Many Christians have the Lord’s Prayer memorized. But far fewer grasp its full meaning.
Here’s a brief paraphrase that is both memorable and meaningful:
Take over, &
Set us free from
– sin &
Let’s unpack that.
1. Our Father
“Our Father in heaven…”
Toss aside your culture’s ideas of “fatherhood.” In Jesus’ day it meant (roughly) three things–authority, identity, and intimacy (probably in that order):
– authority: calling God “Father” means that in life’s journey He (not me!) knows the best way and has the final say; wonderfully, we don’t need to have life figured out, because He does; as Jesus says of our Father, “He knows what we need.”
– identity: though the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ followers were (in the world’s eyes) nobodies (peasants with no political power, either exploited or ignored), they were in fact beloved children of the Creator, who has numbered the hairs on their head;
– intimacy: ideally (and certainly with God), children are not accidents but the result of parental planning: Christian, He has brought you into His family deliberately, at supreme cost to His Son, and he has no regrets: He never second-guesses applying the blood of His Son to you. When you come to him, never does he roll his eyes or check his watch.
He wants to be with you.
And He always will. Why? You are His child. And you have immediate and unqualified access to Him. For goodness’ sake, let’s take advantage of it.
And remember, we are praying to “Our Father”: the fatherly affection that He has for you–He also has it for every other follower of Jesus; yes, even that one follower you really don’t like, whose love is lukewarm and whose political views are preposterous.
2. Stand out.
“Hallowed be your name.”
That is, “Show the world (especially me!) that there’s no one like you.”
Have you ever been slandered? grossly, condescendingly under-estimated? evaluated with an insatiable suspicion? taken advantage of? totally unappreciated? even altogether ignored?
Well, welcome to God’s world.
In this rather cryptic and archaic petition (“Hallowed be your name”), we are asking our Father to re-establish his reputation (i.e., his “name”) in our hearts and in His world: He is the Only God, who is Beyond Compare.
We’re asking that we and the world would know like never before that there’s no one as strong, sly, self-sufficient, or as longsuffering as He is (e.g., no one loves to say, “I forgive you” as much as He does!). There’s no one as steadfast in keeping their promises as He is, or who loves justice as much as He does. (And we could go on and on…)
There’s just no one like God.
And like ungrateful, ever-entitled teens we are at one with the world in willfully forgetting that.
But why is it so important for God to get all this affirmation? Is he just tired of being disrespected or ignored? Does he have a self-esteem problem or something?
Well, first, there’s just no one who can make us go “Wow!” like God can. And who doesn’t want to be wowed? In fact, God made us to be wowed, and he can wow us best–by a long shot. Second, when we lose sight of what He’s worth, we lose sight of what we’re worth, so that we treat others (and ourselves) as worth less–and even as worthless.
That’s called oppression, and it’s wicked (and it always hurts a lot).
Just one example of how this works: Let’s say that someone wrongs us. Deeply. What’s probably our most natural response? Revenge. It may not surprise you that Scripture explicitly forbids revenge, but what may surprise you is its rationale. Listen:
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink . . . .’ Therefore, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Notice what ISN’T said here: “Don’t take revenge, because what happened to you isn’t a big deal; just be tolerant.” Rather, it says, “You don’t need to try to mete out justice–why?–because God will–that’s his job. And if that’s his job, it frees you up to . . . love your enemies, rather than be forever controlled, owned, and defined (‘overcome’) by the evil that’s been done to you.”
That’s empowering. Even liberating.
But we (and others) can’t be empowered or liberated, if we lose sight of who God is–that is, if we don’t ask God to “stand out” by showing us that there’s no one like Him, so that we stop underestimating Him (and stop taking revenge).
Underestimating God is the single greatest reason for our anxiety, our cynicism, as well as our despair and anger (which are often the same thing).
So we first ask our Father to “stand out”–why?–because we want to be supremely wowed and, second, because we want humans to be treated worthily, not worthlessly, but also–third, and, yes, chiefly–because God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Judge, is in every way deserving of it.
2. Take over.
“Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.”
For the most part, we humans love control; we want to be in the driver’s seat, to be in charge.
Who, then, would ever ask God to “take over”? Who would actually want Him to get His way with us and with His world?
Only someone who is convinced that, when they’re in charge, they only make things worse–i.e., those of us who specialize in self-sabotage, those who, when they get their way, end up only hurting others and, after taking a long hard look in the mirror, don’t like what they’ve become.
Only someone who realizes that, for all their (perhaps incredible) talent and tenacity, in the final analysis they, overwhelmingly, make things worse.
Someone who is convinced that, like a great Father, God knows exactly what He’s doing and that He knows what’s best; someone who can say, “My Father cares about me more than I care about myself.”
Reader, understand: such eager surrender is not the climax of following Jesus, but its commencement. Christianity begins when we survey the world around us and within us and desperately cry out, “Please, Father, take over!”
