Praying the Lord's Prayer . . . Without Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

It’s safe to say that most Christians have memorized the Lord’s Prayer. But when we do so, we often become attached to the wording of a specific Bible version. As a result, some of us find it distressing when we hear a different reading of the Lord’s Prayer. When planning worship you might have been surprised by the strong response of some when you use an unfamiliar version. “What next?” they say. “Is nothing sacred?”

Sometimes using a traditional form, such as the King James version, is most helpful. In times of deep distress and panic, many gain comfort from repeating familiar words. But believing that there’s only one correct, untouchable, effective translation is a problem. To be truly faithful to Jesus’ original words, we’d have to learn the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. Or we’d have to decide which of the ancient Greek sources to use for each sentence of the prayer, because they don’t all say exactly the same thing.

Should we simply discard older translations of the Lord’s Prayer? That seems wrong. But we take the Lord’s name in vain when we pray this prayer as a memory exercise without paying attention to the commitments we’re making, or when we use the prayer as a set of magic words to which God must listen.

Realizing that there’s more than one way to faithfully pray the Lord’s Prayer can enrich our prayer life. Using different authentic forms, sung or spoken, during public and private worship, can keep us aware of what Jesus is calling us to say to “our Father.”

Let’s consider, for example, the wording of Luke 11:1-4 in the New Revised Standard Version:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Father

There are many appropriate ways of addressing God. The term “Father” emphasizes at least two things:

  • In a patriarchal society, it’s a reassuring reference to God’s power and authority.
  • There are other, more formal Semitic words for father. But the actual term used by Jesus in this prayer—abba—is incredibly special. Abba has the sense of our word “daddy.” Jesus invites his followers, through his own relationship within the Trinity, to address God in this most intimate way. Now that’s awesome!

So at the very beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, before we’ve even acknowledged God’s greatness and our sinfulness, we’re to speak to him as a beloved dad, worthy of trust. It’s almost like snuggling up in a good dad’s arms, on his knee, knowing we’re welcomed and heard!

Hallowed be your name

When we experience close contact with our Abba, the only appropriate response is overwhelming praise and a desire to honor God. That’s what is expressed in the word hallow, which means “to honor as holy.”

Your kingdom come

Many Scripture texts describe God’s kingdom. Its coming has already begun, but when it’s totally present there will be no division for believers between heaven and earth. As the psalmist so poetically said, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). All will be encompassed.

Give us each day our daily bread

This petition is likely a reference to the manna God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, which kept them alive one day at a time. But it can also be understood as a request for the bread that is Jesus’ body—a request for daily spiritual renewal. Both of these understandings say, “We trust you, God.” Are we really ready to trust God to look after each day ahead of us, one day at a time? That’s what we’re praying.

We take the Lord’s name in vain when we pray this prayer without paying attention to the commitments we’re making.

And forgive us our sins

Sins—it’s a nasty word in our culture. The word trespasses, which is often used in the Lord’s Prayer, is old-fashioned, remote. It helps us to avoid feeling guilty. Debts is a little more real, and it’s actually a more accurate translation than trespasses. Debts can remind us that we’re completely in God’s debt. But that sin word—that tells it like it is! We don’t always want to hear it, and, sadly, some congregations fight against having a prayer of confession as part of worship. Yet there in Jesus’ model of how we’re to pray, we’re told quite clearly: “Ask God’s forgiveness for your sins.”

If a person has just spoken to God as Daddy, praised God, prayed for God’s kingdom to come, and asked for daily bread (physical and/or spiritual), then it isn’t too surprising if the person praying becomes achingly aware of how little she or he has earned the right to that bread and to a place in that kingdom. Painful as it may be, it’s imperative that everything that separates us from God be confessed. Everything? It’s far more painful to live a lie, pretending to a nonexistent peace with God but isolated by the wall of our sins.

For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us

Oh, do we? There’s the catch! Must we give the same kind of forgiveness to others that we receive from God?

Personally, I find it very hard to forgive people who’ve returned cruelty for my loving care and trust. I can’t do it on my own! I feel betrayed, deeply hurt, and angry. If it isn’t dealt with, I wake up at night and chew on it. However, Jesus taught many times that forgiveness must happen! It’s a loving rule, made for our own spiritual health.

There’s only one way to “hate the sin and forgive the sinner”: think of your own sinfulness through time. If you can’t think of anything, beware—you’re in denial. Consider everything you wish you hadn’t done, everything you’re glad your mom doesn’t know. Consider how you’ve confessed those sins and, with God’s help, enjoyed a closer relationship with God. The sins remain, but Jesus Christ has cut the pathway to God through them.

Jesus, knowing he’s to be betrayed, but loving his people, teaches them how to pray. Only Jesus can help us to accept our own forgiveness and then truly forgive others.

And do not bring us to the time of trial

This probably has to do with “the last days.” The word and, which joins our forgiveness of debts to this plea may tell us how to be spared. As much as we are forgiven and forgiving, by that much will we be spared the horrors of the final evil times, whenever they may be and whatever form they may take in our lives.

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t a cozy talisman. In it, Jesus teaches an attitude toward prayer, worship, and life as a whole. Christians may confidently petition God, but, at the same time, we must be trusting, totally honest, and committed to doing what Jesus asks of us.

Additional Resources from RW

  • The Lord’s Prayer: A Service of Confession and Assurance, June 2013
  • Our Father in Heaven: A Prayer Service Using the Lord’s Prayer and the Heidelberg Catechism, March 2005
  • The Lord’s Prayer: Using Hymns and the Heidelberg Catechism to Reflect on the Lord’s Prayer, June 1991

Before her clergy worship leadership, both in civil and military settings, Patricia Anne Elford prepared worship services for Toronto and Vancouver Schools of Theology, for conferences, workshops, camps, Canadian Girls in Training, Guides, church schools, and international use.