“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”
Beginning to Pray
Beginning to pray is hard… and easy. Really all you have to do is close your eyes and talk to God. Actually, you don’t really even have to close your eyes – or fold your hands. Those are just things parents tell their kids to do so that they won’t get distracted. Prayer, then, is simply talking to God. I do a lot of my praying while I walk – which helps me to break out of my apathy and talk thoughtfully with God.
Still, prayer is difficult for many reasons. Of course, prayer takes time, and we are all too busy. Also, many people don’t know what to say or how they should feel. Some people try to create an experience where they can feel the presence of God, (a demand that can short circuit attempts to pray from the outset). Others try to use language that sounds fitting to God, (a misunderstanding of our incarnational God).
But even beyond this there is something, a sense of deadness for many people, an inability to communicate with God. There is something at the heart of the issue of prayer that must be recognized before we can begin to pray.
We Distrust God
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “
4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
As soon as the creation accounts of Genesis 1 & 2 are complete, and human beings find themselves living in the presence of God, having fellowship with God, we find that there is trouble. Genesis 3 tells the story of a serpent who comes into the garden and suggests to the man and woman that God may be keeping something from them. This idea, that God might not be trustworthy, becomes part of the foundational truth about who we are as fallen human beings. At our core, we distrust God.
Christians, of course, are not supposed to think this way, but this distrust continues to nag at us. The offices of Christian counselors are full of those who question whether God forgives, whether God is good in the face of tragedy or fear, who struggle with anger because of their perception that God has abandoned them or done them wrong. People have trouble believing that God is good, and that God will be good (just, kind, generous, compassionate, rewarding) to them.
And this is not merely a modern issue. James, in his letter to the dispersed Jewish Christians of the first century, tells them… “13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. 16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. ” — James 1:13-17 (NIV)
Stated plainly, we are prone to think evil of God. We question whether he cares about us, whether he will abandon us, whether he is punishing us, whether he is faithful to his promises. Good theology says, “of course God is good”, but good theology is not sufficient. These are not rational questions, they are questions of fear and guilt and anger. They cannot be answered rationally. And as long as these questions and this belief go unaddressed, prayer is going to be difficult, if not impossible.
Hallowing God’s Name Helps Us to Address Our Distrust of God
Jesus seems to have understood this. Consequently he taught his disciples a pattern of prayer that begins by dealing with the issue of the Father’s goodness. He taught them to hallow God’s name.
Hallowing God’s name is the practice of reframing our fallen distrustful minds and hearts towards God. When we speak of the worthiness of God to be worshipped (His faithfulness, goodness, kindness, mercy, love, purity, wisdom), we are telling one another and we are telling ourselves the truth concerning God. We are making public statement and we are making our confession against the words and suggestions of the the ancient serpent and Father of Liars.
We, along with all men, have inherited this distrust of God. We must face this truth about ourselves, otherwise our hallowing of God’s name is likely to become forced, shallow and dishonest. We must recognize that when we come to worship and hallow God’s name, we come with false understandings, full of distrust. We come to worship suspecting God does not love us, even if he loves others. We come to worship suspecting that God may, at any time, abandon us. We come to worship feeling that God isn’t really just or isn’t really all that gracious and compassionate.
Hallowing God’s name is not just a matter of doing a new thing we weren’t doing before – it is a matter of changing our minds. Hallowing God’s name is a way of getting beyond our vague, “christiany” words and our distrust by affirming and giving thanks to God based on the revelation of his word.
Learn to Articulate God’s Name
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to begin with this intentional consideration of God’s name. Hallow is an old word which means – to “make holy” or to “set apart” . In other words, Jesus wanted the disciples to recognize and celebrate the ways in which God the Father was different from the gods worshipped by the surrounding nations.
The gods of the Romans and Greeks, for instance, were schemers, selfish and arrogant. They played with the lives of men and women for their own profit. They showed favoritism and were subject to being tricked or bribed.
