“Our Father in Heaven”: How God’s Character Motivates and Directs Our Prayers


Today is the U.S. National Day of Prayer. When Jesus’ disciples asked for a lesson in how to pray, Jesus laid out a model prayer that starts like this, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven…”

Whom You Pray to Matters
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 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” (Matthew 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 Father in heaven.” We are so accustomed to referring to God as our 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 ascending 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 for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4–5). 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 “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 Father in heaven,” 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 light of this song, stop and reflect for a moment on the meaning of the words, “our Father in heaven.” 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.

Responding to an Objection
Many people find it difficult to pray to God as their Father in heaven. 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. They argue that 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 family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” (The Greek word rendered “family” is patria, literally, “fatherhood.”)

Calling God “our Father in heaven” implies both contrast from and comparison to our earthly fathers.

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 know. When, therefore, our earthly fathers act as God created them to, we see through their examples glimpses of how our heavenly Father treats us. Calling God “our Father in heaven” 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 the one 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 Father as God
Why did Jesus call God Father? And what difference does it make for our prayers? The New Testament suggests three answers to the first question and one to the second. We call God Father because:

  • as God, He is the Father of Jesus Christ,
  • as Savior, He is the Father of all believers,
  • and as Creator, He is the Father of the entire world.

Because our heavenly Father is God, Savior and Creator, we can be confident that He loves us and gives us what we need. This is the difference God’s Fatherhood makes to our prayers.

When we examine the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, two things become apparent: (1) Jesus related to God uniquely, and (2) that uniqueness arose from the fact of His divinity. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows Jesus’ unique relationship with God. John 20:17 is a prime example: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus is not referring to two gods but to two ways of relating to God: His and ours.

The best explanation for this unique relationship is Jesus’ own divinity. Notice what He said in John 5:17: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” John tells us that this angered Jesus’ religious opponents because “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (verse 18).

If the Father loves us so greatly that He gave the Son to save us, how can we not approach him confidently in prayer?

We are wading in very deep theological waters when we affirm Jesus’ divinity. If there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), how can two persons — Father and Son — be God? (Or three persons, if we add the Holy Spirit?) And how can a man born in a stable be God? Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has developed the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to answer these questions. The Trinity teaches that one God eternally exists as three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. The Incarnation teaches that the Son has two complete natures — human and divine. I do not fully comprehend these doctrines — they are mysterious! — so I will not attempt to explain them to you here. Nevertheless, I believe both are based on the Bible and do not contain any obvious logical contradictions. They conform, in other words, to revelation and reason.

What I will point out is this: Both doctrines give us a powerful reason to pray. Paul writes in Romans 8:31–32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” If the Father loves us so greatly that He gave the Son to save us, how can we not approach him confidently in prayer? Nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

So, let us pray to God, the Father of Jesus Christ!

The Father as Savior
The first reason we call God Father is because He is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The second reason is that He is the Father of all believers. Jesus has a unique relationship with God, but we can have a relationship with Him too, although in a different way.

That difference can be expressed as the difference between a natural-born and an adopted child: Jesus is God’s natural Son, but we are God’s adopted sons and daughters. As a natural Son, Jesus shares the Father’s DNA. He is divine by nature. We, on the other hand, do not share the Father’s DNA — we are not divine — but He invites us to enter a relationship with Him, a relationship of His choosing.

Please do not stretch this analogy too far. It is only a metaphor. God does not actually have DNA. But by the same token, do not ignore the analogy’s power! It is rooted in the biblical language of salvation. Consider Ephesians 1:4–5, “In love, [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

If you think about it, the adoption analogy is a vivid picture of the gospel. Because of sin, we are orphans. Precisely because we are orphans, however, God has no parental duties toward us. We are someone else’s children, someone else’s problem. But God chooses to adopt us anyway. It is His “pleasure and will” to do so. Like all adoptions, the cost to the would-be parent is exorbitant. We become God’s sons and daughters “through Jesus Christ,” that is, by means of His death and resurrection. But God is willing to pay the cost because He loves us.

As God’s children and heirs, we can joyfully ask Him for anything we need. He chose to love us in the first place. Will He not also care for us on an ongoing basis?

How does our adoptive Father treat us? Are we merely wards of the state of heaven? Are we second-class members of God’s household? Are we like Cinderella — begrudged by the natural-born children and made to do slavish tasks? No! No! No! Listen to Galatians 4:6–7: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”

What difference does this change in status from slavery to sonship make for our prayer life? Listen to Romans 8:15–17: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” As God’s children and heirs, we can joyfully ask Him for anything we need. He chose to love us in the first place. Will He not also care for us on an ongoing basis?

