Is God the Background for Your Selfie?

Photo by  Jeff Haltrecht ; used with permission.

Photo by Jeff Haltrecht; used with permission.

If the Louvre is Paris’s most popular tourist destination, Leonardo da Vinci’s La Joconde is easily the most popular exhibit within the museum.

I first saw the Mona Lisa in 1985. I remember a crowd taking photos with their 35mm cameras. Every time a flash went off, an attendant would futilely wag their finger. This scene repeated about every five seconds. 

In 2018 I noticed a big change. There was the same-size crowd, and people were also taking photos. But they were not taking photos of the Mona Lisa. They were taking photos of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa. 

Which means that they had their backs to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

This new phenomenon is not explained by the difference in device—the old cameras were also capable of self-portraits.  

The phenomenon is explained by a difference in attitude. 

In the past, people took a photo of a painting to show others. The intention was that others be able to look at and admire the art.

Today, people take a photo of themselves in front of the painting to show others. The intention is that others be able to look at and admire the photographer. Admire the selfie-artiste, who is gorgeous and cultured. 

And so in 1985 the signs around the Mona Lisa warned against damaging the painting with camera flashes. In 2019 the signs warn against self-portraitists damaging each other with elbows and selfie-sticks. It’s a picture of our world, our obsession with self, and our miserable struggle to admire anything outside of us, except in its capacity to bring admiration to ourselves. 

This is a caricature of course. No one is entirely selfish, and we are surrounded and blessed by the countless selfless acts of others. But it is undeniably a growing and powerful tendency in our society, a tendency that sows only frustration and misery. 

What is the primary purpose of Christianity?

What is the character of our Christianity? Is its primary purpose myself? What I get out of it? Selfishness is the air we breathe, and just as it infects and damages our relationships with others, it infects and damages our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Jesus exposes, challenges, and disintegrates this selfishness with the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Hallowed be your name (Matt. 6:9; all Scripture quotes from NIV).

In order to understand this fully, it helps to engage briefly with three languages: English, Greek, and Latin, and no prior experience required.

“Hallowed be your name” reminds us of the importance of treating God’s name as holy.

The English “hallow” is a verb that means “to make holy.” So “Hallowe’en” was originally the “eve” before the holiday that celebrated the “hallowed” ones, the saints. “Holiday” itself comes from “holy day,” a day to cease work in order to worship. You can hear the similar “hal” and “hol” sounds in these related words. “Hallowed be your name” therefore means, “May your name be hallowed, may your name be treated as holy.”

The Greek original gives further important context. The verb hagiazō correlates with the noun hagios, almost always translated by the English words “holy,” “holy one,” or “holy place.” The link can be seen in the rare English word “hagiography,” which is a biography of a saint or a biography that attempts to portray someone as saintly. And this introduces a set of words built on the Latin sanctus, including “saint,” “sanctuary,” “sanctify,” “sacred,” and “consecrate.”

These are three language-groups of words that refer to the same thing: the English “hallow” and “holy,” the Greek hagiazō and hagios, and the Latin “sanctify” and “sacred.” Putting these words together like this gives us a more rounded understanding of their meaning. 

Let’s come back to hagiazō, the original language word in the Lord’s Prayer. This verb was used in three basic ways:

  1. To set apart, consecrate, hallow something for a ritual purpose. So Jesus talks about the altar that “consecrates” a sacrifice, that “makes the gift sacred” (Matt. 23:19). And Paul talks about food that is “consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:5).

  2. To purify something, “to eliminate that which is incompatible with holiness.” Thus, Paul says of Christians, “You were washed, you were sanctified [hallowed], you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11). And he describes husbands who are to love their wives like Christ loved the church and hallowed it by “the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). Christians are those who have been “sanctified [hallowed] in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1 Cor. 1:2). 

  3. To treat something or someone as holy, to reverence something. Peter commands Christians, in their hearts, “to revere [set apart/sanctify/hallow] Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:15). Christ is to be given a unique and revered place in our hearts.

This third sense of hagiazō is what Jesus means when he teaches us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” We pray that God’s name will be hallowed, treated as holy, reverenced, and sanctified.

“Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD Almighty!”

It is important at this point to recall the idea of holiness in the Old Testament. In Exodus 3:5, at the burning bush, God commanded Moses to “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” God was present, and so the ground was to be hallowed, treated as different, with reverence. Footwear off.

In Exodus 16:23-30, God commands that the last day of the week is to be “a holy Sabbath to the LORD.” This day was to be hallowed, set apart from the other six days of the week, treated differently. Normal work ceased, and the entire day was given to worship God.

In Exodus 19:6, God says that Israel is to “be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel was to be hallowed, set apart from the other nations. It was to be very different, a nation devoted to God and to obeying and worshiping him. That explains why God commanded Israel not to intermarry with other nations, and to eat a peculiar diet and wear peculiar clothes. This reinforced their holiness, their difference.

In Exodus 26, God teaches that the Tabernacle was to include a Holy Place, hallowed, curtained off, and solemnly differentiated from every other place. The Holy Place was carefully restricted, and only particular people, the priests, could enter at particular times to perform particular tasks. And within the Holy Place a Most Holy Place was hallowed, curtained off, to house the ark of the covenant. This was the most sacred place of all.

