How to Live out the Our Father
Most Catholics learned this prayer by heart as a child. As with anything memorized, it’s possible to say the entire Our Father at Mass without reflecting on the words. However, this prayer merits the deepest reflection because it comes from the very mouth of Jesus. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). Think of that! Jesus taught the first disciples the prayer, and the Church has been saying it for over two millennia. In addition, that little introduction teaches a great lesson in the spiritual life. Uncertain on how to pray, where to start, what to say? Mimic the disciples: go to Jesus and ask for help. Praying the Our Father is a great place to start, according to St. Thomas Aquinas:
“The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers… In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them.”
St. Matthew (6:9-13) and St. Luke (11:2-4) capture this perfect prayer. St. Matthew places it within the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7), putting into prayer how we ought to live. Let’s take it line by line, looking at the words and how to apply them to everyday life.
Jesus’ choice of words was deliberate; from the very start of the prayer, He places the one who prays it within the Church. That is, it’s “our” Father. It’s the prayer given to the entire Church, for the entire Church, to be said within the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI noted, “it is only by becoming part of the ‘we’ of God’s children that we can reach up to Him beyond the limits of this world in the first place” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p. 147).
When we pray the Our Father, we’re not just saying nice words. “When we pray to the Father, we are in communion with Him and with His Son, Jesus Christ.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2781) Christ is present, for “with the very utterance of the title [Father], suggests the thought of the Son” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures #7). At this point, we should recall the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus came to save humanity from sin and death; He did that by becoming man. That is, He knew what it was like to work for a living; learn a trade; support His mother after the loss of St. Joseph; He lived a normal life for thirty years. The structure and petitions of this prayer come from someone well acquainted with life, not from someone aloof.
Looking up to God to start this prayer is exactly how we should begin our prayer time. Humbly look to the Father as one in need. But, recognition of our neediness has to be accompanied by a sincere heart. If we approach the Our Father as a mere list of wants, we forfeit its meaning.
Who art in heaven
One of the great mysteries surrounding our Heavenly Father is His immanence and transcendence. On one hand, God intimately knows us. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). On the other hand, God operates on an entirely different level. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9). Like so many of the Christian paradoxes, we have to hold God’s immanence and transcendence in a healthy tension.
It would help us to call heaven to mind during the day. Our ultimate happiness lies there, not on earth. What awaits the elect in heaven is being immersed in the eternal, self-giving love of the Trinity. The more we think about it, the more we’d drive ourselves to live a life worthy of heaven.
Hallowed be Thy Name
God gradually revealed Himself over the course of millennia, and part of that revelation was His Name. God revealed Himself to the patriarchs, disclosed His name to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and finally said everything to the human race in a single Word: Jesus. In this one line of the Our Father, take a snapshot of the entire story of salvation history, and make the conscious effort to connect to it. In all His holiness and majesty, God has you in mind and wants you to spend eternity with Him in heaven.
Many Jews won’t say or write the Name of God as revealed in Ex 3:14. They consider it that sacred! Other words for God were used in Old Testament writings as a result—the Hebrew words Elohim and Adonai are two examples.
Sadly, our culture doesn’t have a strong sense of the sacred. Using the Lord’s name in vain is extremely common in music and movies. Don’t get lost in the culture on this point; keep the Name of God holy. Don’t use it in swear words, and unless you’re awestruck and worshipping Him, avoid using the phrase/acronym “oh my God/OMG.”
Thy Kingdom Come
Jesus spoke of His kingdom many times, and most of all in Matthew 13. He tells parable after parable of what the kingdom is like. It is capable of exponential growth (the mustard seed, 13: 31-32), not immediately apparent (the treasure in the field, 13:44), incredibly valuable (the pearl of great price, 13:45-46), mixed in with the sin & mess in the world (the wheat & weeds, 13:24-30), yet meant for all (the fishing net, 13:47-50). Before the kingdom can go out from us to the rest of the world, it first has to take root in us. Read the parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-9, 18-23) closely. Does our heart resemble the fertile soil, the rocky ground, or the thorny ground? Christians should be conspicuous by their faith, their Christ-like love toward others, their works of charity, and their joy.
Would anyone be surprised to learn you are a Christian? Let us remember the advice of Our Lord: “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33). “To pray for the kingdom of God is to say to Jesus: let us be yours, Lord!” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p. 147)
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
This petition connects with the coming of the kingdom in the prior petition, but many get stuck on God’s will for multiple reasons. God’s will is fine in heaven, and it’s alright as long as it coincides with our will. Doesn’t God know that I can run my life just fine? It's also frustrating when we search for God’s will and find nothing but more uncertainty.
