Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
The Lord’s Prayer is usually understood as a prayer of petition. And why not? Two of the three couplets are devoted almost entirely to things we ask for from God. But in reality, the prayer only adopts the form of a ‘prayer of petition’. A deeper reading reveals something else altogether: a creed, an ethics, and a covenant.
Let’s begin by considering the four so-called petitions:
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Speaking metaphorically as well as practically, we are asking God to support our physical existence. But does that really make sense?
God is Being, the ground from which every existent springs and on which every existent rests. Without God, no-thing! When we ask God for our daily bread (to sustain us), we simply ask God not to stop being God. But God cannot stop being God. Being is what God is; Being is what God does: “I am who am.”
Being is God, essentially; the terms are denotatively synonymous. So we do not have to ask God to support our existence. That is what God does and what he does is who he is.
In an earlier essay in this collection, Atheism, we discussed the fact that God is not an existent who incidentally adopts certain behaviors. Existents depend entirely on the Being of God. But in God, Being is not passive. Being is what God does and Being is what lets existents exist: “Let there be light.”
“Forgive us our trespasses.” The second so-called petition asks God to forgive our misdeeds. But once again, we are simply asking God to be God. Forgiveness (Mercy) is how God relates to the world. By forgiving us, God redeems us; and by redeeming us, God incorporates our deeds, trespasses and all. It is what he does in the world and what he does is who he is.
God is simple, God is one. Therefore, all things must exist in God in perfect harmony. That can only occur if all conflicts are transmuted into contrasts. We do not ask God to forget (just the opposite), but to forgive. For better or worse, our trespasses endure eternally. But in God, the dissonance of ‘sin’ becomes the harmony of ‘heaven’.
“Lead us not into temptation.” In Ecclesiastes, another essay in this collection, we saw that “all things are vanity…a chase after wind”. Pleasures, accomplishments, wealth, meritorious deeds, even wisdom…all vanity. Those are the temptations of the world. According to the Gospel of Luke these are the very same vanities Satan used to tempt Jesus in the desert. In Eastern spiritual traditions, these temptations, these vanities are often referred to as ‘attachments’.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to lead us…but not into attachment. Lead us where then? The alternative to attachment is freedom; and freedom is the ability to be whoever or whatever we choose to be…without risking being itself.
We have that ability, we are free, only because of God. Because God is the eternal ground of all being, our being is never at risk. We are free to grow…and even make mistakes. So once again, we are simply asking God to be God, the universal alternative to the vanities of the world.
The first three petitions correspond exactly to who God is, to what he does. God sustains, God redeems, God draws all things to himself…and that’s it. He doesn’t move mountains…or make pizza. I hypothesize that if you deleted even one of these three so-called petitions, or added another, we would not recognize the result as God.
So what then of the final petition, “Deliver us from evil”? While this petition appears distinct from the other three, it is essentially their summation. For what is evil? The absence of Good (Augustine), the absence of Being (Aquinas)! God is Good and God is Being, both essentially. Therefore, Being, Good and God are all denotatively synonymous.
Mortality (death), dissonance (conflict) and vanity (attachment) all reflect a certain lack of Good and entail a certain lack of Being; therefore they constitute evil. But evil cannot coexist with Good (Being). A quantum of evil, unredeemed, unravels the whole scheme of ‘creation’. Therefore, everything God does is to “deliver us from evil”. Looked at from the other side, the three acts (sustain, forgive, lead) that constitute delivering from evil also constitue granting eternal life. To deliver from evil is to grant eternal life.
This is the theme of the Requiem Mass: the evils of the world have been overcome (the sins of the decendent have been forgiven) and eternal life has been granted.
So the so-called petitions are not really petitions at all. God cannot but grant them; they are aspects of his essential nature. He cannot not be God. This point is best stated in Paul’s second letter to Timothy which quotes an ancient Christian creed that includes the following:
“Even if we are unfaithful, he (God) remains faithful. for he cannot deny himself.”
While the Lord’s Prayer certainly has the form of a prayer of petition, the form of prayer most familiar to most people, its real content is quite different.
First, it is a creed. When a person of faith prays the so-called petitions, it reminds the “petitioner” that God will support, forgive, lead and deliver each and every one of us. It is a way of restating what belief in God really means. It is not belief in a once and future creator, a distant demiurge, a cosmic force. To believe in God is to believe that everything that is is part of a universal process: the bringing forth and nurturing of existents, the reconciliation of conflicts among those existents, the gradual drawing of those existents toward God and ultimately, the realization of eternal life.
Second, it is an ethics. The Lord’s Prayer imposes four very ambitious ethical imperatives…but it imposes them on God: give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil.
