A Fresh Look at the Lord's Prayer
Jesus warned about prayer being mechanical, with empty words. Lets take a fresh look at the Lord's Prayer and savor its meaning.
Jesus “was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples’.” The disciples must have overheard Jesus pray and marveled at His words. They were overcome by the intensity of how He prayed. They wanted to be able to enter into His spirit and pray as He prayed. Jesus gave them the most perfect of prayers. “In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them.” (Catechism, 2763)
But before He taught His disciples how to pray, Jesus warned “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7) The original Greek text uses the word battalogēsēte, translated as babble. Battalogēsēte means to chatter, be long-winded, or utter empty words.
Jesus cautions about uttering empty words, making prayer mechanical. There is no virtue in the mere utterance of words. "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God." (Catechism, 2559). The Lord’s Prayer must be prayed, not recited. “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)
The Church teaches “The memorization of basic prayers offers an essential support to the life of prayer, but it is important to help learners savor their meaning.” (Catechism, 2688). Let’s take a fresh look at the Lord’s Prayer, line by line, to savor its meaning and pray it in Spirit and in truth.
The very first word of the Lord’s Prayer sets the stage. This is a prayer for the Church, not for me. We pray “our” Father, not “my” Father. “Our” brings us into unity with His Church, the Body of Christ. The Lord’s Prayer can be prayed alone, but our thoughts must turn to all God’s children. To pray “our” Father is to pray on behalf of all His children. No brother or sister in Christ is excluded because of differences in denomination, origin, race, politics, sports affiliations, anything. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for His Church, His people. We pray: give “us”…forgive “us”…lead “us” not. To pray the Lord’s Prayer truthfully is to overcome all division and opposition. We extend our prayer to the full breadth of love whenever we dare to say “Our” Father.
How can a mere mortal dare call the God of the universe, the Creator of all things, “Father”? No other religion in the history of the world dares to address their god as a father. Calling Him father is an acknowledgement of a deep personal and loving relationship. God did not even give this relationship to Moses and His people. When Moses asked God to reveal who He was, God did not identify Himself as the Father, but “I AM WHO AM”. We can call Him “Father” only because He has given us a new birth in Baptism as adopted sons and daughters through Jesus, His only begotten Son. It is our privilege, not our right, to call Him “Father”. He is still God, “I AM WHO AM”.
Because we dare call Him “Father” we should behave as His children. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Children often imitate their parents and we should imitate the holiness of the Father. Peter writes “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy’.” (1 Peter 1:15-16)
“And you, Oh Father, bend down towards your poor little creature. Cover me with your shadow, see in me only your beloved Son in who You are well pleased” (Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity).
Who art in Heaven
Heaven may bring to mind visions of a holy city made of pure gold with walls of precious stone and twelve pearly gates, such as described in Revelation Chapter 21. But Heaven is not just a place. “Our Father who art in heaven is rightly understood to mean that God is in the hearts of the just, as in his holy temple; it does not mean that God is distant, but majestic. Our Father is not ‘elsewhere’: he transcends everything." (Catechism, 2794) As we begin to pray, we place ourself in the presence of Almighty God who is here, there and everywhere.
Heaven and earth are reconciled in Christ. The Son descended from Heaven and made us to ascend with Him by His Cross, Resurrection and Ascension. When we pray “Our Father who art in Heaven”, we profess that we are the people of God, citizens of Heaven. Heaven is the “Father’s house, our true homeland for which we strive and a homeland of which we already belong.” (Catechism, 2802) Although we are in the flesh, we seek Heaven above while we live out our Heavenly citizenship on earth.
“After we have placed ourselves in the presence of God our Father to adore and to love and to bless him, the Spirit of adoption stirs up in our hearts seven petitions.” (Catechism, 2803). The first three petitions draw us toward the glory of the Father. They strengthen our faith and fill us with hope. We proclaim “thy name, thy kingdom, thy will! It is characteristic of love to think first of the one whom we love. In none of the three petitions do we mention ourselves” (Catechism,2804). Then we pray “give us . . . forgive us . . . lead us not ... deliver us.... the fourth and fifth petitions concern our life as such - to be fed and to be healed of sin; the last two concern our battle for the victory of life.” (Catechism, 2805).
