Breaking Down the Lord’s Prayer

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At the end of most AA meetings, we join hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Some people find this appalling, feeling as if it forces us to accept a specific definition of a Higher Power. Certainly, AA tells us many times to interpret the spiritual world in a manner that suits our best design for living. But people do not see the Lord’s Prayer recitation as an act of spirituality. They see it as a religious rite and nothing else.

It takes little effort to understand this viewpoint. Nonetheless, many non-Christians will join the group in this prayer. We do this for many reasons. Joining hands and taking part in a communal prayer allows us to enhance our sense of unity within the group. More than this, however, we learn to take the same approach to the Lord’s Prayer as we take with God. Rather than believing the prayer to have one meaning and one alone, we learn to see how it applies to our own lives and our own recovery.

Those who attend some church services might know a slightly different form of the Lord’s Prayer than that which we use in AA. The form you hear in meetings tends to go approximately as follows:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.”

At the end of Emmet Fox’s The Sermon on the Mount, Fox includes an interpretive analysis of this prayer. Likewise, one can find a similar analysis in Kevin Griffin’s One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. The two interpretations differ, yet share a certain number of commonalities. This alone demonstrates the versatility of the Lord’s Prayer for one who retains an open mind. But to help those who may struggle with hearing this recitation at the end of every meeting, allow us to provide a little bit of elaboration on these analyses. Below, we’ll break down the Lord’s Prayer into seven parts, beginning with the one that non-Christians often find most troubling.

Our Father in Heaven

The non-religious struggle enough with the 12 Steps already. It doesn’t help for them to constantly end their meeting with a clause that sounds incredibly religious in nature.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven.”

How can a person seek non-religious interpretation of words such as “Father” and “Heaven” when the Judeo-Christian implications seem so stark? Simple—by focusing not just on the first clause of the Lord’s Prayer, but on the very first word.

As noted above, many of us set aside religious bias in favor of group unity. No word elaborates more on the spirit of fellowship than the word “our” in the context of the Lord’s Prayer. When spoken in a group that allows us freedom to choose our own Higher Power, this word reminds us that we remain united regardless of creed. According to Fox, Jesus intended this when first reciting this prayer among his followers.

“A belief in the superiority of one’s own particular group, or ‘herd,’ as the psychologists call it, is an illusion to which mankind is very prone, but in the teaching of Jesus it has no place. He teaches that the thing that places a man is the spiritual condition of his own individual soul, and that as long as he is upon the spiritual path it makes no difference whatever to what group he belongs or does not belong.”

In other words, it matters not whether you recite the Lord’s Prayer as a Christian, atheist, or anything in between. Whatever guides us exists in a higher plane, here referred to as Heaven. And from the vantage point of this transcendent plane, we all carry equal importance. One need not share the religious beliefs of the person standing next to them at the end of the meeting. We need only respect them in the spirit of benevolent fraternity.

Hallowed Be Thy Name

Again, we may better understand the concept of God’s hallowed name by looking only at the first word of the clause. A hallowed thing is a thing that we honor, something we often consider holy and good. No matter how you define your Higher Power, you may put your faith in it absolutely. If your Higher Power resides in basic human qualities such as truth and love, you must honor these traits by exhibiting them in your actions—just as those who honor God must strive to live by His principles.

Furthermore, we must trust the Higher Power of our chosen understanding. We so often blame our faith for the bad things that happen to us. Fox notes that this can lead to further troubles.

“If you think that God has sent any of your difficulties to you, for no matter how good a reason, you are giving power to your troubles, and this makes it very difficult to get rid of them.”

When something goes wrong, do not think of it as being tested. In doing so, you blame your own belief system for your struggles. Instead, trust that your faith gives you the power to overcome those obstacles that fall into your path.

Thy Kingdom Come

The third clause once again sounds heavily religious:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Fox interprets this clause as a reference to our mission in life. Choosing to revere the ideas we hold most sacred, those hallowed beliefs described above, we must now give them form by practicing them in our daily lives. This allows us to create our own version of Heaven right here on Earth. Or, as Buddhists would say, we must practice Right Intention. In One Breath at a Time, Griffin interprets this clause as follows:

“Here, as I say the prayer, I imagine my highest wisdom coming down into the nitty-gritty details of my life, down to earth, with the Kingdom of Heaven—that is, the place of purity and wisdom in me—becoming manifest through thought, word, and deed. ‘Thy will,’ refers to Right Intention, acting from the desire to be of service to all beings.”

Notice that Griffin interprets Heaven as an internal resource. In Alcoholics Anonymous, we see God referred to quite similarly in an appendix on spiritual enlightenment. So once again, it becomes clear that religion need not play a role in our spirituality if we do not desire it—even when reciting something as inherently religious as the Lord’s Prayer.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Bread in this case represents not only material nourishment, but sustenance of the spiritual self as well. In the spirit of living one day at a time, note that this is not a one and done. We receive this spiritual nutrition on a daily basis, asking only that we continue to partake of it on the day in question. Those who recite the Lord’s Prayer from a religious standpoint may imbue this clause with further meaning. As for the non-religious, Griffin writes:

“I understand this as an appreciation of interdependence, recognizing that the whole universe is supporting my existence: the atmosphere for air, the earth for food and water, and everything else that allows me to live in this moment. In that sense, it’s a recognition of powerlessness; if not for the bounty of the universe, I wouldn’t even be alive.”