Of course, it is ludicrous for man to create ethical standards for God. But realizing that God cannot do other than exemplify those standards gives us tremendous insight into the nature of Good itself, which is the ultimate aim of any Ethics. Specifically, since God is Good, essentially, then the things God does define what’s Good.
On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer only imposes one ethical imperative on us: forgive those who trespass against us. And it’s a good thing too, for we cannot bring forth and sustain new existents, we cannot lead existents to God; and we certainly cannot grant eternal life. All we can do is forgive. And what is that? Forgiving is the ultimate, perhaps the only, true ‘non-act’; it is essentially a withdrawal of ourselves from the plane of action (“wu-wei” in the Taoist tradition).
Anaximander, perhaps the first great Greek philosopher, in his sole surviving fragment tells us that things come to be when they “give each other reck”. To forgive is to give reck, to let be. Not to judge, not to condemn, not to punish, not to reform…just to let live.
When we act, when we judge, condemn, punish, reform others, we set ourselves up as gods (idolatry). We attempt (vainly, of course) to take God’s place. In doing so, we interfere with the eternal process of reconciliation that is the world. The Lord’s Prayer does not impose on us a list of commandments; it does not even give us a list of behaviors to avoid. It simply calls on us to stop playing God, to get out of God’s way and let him do his thing. That is our one and only ethical imperative!
And so finally, the Lord’s Prayer is covenant. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Let God be God and let man be man.
Armed with this understanding, we can now turn back to the first couplet.
As we saw above, God is metaphorically “our father” in the sense that he is the origin and the sustenance of our existence.
The phrase “who art in heaven” has misled many to believe that heaven is a “place” that somehow “contains” God (an absurd image!). In fact, God is heaven. In his master work, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the world being ‘objectified’ in God’s ‘function as the Kingdom of Heaven’. Through God’s eternal processs of reconciliation, each and everyone of us is a citizen of that kingdom; the Lord’s Prayer simply assures us that as citizens of that kingdom we will be face to face with God.
“Hallowed be thy name.” God’s name is totally unique (holy). It is unlike any other name. Typically, names tell us something about the thing they name. Our personal names frequently tell who are parents are, who else was in our family, even who we look like. The names of objects often tell us something about their appearance, how they were made or how they’re used.
Not so with God. God is not an existent so he has no common name, only “I am who am”.
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The entire prayer, indeed all of Judeo-Christian scripture, is sumed up in this one line.
Literally, the Greek reads, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done, as in heaven, also on earth.”
The Kingdom of God, Heaven, is coming and we embrace it. Of course, the coming is not an historical event; it is an ontological event. The things of this spatio-temporal world are transmuted, outside the domain of spacetime, until they are totally reconciled with one another and therefore with God’s nature. Once reconciled these events reflect and ultimately constitute the will of God.
We incorrectly imagine that the will of God somehow precedes that which it wills. That would be true on our ontological level, the level of existents, but it is not true for God. First of all, God is outside of time. Words like “preceed” and “succeed” are meaningless when speaking of God. But second, God wills Good, period. The world evolves by its own lights, not under God’s thumb. What God does is redeem the things of the world and reconcile them into a harmonious unity, heaven. Redeemed and reconciled, they become God’s will.
Side bar: Because they misunderstand the nature of God’s will, many believe that God approves or even causes the tragedies that befall us in our lives. They assume these tragedies are part of some master plan beyond our grasp. But nothing could be farther from the truth. God abhors these tragedies precisely because they reflect a lack of Good, a lack of Being. Sadly, we have only the world to blame for our troubles. But what God does do is to transmute the conflicts that tragedies represent into contrasts so that they come to contribute in their own way to the up-building of the Kingdom. He does not will them, he redeems them, and redeemed, they come to be his will.
But now to the really radical part of this verse: “on earth as it is in heaven.” The reconciliation of events that constitutes the will of God is not an historical event, it is an ontological event. It doesn’t happen in the future, at the end to time or in some ethereal realm. It happens right here, right now on earth. “On earth as it is in heaven.”
Here we have an early version of the doctrine of physical (bodily) ressurection. Just as events on Earth are immanent in Heaven, so is the reconciliation of Heaven immanent on Earth. Alfred North Whitehead called this later phenomenon “God’s superject”, the projection of his eternal peace back into our world. Heaven and earth are not two radically estranged realms of being; rather they are complementary ways of understanding and experiencing one realm.
Like the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” is not a petition. It is merely a statement of fact. The Kingdom is real, God’s will is real, what happens on Earth is real and what subsists eternally in Heaven is real.
In fact, these four realities are denotatively synonymous. This verse tells us the same thing in four different ways; but in doing so it makes its message clear in a way that no one statement could have. It is the hidden climax of the prayer that is our creed, our ethic, and our covenant!