Many people find it difficult to pray to God as heavenly Father. Their earthly fathers were so bad that they cannot conceive of a heavenly Father in anything but negative terms. Additionally, some object that since God is neither male nor female, it is inappropriate to think of him in masculine terms. Either we should stop thinking of God in terms of sex, or we should start balancing masculine terms with feminine ones, praying to God as both Father and Mother.
Both points of view share a mistake. They assume that our God-talk is the result of projection rather than revelation. For them, the flow of imagery is upward: We conceive of God in our own image. According to the Bible, however, the flow is downward. He reveals himself through our language. Consequently, we should not see our heavenly Father through the distorting prism of earthly fatherhood—with its sinfulness and limitation. Instead, we should view earthly fatherhood in the light of heaven—with all its boundless perfection. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:15, it is from our heavenly Father that “every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (ESV, marginal note). (The Greek word translated “family” is patria, literally, “fatherhood.”)
When we pray, then, we must remember the contrast between our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers. By the same token, however, we must remember that Jesus chose the image of fatherhood to describe God for a reason: We learn about what we do not know by means of what we do. When, therefore, our earthly fathers act as God created them to act, we see through their examples glimpses of how our heavenly Father treats us. Calling God our heavenly Father implies both contrast from and comparison to our earthly fathers, in other words.
A little parable in Matthew 7:7–11 makes this point clearly. Jesus asks, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Jesus admits that some earthly fathers are evil, in strong contrast to our morally perfect heavenly Father. This is a point of contrast. But even bad dads know how to give good gifts. So a great dad—our heavenly Father—must know how to give really excellent gifts. This is a point of comparison.
Precisely because our heavenly Father gives great gifts, then, Jesus tells us: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Our good heavenly Father will see that we get what we need, “and quickly”; so let us “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1, 8)!