Beginning To Pray.
Our Father in Heaven
1. Our: This serves to remind us that prayer is corporate, and it is always corporate even when we are praying alone. We are not the only Christian in the world, and not likely the only one praying at the moment.
“Our” also avoids several pitfalls, one being my-mine. My Father would leave the gate open for “mine, not yours.” Just “Father in Heaven” would leave people thinking that the Father is only Jesus’ father. Dear Father, Gracious Father, Loving Father. Almighty Father or any other address might be technically correct but more like a formal correspondence with the boss than a personal connection between God and Us.
“Our” means each of us independently as well as all of us together. It leaves no one out and it makes the whole prayer personal on our part. The word “Father” makes it personal on the other part.
2. Father: This is the key word in our relationship to God. It is Father, not Mother or Mother-Father or anything else. It is Father and that is, Father in the patriarchic culture of the Near East in Jesus’ day. Jesus picked that word in his day because it conveyed to his listeners precisely what he meant to convey. It has nothing to do with what Father might or might not mean in our day.
Father in Jesus’ day and culture meant any number of things, like:
1) Head of the household. There was no higher authority in the home for the wife (yes, the wife) and children than the father. Mother could be persuaded. Father was to be obeyed.
2) Father established the relationship with the world outside of the home. Yes, Mother generally established the home, but it was through Father that Mother related to the world outside of the home. It was through the Father that children learned their place in the world (culture, society) as well.
3) Father was the access to God. That is to say, he was the spiritual head of the household as well as being the practical head. No, Mother was not seen as having access to God apart from Father. The people in Jesus’ day understood this clearly even if you and I see it differently.
These were only a few of the reasons why it was so hard back then for women, widowed when their children were still young. They had little or no entry into the world around them, little or no access to spiritual comfort or help and no authority on their own or authority to whom they could appeal.
When the Father was gone, the eldest son could step into the role (if he was old enough). Otherwise, one needed to depend on male relatives. Hey, that was the culture, and it was strong enough that Jesus himself from the cross pointed his mother to John. John, this is your mother. It was “take care of her,” plain and simple.
Jesus said “Our Father…” and for very good reasons. Think about it.
There is a debate here whether it is “Which art in Heaven,” or “Who art in Heaven.” As the little boy asked, “Is Art God’s name?”
I suppose the arguments on both sides of this coin are good overall, but whichever side of the argument you fall on – whoever you agree with makes no difference whatsoever. (This is why I have not detailed the arguments here). Yes, the argument matters, but only in the negative sense because it is a foolish distraction from the essence of the prayer – the kind of thing the enemy of our souls likes to get us all tangled up in. You see, what matters in this passage are these two words: in Heaven. It would not be wrong to read the beginning of the Lord’s prayer this way:
Our Father in Heaven.
Imagine: You get a special invitation in the mail from the President of the United States. The Speaker of the House and minority leader, the Vice President, President Pro Tem of the Senate and the minority leader in the Senate, too will all be present. And you have just got an invitation to come to Washington and present your views, feeling, ideas about life in America.
Now, you can be certain these people have done their homework. It is probable they know exactly what you think before you ever arrive. They quite possibly know exactly how you feel about things, and these people will not be slow to read the impression on your face. They likely even know what ideas you might have for this country, all before you ever get there. Nevertheless, you are invited to come and speak. They want to hear your thoughts and feelings and ideas with their own ears.
What this illustration shows is prayer is something we do to express ourselves to God. We might not have to go to Heaven like we have to go to Washington, but we understand that our words (thoughts, feelings and ideas) are to go there. But here, we also see a correction to two common errors about prayer.
1. God never asks us to commune with him and communing is not prayer. God is not in the sunset, the trees, nature, the children, the little room or (and we are talking about the Father to whom we pray) in the Bible. No, God the Father is not in the Bible. He is in Heaven. He is in a specific place which is not this place. God the Holy Spirit may be in all these things: nature, children, lonely rooms and the Bible as well as in our hearts; but the job of the Holy Spirit in prayer is to help us with the words – to help us express ourselves to the Father who is not here. Our Father is in Heaven, and like the President and his invitation, he is waiting to hear what we have to say.
2. The fact that God already knows what we think, how we feel and what ideas we have is NOT prayer. God is under no obligation to pay attention to any of it. God is in Heaven, well beyond our reach by anything but prayer. Prayer, then, is God’s way of forcing us to verbalize, to honestly examine our true feelings, to think through our ideas in concrete terms, and in that sense it is like everything else with God: it is for our ultimate benefit. It is an act of His grace.