So, let us pray to God, the Father of all believers!

The Father as Creator
A third and final reason we call God Father is that He is the Creator of and Provider for the entire world. James describes him as “the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). Paul writes, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6). No wonder, then, he writes, “every family [literally, all fatherhood] in heaven and on earth derives its name” from the heavenly Father (Ephesians 3:15). Or that, quoting a Greek poet, he remarks: “We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). God created and provides for us; therefore, He is our Father.

As Creator and Provider, the Father dispenses His blessings with impartiality and expects us to do the same. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44–45). When it comes to the blessings of salvation and an eternal life with Him, God requires faith of us. With creature comforts and temporal goods, however, God is an equal-opportunity giver.

As Creator and Provider, the Father dispenses His blessings with impartiality and expects us to do the same.

God’s creatorship makes a tremendous difference in our prayer life, as Jesus himself pointed out. We spend our lives working hard to get stuff, some of which is good and necessary, some not. But often, we develop acquisition anxiety. We worry about acquiring what we need as well as what we simply want. To paraphrase the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25–34, we worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink; and we worry about our bodies, what we will wear. We shouldn’t. To see why, we should pay attention to three questions Jesus asks us.

First, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” When we pray, God reminds us of our priorities and helps us see the difference between our needs and our wants.

Second, “Look at the birds of the air; 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?” When we pray, God reminds us of our value in His eyes and assures us that He will meet our needs.

Third, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” When we pray, God administers a dose of reality medicine. Anxiety does not prolong life. Medically speaking, it shortens it. So do not worry; God will provide. Only the pagans run after all these things [food, drink, clothing, etc.]; our “heavenly Father knows that [we] need them.”

God is the Father of the entire world. He created us; He also will provide for us. So, let us pray to Him!

Fatherhood, Feelings, Facts and Faith
God is our heavenly Father. He created us, saved us and provides for our needs. So, when we pray, we ought to remember and give thanks for His powerful love.

Unfortunately, we do not always feel God’s love. Sometimes, we feel that God is ignoring or neglecting us. When we are anxious about our material needs or disconsolate about our spiritual condition, we want to feel God’s reassuring hand and hear His soothing voice. But we don’t.

What should we do?

First, we should remember that feelings are not reliable guides to reality. In high school, I competed in a speech meet that I felt I had won. I spoke flawlessly. My only real competitor, however, jumbled the opening lines of her speech and started over. I was sure the trophy was mine, but the judges pronounced my competitor the winner. My feelings had led me astray, as feelings often do.

When life is going well and our emotions are all positive ones, it is easy to believe in God and do His will. But take those crutches away, and will any faith in Him remain?

Second, in light of the unreliability of our emotions, we should let facts determine our feelings. God’s Word is the most reliable source of information we have about Him, so what it says about Him should determine how we feel about Him, especially when we go through difficult circumstances. In Matthew 6:25–27, Jesus noted two facts: (1) God cares for you more than birds, whose needs are always met; and (2) anxiety is unhelpful. Jesus let those facts shape His emotional life, and He encouraged His followers to do the same.

Third, and finally, we should walk by faith. St. John of the Cross wrote about “the dark night of the soul,” when we do not feel God’s presence or comfort at all. Interestingly, he considered such nights a gift from God. When life is going well and our emotions are all positive ones, it is easy to believe in God and do His will. But take those crutches away, and will any faith in Him remain? Are we fair-weather friends to God? Do we love God for God, or selfishly?

Faith is not a leap in the dark. It is not a belief in the bizarre or absurd. It is the simple trust that God can be taken at His word. God loves you powerfully. That is a fact whether you feel it or not. Have faith, and one day — if not today — the facts and your feelings will meet, and you will see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians13:12).

P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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Celebration of Discipline, 4th Ed. | Book Review


“Superficiality is the curse of our age,” writes Richard J. Foster in Celebration of Discipline. “The desperate need for today is…deep people.” These words ring as true in 2018 as they did in 1978 when Celebration of Discipline was first published. And spiritual disciplines are still the way to produce depth. As Foster summarizes the matter in the book’s new Foreword, spiritual disciplines are “the means God uses to build in us an inner person that is characterized by peace and joy and freedom.” If you’re looking for help in overcoming the superficiality and distractedness of the current age, start with this book, which is forty years young.