In Exodus 39:30, God commands that the high priest’s turban be adorned with a gold plate engraved with the words, “HOLY TO THE LORD.” This hallowed the high priest and set him apart from every other human being. He was devoted entirely to God’s work.

Judges 13:7 (LXX) says that [Samson] “the boy will be holy to God from the womb until the day of his death.” Samson was to be hallowed by his parents, set apart from other people by not cutting his hair and keeping him from fermented drink. God had a special role for him, to deliver Israel from the scourge of the Philistines.

And God himself is frequently referred to as “the Holy One.” The seraphim in Isaiah’s heavenly vision hallow God, shouted in triple reiteration, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD Almighty!” The LORD transcends heaven and earth; he is unlike any created thing and transcends the earth, especially in his moral purity.

Why don’t we pray to our heavenly Father, “May you be hallowed”?

This Old Testament background gives us a strong sense of what it means to “hallow” the Father’s name. It is to be set apart from every other name and treated differently. It is to be absolutely honored and reverenced. But why don’t we pray to our heavenly Father, “May you be hallowed”? Why do we pray “Hallowed be thy name”? 

God’s revealed name in the Old Testament is יהוה, often represented with the English letters YHWH. Sometimes this is pronounced Yahweh, but most often it is rendered “LORD” with capital letters. 

It is impossible to fully convey the reverence with which Israel held the name "LORD." The third commandment says, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” In fact, the Jews came to refuse to even utter God’s name, יהוה, choosing instead to substitute it with the word Adonai, meaning “lord” or “master.” This tradition continues today with many English-speaking Jews preferring to write “G_d” in place of God. 

God’s name represents God himself.  

Why is God’s name revered like this? Because God’s name represents God himself. To build a temple for “the name of the LORD” (1 Kings 3:2) is to build a temple for the LORD. To sing praises to “the name of the LORD” is to praise the LORD. To revere God’s name is to revere God. To dishonor God’s name is to dishonor God. 

“Hallowed be your name” means, “May God’s name, and the God who bears this name, be set apart, distinguished, sanctified, and revered.” Ernst Lohmeyer pointed out a positive and negative aspect to this. [1] Negatively we pray that the misuse of God’s name will cease. Positively we pray that his name will be respected and honored. 

I draw three conclusions from this:

  1. “Hallowed be your name” arises from grief. We see in our world that our Father’s name is not hallowed. In fact, it is often abused, becoming a disrespectful exclamation of frustration: “God Almighty!” “For God’s sake!” “Jesus Christ!” We intuit that the only reason people feel comfortable despising God’s name in this way is because they despise the God who bears this name. When people disrespect God, trashing his name comes easily. We long for something far better.

  2. “Hallowed be your name” expresses love for our Father. We praise what we love, and we want other people to praise what we love. People who love Bach, the Beatles, or Bieber delight to hear other people praise Bach, the Beatles, or Bieber. I want people to admire my family and speak well of my family because I love my family. The same applies to God.

  3. “Hallowed be your name” is a missionary prayer. We grieve for people who do not hallow our Father. They do not know the God who created them. They do not know the extraordinary and wonderful purpose for which they were made. They do not know the deep joy and freedom of praising God. They do not know about our Father’s love and mercy. And so we pray “Hallowed be your name,” that people who do not today love and revere our Father will soon come to see him, know him, and praise him.

Prayers for our Father in heaven have the highest priority.

We look finally at the priority “Hallowed be your name” ought to have in our prayers. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us what kinds of things to pray and the priority we should give to the things we pray. 

Note that there are six petitions, and the first three are prayers for our Father:

   “This, then, is how you should pray:

    “‘Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name,
    your kingdom come,
   your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9-10)

Only then do we turn to our own needs of bread, forgiveness, and protection.

We don’t naturally pray this way. Our spirits don’t fly naturally upwards to our Father, to his glory and mission and purpose. Instead we get mired in cries for help for our health, finances, family troubles, exams, relationship desires, and so on.

The Lord’s prayer teaches us to put God at the center and ourselves at the periphery.  

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to look away from ourselves and up to God. It teaches us to put God at the center and ourselves at the periphery. 

And this is the great secret: When we do this, we find happiness. We are miserable because we put ourselves first. When we don’t get what we want or what we think we deserve, we get angry and frustrated. Putting ourselves first is exhausting. Ultimately, it is depressing. 

The problem of a self-serving Christianity is not a new one. Simon the sorcerer thought that following Christ would bring riches and fame (Acts 8). The Corinthians with the more “spectacular” spiritual gifts reveled in the attention. 

But Christ will not be mocked in this way. If our Christian faith is a means to an end, or if our Christian faith is ultimately about our well-being and happiness, then this perversion will manifest itself sooner or later, and eventual disillusionment will bring a merciful death to this false faith.

May we never turn our back on our heavenly Father, with the camera focused upon our pathetic selves. God forbid that he would ever become a background picture for the glorification of self. 

May our first request to our Father in heaven, “Hallowed be your name,” put him back at the center of our Christian prayers and service. 

And may it put us on the lower periphery—the happiest, truest, and best place to be—looking upward and inward to our heavenly Father with praise and adoration. And may he hear our prayer, that many of the lost will come and join us in his praise.

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Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.

The Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 2 (Zondervan), 229.

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