You see, the disciples knew they needed to learn how to pray. They knew they needed guidance on the words. They asked Jesus to teach them—thus he gave them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. He did not say go commune with nature. He did not say God already knows how you feel. He said.
Our; Each and all of us are in a relationship where we can claim ownership and rest assured.
Father: Where God is at the Head of the relationship and we are like his children.
In Heaven: Where God is not right here so we must verbalize to Him if we expect Him to hear.
Hallowed Be Thy Name
After we establish our relationship with God, our place in that relationship, and the fact that God is quite apart from ourselves, being in heaven, it is right to acknowledge something of God’s essential nature. It is a venerated form of praise, you might say. As the Psalmist told us, we are to enter into his presence with singing and into his courts with praise.
I believe Jesus selected the one word concerning God which is indisputably not us (more than any other attribute). He might have said “Almighty, infinite, eternal” or any number of other things, but in our own small way we know something of power, strength, space and time. The word Jesus chose with which to acknowledge (praise) God is one we, in all honesty, cannot know.
It means, Sacred, Set apart, Holy, Sanctified, Venerated, Sacrosanct, Revered, Consecrated. Consider Holy. If we are being honest, we can hardly grasp what that means.
In our small way, we can at best glimpse what is “hallowed.”
From the Gettysburg Address:
…in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
Men died to hallow that ground. How much more is God to be hallowed since it is an essential part of God’s nature, God’s very being.
When Moses stepped up to the burning bush, he heard a voice that told him to take off his sandals. He was standing on Hallowed Ground. It is the same when we enter into worship. As the song says: “We are standing on Holy ground.” We believe it, even if we don’t fully understand it.
So Jesus first both praises and clarifies who this God is that we are talking to (the Holy one of Israel), then he singles out one thing in particular for us to treat “with all due respect,” as we might say, and that is the NAME of God.
It is not that the name defines a person, but rather that a person fills the name and gives it meaning. For that reason, the name of God is beyond special. I shake my head when Christians, to be sure often new and young Christians, toss the name Yahweh around like it is just part of any normal conversation. Do you not know of whom you speak?
Before Moses, no one even knew the name of God. God revealed his own name on the mountain: “I am that I am,” or one translation I like, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” The name of God is special above all names, and at least the Jews have always treated it as such.
To clarify: No, Jehovah is not the name of God. The vowels of Adoni (Lord) were placed around the YHWH in the text in case someone should accidentally be tempted to say “Yahweh,” they would pronounce it YaHoWah (ih) instead. Check it out.
And, of course, from this side of the resurrection we know something else about the name of God: “That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is God to the glory of the Father.”
We pray in Jesus’ name, and rightly so.
This second phrase of the prayer, then, defines once and for all exactly who Our Father in Heaven is, It offers praise and recognizes that by his very being, our Father is holy beyond our comprehension. That is a lot for so few words: Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom Come
I wish I could remember exactly how he said it. Sadly, all I can do is paraphrase and give you the essence of what he said. (Memory, you know. They say it is the first thing to go). Basically he said that there is a chasm between us and God, and we like it that way. Of course, to the unregenerate there is only enmity toward God. But even for us who claim Christ, we want to keep God from getting too close or interfering with life as we know it – especially if life is good. And even when life isn’t good, we only want God to “fix it” and then move back a few steps.
You see, we are tied to our flesh and blood life and to this world. Paul in prison might have counted his flesh and this life as nothing compared to the incomparable glory in Christ Jesus, but he was a saint. Most of us don’t aspire to sainthood. We just want to get along and make ends meet and maybe have a little left over to have fun with our family.
Let’s be honest. God is frightening, and the idea of getting close can be scary. We might get burned. He might ask us to do something or give up something or pick up a cross. He might make us into some kind of fanatic. He might ask us to suffer. It is safer to keep God at arm’s length. It is safer not to get too close, and yet here we are to pray for God to get as close as possible.
What is the Kingdom of God? It is no more tears. It is perfection – heaven on earth, and yet…
We also confess in the Apostles Creed: from thence he shall come and judge the quick and the dead. The Kingdom is judgment, and we want to be wheat, not tares, sheep not goats, but…
We all say the words: Thy Kingdom Come, but do we mean it? It is a very frightening idea in one sense. The idea takes us out of our comfort zone, for sure. Oh, when life is not so good or downright bad, we might be tempted to wish Jesus would come today; but I honestly believe that is more of a “please fix it” kind of prayer.