Notice the order and relation of the first two petitions (“Stand out,” then “Take over”): it’s only when we have seen our Father for who He is–that there’s no one like Him–that we will then long for Him to have His way with us and with the world.
Too much of the church today has functionally adopted a Lord’s Prayer that skips these first two (indeed, even three) petitions and goes straight for a convenient request for forgiveness.
3. Set us free . . .
I’ve captured the last three petitions under this phrase, in part because the latter two of the three actually use this language of liberation, found here in bold italics:
“Forgive us [i.e., release us from] our debts / sins,
as [or: for] we also forgive our debtors / those who sin against us;
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the Evil One.”
Just as the two petitions “Your kingdom come / your will be done . . .” are essentially one petition (“Take over!”), so also the two petitions “Lead us not into temptation [by Satan] / but deliver us from the Evil One” are also one: “Set us free from Satan.”
But what about the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread”?
a. Set us free from self-reliance.
Never has my 4-year-old son Winston asked his parents for food two weeks, or even two days, in advance. (He does at times ask us for food about two hours in advance!)
Because he would have no use for two weeks’ worth of food that soon, and because he knows that food will come when it is needed. Why? Because his parents–well, his mother, at least–is reliable. As such, he is completely free from the exhausting pursuit of an illusory self-reliance.
(Btw, the meaning of the Greek word usually translated “daily” is unclear. My best guess would be to translate it “our bread for the following day.”)
This third petition, then, is saying, “Father, we know how reliable you are; satisfy us with what is sufficient for the day.” (In fact, if you wanted to make this particular petition stand on its own in our paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, we could revise: “Our Father, stand out, take over, satisfy us, and set us free–from sin and Satan.”)
As elsewhere in the Lord’s prayer, the plural is important: when God gives us our daily bread, it is surely sufficient when we share it with each other.
This specific petition is perhaps one of the most difficult to pray (especially for Westerners?): we truly believe that we (not God) are responsible for the incredible wealth that we have, and that we really cannot trust him to provide. And so we choose anxiety, exhaustion, and alienation over peace, rest, and community, believing the lie that we have far more control than we actually do (see Matt. 6.25-34). Freed from self-reliance we come to see the truth of the Wisdom literature: “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty” (Prov. 11.24).
b. Set us free from sin.
Sin enslaves. In many ways. It deceives, traps, and defeats us. We can never undo the past. In her beautiful song “Railroad Wings,” Patty Griffin admits, “There’s things I’ll never tell you till the day I die / Things I’ve done I can never undo / Hiding everything.” (If you, or others you know, don’t consciously feel enslaved by sin–as I so often don’t, click here).
But our Father can and does release us from our sin: incredibly, He will not hold our sins against us–
if we will not hold others’ sins against them.
This is a non-negotiable: if we do not show mercy, we will not know mercy. Period. Jesus could not be more clear on this (see 6.14-15; 18.21-35). To paraphrase the entire petition: “Set us free from our sins to the same extent that we have set others free from their sins.” Yikes.
Thus, to pray “Set us free from sin” is to ask, “Father, set me free from stupidity, selfishness, self-importance, and from an entirely unfounded suspicion of you and the shame, guilt, and penalty that I deserve as a result.”
When I myself pray this petition, I ask myself, “What, or whom, do I want to own me? My sin–my pride, lust, resentment, fear, ambition, self-righteousness, etc.–or my Savior?” This leads me to cry out, “Father, set me free!”
c. Set us free from Satan.
In the final petition we turn from the evil within to the Evil One.
[While some translations have merely “deliver us from evil” (certainly a viable translation), other similar texts in Matthew (5.37; 13.38) incline me to see here “the Evil One”; further, the preceding reference to “temptation” suggests, in Matthew’ gospel at least, temptation by Satan (see 4.1-11); finally, Jesus never promises deliverance from “evil” per se–i.e., sins aimed at us or circumstances that undo us.]
In the Gospels a (perhaps even the) key characteristic of the Evil One is deception (e.g., Matt. 4.1-11; 5.37; 13.19; John 8.44). To summarize pithily the aim of the Evil One: he seeks to deceive by defaming God and others and so divide us from God and from others. And when divided, we despair. And despair destroys.
Satan deceives entire cultures and institutions, so that Scripture can become immediately implausible, even unintelligible (Matt. 13.19). Satan deceives us, desiring that we would believe that God is incompetent and apathetic or just plain absent. He deceives us into speaking truth-without-hope to others (otherwise called condemnation, or lies).
To be set free from Satan is to be set free from lies and from being a pawn for his plans.
Last but not least, the Lord’s Prayer uses the first-personal plural (“we,” “us,” our,” etc.) no less than nine times. And so even when we pray this prayer alone, we pray it together–i.e., in the knowledge that other followers of Jesus are no less (or more) part of His family than I am.
So let us learn to pray as Jesus taught us:
“Our Father, stand out, take over, and set us free–from self-reliance, sin, and Satan.”