Daring To Say, “Our Father In Heaven”

The first words of the Lord’s Prayer are the most frightening:  “Our Father in heaven.”  I know many of us find these words comforting.  I certainly have found it comforting to think of the heavenly God as my Father.  However, as the prayer was actually prayed by the church throughout the ages, introductory and concluding words have been added.  For example, in the original form in both Luke and Matthew, there is no “amen” at the end.  Nevertheless, in very early church documents, we see an “amen” being tacked on to the end adding a kind of “so be it,” or “that’s the end” marker to the prayer.

But what I didn’t realize until recently was that another word was added to the beginning of the prayer, a word that was added about the same time as the “amen,” maybe before, a word that still precedes the prayer today in both the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and in the Roman Catholic Mass.  What is that word?  The verb is “to dare.”  From the earliest days when the church began saying the Lord’s prayer, the church recognized that it is a daring thing to call upon God as “Our Father.”

In it’s contemporary form in the Roman Catholic Mass, the introductory phrase is in the form of an instruction that goes like this: “At the Saviour’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say.”  (I am by no means an expert on the Roman Catholic Mass.  There may be different forms out there nowadays, but this is the form of the introductory instruction I found in the “New English” Mass.)  The Orthodox Divine Liturgy presents the introductory phrase not in the form of instruction, but in the form of prayer—as is typical in Orthodox Christianity, there is the prayer before the prayer.  It goes like this: “And grant O Lord that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon you the Heavenly God as Father and to say.”

Dare.  Why is it a daring thing to say the Lord’s Prayer?  Why is it daring to call God “Our Father in heaven”?

Well to begin with, calling God His Father is what got Jesus crucified—at least according to John’s gospel.  In John chapter eight, Jesus has a long dialog with the Jewish leaders about his Father and their father, and at the end of the conversation, the Jewish leaders try to stone him to death.  It’s a pretty serious thing to say God is one’s Father.  The Jewish leaders realized that, which is why they don’t take it lightly when Jesus called God his Father.  To call God one’s Father is to claim to be God’s son or daughter, to claim to carry God’s DNA ( so to speak), to claim to be like God.

In the world in which Jesus lived, the expression “son of something” meant that one had the characteristics of the thing mentioned.  For example, James and John were referred to as the “sons of thunder,” which meant that they had thunder-like characteristics.  To call someone a son of the light or son of the day means that the person has no guile, is truthful, innocent, simple, has nothing hidden and is strait forward.  And so, here’s the thing, here’s why from the earliest days the Church has understood that it is a daring thing to say this prayer.  When we say the Lord’s Prayer, when we call on God as Father, do we at all resemble the One whom we are calling our Father?  Or to put it another way, the Lord’s Prayer does not identify who “Our Father in Heaven” is.  It is actually our lives that make that identification.

And it get’s scarier.  (But hang in there with me to the end.)

In John chapter eight, the Jewish leaders make the claim that God is their father: “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God” (v.41).  Jesus is pointing out to the Jewish leaders that they do the deeds of their father.  Earlier they had claimed that Abraham was their father.  But Jesus says that they cannot be Abraham’s children because they were seeking to kill Him, and because they did not want to listen to and receive the truth.  Abraham was not a murderer.  Abraham listened to and received the truth.  Therefore, because the Jewish leaders want to murder and don’t want to receive the truth, they cannot be Abraham’s children. That’s when the Jewish leaders up the ante (so to speak) and go so far as to claim God as their Father.  But Jesus points out to them that this is impossible because if God were their Father, they would love Him because He came from God.  Rather, the fact that they intend to kill Him because He speaks the truth to them means that their father could not be God, could not even be Abraham, but because they intend to commit murder, and reject the truth, their father must be the devil.

And so, specifically referencing John chapter eight, St. Cyril of Alexandria and several other early Christian commentators, argue that whom we are actually addressing when we say the words “Our Father in heaven,” is largely determined by what our lives actually consist of.  It is possible, these ancient fathers say, that instead of calling upon God when one says the words, “Our Father in heaven,” one could actually be calling on someone, something else.  The question is, what are your intentions in real life?  Are they murderous?  Are they lecherous?  Are they greedy, selfish, vain or self aggrandizing?  If these things are the intent of someone’s heart when she or he prays the words, “Our Father in heaven,” then the one she or he is addressing is not God, for God is not the Father of such things.  But rather whom she or he addresses is the devil, the father of murder and greed and vanity and of all such things.

Now let me take a moment shut down an escape clause that some of you might be thinking about.  You might be thinking, “Well the prayer says, ‘Our Father in heaven.’  Certainly the devil is not in heaven.”  Well popular “street” theology might consider that a good point, but really all you have to do is take a look at what the Bible actually says and what the Church actually teaches to realize that the word “heaven” is not the neat, tightly formed category that many of us  like to think it is.  It is not the realm where only God, the angels and the saints dwell.  Rather St. Paul tells us (in Ephesians. 6:12, for example) that the heavenly realm is also the place of spiritual warfare, the place where demonic forces battle to lead us into destruction.  And in the Old Testament, we are told in the book of Job, that when the “sons of God” (probably a reference to the angels) present themselves before God, satan is among them.