In Luke 17 there were ten lepers who asked Jesus to heal them. He told them to go and show themselves to the Priests. They were healed as they went. Here, they knew who Jesus was. They knew he was a healer and miracle worker. They asked for the miracle in their lives. But when it ACTUALLY happened, it must have come as quite a shock.
Ask it this way. Are you prepared to die today? How does that proposition differ from “Thy Kingdom Come?”
Then also, we have been at this for 2000 years. Shouldn’t we be saying, “When will Thy Kingdom come?” I worked briefly with a fellow who arrived every morning with a question on his lips. “Did Jesus come this morning? No? Well then I guess we better get to work.” He was being facetious. He was also ridiculing the gospel in his own way.
But for us, here and now, Jesus is telling us we need to pray for God’s Kingdom to come. There is a sense of urgency in this petition as well. Even now lord, come. And note: it is the very first petition we have in the Lord’s Prayer. We are to ask this before anything else. And we are to ask it with all our soul, heart and strength every time, regardless of our circumstances.
If I can paraphrase Paul, whether rich or poor, whether life is good, bad or indifferent, the prayer needs to ring the same. Thy Kingdom Come. Even now Lord, come.
Whatever else you think the Kingdom may be, we know it is also the place of judgment. We may claim to be among the sheep, not the goats, but my sense of it is the judgment on the goats surprised them. If the idea of God’s Kingdom manifest in this life does not scare you, I wonder if you really grasp the truth of it. Maybe you do. But for me, I find the idea at the very least humbling. It is with trembling lips that I pray, even now Lord, come.
Thy Will Be Done
This is the second petition or request of the prayer, and it is an extension of the thought contained in the first petition Thy Kingdom Come. It is Thy Will be Done.
The will of God is goodness, mercy, and peace. It is all healing, hope satisfied, faith fulfilled and love. In this world, though, God’s will is also justice as mentioned last time, and it is work. God’s will for my life is not for me to sit back and stick my feet up on the ottoman.
Listen, deep down every true child of God would be thrilled to see the kingdom come. We do pray for it to come today, but when the kingdom comes we have to deal with God’s will, and we are not sure what that might require from us. Don’t think nothing will be required. God’s will in heaven is carried out by the innumerable angels. Why should his will on earth be by divine fiat while we laze around?
Those ten lepers from the last post. You may remember only one of them returned to give thanks for his healing. Why? I feel the others were afraid of what Jesus might ask of them: to work for the kingdom, to follow him, to get close. Only one healed leper returned and gave thanks. Would we? One in ten odds is not good.
The second petition suggests we want to see perfection on Earth. But are we prepared to be made perfect? Maybe. But how about certain family members, friends and acquaintances, neighbors. Are we prepared to see them made perfect? Maybe. Maybe we think they will have to change a lot. Maybe we think we will have to change just a little. We are naturally such fools.
But here you have it. Thy Kingdom Come. We ask this before anything else, and if we haven’t figured out exactly what that means we add, Thy Will be Done on Earth as in Heaven. Is that really what we want? Heaven on Earth? Think about it.
Yes, it ought to be what every Christian wants, desperately, first of all and above all else. Is it?
Can you imagine how awesome and terrifying the actual face to face with God will be? The answer is no, and neither can I. Philosophers, theologians and novelists have all given it their best shot over the centuries, but there is no way to convey it. The best I ever read comes from the Bible (naturally). “The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
In part, I feel it is because we just don’t know. Read the Scriptures cover to cover and you will find this theme stated and restated over and over. What are we building on the foundation of Christ? Is it iron, concrete, silver, gold, wood, straw? We don’t exactly know, and it is in our soul to fear the unknown.
But now, having belabored that point over two posts, let me also add this. Every true child of God longs to see the Kingdom and to know God’s will with absolute certainty, regardless of what it may mean for them, personally. When a true child of God prays this prayer, the asking is absolute: even now, Lord, come. Perhaps it is up to us to judge first whether or not we are a true child of God. Perhaps we need to take a long, hard look at that right now. Because when the Kingdom comes, the sheep and goats will be divided, the wheat and tares will be separated and the tares will be cast into the furnace.
The disciples could not know this from where they stood when Jesus taught them to pray. But we can see, and like the one healed leper at least we can turn to God and give him thanks for Jesus Christ. In Christ we are able to repent, receive forgiveness and the full assurance of our faith – that we are made acceptable before God. So we can fervently pray for the Kingdom and the will of God to be done.
Still, that does not suggest – one look at God’s will does not suggest we should be forgiven on Sunday and ignore God for the rest of the week. Thy Will be Done on Earth as in Heaven is a beautiful thought, but we might do well to add the phrase from that Christmas hymn, “And let it begin with me.”
