During the summer of 2000, I joined the freshman football team at Franklin High School and soon started leading the Lord’s Prayer for the team after practices. Every day after practice, I stood in front of the football team and led those who wanted to join in the Lord’s Prayer. Jon Corley stood with me, too.
Jon and I did this because one of the football coaches, Wayne, asked us to. He said the team needed spiritual leadership and thought we were the guys who could do a good job.
We recited the prayer in the King James translation (as everyone seems to), exhausted from practice, then went on our merry way—not giving too much thought to the words we had just uttered in prayer.
At the time, I thought we were all very spiritual for praying after practice. While there’s worse things we could have done with our time, I’m not convinced we were doing as much good as I originally thought, though.
We took this sacred prayer, given to us by Jesus, and did our best to think about what we were saying with good intentions, but the effect? I don’t remember any particular impact those prayers made on us or on our lives.
Even with our somewhat good intentions, we were basically just going through the motions of prayer. We probably meant them in a general sense, but it was more of a routine than a meaningful interaction with God, at least for me.
While we pray the Lord’s Prayer, or the “Our Father Prayer” as I’ve come to call it, many people today do not understand exactly what they’re praying. In fact, we often miss its meaning.
How could this be?
The prayer is short, uses simple language, and its meaning seems plain. What’s to misunderstand?
The purpose of this post is to say that we need to rethink the Lord’s Prayer because I believe many people misunderstand this important prayer. It’s very important we think clearly about this because:
- Jesus told us to pray this way (Matt. 6:9).
- Christians of all time have used it as their prayer guide (so it’s what we’ve done for millennia).
- It’s truly an effective guide for connecting with God in personal experience.
So, what exactly needs rethinking? This prayer is worthy of our thoughts time and time again because of its daily nature—even when we think we understand what it means. But do we really know the meaning of all its parts? If you stop and think about particular words and phrases, can you define them with confidence and clarity? Take, for example, the word “hallowed” and the phrase “hallowed be your name.”
What does “hallowed” even mean anyway?
Then, consider the phrase “and lead us not into temptation.” How does that make sense as a prayer to a good God? Is God planning to lead us into temptation but is just waiting for us to ask him to not do this terrible thing he was planning to do?
Same with “deliver us from the evil one.” Doesn’t God want to deliver us from the evil one anyway? So, why do we need pray for it?
These questions reveal our need to not only meditate on but also to rethink the meaning of the Our Father Prayer.
While I want to address various parts of this prayer in other posts, this post leads up to and focuses primarily on “hallowed be your name” as a way to start the larger discussion. Give us a shout on HIM Publications’s Instagram account or Twitter account to tell us what you think.
A Prayer of Descent
Let’s start with the structure of the Our Father Prayer, which reveals a rich level of depth for us. I think of it as a “prayer of descent” because it moves from heaven to earth, then from earth to the depths of evil—descending downward as it progresses. Have you considered this progression?
Consider how the prayer starts and ends, spatially speaking. It starts in heaven, where our Father dwells. Now, I don’t believe that heaven is in the sky somewhere above the earth’s atmosphere, but the imagery suggestions this type of spatial imagery. In Jesus’ time, people thought of the heavens as “up there” (over our heads but also all around us).
Track how this metaphorical language is used in this prayer of descent, where God moves from “the heavens” to the realm of evil. I think “the heavens” is a better translation than “heaven,” as does Dallas Willard (see The Divine Conspiracy, 48). This Greek phrase in Matthew’s Gospel, tois ouranois, means something more like “the dimension in which God dwells, which surrounds us.” So, the prayer moves from the metaphorically high place where God dwells to the very earth on which we walk. Then from the earth to the low places of our lives:
Step 1: From the heavens to earth.
We start by praying “Our Father.” But where? “In the heavens.” So, we pray that God’s name, his kingdom, and his will come to the earth as they are in the heavens. So, we’re asking God that these truths of his dimension become a reality in our everyday life dimensions.
Step 2: From earth to a place at our table.
Then, God enters into the daily stuff of our world, even at our table, where we eat bread. Bread represents the essential nutrients of our lives. That is, this prayer reveals how God wants to be a part of our everyday life on earth, so we ask him for sustenance, aligning ourselves with his desire for connection with us at our very wooden tabletops upon which our bread sits.
In Step 1 of his descent, we’ve welcomed him into our world on earth, where he seeks welcome; now, we invite him to sit at the table and be a part of the very fibers of our lives.
Step 3: From our table to the low places of life.
Then, God moves within our prayer into the low places of our lives. You could think of this as hell because temptation and the evil one influence this space. To think of this as hell is to say that it’s the closest his children get to hell on this earth. That is, to go into temptation and even fall into the trap of the evil one is like hell on earth.
