Let Your Name Be Holy: The “B” Word

Last time we talked a little about the grammar of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.  We discussed how they were actually commands of a sort: third person imperatives.  We talked about the phrase, “Let your name be holy (as in heaven, so also on earth)” and how some church fathers tied this phrase to the verse in Isaiah and Romans that places the blame for God’s name being blasphemed among the “Gentiles” (unbelievers or weak believers) on us who believe.  Consequently, to pray, “Let your name be holy” is to pray that something be set aright that we ourselves have had a hand in messing up.

I think another important aspect of this phrase is that holiness is not something that is inherently ours.  If the name of God is going to be hallowed, if the name of God is going to be holy in us and in the world, it will only be because of the grace and work of the Holy Spirit.  But why, you may ask, is it the name of God that is to be hallowed?  And this begs another question: Isn’t God and thus God’s name already holy?  Why are we taught to pray, “Let Your name be holy”?

My wife is reading through the Lord of the Rings trilogy and has been leaving the second book, The Two Towers, lying about.  I picked it up a couple of days ago and opened to the section in which Pipen and Merry encounter Treebeard.  But “Treebeard” is not the Ent’s real name.  His real name would take too long to tell, for his name is really the story of his life.  In the ancient world names were thought to reveal who one is.  Names were taken very seriously.  God’s name in particular was taken very seriously.  One of the ten commandments given to Moses was that God’s name should never be uttered for an empty purpose (in vain).  God’s name is too holy, too special, too deep, to be uttered lightly.  We don’t know who we are dealing with.

When God reveals his name to Moses, God reveals His name as “I am that I am.”  At the end of Orthodox liturgical services, we translate this phrase as “the God who is.”  In other places of the scripture, this God who is, is named “The God who sees,” “The God who makes you holy,” “The God who is my redeemer,” etc.  Actually, two of my favourites are “The God who is near,” and “The God who is far away.”  God is so much bigger than we think, than we can even know.  Among many sects of ancient and modern Judaism, the name of God is considered so holy that it is not even written completely.  And according to at least one extra biblical source, the name of God was only spoken liturgically in ancient Israel by the high priest on the day of Atonement, and then everyone prostrated when the holy name was said.  I wonder if the Orthodox practice of crossing ourselves at every mention of the Holy Trinity is not a similar form of venerating, of hallowing the Name of God.

In the book of Revelation, we are told that one of the experiences of heaven, of the age to come, is that we will each be given a white stone with a new name written on it, a new name that only the one who receives it knows.  Our name in heaven is the perfect expression of our life, purged from all that is fallen.  Our name is who we are, freed from all that offends, all that falls short of our genuine godly desires and good intentions.  That is, I think, what it means that our name is written on a white stone.  White refers to the washing away of all our weaknesses and failures.  That our name is written on a stone means that it will not change.  Our name is who we are.  And only I can know my own name because only I know what my life has been, on the inside: what I have longed for, my secret tears, what my spirit has been willing to do but what my flesh has been too weak to accomplish.  My name will express who I am, just as God’s name expresses who He is.  And God is holy, and so God’s name, God’s expression of Himself in as much as human beings can perceive it, God’s name is holy.

Of course, when we hallow God’s name, we are not adding anything to God.  St. Augustine points out that to hallow God’s name is merely to acknowledge, accept and confess what is already true, what already exists.  However, being creatures who were created with that terrible gift of being able to say no to God, we are free and often tempted to not only to speak the name of God in an empty or vain manner, but to actually say what is not true of God, and this goes beyond the commandment not to speak God’s name in an empty way.  To say what is not true of God is to blaspheme, to do the opposite of what Jesus taught his disciples to do in prayer.  Instead of keeping God’s name holy, saying only what is true about God, when we do the opposite, when we say what is not true about God, we blaspheme.  And so we must be very careful when we speak of God.  It can be very dangerous for our souls.

God and His name are dangerous, we might say.  Or to paraphrase Mr. Beaver, speaking of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, “God is good, but not safe.”  Or again referring to Aslan in another place in the same book, “He is not a tame lion.”  God is good, but not safe.  God is not a tame god. God is not an accessory to our life and culture.  God is the Lord of all and is always to be worshiped and revered as such.  But in our fallen state, we have fallen so far from the God who made us and loves us and calls us to be like Him (and thus be ourselves).  We are like the blind and deaf child, Hellen Keller, kicking and screaming in her early encounters with her teacher Annie Sullivan.  Hellen had no way of knowing what she didn’t know.  Annie was Hellen’s only salvation, her only hope—and she didn’t know it.  She didn’t know that if she continued to reject or ignore or belittle and despise Annie (in the little world of Hellen’s own mind), she was rejecting, ignoring, belittling and despising her salvation. She had no way of knowing what was possible, what love could do.  For most of us, however, our blindness is not physical; it has to do with our nous, the eyes of our heart.  Our deafness is in our soul.  We are blind and deaf to the spiritual reality.  And like little Hellen, we sometimes reject, ignore, belittle and despise the heavenly Father and Physician who persistently comes to us to save our souls, to lead us from darkness into light.