When we say “in heaven,” we are not saying that only God can be our father.  When we say “Our Father in Heaven,” we are referring to our spiritual father as opposed to our biological father.  In the conversation in John chapter 8, the distinction is made clear in Greek by making a distinction between being Abraham’s “descendants” (“seed” in Greek), biological offspring versus being Abraham’s children and thus rightly calling Abraham their father.  Similarly, when we say, “Our Father in heaven,” we are making a distinction between our biological parents and our spiritual parent, our biological DNA from our spiritual DNA.  But that then brings us back to this very painful and frightening question: whose spiritual DNA am I carrying?

This is a large part of the reason why the Lord’s prayer was a secret prayer in the early Church and why it was not taught to the catechumens until just a few days before their baptism:  You don’t want people taking the prayer Jesus taught His disciples to pray, someone who is not a disciple, not a follower of Jesus, you don’t want this person to take the Lord’s Prayer and (perhaps because they think there is some magic in the words) to say the prayer to appease the Christian God yet actually be addressing, not the Christian God, but the devil and his demons.   And the fathers warn us that it is not just the unbaptized who have to be careful in this matter.  We who have been baptized must realize that even we, the covenant people of God, can fall away, can become what the New Testament refers to as false brethren, waterless clouds, and blemishes on the (Eucharistic) love feast.  We too must, in the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:12, must “take heed lest we fall.”

I am not here trying to make a statement about “eternal security” nor to suggest that one can easily (or ever, for that matter) completely lose baptismal grace.  That’s not my point, neither was it the point of the church fathers who warn us to be careful, be circumspect, when we say the words “Our Father in heaven.”  The point is this: when we harbour devilish intentions in our hearts, whether we are baptized or not, when we (like the religious leaders in John chapter eight) have a righteous, religious, and respectable appearance yet reject the truth and harbour secret evil intention, then when we say the words “Our Father in heaven,” it is not God whom we are addressing.  Rather it is the devil, the father of lies and the father of hatred, adultery, greed, self importance and all such wickedness.

Now that I’ve made you wonder whether or not you should ever say the Lord’s Prayer again, which is what I am hoping I have done, for that is what the fathers of the church wanted to do: they wanted those who said the words to this prayer to take them very, very seriously.  They wanted them to examine themselves, examine their lives before they dared to say these words.  So now that you are examining yourself, so now that you are looking at your life and you see blotches, bits of all of the wickedness I have mentioned, what do you do?  Well, you do what the Church teaches you to do: you repent.  You confess.  You do your best to turn from the darkness that you see in your heart.

At issue here is not the fact that I have experiences of hatred or lust or selfishness in my heart. The issue is whether or not I embrace them or reject them.  The issue is intention.  Yes, I may have an adulterous or murderous thought, but do I confess this as sinful (confess to myself, to God, and somewhat regularly to my father confessor)?  Do I reject these sinful impulses that war in my flesh (again to use a phrase from St. Paul), or do I cultivate them, do I allow myself to keep a dark little closet in my life where I tell myself that what I know is sinful and wicked is actually OK for me?  Do I intend to continue nurturing this grudge, this hatred, this wicked desire or selfish ambition?  If so, then perhaps it would be better if I did not to say the Lord’s Prayer—not, at least, until I can talk to someone about this hidden inner reality of mine, someone who can help me find my way to repentance.

To say the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray is a daring thing.  We are saying something about ourselves, or at least about our intentions, our desire, what we want to be true about us.  The Prodigal Son came to his senses and got up and started walking to his Father’s house even while he was still in the pig sty.  Similarly, we too in this terribly broken world, we too come to our senses and turn to God as our heavenly Father.  We turn to God as our heavenly Father long before we are cleaned up from the mess of the pigs.  Our intention is to go to our Father’s house, even though we are far away, even though we are covered with the sinful messiness of the world.  Still we get up and turn and start walking: that is our intention.  And God, our Father in heaven sees and accepts that intention.  And so, no matter how much you or I may struggle with life-long weaknesses and sinful tendencies that never seem to go away, still if our intention is not to embrace those sins, if we hate the temptations, the sinful impulses that never seem to go away, if our intention is to return to our Father’s house, then yes, we should say the Lord’s Prayer, and say it with a clear conscience.  Then, as the Divine Liturgy teaches us, we can even boldly say to God, “Our Father in heaven.”


  1. Wow.
    I needed to hear that again.
    Father Michael,
    This journey has suddenly taken on a new pace.
    Not one of rushing in but rather one of stepping slowly forward as I come to grasp even tiny truths of who God really is and just how that truth is reflected in my heart.
    Thank you for sharing your own journey.

  2. This post really strikes a chord in me. I never thought about this before. And yes, just reading it makes me examine my own heart. Thank you so much!

