” my kids ask as we all start eating freshly made enchiladas. “We didn’t pray.”

So we all stop and bow our heads and ask the Lord’s blessing. And then we joke about our unblessed food. Why do Christians pray before meals?

Growing up, this was the tradition in our home. You pray, then you eat. I’m glad my parents established this important spiritual rhythm but I never really thought about it much other than it seemed rather pagan to eat without prayer. But a few years ago I studied the Lord’s Prayer and this discipline made more sense.

Everything comes from God

Jesus urges his disciples to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” This line doesn’t mean much to those who live in the West for whom daily bread is usually available. The question on most of our minds at mealtime is “What will we eat?” But for many around the world, the question is more about survival, “Will we eat?” This certainly was more of a reality for Jesus’ original audience.

Jesus grounds this request for our physical provision in the knowledge that everything comes from God, which is why it’s not the first supplication offered. Jesus first urges prayer that acknowledges God’s fatherly providence over all things and his right to be worshipped above all other gods. For the first century peasant, who lived barely above subsistence, it would first be natural to pray for bread. It’s a prayer of survival.

Jesus encourages them to first acknowledge where the bread comes from and to trust that God is a sovereign and good father. If he is “our father” and if he is “in heaven” in a seat of authority, then of course he has the power to nourish and sustain his image-bearers. He can be trusted even when life seems bleak and sparing.

For those of us who have always lived in prosperity and privilege, who have never once wondered if we’d have to miss a meal because of extreme poverty, this prayer is not any less important. While those in poverty might face a crisis of trust, those in prosperity might face a crisis of self-reliance. How often do we come to our tables thinking that it is our ingenuity, hard work, and competence that lead us to a place where we can eat virtually whatever we want, whenever we want?

So to pray, “Give us our daily bread” is to acknowledge that the food in front of us is there because of an all-powerful God and a generous father. To bow our heads before we eat is to admit our helplessness. The journey from field and factory to our tables only happens because of a God who sustains the earth’s delicate balance, who sends rain, who allows us to live in a country that allows us to flourish. Yes, we worked hard for the money that shows up in our bank accounts every month, but it is God who gives us strength to work hard, who gives us gifts, talents, and opportunities.

Breaking bread as a community

And to ask for “our” bread acknowledges that we live not in isolation, but in community. We should not just pray for our provision, but for the provision of our neighbors, both immediate and far. To pray for “our” bread keeps us from selfish consumerism, from only seeing our needs and the needs of our families. It helps us see the vulnerable, the less fortunate, and the people who may go to bed tonight hungry.

Jesus’ instructions also remind us of our web of interdependence. The food on our table is there after passing through many hands: the toil of farmers and fruit-pickers, the labor of packers and producers, the work of truck-drivers and grocery shelf-stockers, the risky decisions of managers and executives. The food we eat both sustains us, but it also sustains others with meaningful work and income.

So this is why we pray before we eat. Not because to fail to pray will help us avoid food poisoning or that somehow God will strike us if we don’t. We pray to acknowledge our utter dependence on God for our daily provision. We pray to acknowledge that we are members of the human family, some of whom struggle to find bread. We pray to acknowledge the community around us that makes our food possible.

We pray because we know that it is our good father who has given us this bread.

About the Author

Daniel Darling is Senior VP at NRB. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, and his latest, A Way With Words: Using Our Online Communication for Good.