Give Daily Bread
After stumbling through Thy Kingdom Come and Thy Will be done, we come to the final four petitions or requests – the ones that we can best understand. But before we get into the first of the four, there is something about all four that must be stated up front. They are all requests for God to do what is his inclination, natural to his stated being, already his will. They are give, forgive, lead and deliver.
The first note is asking God to give. God is abundance and disposed by to provide for all his children. This is the promise. Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. But here, in the prayer Jesus taught, there are restrictions.
First of all it is given to us, not me. Thus the whole community of God is involved and recipient of God’s gifts. There is no room here for self-interest or for personal requests. How often do we pray and how often are those prayers matters of self-interest or personal requests? Just a thought.
Give us bread is reminiscent of Moses and the people in the wilderness when all the people received manna from heaven for their daily sustenance. Deliberate, I am sure, and at the same time it underlines another restriction. The bread is just asked for this day, not tomorrow or forever. The manna could not be kept overnight. Every morning it rained down fresh, enough for the whole day, but overnight it spoiled.
So it is give us this day, and if that is not clear it is our daily bread. And then it is bread, not meat or drink or seven course meals. The request is simply for sustenance – to be sustained by god’s grace. It isn’t selfish or asking above and beyond the call of duty. It is also not communion bread. The parallel there is a stretch. This is sustenance, and it is asking enough for today, and not just for me, but for all of us who belong to God.
You see, prayer is not like making wishes, though we often treat it that way. As far as I know, God only once offered a man anything he would ask. That was Solomon, and he could have asked for money, power, long life, but he asked for wisdom. Because of that request, God also gave him money, power and long life… but God is generous.
We ask for daily bread. It may be all we receive and that has to be fine. But God also gives liberally to his children and often we do not need to say “give us this day our daily bread.” Instead we should say, “Thank you for all the abundance you give.”
The first three petitions are Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done and give.
Forgive as We Forgive
I honestly don’t care if it is debts, trespasses or just plain sins. That is how one gets off topic. The core and key in this petition is forgiveness. Period. And it backs us into a corner besides. The point of this petition is to ask for forgiveness, and then one more thing –the sting that turns the whole petition on its head.
First, we ask for forgiveness and the one thing debts, trespasses and sins does is when taken as a whole they cover the bases. Forgive us from all we owe, from the wrong we have done to God and our neighbors, and from the sins of commission and omission. This is a Sunday morning confession. Forgive us for doing the things we should not have done and for not doing the things we should have done. That is fairly straightforward; but then comes the sting:
Forgive us… AS we forgive others…
Most don’t consider the implications here. Even those who try to forgive others do not do so rightly. Most don’t even understand what forgiveness is. The short course:
1. As far as the East is from the West, so far will your sins be removed… There is a North pole and a South pole. The distance between those two can be measured. There is no East pole or West pole. That is a circle which goes on forever. You can always go further East from wherever you stand.
We have drawn a line from the poles: the Prime Meridian (and the Ante-Meridian) and it helps us track time, but it is an artificial construct. You may say the poles are artificial constructs as well, but there are some magnetic/Van Allen belt/ climate reasons for the designations which are entirely reasonable and natural. The Earth wobbles a bit North and South to provide us with seasons. But it doesn’t wobble East to West, it turns, and it has turned continually since the Earth began.
So as far as the East is from the West, so far will our sins be removed. As Buzz Lightyear might say, “To infinity and beyond.” But that has to do with the penalty – the consequence of sin. That has to do with being held responsible for words and actions. For those in Christ, Jesus took that responsibility. Friends, believe the good news, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.
Because of this, some people believe real forgiveness means we are supposed to forget about it. Wrong. I know very little that could be further from the truth. You must consider this also:
2. God asks throughout the Scriptures things like “Why do my people continue to sin?” or “Is there no sin too wicked for these people?” And on and on. You see, God not only remembers our sins in one sense, he tracks them. After all, how can God cleanse us from sin if he has forgotten what those sins are? I mean, really. Think about it.
You see, it is not and has never been God’s intention in Jesus simply to say “forget about it.” Rather, God intends to cleanse us, transform us, change us so we are no longer sinners. He intends to heal us of our sins, flaws, faults, shortcomings and brokenness. This is real forgiveness.