That’s why we pray “deliver us from the evil one,” and when we do, we welcome God into the worst possible experiences we can have on earth, into the low places.
In Steps 1 to 3, God moves from heaven to hell, in a sense, and reigns over everything in between. That’s what I mean by calling it a prayer of descent. This prayer starts in the heavens, moves to the earth, and continues into the low places of our lives. Praying it welcomes God’s sovereignty to cover every part. He wants to partake in all of our lives, and that touches on why this prayer is so rich. It offers us a template by which to pray about everything from the highest to the lowest places.
As we pray, God changes us by aligning our hearts with his.
A Prayer of Alignment
The purpose of the Our Father Prayer largely has to do with aligning our hearts with God’s heart. It’s not like we’re delivering new information to God with it. He was the one who instructed us to pray it in the first place, after all! So, why pray such a predictable set of words? And what effect does it have on God?
While I believe praying this prayer does affect God, it should affect us just as much—if not more.
As we pray this prayer, God aligns our hearts with his. By praying it, we’re already communicating to God that we have heard his first Word to us—the person of Jesus. By receiving his Word incarnate and simply reciting the words of the Our Father Prayer, we say to God, “I receive you and I want to submit to your ways.” But that’s just the beginning. We then allow our hearts to be formed and transformed by his words in this prayer.
Accepting this reality can change the way we pray. That’s exactly what happened to me. It always struck me as odd to pray for daily bread, when I knew God already wanted to feed me. He says as much in the Sermon on the Mount. Referring to the birds, he says “yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26, NIV).
As I mentioned, we’re not delivering any new information to God when we pray this prayer.
We pray the Our Father Prayer to align our hearts with the Father’s heart.
This unlocks the true meaning of the phrases of this prayer because:
He wants his name to be holy,
He wants his kingdom to come,
He wants his will to be done…
… on earth as it is in heaven.
He wants to feed us.
He wants to forgive us (and for us to forgive others).
He wants to lead us from temptation.
He wants to deliver us from the evil one.
None of these recitations are novel in God’s ears. That’s important because it can often feel banal to pray them. That’s why these words are merely a launching point into all the riches of prayer. You could say that these words comprise the primal prayer from which all meaningful prayers are built.
The richness of the Our Father Prayer is that it covers everything we could want to pray for by offering a cohesive, simple framework that covers everything from a to z, everything from heaven to hell.
Realizing this reality helps us surrender to God’s aligning our hearts with his through this prayer. It helps us accept facts about it like how this prayer includes imperative commands to God.
A Prayer of Authority
Isn’t it a little odd that Jesus tells us to make commands of God in prayer? We are told to say to God:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done.
Sounds kind of bossy if you think about it. We pray these words without thinking about it.
Sometimes we simply think of them as statements, but did you know that in Greek these are not declarative statements? They’re not stating how things are but how things ought to be. In Greek, they are imperatives. They are commands. A rather odd way to pray, isn’t it?
It’s not that we command God, though, and he obeys us. It’s common really, but it’s helpful to recognize. To name the verbs as imperatives helps us understand the nuances of what we’re saying. That we’re praying imperatives here, and not declaratives, makes a big difference in how we think about this prayer.
This is especially true with the phrase “hallowed be your name,” which needs the most serious rethinking.
Suggesting a Retranslation of “Hallowed Be Your Name”
In my experience, almost everyone who prays “hallowed be your name” thinks of this as a declarative statement. As a result, they open their prayer using this line as a launching point to declare praises to God for how great he is. The ACTS prayer model seems to be build off of this false presupposition (which is a great model by the way, just faulty in this presupposition).
Let me be clear: God deserves our praise, and he is great indeed.
But “hallowed be your name” does not give us that precedent, because it is not a declarative statement. It’s an imperative statement. Jesus was not telling us to declare the holiness of God’s name here; he was asking us to usher in the holiness of his name on earth as it is in heaven. That’s a very different meaning.
So, when we pray “hallowed be your name” as Jesus intended us to pray it, we’re essentially asking God, “your name be holy” in the same way we ask of him “your kingdom come” and “your will be done.” Grammatically, all three of these phrases have the same form and structure. So, why do we say the first one differently?
First, I think we’ve been entrenched in tradition on this point, so translators have used “hallowed be” for centuries simply because it’s what we have used since at least 1611 and the King James Version. But no one uses the word “hallowed” today—ever, for anything—so, why should we include this in our modern translations?
In fact, I would say we literally don’t know what “hallowed” means, especially in its verbal form, “hallowed be.” It’s archaic language, and it’s unhelpful at best for every person I know. At worst, it’s misleading because we think it means something it doesn’t mean.
“Hallowed be” means “may your name be holy” in the sense of a command or a request. But Christians think of it as a statement about God’s nature.