  3. Thank you for this father. It is helping me to see the Lord’s Prayer for what it should be and not just a ‘token’ prayer said routinely. I’m looking forward to hearing the teaching on ‘…..and lead us not into temptation….’. I’ve always found this part a bit troubling. Why would a merciful God lead us anywhere near temptation to begin with? Seems a bit sadistic. Thanks again.

  4. Father Michael,
    I have been most impacted by this post regarding the “dare” to say it thought. I would even have to say that I am disturbed by it’s suggestion that I should even think twice before saying “Our Father.” Really?! And somehow connected to an insight on intention? But somehow, Our Lord and Our Father is able to discern my real intention most certainly better than I, even given my best intention–which is probably still woefully lacking. I mean, if you can actually say the “Our Father” prayer, it is by the grace of God!!! And to think that I could say such a beholding prayer to the d*****??? I would have to strongly disagree. This is a prayer reserved because it is so powerful. Not magical, but real. The dare is most certainly as the dare to return to your God and Savior in the midst of a prodigal diversion. Dare? You might just say the “Our Father” and find yourself in the tight embrace of your Maker! Dare to say this prayer oh demonic hoard. I very much doubt they could.
    I mean, we must believe that these prayers are heard by God and God alone, even if they are said by the “chief” sinner! To stop saying this prayer because you fear that you are praying to the evil one is really quite wrong and denying the power of God to see and reach out in the midst of the worse intentions. If you can call up evil by the mere utterance (or even thought) of a curse, I should think you could do even more (and hopefully for one’s salvation and not condemnation) by calling on “Our Father.” And one last note, the heaven is not heavens (as in a generic reference). The heaven is specifically the throne room of Christ our Savior of whom our Father has placed His Son and reigns “until” a time of which we know no end. Surely the One who reigns there discerns (with unbounded mercy) who His prayer is directed to irregardless the lack of discernment of the child who utters it. Where does one draw the line? Perhaps when I ask “Lord have mercy!?” Even here, I am asking of the wrong Lord? But even in my “best” moment, would I really know? Lord have mercy!

    1. Dear Andrew,
      Thank you for your energetic comment. I suggest you read the article again. The point St. Cyril of Alexandra (and others) is making is that the Lord’s Prayer is to be taken very seriously and not lightly prayed. The New Testament gives multiple examples of those who appear to be godly, but are actually sons of the evil one. Those who repent, however, are children of the Light. That one has experienced evil intentions does not make him or her a child of the evil one. It may be the case, though, that one is a child of darkness, of the evil one, if she or he knowingly harbours evil intentions and refuses to repent. Then, as St. Cyril points out, we might indeed ask the question: who is the “Lord” we are addressing in prayer? If we turn from our sin (even if it seems to stick to us like glue) and toward the Light, then the Lord whom we address is the Lord of Light, our Father in heaven. But if we knowingly and intentionally reject the Light, reject repentance, and embrace a false religious appearance in order to deceive others, then we best take heed. Jesus and his apostles have some pretty harsh things to say about those who knowingly embrace sin while maintaining a false religious front to deceive others.

      1. Thank you for your discharging response. Well…I guess there is no question now about what is meant by falling into the breast beating of being a “chief sinner” as I knowingly embrace sin every day and reject full repentance as evidenced by the lack of tears–it is the damage of a condemnation theology that ranks behind the “harshness” side of an otherwise Good News. Despite my repeatedly missing the significance of Our Father–after all, that is why I fell into the Orthodox hospital to begin with, it is in the process of lifelong healing that He becomes my Father.

        So, if you imply that I have missed the point of your article for lack of comprehension and should thus reread it until I do, how then would I come to understand the Lord’s Prayer? Does Christ not give His prayer to disciples who continually struggled in a likened pride blind uncomprehending? And so…it seems by what you are saying, I should not pray the Lord’s Prayer because it is too holy for me an uncomprehending sinner. I mean, who am I to say that I don’t put on religious fronts to deceive others and maybe even myself? Chief sinner–great deceiver? What is the difference? And even if I do repent, I am right back at it just a second after stepping away from the confessional from the hard fact that I am sick with sin.

        Yes Father, I am all that your article describes and more! I have reread it over and over in case any doubt remains.
        Thank you for the suggestion…and prayers?


        1. Dear Andrew,
          I did not intend to discharge you. I sincerely thought you did not understand what I was trying to explain. Since you have reread it (for which I thank you), perhaps I just fail to communicate clearly. What I am not saying (and what St. Cyril is not saying) is that sinners should not pray the Lord’s Prayer. Beyond that, I can only ask your forgiveness for my so poorly written post.
          Fr. Michael

          1. Thank you Father Michael for your patience and prayerful help. This meaningful exchange has led to further help from my own father confessor who has not disagreed with what you have said, but has applied it so elegantly to my own personal struggles. Ah, the gift of confession and of intimate spiritual guidance. I am loved and can in turn forgive!

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