In Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, Willard takes on the Sermon on the Mount and delves deep into the original words and their eternal meaning. In chapter 7, The Community of Prayerful Love, Willard deals with prayer in the life of believers and spends significant space detailing the Lord’s Prayer. When discussing the opening address of the Lord’s Prayer, usually translated “Our Father Who art in heaven,” Willard writes:
Unfortunately, the old standard formulation, “Our Father who art in heaven,” has come to mean “Our Father who is far away and much later.” As explained in an earlier chapter, the meaning of the plural heavens, which is erroneously omitted in most translations, sees God present as far “out” as imaginable but also right down to the atmosphere around our heads, which is the first of “the heavens.” The omission of the plural robs the wording in the model prayer of the sense Jesus intended. That sense is, “Our Father always near us.”
So many faith traditions rightly include the model prayer as basic and foundational to their liturgy as do many families (Willard relates a family who recited the Lord’s prayer every morning together.) As a Baptist, the Lord’s prayer remains a powerful and important part of my shared community of faith. Certainly, Jesus’ presentation of this prayer as instructive to His disciples then and now indicates an important place for this prayer in the life of every believer.
Most traditions that I know of, including my Baptist tradition, begin the model prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven.” Willard rightly notes that implied in this translation as heaven instead of heavens is the idea of a Father who is far away and removed from the daily life of us ordinary mortals. I am not sure the translation or of the church usage is thus intended, but one cannot argue that a “far away” God has come into popular understanding. Further, the popular usage (one might understand as vain repetition) and emerging culture surrounding this translation of heaven in the singular has led many in the church to view God as removed from our ongoing life on earth and relegated His Presence to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, or wherever we think that heaven actually is.
This understanding flies in the face of the surrounding passages and almost everything else that Jesus talks about in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spends several chapters bringing God to the forefront of involvement in our life (what Willard describes as The Kingdom Among Us.) He repeatedly refutes the idea that we can enter this Kingdom by any other way than active involvement in the life of God on the earth through Jesus Christ, God’s son. To pray to a God that is not with us actually is to pray to a different Father than the One of Whom Jesus speaks and knows.
So the challenge for us, Willard maintains, is to understand God as Present with us AND among us. This is how Jesus lives and operates and this is the primary call of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is a description of what the Kingdom Among Us actually looks like as opposed to a list of things that we should all aspire to.
For example, I cannot of my volition be “pure in heart.” I will always default to its opposite. However, when I understand God as Present with me and among me through the Holy Spirit of Christ, pureness of heart is an overflow of that relationship that permeates everything I do and everyone with whom I come into contact. I do not see God because I am pure in heart. I am not. I am pure in heart because I see God and understand the reality of His Presence in me and around me.
In the same way, my prayer must not be couched in language that removes God from active involvement of my life. To do so is vain attempt to earn His merit. That is not the Kingdom Among Us. That is the same age-old problem that has plagued fallen man from the beginning. Earning the favor of God by trying to dance correctly for His amusement is not the Christian life. It is paganism. Jesus invaded our earth and my life specifically for much more than that.
I think I will use the plural heavens instead of the singular heaven in my personal prayers these days, but not because it is more biblically accurate, which Willard argues very effectively. That reason alone opens the floodgate of temptation to pride and arrogance, which is far too great for me to withstand. Rather, I will use the plural heavens because it is more indicative of what God is doing in my life and the idea of His involvement in my life implied in the word heavens is more reflective of how much more He yet desires to do.