The short answer is no, we won’t arrive at a perfect understanding of God’s will in our time on earth. Not only are we prone to sin and error, but that sin and error muddles our vision when we’re searching for His will. So what are we to do? Pope Benedict gives a great answer:
“What we are ultimately praying for… is that we come closer and closer to Him, so that God’s will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 147)
Also, we’d do well to remember that God’s will for our lives impacts all the people around us. The strangers we meet, family, friends, coworkers, classmates, and so on. Think back of all the people who impacted your life and encouraged your faith. Where would we be without those mentors, teachers, spiritual directors, and pastors? How much worse would that suffering have been without the support of particular friends in your life? Don’t forget, you and I are called to be that to others.
Give us this day our daily bread
The Our Father began with approaching God, praising Him, asking for the coming of His kingdom, and hoping that His will finds fulfillment on the earth. Only half-way in do we get to something more material. Like St. Thomas Aquinas said in the above quote, Jesus ordered the petitions in an intentional way. He’s trying to teach us the importance of the spiritual life and its priority above every material need. We have bodies, and we need food—but “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
It’s a very simple petition as well. In this line, we’re only asking for bread for today. That’s a foreign concept to middle class (and up) Americans. Yes, bread for today, but also that seasonal craft beer that’s so good, takeout that night we’re busy, that candy bar that I love, and so on. The Catechism reveals the intent in this petition as not to enable idleness, but to “relieve us from nagging worry and preoccupation.”(CCC 2830)
One in nine people across the world do not have enough food to eat (World Food Progrmme). Such a statistic is hopefully sobering enough to propel us in two directions: first, to thank God for what we do have. Second, to support those who are in need.
Most communities have some sort of food bank, and they always need donations!
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Implicit in this petition is the knowledge that we’re sinners. We cannot hope to get any closer to God without acknowledging our sinfulness. In our normal spiritual lives, monthly confession (or more often as needed) is a good rule of thumb. Sin blocks grace; if we hold onto the former, we close ourselves off to the latter.
Jesus included an interesting part, that we aren’t just to ask for forgiveness, but that we’d be forgiven as we forgive others. He doesn’t include any qualifiers with the latter phrase, either. The sentence ends without “unless they really deserve it” or “until they’ve paid for what they did”; nor is there any requirement for groveling. The Catechism points out the logic behind this: “love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see” (CCC 2840).
The Catechism also points out that there are other places that Jesus uses that same little word “as”...
-“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)
-“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
-“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)
Forgiveness is tremendously simple and difficult at the same time. The above trio of quotes make it plain. Jesus intends us to act as He has acted toward others. He has showed infinite love and mercy toward us; we are to be similarly generous with our love and forgiveness. Easy to say and hard to do! It involves pain and healing, which comes easy to nobody. This petition of the Our Father asks for help in that process.
Lead us not into temptation
On the surface, this feels strange. First of all, I don’t need any help finding temptation. I can lead myself into it just fine without any help. Second, do we have to ask God not to lead us into temptation, or else He will? The verb “lead” in this petition has a more nuanced meaning in Greek. The Catechism notes that the Greek word carries a meaning of both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation” (CCC 2846). This sheds some much-needed light on this petition. And, that light points toward our moral choices.
God allows temptation in our lives as a spiritual exercise. He knows our hearts and what we can handle, no matter how much we disagree with God on what that is. St. Paul reassures the Corinthians that “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).
The first key step in battling temptation is to know yourself. If you have trouble with a particular vice—for example, anger, lust, gluttony—know your triggers. The more a sin is indulged, the easier it is to fall into it. It doesn’t matter if the sin is on a small scale or larger scale, the same principle applies. It’s also important to note that smaller sins don’t stay small. There is no standing still in battling vice and building virtue! We either go forward or regress; we never stay in the same place.
The reverse is also true, there is hope! The more we reject temptation and do not fall into that sin, the easier it is to say no in the future. C.S. Lewis said it well:
“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible” (Mere Christianity, p. 132).
But deliver us from evil.
Evil has mangled the world since the Fall of Adam and Eve. Although he isn’t named, this petition asks for deliverance from Satan. St. Peter warned that the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). The Book of Revelation is filled with the aggressiveness of evil. We don’t have to look very far into history to see Satan at work in wars, persecutions, and genocide. However, Christ’s death and resurrection won the final victory over Satan. The battle still rages, but the war has been won. St. Paul tells the Romans that nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ. We are His, won at the price of His blood! If we are faithful to Him, He will be faithful to us.
This final petition also draws our gaze toward the end of the world. That isn’t meant to end the Our Father on a sour note. “Along with deliverance from the evils that overwhelm humanity, [the Church] implores the precious gift of peace and the grace of perseverance in expectation of Christ’s return” (CCC 2854). Humanity cannot draw itself out of evil’s grasp; we need grace to do so. Come, Lord Jesus!
Finally, “amen”—“so be it.” Every petition in the prayer, every word of praise, to God. Let it be so!