But also like little Hellen, we can learn to learn.  Learn to trust.  Learn to believe in the possibility of love greater than we can imagine.  We can cooperate with the Physician of our souls and learn to see.   And it is exactly what God has already revealed about Himself, what little we already do know, that we must treat very carefully, we must respect as holy.  We must respect God’s name, we must respect as holy what God has already revealed about Himself because it is the key to everything else.  Keeping God’s name holy is the beginning, or better, the foundation on which spiritual healing and growth can take place.  And so the first thing Jesus teaches his disciples to command in prayer that His name be holy (as in heaven, so also on earth), that His disciples say and learn to contemplate what is true about God, so that they and those around them can come to actually know the Father in heaven, can actually be saved, can actually become themselves—who they have always longed to be, who they were created to be.

One of the more difficult passages to interpret in the gospels has to do with the sin against the Holy Spirit.  This is the one sin, Jesus tells us, that will not be forgiven, not in this age nor in the age to come.  Jesus Himself defines what this sin is: the sin against the Holy Spirit is to speak against or blaspheme the Holy Spirit.  What can this sin against the Holy Spirit be and why can’t it be forgiven?  If you look at the context in the gospels where this comes up, the apparent reason why Jesus mentions this sin against the Holy Spirit has to do with a false accusation brought against Him by the religious leaders.  Jesus had just cast out a demon, and the religious leaders accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons.  This is the example the gospels themselves give us of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It is blasphemy because it is attributing to evil something the Holy Spirit is doing.  The very work of God, the very sign, the very revelation of God in the world, the very means by which one can be saved is being attributed not to God but to evil.  This is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and it is not forgivable because so long as one is calling God evil, one does not reach out to or receive the God who saves.  There is no plan B.  Or as Peter says to the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts, “There is no other name given to human beings by which we must be saved.”

Now I must hasten to add that these warnings about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and there being only one name by which people can be saved are spoken to religious leaders to whom Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit had already been clearly revealed.  These were men who spent their lives studying the work of God revealed in the Hebrew scripture.  These were men who had personally seen Jesus’ miracles and heard his teaching.  These warnings are not addressed to Buddhists or pagans or modern secular humanists.  These warnings do not apply to such, at least not specifically, at least not based on the biblical context.  But these warnings do apply to us.  Just as two thousand years ago these warnings applied to those who were disciples of Moses and had personally seen Jesus,  nowadays they apply to those of us who are already familiar with the teaching of Christ, those of us who have already tasted of the reality of God in Christ.

Keeping God’s name holy is serious stuff for Christ’s disciples because if we do not keep God’s name holy, if we despise or belittle God’s name, if we treat it as if it were an empty thing, a mere explicative, or even possibly as an evil thing, then we cut off our own salvation.  We throw from us the very ladder God has given us by which we might climb out of the pit we have dug for ourselves.  We end up rejecting the very God who saves us.   It seems to me that this is the reason why it’s the first thing Jesus tells his disciples to command in prayer: Let your name be holy (as in heaven, so also on earth).

Many of the Church fathers warn us that when it comes to speaking about God, silence is better than words.  And yet because of our spiritual deafness, we need words; because of our spiritual poverty, our silence does not speak clearly, not like the silence of holy men or women, not like the silence of St. Anthony whose mere presence was a beautiful proclamation of God.  We beginners in the spiritual life need words, but as we use words let us never forget their limitations, their dangers.  And most of all, let us be very, very careful that what we say helps keep the name of our heavenly Father holy.


  1. Fr Michael,
    Regarding the part of your discussion concerning the unpardonable sin. Is this then applicable to the sin(s) which we do not want forgiveness? The sin which we cannot/will not forgive ourselves of and thus deny the Holy Spirit’s ability to forgive? And/or even the sin which we repeat over and over in broken and fallen delight and refuse to let go of? Or the sin that I will not forgive others of? So, the sin which we do not want pardon is indeed the sin which God will not pardon? It seems that this is more than a thoughtless slip into blasphemy by instead attributing forgiveness to evil as a lifelong denial beyond pretenses to amnesia. I somehow have to know better and have to participate in a saving life that saves me from the unpardonable. But in the same gasp, leading to the salvation which is sure but worked out in fear and trembling…it isn’t just once “sure.”
    A healthy(?) fear of the unpardonable is hopefully an indication of being pardoned and kept safe by the One who loves…unsafely?! Perfectly antinomic as Father Pavel Florensky might suggest.
    Oh Jesus, please don’t set me up for failure. All I wanted was to be saved, but now, it seems there is holiness involved. Maybe a confession of cowardice is in order? Afterall, the sheep indeed runs from the Lion until it is saved from the sheep-skinned wolves.

    1. Dear Andrew,
      I think you have it pretty much right.

      “A healthy(?) fear of the unpardonable is hopefully an indication of being pardoned and kept safe by the One who loves…unsafely?! Perfectly antinomic as Father Pavel Florensky might suggest.”

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