Book Reviewed
Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 4th ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

God Always Answers Our Prayer | World Day of Prayer


The first Friday of March is always World Day of Prayer. Over at InfluenceMagazine.com, I commemorate the day with an extended meditation on the truth that God always answers our prayers.

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God always answers our prayers, but not necessarily the way we want Him to. He has our best interests in mind. So, sometimes He says “Yes,” sometimes “No,” sometimes “Wait,” and sometimes — frankly — “Grow up!” Let’s take a look at each answer, starting with “Yes.”

Yes
James 5:13–18 says this about prayer:

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Notice James’s “success” language. The sick will be healed, the sinful will be forgiven, and the rain will fall because of prayer. James seems to suggest that if we pray in a certain way, God will answer our requests. What are his specific recommendations?

First, we ought to pray at all times—whether we are troubled, happy, sick or sinful. Too often, we come to God for selfish reasons. We want something. When we get it, we ignore Him until the next crisis arises. We want a solution to a problem. God wants a relationship with a beloved son or daughter. Only through such a relationship does God promise to meet all our needs. As Jesus put it, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Second, we ought to make use of the means God has already given us. James mentions the practices of elders anointing the sick with oil and of confession of sin to believers. Both practices contribute to our physical and spiritual health. Only fools toss aside a life vest thrown to them to save them from drowning. Do we ask our pastors to pray for us when we’re sick or ask fellow believers to help us resist temptation? If not, what does that make us?

Finally, we ought to pray as part of an overall strategy of spiritual growth. Notice James’s words: “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” and “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (emphasis added). A good life is not an automatic guarantee of answered prayer, but the psalmist did say, “I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).

No
God does not always answer our prayers affirmatively, however. Sometimes He says “No!” When He does, He has our best interests at heart. Even God’s negative can be a positive for us.

Paul’s life provides an example of this. We are accustomed to thinking of Paul as Christ’s ambassador par excellence, so we forget how controversial he was in his own day. A vocal minority of early church members doubted his message, distrusted the messenger, or both.

In Galatians, Paul defended his message. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11–12; cf. Acts 9:1–19).

In 2 Corinthians 10–12, Paul defended his status as God’s messenger. The Corinthians church, which Paul had founded (Acts 18:1–17), had become enamored of certain self-promoting “super-apostles.” They looked good, spoke well and lived high, unlike Paul, whom church tradition tells us what short, bald and bandy-legged. By his own admission, Paul was a poor speaker (1 Corinthians 2:1). And unlike the so-called “super-apostles,” Paul suffered — a lot. The list of dangers he survived is impressive: beating, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck, persecution and dangers on the road, to name just a few (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). Paul’s life was not easy.

But it was lived for God. In 2 Corinthians 12:1–10, Paul reluctantly offered a glimpse into his devotional life to rebut the accusation that he was less spiritual than the “super-apostles.” Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote, “I know a man in Christ who…was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” Then, switching to first person, Paul wrote, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Quite possibly, this was some sort of chronic, debilitating illness.

And with this “thorn in my flesh,” we return to the topic of God answering our prayers negatively. Paul prayed to God for relief: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” But said “No!” each time, providing only this explanation: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s negative turned out to be positive for Paul because God wanted to give Paul what he needed even more than physical relief — grace and power.

When God denies our requests, He is not being cruel. There is no deficiency of love on the supply side of prayer. But there is a hierarchy of values. The wellbeing of our bodies — which God made and is saving — is important, but not all-important. God is more interested in our character than our comfort. When God says “No!” He has our best interests at heart. Let’s keep that in mind as we pray!

Wait
One of my favorite biblical books is Revelation. And one of its most curious scenes takes place in 6:9–11. John writes:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

This passage is curious for three reasons: (1) It hints at some unhappiness of souls in heaven. Happy people do not ask, “How long, Sovereign Lord?” (2) It makes those souls sound bloodthirsty. “Avenge our blood” seems like an unchristian prayer. And (3) it indicates that martyrdom is part of God’s plan, that God has set “the full number” of those to be martyred for their faith.

As curious as Revelation 6:9–11 may be, it tells us three truths that are useful to our praying.

First, our ultimate fulfillment lies in the future. According to the Bible, we die because of sin. “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in Romans 6:23, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We will be ultimately fulfilled only when we are finally resurrected. The martyred souls in heaven longed to open that gift of eternal resurrection life and prayed accordingly. So should we.