Hallowed be thy Name
The first petition is sometimes misunderstood as us invoking praise and holiness towards God; but God is already holy. “When we say ‘hallowed be thy name,’ we ask that it should be hallowed in us, who are in him; but also, in others whom God's grace still awaits, that we may obey the precept that obliges us to pray for everyone, even our enemies. That is why we do not say expressly ‘hallowed be thy name in us,' for we ask that it be so in all men.” (Catechism, 2814)
“We ask that this name of God should be hallowed in us through our actions. For God's name is blessed when we live well, but is blasphemed when we live wickedly. As the Apostle says: ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ We ask then that, just as the name of God is holy, so we may obtain his holiness in our souls.” (Catechism, 2814)
In this part of the Lord’s Prayer, we ask the Father for the grace and strength to live a life that would lead others to praise and glorify His name. Let us never do anything that brings dishonor to His holy name before others.
Thy Kingdom come
Our second petition is for the full establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. This petition transcends all the kingdoms of earth and the hearts of all people. If only the earth could be pure, perfect and holy as is the Kingdom of God in Heaven.
This petition is not a cry out to the Father for Him to “do something” about the world. This petition is a request for the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts, for the Kingdom of God is brought forth through us and by our lives. “The kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). When we pray “Thy Kingdom come”, we ask for God’s Kingdom to come to us as a life of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. God does not send His Kingdom directly to the world. God’s Kingdom comes first to His children. Then the children of God, by their actions and deeds, bring God’s Kingdom to the rest of world.
“Only a pure soul can boldly say: "Thy kingdom come." One who has heard Paul say, "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies," and has purified himself in action, thought and word will say to God: "Thy kingdom come!" (Catechism, 2819)
Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven
The third petition sounds straight-forward, but can be tricky to fully grasp. For many Christians, these words are nothing more than accepting the inevitable. I didn’t get the job I prayed for; it must have been God’s will. The sick person I prayed for did not get better; it must have been God’s will. At some point, one might be tempted to stop praying because they believe there is no use for prayer when God just does what He wants anyway.
It is good to pray for personal needs…“in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) But we must remember the communal intent of the Lord’s Prayer. This part of the Lord’s prayer is not about our requests, it is about God’s will. “For he [Jesus] did not say ‘thy will be done in me or in us,’ but ‘on earth,’ the whole earth.” (Catechism, 2825) God’s will for the whole earth is that “everyone be saved and come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
In this part of the Lord’s prayer “we ask our Father to unite our will to his Son's, in order to fulfill his will, his plan of salvation for the life of the world. We are radically incapable of this, but united with Jesus and with the power of his Holy Spirit, we can surrender our will to him and decide to choose what his Son has always chosen: to do what is pleasing to the Father. (Catechism, 2825)
In order to pray “thy will be done”, one must first cast aside all personal preferences and beliefs; for these might not be in accord with God’s will that everyone be saved. Then, knowing God’s will is that everyone be saved, we ask the Father what can we do to be an instrument of His loving salvation for each person we meet. We cannot simply pray “thy will be done” and turn our back. We must be willing to take action and do whatever God is calling us to do. We must love everyone. Condemning others, including pro-choice and LGBT people, does nothing to help fulfill His will that they be saved.
Give us this day our daily bread
The fourth petition is so much deeper than what it first appears. This petition is a reference to the verse “I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not.” (Exodus 16:4)
This is first a petition of faith. We ask for His provision “’Daily’ … to confirm us in trust ‘without reservation’." (Catechism, 2837) When the Israelites failed to trust God and gathered more than their daily share, all surplus manna rotted. Only the daily portion was edible. God taught them to trust. Here, we ask the Father to teach us to trust. In order to trust fully, we must be satisfied getting only today’s bread and not tomorrow’s bread as well.
Once again, given the communal intent of the Lord’s Prayer, this is not the time for personal petitions…give us, not give me. “Another profound meaning of this petition. The drama of hunger in the world calls Christians who pray sincerely to exercise responsibility toward their brethren.” (Catechism, 2831) In the spirit of “our” Father, we pray for the world that God would provide bread for all people. Christians should not seek God’s blessing for themself while ignoring those who do not have daily bread.
“This petition, with the responsibility it involves, also applies to another hunger from which men are perishing: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,’...There is a famine on earth, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Catechism, 2835) Jesus said “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:51). In this petition, we also ask the Father to send Jesus, our living bread, to His children each day. God’s children receive Jesus daily and offer Jesus, the bread of life, to feed the salvation of the world.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
Our fifth petition is a dangerous petition because it is made with a condition…forgive us as we forgive. “According to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement.” (Catechism, 2838) There can be no reason for unforgiveness and there can be no person unforgiven.