Popular translations today like the NIV, NRSV, and ESV use this antiquated phrase, causing readers to miss the real meaning of this important part of the Our Father Prayer.
Take heart, though! Not all translations miss it! The New Living Translation and The Message (a paraphrase) carry this general sense of the phrase:
NLT: “May your name be kept holy.”
The Message: “Reveal who you are.”
Second, I think most popular translations have not employed the most up to date terms is because we’ve all memorized it the old way! And that’s a hard sell because it’s hard to change liturgical customs. Have you considered that it’s basically the only relic of the KJV era that lives in our Christian language today? And it’s really the only thing that comes close to liturgy in the average Protestant church today. That is, it’s the only thing we say in unison and in exactly the same way on a regular basis.
If someone came in and proposed a change, it would be a huge ask! Plus, it would be an uphill battle because it’s what we’ve always done.
But I dare to propose it anyway, because I think it’s important we get this right.
Changing “Hallowed Be Your Name” to “Your Name Be Holy”
I think it’s important that we pray according to the true meaning of this sacred prayer because it’s such a sacred gift we’ve been given from Jesus. So, I propose that we totally get rid of “hallowed be thy name” and adopt “your name be holy” in our translations and recitations of this prayer.
My reasons are simple:
- This is the true meaning of the prayer.
- This meaning makes sense to modern English speakers.
- This captures the parallel structure in English that matches the parallel structure in Greek.
With this new phrasing, the prayer flows like this (notice the parallel structure):
Our Father in heaven,
Your name be holy,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
The True Meaning of “Hallowed Be Your Name”
So, what does “your name be holy” mean then, if it doesn’t mean “you are holy, God”?
If it was “you are holy,” it would say “your name is holy.” But it’s a command, so we’re asking God—like we’re asking for his kingdom to come and his will to be done—that his name be holy.
Why would we ask God’s name to be holy if it already is? Let’s look at this briefly because it’s not quite that simple. God’s name is holy, but is that true everywhere? It is definitely “in the heavens.” It’s also holy among those of us who believe in Jesus (and even those of other monotheistic faiths). But it’s definitely not holy in the mouths and lives of the majority of people on earth. In fact, God’s name is used as a curse word among a large percentage of earth’s population.
So, when we pray “your name be holy,” we’re asking God to do something.
We’re requesting that his holy name to people for whom his name is not currently holy. We’re asking God to extend the reach of his holy name to new places and corners of the earth. That is, we’re asking for change so that more people see and treat his name as holy. And this process starts with us, the ones praying.
When we ask God to “make your name holy on earth as it is in heaven,” we’re giving him permission to answer our prayer through our lives (and beyond), just as we do with “your kingdom come” and “your will be done.” We’re ushering in his will and his reign as we pray those words. So too, we usher in his holy name and ask that he spread that holiness throughout our lives.
What does the spreading of the holiness of his name throughout our lives look like? As a conversation starter, not the end-all list, it looks like this:
- We speak his name as though he’s sacred and holy (like he is) in places that don’t know his name at all or like this.
- We bear his name on our lives so that our reputation as holy people shines in the dark places of earth.
- We live lives of holiness that reflect the holy reputation of God.
This is a tall order! That’s why we pray it, though, because we can’t make this happen on our own power.
I’ve listed these practical implications as examples, but it’s a rich phrase that calls us to contemplate, to sit in prayer, and to seek God about. That’s also why we pray it, because it’s worth of us rethinking it, even once we understand what it means.
I have retranslated the whole Our Father Prayer into modern-day language to help you rethink and relearn this prayer. You can download it and print it off here.
How Does This Affect Your Daily Relationship with God?
Since we pray this prayer every day—it’s daily bread we ask for, after all—this change ought to affect our daily relationship with God.
That’s a question to continue asking. I’d like to know your thoughts, so leave a comment below!
As you ask this question of your own experiences, perhaps you’ll find similar to what I have found:
It makes my prayers more personal.
It challenges me to speak the name of God more often in everyday life because I’ve prayed for this very thing.
It feels more vulnerable to pray, knowing that God wants his name to be known as holy more broadly.
It moves me to live a holy life because I know that can reflect on his name.
It inspires me to take God’s reputation seriously in how I might reflect his reputation with my actions and speech in general.
These become especially relevant, by the way, when we ask open-ended questions in prayer. Asking God, “How can I make your name holy today?” is not always easy because he just might give us an assignment!
Most of all, by adopting this new way of thinking and praying this part of the Lord’s prayer, we can better understand God’s heart, which is worth its weight in gold. That affects our relationship with him because it helps us know him.
I hope this has been helpful and encouraging to you as you seek not only to rethink this sacred prayer but also to pray in a new way—hopefully closer to the way Jesus asked us to pray.
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