But for us, can we heal another? Can we judge when repentance is real? Can we recognize the genuine change in another person? No. Of course we cannot. At best we can try to forgive in the first sense. We can try not to harbor any secret ill feelings or bad or revengeful thoughts toward the other person. But we best be very careful about forgiving in the second sense. Better to say, “I won’t hold it against you, but I am not going to forget and put myself back into the same situation and be abused again.” (Or some variation on that theme).
So here we can glimpse the truth: that it is impossible for us to forgive in the way we hope and pray that God will forgive us. So why then did Jesus teach us to say “Forgive us as we forgive others?” I believe it was for us to come to recognize our helpless condition and in time turn the request on its head. “Lord, guide us, teach us, makes us, transform us to where we can forgive even as you forgive.” This is the fourth petition.
I am not one to razzle-dazzle with the Greek and Hebrew. I strive for accessibility by all. But on rare occasions, there is something to be said. This is one of them.
I have no complaint with the standard translation of the words in the text; but in Greek the punctuation is often a matter of opinion. Once Upon a Time (yes, it was that long ago) the speech professor at Princeton Seminary had a take on this passage that I still remember and agree with. He said there ought to be a comma after the word us.
Lead us, (comma) not into temptation…
This changes the whole dynamic of the passage. The way we normally say it, without the comma, it is an apprehensive and fear-filled request: “please don’t lead us into temptation. Oh, please, oh please. I can’t handle any more…” as if God is normally inclined in that direction.
With the comma, it becomes at first a positive request. Lead us, Lord. Lead us:
In the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake…
The subordinate clause, “not into temptation” is then able to be said as a word of hope. We know temptation is not God’s desire, but in this world we also know God allows temptation, trials, tribulations at times in order to reach us and bring us closer to him. It is how God burns away the dross and transforms us more into his likeness.
We are like the man who confesses that God never gives a person more trouble than they can handle (and no, God does not have us confused with someone else). We are hopeful here that at least for the moment we have fulfilled our quota. This is our request.
But when offered as a subordinate clause we understand that “Nevertheless, thy will be done…” We already requested that earlier in the prayer. But here, we can show courage if we understand that God is leading us, positively leading us. It is like that single set of footprints in the sand, when Jesus carries us. God is my strength, shield and buckler when he leads me and I willingly and gladly follow. So even if temptation comes, I will not be alone. I will pick up my cross and follow after him.
Lead us, (comma) not into temptation is the fifth request of the prayer.
The fifth petition in the Lord’s prayer is a positive request for God to Lead us, with the additional expressed hope that we not be led into a time of trial or tribulation. The sixth and last petition of the prayer is in some ways an extension off that. Deliver us, we ask, from evil.
The first difficulty with this petition is most people don’t know what they are asking because they do not understand what evil is. That is especially true in this relativistic age. The shorthand version is sin, death and the devil. True, some have described this petition as “deliver us from the evil one” (ie: the devil), but usually that sentiment is not associated with the idea of deliverance. Rather, it is resist the devil and he will flee from you.
Then also, there is little we can do about the death part.
That leaves sin – our own internal inclinations as the specific evil from which we need deliverance. God is good. We know this. Whenever and wherever we turn away from God’s will, word and ways, by definition we are participating in evil. And what else is sin? It is turning away from God and in a real sense rebellion against God. To be sure, it is more comforting to think of evil as something outside of ourselves – something in “Them” that we can point to and condemn. But the truth is it is in us. As that cartoon icon Pogo summed it up, “We have met the enemy and “they” is “us.”
Yes, Jesus gave this prayer before he went to the cross, but you should not need a prophet or preacher to describe what he must have had in mind when he asked us to pray for our deliverance from sin. At the same time, we need to understand the old adage: God accepts us just where we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. Put that altogether and we see where sometimes trials and tribulations may be needed to root out the sin and accomplish the deliver us request. Temptation might never be inspired by God, but it can be used by God to burn away the dross. It can be like the refiner’s fire that will leave only the purest gold in the end.
Now, if we look at the last two petitions together, they make sense. And the fact that they go together is shown by the big conjunction that joins the phrases: “But.” So we are asking God to lead us, and while we would prefer it not be into temptation, we understand the operative point is to deliver us from the sin nature that so defines us. As the Apostle Paul said of himself, the good I would do I don’t do. But the evil I would not do, that is what I do…
So, this is our prayer:
Lead us, [comma] (preferably) not into temptation (trials and tribulations), but (nevertheless) Deliver us (please) from evil (the sin that stains all of our lives). The marvel of the cross is the promise of that very deliverance – of salvation, yes, but also the promise that God loves us too much to leave us in our sin. He does lead and he does deliver and we are saved.