We should stop to acknowledge awareness of the fact that “non-religious” does not completely apply to One Breath at a Time, given its roots in Buddhism. That said, those of all faiths—or none whatsoever—can appreciate Griffin’s standpoint. We live in a world that gives us everything we need to survive and more. It never hurts to take a few moments out of each day to express gratitude for this, and to pray that we continue to make good use of the gifts we’ve inherited through the sheer nature of humanity and our place in the bountiful plane of living we so frequently take for granted.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

The next clause of the Lord’s Prayer speaks well to those who practice the 12 Steps, particularly Step Eight and Step Nine. This clause reads:

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Both Fox and Griffin feel it necessary to point out that this part of the Lord’s Prayer centers on equality. Much like the oft-cited Golden Rule, this clause suggests that we must treat others in the manner we wish them to treat us. Of course, this interpretation depends on what your definition of the word “as” is. One might interpret it to mean that we give and receive forgiveness simultaneously. As we give, we also receive. But the August 9 entry of Daily Reflections offers a slightly different interpretation:

“In this case, as means, ‘in the same manner.’ I am asking to be forgiven in the same manner that I forgive others. As I say this portion of the prayer, if I am harboring hatred or resentment, I am inviting more resentment, when I should be calling on the spirit of forgiveness.”

This still plays into the Golden Rule. Not only must we forgive others before receiving forgiveness ourselves, but we must also expect to give and receive in equal measure. If we do not embody forgiveness fully, guilt and shame may continue to weigh us down. This places a hindrance on our recovery, fettering our ability to seek true serenity. We must chart our course for redemption upon a pathway paved with love and tolerance. Regardless of whether we interpret the Lord’s Prayer religiously, we see this clause as expressing a very human need.

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Griffin does not finish his assessment of the Lord’s Prayer, but rather closes with his interpretation of the penultimate clause, which reads:

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

One need not dive too deeply to interpret this clause from a theological standpoint. As for Griffin’s view, it pertains very much to addicts and alcoholics in recovery. And the non-religious may appreciate his view, for his analysis speaks not only to Buddhists, but to pragmatists as well.

“In practical terms, we need to avoid situations and people that might trigger relapse; you don’t hang out in bars if you don’t have business there, and you don’t drop by your drug dealer’s house for a social call. In Buddhist terms, this is the aspect of Right Effort called prevention, where we try to keep negative thoughts or emotions from even appearing. The Buddha, knowing the tendencies of the mind to veer into desire and aversion, encouraged quite strong effort to counter these destructive habits. So, although I resist the Biblical language of ‘temptation’ and ‘evil,’ the meaning beneath the words is relevant—if you can just let go of the judgment.”

Put simply, the best way to keep out of harm’s way is to abstain from dangerous habits. We must not court temptation, and we must not practice behaviors that recall our manner of living in active addiction. When we recite this part of the Lord’s Prayer, we remind ourselves to stay on the right path. And we ask our Higher Power, however we choose to define it, for any guidance necessary to determine what that path should be.

Thine is the Kingdom

The last clause of the Lord’s Prayer, must like the first, appears strictly religious in nature. It reads:

“For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.”

Since Griffin does not analyze this clause, we are left only with Fox’s interpretation. Looking at this clause from a Christian perspective, Fox suggests that this clause speaks to God’s omnipresence. All of creation belongs to God. Likewise, mankind accomplishes all things through God’s power. As for glory, we discover it through realization of the first two points. Fox writes:

“If, when you have any ordinary thing to do, you hold the thought, ‘Divine Intelligence is working through me now,’ you will perform the most difficult tasks with astonishing success. The wondrous change that comes over us as we gradually realize what the Omnipresence of God really means, transfigures every phase of our lives, turning sorrow into joy, age into youth, and dullness into light and life.”

We can apply this to any Higher Power outside of Judeo-Christian religion. No matter what we do, we may see it as an extension of our spiritual creed. When we perform an act of service, or stay sober just one more day, we do so with the help of the spiritual lifestyle we practice on a daily basis.

Furthermore, we learn to see our chosen interpretation of the spirit as working through all things. If we use AA as our Higher Power, for instance, we might learn to see how principles such as unity and fellowship work in other aspects of our lives. We learn to approach our colleagues at work with the same love and acceptance as we approach the members of our home group. Even if we define science as our Higher Power, we learn to see how life’s various sciences combine to create a world in which we can accomplish anything we set our minds toward doing. Through the development of this mindset, we gain a greater appreciation for the systematic precision with which the world seems to have been crafted, even if we believe this to have been an act of chance.

It matters not how we define our Higher Power, only that we respect its grandeur. So if you feel irked by recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, stop thinking of the prayer as an annunciation of praise to Yahweh. Instead, think of the Lord’s Prayer as both a reflection on the important principles of sober living and a statement of gratitude for the magnificent beauty of life itself.

By personalizing the Lord’s Prayer in this manner, you enable yourself to feel at ease regardless of religious bias. And in this way, you establish a sense of value as you speak the words alongside your fellows in recovery—even if you speak the words from a different frame of mind than the person next to you.

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