Second, God’s ultimate purpose is justice and peace. Sin, which causes death, is a pollution of the beautiful world God made. God created the world to be just and peaceful. Sin unmakes the world, leaving injustice and violence in its wake. Salvation remakes the world according to God’s original intention. The martyrs’ prayer — “avenge our blood” — sounds bloodthirsty, but it is simply a colorful way of crying out for justice and peace at last, that is, for salvation. When we pray, we should cry out too!

Third, our present difficulties have a place in God’s plan. Statistically speaking, more believers were martyred in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. And yet, John hints, there is a purpose to this suffering. In Greek, martyr means “witness.” Martyrs are people who, by their lives or deaths, show others the depths of God’s love for His creation. And a loving God is “patient…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

If God is patient with us in our sin, we ought to be patient with Him as He slowly brings salvation to a world that desperately needs it. When we pray, God sometimes tells us to wait for His final answer. We should do so, for while we wait, God accomplishes His ultimate purpose and brings about our ultimate fulfillment.

So, how long, Sovereign Lord? As long as You need!

Grow Up
God always answers our prayers. We have looked at “Yes,” “No” and “Wait.” Now let’s look at “Grow up!”

In James 4:1–3, we read:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

This passage begins with two questions — one real, one rhetorical. The real question inquires about the source of human conflict. The rhetorical question identifies the source as “desires.” Then, subtly, the passage shifts focus from the horizontal to the vertical. The source of human conflict is also the source of our conflict with God. Sometimes, God denies our prayer requests because our “desires” reflect “wrong motives.”

The only way to resolve this conflict with God is to grow up. We must lay aside spiritual and moral adolescence and take up spiritual and moral adulthood instead. As we do so, we begin to pray with holy desires and spiritual motives, and God begins to answer our prayers with “Yes.”

How do we grow up through prayer? Paul provides a hint in Ephesians 4:22–24. He writes:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Paul outlines a three-step process for behavioral change here: (1) stop (“put off”), (2) think (“be made new in the attitude of your minds”) and (3) start (“put on”). Verse 28 provides an example of this process at work:

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Stealing is the behavior to be stopped. Working is the behavior to be started. The new way of thinking that explains this behavioral change is a commitment to personal generosity.

We can incorporate this three-step process in our prayer lives. As we pray for specific requests, we should ask God to identify wrong motives. Our prayer should be, “See if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:24). Once we have identified them, we should ask God to speak to us and show us how to think properly about the issue. If we read the Bible and pray in tandem, God will bring to mind a relevant Biblical verse or passage. Finally, we should ask God to purify our desires and mature our motives. Our prayer should be that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17).

Stop. Think. Start. It’s a good process for behavioral change, as well as an excellent model for maturing prayer.

Ask God for Anything
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that our needs would be met, our sins forgiven and our souls protected (Matthew 6:11–13). Every request we make of God for ourselves falls under one of those three headings. We can ask God for anything.

Anything? Health, wealth and happiness? Yes! Love, acceptance and forgiveness? Of course! A luxury car, a million-dollar home, expensive clothing and jewelry? Sure! God invites us to ask Him for anything we want or need. But that does not mean He is obligated to give us everything we ask for. Good parents sort out their child’s requests, accepting some, rejecting others. So does God. When we pray, we must be ready to hear His answer.

I know that asking God for anything sounds extreme. Obviously, there are things we should not ask God for — the opportunity to sin without getting caught, for example. We should not ask God for anything contrary to His character or will for our lives. Unfortunately, we do not always know what those things are. Help robbing a bank is obviously wrong, but is it okay to pray for profit or success in business? Permission to view pornography is out, but is it wrong to ask God for a beautiful wife or a handsome husband? There’s only one way to find out — through prayer.

The more we pray to God, you see, the more we hear from God. And the more we learn about God and His will for us, the better we understand what to ask of Him. And when we learn what to ask of Him, He gives it to us. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22). This is not a magic formula, as if God commits himself to giving us whatever we really, really, really want. No, it is a statement about character. People with genuine faith know God well enough that they know the kinds of prayers He answers.

That is why we must read the Bible and pray in tandem. God speaks to us through Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16–17, Hebrews 1:1–2, 2 Peter 1:20–21). His words describe His character and will and set boundaries around our prayers. Should we pray for success, for example? Yes, but Scripture reminds us that God cares for our character more than our comforts (James 4:13–17), that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), and that the wealthy have a moral responsibility to help the deserving poor (1 Timothy 6:17–19) — among many other things it teaches us about wealth.

That is also why we must pray persistently. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus taught (Matthew 7:7). This is not God’s carte blanche for our whims. It is an invitation to keep praying until we know the character of our “Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).

