From StateBudgetSolutions.org: “Reduce spending. Reject tax increases. Reform government. Sounds like a winner to me.” Sounds like a winner to me.
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)!
The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13) consists of six petitions. When we pray, we ask God that
- his name be hallowed,
- his kingdom come,
- his will be done,
- our needs be met,
- our sins forgiven,
- and our souls protected.
Notice the order of these requests. First, we direct our attention to God and his concerns; then—and only then—we direct God’s attention to us and our concerns. When we prioritize God, we receive his blessing: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing, etc.] will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33).
Notice also what Jesus assumes about God. The Lord’s Prayer tells us what to pray for, but it assumes certain things about God’s character and power. It assumes he is worthy of our requests and able to grant them.
These assumptions find expression in the name Jesus uses to address God: our heavenly Father. We are so accustomed to referring to God as Father that we forget what a radical idea and innovative practice it was in Jesus’ own day. New Testament scholars believe that Jesus invented the habit of calling God Father. He did so because he was conscious of his unique relationship with God. In John 20:17, for example, he distinguished his way of relating to God from ours: “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But his relationship with God is not a zero-sum game. We too can become God’s sons and daughters because Jesus is God’s Son par excellence: “In love,” Paul writes, “[God] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph. 1:5). When we call God Father, we say something important about his character: He loves us, and it is his pleasure and will to welcome us into his presence.
When we call God our heavenly Father, we say something equally important about his power. In the Bible, heaven is God’s dwelling place, the throne room from which he rules the universe. It connotes divine majesty and absolute power. Revelation 4:1–11 records John’s vision of heaven. It is a place of unimaginable beauty. All day long, angels and human beings worship God to the fullest extent of their abilities. They sing:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.
In lights of this song, stop and reflect for a moment on the meaning of the words, our heavenly Father. The God who created and sustains the universe is pleased to be a Father to you and me. How can we not rest assured, then, that our prayers will be answered when we pray to such a God?
Who you pray to matters, it turns out, as much as—if not more than—what you pray for.
In Matthew 6:9–13, Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
Notice the pattern of this prayer and the specific requests it makes.
The pattern is vertical and horizontal. First, we direct our attention to God and his concerns; then, we ask God to direct his attention to us and our concerns. In Matthew 22:37–39, Jesus says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Prayer simply follows the pattern of these two great commandments.
The Lord’s Prayer makes six specific requests. First, we pray, “hallowed be your name.” The name of God is revelatory; it tells us about his person and works. According to Matthew 1:21, for example, Joseph and Mary named their baby Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” In Hebrew, Yeshua simply means, “the Lord saves.” So, the first thing we do in prayer is praise God for who he is and what he as done. By doing so, we focus on God’s powerful love for us.
Our second and third requests are “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The will of God is what he wants to accomplish in the world he created and the people he is saving. Through prayer, we prioritize God’s agenda for our lives.
Fourth, we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” In first–century Palestine, most people lived at a subsistence level. They worked as day laborers, earning only enough money to buy what short–term provisions they needed. So, the prayer for daily bread was a prayer for actual bread. In our day, it includes other things. When we pray, we can ask God for whatever we need. Interestingly, there is a connection between doing God’s will and receiving our daily bread. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:33, “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, and clothing, among others] will be given to you as well.”
Fifth, we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” When we pray, we seek God’s grace and promise to send it along to others as well. Prayer is the nexus between our reconciliation with God and our reconciliation with other people.
Finally, we pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Life is difficult. God uses these difficulties to make us better people. So, when we pray, we must learn to trust God in trying times.
When we pray, we ought to follow the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer and make its requests our own.
Four how questions arise from Jesus’ discussion of prayer in Matthew 6:5–15: How often should we pray? Where should we pray? Should we use patterned prayers? And what should we pray for? We have answered the first three questions, but before answering the fourth, I want to take a look at something Jesus says in Matthew 6:8: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Later, he says, “your heavenly Father knows that you need [food, drink, and clothing]” (6:32).
Why does Jesus tells us that God knows what we need even before we pray to him? For at least one very simple reason, I think. He wants to assure us that God always has our best interests in mind. Often, we let the anxieties of life pile up on us before we take them to God in prayer. We forget about God until the very moment we realize we cannot live without his help. But God has not forgotten us. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:26; “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” God already knows our needs, so when we pray, we can rest assured that he desires and has the power to meet them.
But if God already knows our needs, why do we need to ask him to meet them? Soren Kierkegaard hints at the answer when he writes, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” God could meet our needs without our prayers. By asking for our prayers, he meets a need deep with us that we may not even know we have—our need to depend on him.
Consider what John Calvin wrote in this regard: “Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they ma arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from anxiety by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.”
“By our praying,” Martin Luther concludes,” we are instructing ourselves.”
Because God knows all things, including our needs from hour to hour, we can be confident that he will take care of us. This confidence is evident in Paul’s assertion that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Not all things that happen to us are good, of course, but God can turn even bad things to good ends. The real question is whether we love God, and express our need for him.
Check out The Long African Day event on March 28, 2011, in Dallas, Texas. “On any given day in Africa,” says Mike McClafflin, Africa area director for AG World Missions, “there is more trial, more death, more brutality, more hunger than any other land mass on the face of the earth. There’s also probably more revival.”
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Check out the Long African Day event on March 28, 2011, in Dallas, Texas.