It can certainly be very difficult to forgive those who have caused physical or emotional pain. It might be just as difficult to forgive the driver that cut us off, the person who cut in line or the person who stole our parking spot. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43) “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-3)
Although difficult, it is not impossible to forgive because God gives us the grace to forgive, if we ask for it. When it is not feasible to go to the other person and make peace, at least pray for their salvation and deliverance from evil. It is a great act of love and forgiveness to sincerely pray for someone’s soul and salvation. If forgiveness seems too difficult, meditate on the torture, Passion and crucifixion of Jesus and consider that Jesus loved and forgave all those people. He can help us forgive too.
When offering up personal prayers of petition, it is good to first pray “Lord Jesus, I offer up to you all those who have trespassed against me and all those I have trespassed against. Grant them salvation, deliver them from evil and grant them Your divine mercy at the hour of their death. Amen.”
And lead us not into temptation
The last two petitions are related to our battle with sin. Each petition deals with a different aspect of our spiritual battle. On one hand, there are trials that the Father allows for the purpose of testing our faith. Failing these tests results in venial sin and displeases the Father. An example of this would be the Lord commanding the Israelites to gather only their daily portion of manna in order to “test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not.” (Exodus 16:4). The other aspect of our spiritual battle is encounters with the evil one, who would seek to destroy our faith entirely and separate us from God through mortal sin. “The Holy Spirit makes us discern between trials, which are necessary for the growth of the inner man, and temptation, which leads to sin and death.” (Catechism, 2847)
The sixth petition is concerned with trials of faith. In Matthew 6:13, the Greek word translated as “temptation” is peirasmon, which means “putting to proof, adversity”. In other words, “trials”. This is the same Greek word used in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus said to Peter “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test [peirasmon].” (Matthew 26:41) These are not temptations as from the devil. When Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1), the Greek word used was peirasthēnai, which means “to tempt, to entice”.
Being mindful of our weakness and inclination towards sin, we cannot help but be concerned that we might fail the test. The cry out of our weakness is therefore "Lead us not into such trials!". Even our Lord prayed, "If it be possible, let this cup pass away from me." (Matthew 26:39) We follow the advice of Jesus that Peter failed to follow, to ask the Father to spare us of trials of faith. God, Himself, does not tempt us (James 1:13). But “we ask Him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin. We are engaged in the battle ‘between flesh and spirit’; this petition implores the Spirit of discernment and strength.” (Catechism, 2846)
In some cases, God will mercifully remove the trial of faith. In other cases, He may allow the trial because He wants to strengthen our faith. When he allows the test, He also gives us the grace to overcome the test. “No trial [peirasmon] has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
One last thought concerning “Lead us not into temptation”. Some recreational activities, social situations and personal situations are inclined to promote sins such as drunkenness, swearing, adultery, etc. Christians should not presume that if they deliberately place themself into such situations the Father will give them a way out. It is somewhat unprincipled to ask the Father for help in avoiding temptation; but willingly and deliberately seeking to engage in anything that is known to lead to temptation.
But deliver us from evil
In the seventh and last petition we seek to be delivered from the devil. The Greek word used in this text, ponerou, can translate into evil or evil one, depending on the context. The general consensus here is “evil one”. In the Parable of the Weeds, Jesus says “The weeds are the children of the evil one [ponerou].” (Matthew 13:38) Also, in the last prayer of Jesus before His crucifixion, Jesus prays “I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one [ponerou].” (John 17:15)
Unlike trials that test us, we need deliverance from the power of the evil one, our enemy. We pray “Deliver us!”, even against the slightest attacks of the enemy. The thought is not merely to guard us or to help us stand strong; but rescue us now, get us out of there! Not just me personally, but the entire Church. “In this final petition, the Church brings before the Father all the distress of the world.” (Catechism, 2854)
Jesus taught us to pray. He did not simply give us words to mechanically recite by memory. He gave us a way to approach our loving Father as children seeking His help and His will. For Thine is the kingdom to which we belong; and the power which helps us live in holiness and which frees us from Satan's grasp; and the glory which we give to the Father by all that we do. Forever! Amen!