So, ask God for anything, but listen for His answer! It’s sometimes “Yes,” sometimes “No,” sometimes “Wait, and sometimes “Grow up!” Whatever it is, we can be confident that God always answers prayers and that His answers are best.

What Should We Pray For?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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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, Jesus simply means, “The Lord saves.” So, the first thing we do in prayer is praise God for who He is and what He has 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 his 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.

Your Father Knows What You Need


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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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]” (Matthew 6:32).

Why does Jesus tell 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 to meet them and has the power to do so.

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 within 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 may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties 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” (Romans 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.

Should We Use Patterned Prayers?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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Matthew 6:7–8 says: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Other translations speak of “empty phrases” (ESV) and “vain repetitions” (KJV).

Does Jesus prohibit using set phrases or repetition in prayer? Should we use patterned prayers? No and yes, respectively.

Let me give you two examples of patterned prayers. At meals: “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” At a child’s bedtime: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

Does Jesus prohibit the use of patterned prayers such as these? No! Consider His instructions to the disciples in Matthew 6:9: “This, then, is how you should pray….”

The Lord’s Prayer is a patterned prayer. Jesus not only taught His disciples patterned prayers, He used them himself. His prayer from the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) — is a quotation from Psalm 22. When you read that psalm in its entirety, you see why Jesus prayed it as He died. It is the appropriate prayer for that agonizing moment. In fact, the Book of Psalms is simply a collection of patterned prayers. If such prayers are good enough to be included in the Bible and used by the Lord, they are good enough for our use too.

What Jesus really prohibits is pointless prayer, not patterned prayer. As John Stott explains, He prohibits “any and every prayer which is all words and no meaning, all lips and no mind or heart … a torrent of mechanical and mindless words.”

So, should we use patterned prayers? Yes, but only if they help us express our minds and hearts to God.

I find patterned prayers useful for two reasons: First, they help me say exactly what I want to say. In the morning, I pray, “This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24, ESV). When I sin, I pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). And when I go to sleep, I pray, “Guide me while waking, and guard me while sleeping, that waking I may watch with Christ, and sleeping I may rest in peace.” Why invent new prayers when old ones express my feelings exactly?

Second, patterned prayers help me organize my thoughts. The Lord’s Prayer presents an outline of prayer. It begins with focused attention on God (“hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come, your will be done”) and then turns to our needs (“daily bread,” forgiveness, and deliverance from evil). When I pray, I use this outline, adding my specific requests under the appropriate headings. Under “daily bread,” for example, I ask God for whatever I or my family and friends need.

Patterned prayers are simply tools. Use them if they help you get the job done.

Where Should We Pray?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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In Matthew 6:5–6, Jesus answers our second question about the “how” of prayer: Where should we pray? He says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

We should not interpret Jesus’ words too literally. True, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). But He also prayed in front of others, such as the crowd of 5,000 men, besides women and children, whom He fed miraculously (Matthew 14:19).

Jesus’ disciples also prayed in front of others. According to Acts 1:14 and 2:1–13, it was because of what the crowds saw happening at a Jerusalem prayer meeting that they asked Peter, “What does this mean?” God used the evangelistic sermon Peter preached in response to their question as a tool to convert about 3,000 of them that very day. All because of a public prayer meeting!

When Jesus tells us to pray in our rooms, in other words, He is more concerned about the spiritual location of our hearts than the geographical location of our bodies. He does not want us to be hypocrites, which derives from the Greek word for an actor. A hypocrite acts one way in public but lives another way in private. His onstage role is driven by a need for public approval. Because Jesus does not want our prayers to be corrupted by this hypocritical desire “to be seen by others,” however, He counsels us to pray alone, in secret, behind closed doors. Solitude enhances authenticity. Alone, we are able to speak our real concerns as our real selves to a real God who really cares.

Unfortunately, many people have trouble practicing solitude. We live in a highly individualistic culture, and they feel isolated and alone. When Jesus talks about solitude, they feel creeping pangs of despair. “I am already lonely,” they say to themselves, “must I continue to be lonely to experience God?” No! Solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Solitude is healthy individualism; loneliness is unhealthy individualism. In the Christian life, there must be balance between solitude and sociality. Without that balance, we can neither be our authentic selves nor experience healthy relationships. So, let us heed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone….”

Let us make time and space in our lives to approach God in solitude. By the same token, we should not give up meeting together; instead, we should encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). As long as our desire is to be rewarded by God rather than seen by others, we can draw near to Him alone and together.