When we confess the God and Lord of all Creation to be our Father, we confess that we have been called from a state of slavery to the state of adopted sons.
~ St. John Cassian, Conferences
Every night as part of our son Brendan’s bedtime routine, we have him recite the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer”—the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to say in the Sermon on the Mount. It goes like this:
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.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
Since we’re Orthodox Christians, we then end with “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.”
Brendan, who is four years old, has been able to recite the prayer from memory for over a year. I have prayed it with him nearly every night since he was born. So now that he’s bigger he’s the one who says it. As a reward, he gets a smiley face on his chore chart.
After a few months of having him pray, he started asking questions. “What’s evil?” was the first one. “What’s heaven?” was the second. He has also asked what “our daily bread,” “our trespasses,” and “temptation” are. These are great questions!
I’ve tried my best to answer him in ways he could understand.
“Evil is when good things go bad.”
“Heaven is where everything is good and right and true.”
“What’s our daily bread?”
“That’s everything we need every day.”
“Trespasses are when we do things that we shouldn’t do.”
“Temptation is when we feel like we want to do something we shouldn’t. It can also just mean when life gets hard.”
These are really important questions. Brendan goes to Sunday school, but I doubt “what is evil?” is a question they spend much time on. But it’s a question everyone wants an answer to!
I tried my best with my answer to be metaphysically correct. Evil has no existence of itself, it is a privation of being. It is when good things go bad.
This answer also happens to be theologically correct. God did not make evil. Everything God made is good. Evil is when good things go bad.
“What is heaven?” might seem easy at first, but it’s important to avoid getting into a question circle. That is, I’m sure a common answer people give to kids is that “heaven is where God is.” This is true, of course, but it invites a follow up question: “Where’s God?” If, then, the adults answer “heaven,” they will quickly find themselves right back at “what’s heaven?” all over again.
To say that heaven is where everything is good and right and true avoids us getting stuck with an overly spatial answer as well. God is immaterial. He is everywhere and he is nowhere. So is heaven. It’s not “up.” The sky serves as a metaphor, but heaven is only “above” the earth in the sense of being a “higher” plane of being. God is not riding on a cloud. Heaven is where everything is good and right and true.
Brendan has also asked me, “What is God?” There couldn’t be a more theological question! People get PhDs to answer that question. But it’s so natural and necessary for everyone. I tell him, “God is goodness, rightness, and truth. And he’s ‘Our Father,’ who cares for us.” Sometimes Brendan will then add, “Yeah, God made me!” Sunday school—or Grandma—taught him that one.
This is how the kingdom of heaven can be within us and yet also something that we want to “come.” This is also how the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are synonymous. Heaven is where God is. And God is goodness, rightness, and truth.
Brendan hasn’t dwelt much on “our daily bread.” He has asked about trespasses and temptation more. It is interesting to me to see how cohesive this prayer is when it must be explained to a small child. God is goodness, rightness, and truth. He’s in heaven. Heaven is where everything is good and right and true. Evil is when good things go bad. A trespass is when we do something bad. Temptation is when we want to do something bad.
Of course, there is no prayer that doesn’t have a mystical and metaphysical side. But it is a bit surprising how overtly moral this prayer turns out to be. Even “our daily bread” can fit into this idea. As one poet once said, “Bread first, then ethics.” Similarly, the Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov reminded his readers, “The Scriptures say that man does not live on bread alone. It does not say that he can live without bread.”
We have basic material needs that should not be neglected. But we meet them not for their own sake, but so that we can live full and thriving lives on earth characterized by the will of God and the kingdom of heaven.
Then we are faithful sons of “Our Father.” Then the saints become our fathers and mothers. Then we embody brotherly love for our neighbors.
Jesus said that unless a man becomes like a little child, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. There are many things he may have meant by that. Perhaps one of them is not to forget to ask the most basic questions about our life and our faith—or at least not ignoring those who do.
Four year-olds are great teachers!