Jesus wanted the disciples to recognize the unique and lovely character of God. Jesus wanted his disciples to treat Gods’ name with honor and reverence and love. Jesus wanted his disciples, as they began to pray, to begin by paying attention to God’s name – to become articulate in their expression, and understanding of God’s character. How were they to do this? How are we to do this? First, we need to be willing to recognize that God reveals, and articulates his name and his character in the Scriptures. For instance…
Psalm 46:1 – “ God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble”.
What does this psalm tell us about God’s name? That God is near – not distant – in times of trouble. That God wants to be a refuge to whom we can come for hope and comfort. The same psalm says to those who are in trouble,“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” If we are going to hallow or set apart God’s name, then we need to go to the Old and New Testament scriptures and see what God has revealed about his name. God has been very clear about who he is – and his revelation of his name can be found throughout the Bible. We need to become practiced at knowing what the Bible says about God’s name, and in our ability to express or articulate those statements.
Psalm 2 – This psalm tells us that God is the great king and ruler of the nations of the earth. God is the unopposed ruler who is unthreatened by anything man tries to do. God is king whom we should bow before trembling. “Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
Psalms like Psalm 2 are less popular in our democratic, comfort driven culture – but for that reason they are all the more important. Our culture blinds us. But Psalm 2 reveals an important truth about God. God is our sovereign, our ruler and master. If we are to hallow and set apart God’s name, then we need to set it apart from our easy, democratic notions of leadership. We cannot vote God away. We should honor and reverence him.
Psalm 103 – This psalm is actually a quote from Exodus 34, where God passes before Moses and reveals his name. The psalmist, in Psalm 34, expounds on God’s name… “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.”
Here is a statement about God’s name altogether different from Psalm 2. Here God is shown to be gracious and compassionate and gentle with moral people whose life is a breath. Both Psalm 103 and Psalm 2 are true statements about who God is and what he is like – and both of these Psalms set God’s name apart from the often foolish notions of God that we come up with ourselves.
When we begin by listening to God’s word we begin to see a complex and amazing picture of God emerge. Apart from God’s word we become simplistic in our understanding of God – and our simplistic understandings get us into trouble and lead to confusion. Someone who only sees God as the judge falls into trouble when they fail. Someone who only sees God as a comforter, is unlikely to be bold or to pursue holiness with much energy. Someone who sees God as only compassionate becomes very fuzzy when dealing with issues of justice or evil.
The Psalms are not the only source of information about God’s name. Beginning with Genesis chapter one, God reveals what he is like. God is the powerful creator. God is the one who made all things “very good”, and blessed them. God is the one who grieved when men became evil. God is the one who warns Cain that, “… sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” The Gospels and the letters of the New Testament are full of statements concerning the nature of God.
This is the beginning of prayer and of discipleship – to learn to know the character of the one we call our God. This is the beginning of what it means to know God.
Give Thanks to God
However, the point is not merely knowledge. Paul tells us in Romans 1:21 that those who knew God but did not give him glory or thanks actually became darkened in their minds and that their thoughts about God became futile. Clearly, then, the next step in hallowing the name of God is to give thanks to God for his character. It is not enough to read Psalm 2, recognize God as a sovereign king, and then go on our way. Our knowledge of God must lead to praise. We do not remain neutral in our understanding of God. Either we know God as a ruler and give him praise as our sovereign – giving thanks to him for creating and preserving the universe, ordering all things, and being the one true king, or we dismiss and reject his rule as just another claim. Either we know God as the compassionate one who does not treat us as our sins deserve, or we dismiss and reject him as the one who cannot help us or as the one who does not matter. This is the point of hallowing God’s name: To give him glory! We are to ascribe or attribute glory to God. We are to agree that this, indeed, is what God is like.
As we practice this first stage of the prayer something very important begins to happen in us. As we Grow in our understanding of who God is, and as we give thanks for who God is, we begin to change not only in our understanding of what God is like, but in our attitude towards him. We begin to become more familiar with God’s character, but also more thankful and joyful because we know him. We begin to grow in confidence regarding the character of God. We begin to think in new ways about our life and the world and about what it means to live meaningfully before God. We begin to become convinced of the goodness of God and to desire to know him more. Our picture of who God is expands and sharpens and we begin to know and understand the one we are praying to. This is what the Father desires. The Father wants to be known. The Father wants fellowship with us.