READ : Matthew 6:9
Does it really matter by what name we call God? Isn’t one as good as another, just as long as we pray? I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to use the name by which Jesus taught his disciples to address God.
“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare’s Juliet four hundred years ago. The answer: there is a great deal in a name. Names are important. They do far more than just identify things or people; names actually shape our thinking about them. Why do you think sports teams, for example, use names like Eagles and Hawks and Falcons, instead of names like Turkeys or Chickens? They’re all birds, after all, but those names create very different impressions, don’t they?
The names by which we address God are important too. In Jesus’ model prayer for his disciples, he taught us when we pray to begin like this:
This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven.”
The Bible makes it clear that there are many titles and names for God which are proper to use in prayer: He is the Great “I AM” (in Hebrew, “Yahweh,” usually expressed in English as “the Lord”). He is the Almighty, the Everlasting God, the Most High, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of hosts – all these names point to the greatness and majesty and holiness of God, and they make us feel small and humble before him, which is not a bad thing at all to be feeling as we approach God in prayer.
But Jesus taught us especially to call God “Father.” Why? Here is how one historic Christian creed explains it: Jesus commands us to call God Father because
At the very beginning of our prayer Christ wants to kindle in us what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father.
Heidelberg Catechism, Question 120
OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
So as Christians, we begin our prayers by calling upon God as “Our Father,” and whenever we invoke God by another name in prayer – after all, Jesus is offering us a model prayer here, not a form of words which must always be used slavishly – we should do so with the consciousness that the infinite and almighty Lord is still and always our heavenly Father.
But what exactly does Jesus mean by this? In what sense is God our Father and by what right do we call him that? The short answer is: by adoption. God has only one natural Son, his only begotten Son. The rest of us, if we are indeed God’s children, are so through his gracious adopting us into his family. While it is true that God exercises a paternal care over all people on earth as their Creator, and it is also true that we are all equally God’s creatures and ought to treat every human being like a brother or a sister on that account, what Jesus meant in teaching his disciples to think and speak of God as their Father goes far beyond that. In its deepest New Testament sense, God’s fatherhood refers to the new relationship he graciously enters with those who are born again through faith in Christ.
“Father” is God’s family name for Christians, intended for all who have a saving relationship with him in Jesus Christ. The Bible says that “to as many as received him [Jesus] he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). This is the consistent witness of all the New Testament writers. Being a child of God in the fullest sense is not an automatic privilege that comes to everyone, but a special gift of grace for those who have experienced God’s saving love in Christ. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). Having God as your Father does not happen just because you’d like to think he is; this assurance is a by-product of the Holy Spirit’s presence and testimony in the hearts of those to whom he has brought new life. “You have received a spirit of adoption,” writes the apostle Paul. “When we cry ‘Abba, Father,’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). God is the Father of those who have received Christ Jesus and who have been given the Holy Spirit.
That is why Jesus taught us not only to address God as “Father” when we pray, but also to offer our prayers to God through him or in his name (as we often close them.) You can’t really do the first (call God “Father”) unless you also do the second (come to him through Jesus.) It is only the work of the Son and the presence of the Spirit which together make us God’s children. So whenever you say “Father” to God, you should always think of the cross which makes this relationship possible and give thanks to the Holy Spirit who gives you the assurance that you are indeed God’s dear daughter or son.
Think first of the privilege of praying to God as Father! It means, first of all, that God is accessible. We can come as freely to Almighty God as a little child does to her father. Have you ever tried to talk to a great man of the world, a business leader perhaps, or a politician? It’s like trying to get to the center of an onion; you have to go through so many layers of secretaries and aides and administrative assistants you end up wanting to cry. An instant and accurate index of just how important you are in any of the world’s centers of power is how quickly your calls are returned. If you are a nobody, then nobody bothers to talk to you. This is the world’s way; ordinary folks like you and me can’t even attract the notice of the world’s powerful and influential people. And then, just imagine trying to talk to a great man whom you have somehow offended. What chance do you think you’d have of getting through? But even though we have rebelled against God, rejected his love, disobeyed his will, offended his holiness, and fled from his presence, God still welcomes us back, forgives us for Jesus’ sake and calls us his children once more. What a privilege to call him our heavenly Father!
Secondly, think of the incentive this is to pray! God is so big, his concerns are so vast – after all, he’s got a whole universe to run! How could we imagine he would bother to help us with our puny problems? How do we dare even to approach him? Well, we not only dare; we do exactly that because we remember that if God is our Father, then he must love us and delight to listen to everything we have to say. When my children were small, it never bothered me when one of them wanted to climb up into my lap and whisper into my ear little things about their lives. We can be confident with God that he cares about even our smallest needs.
Jesus tells us to think about our relationship with God just that way, the same way we think about our relationships with our own children. If your child needed something you were able to provide, would you give it? Of course you would! The way we feel toward our children is only a faint hint of the way God feels toward us. So we can pray with confidence. “Our God gives himself a name,” wrote one Christian theologian, “which suggests only gentleness and kindness, in order to take away from us all doubt and anxiety, and to give us boldness in coming to him personally” (John Calvin).
Finally, God’s name also solves the mystery of the purpose of prayer. Some have wondered what use prayer is. After all, why pray if God already knows what we need and will do what he pleases anyway? But prayer is talking with our Father. It’s not a means of informing God what we want as though he were a salesclerk to whom we handed our shopping list. It’s not a means of softening God up and working on him until he coughs up the goods, as though he were an armed guard standing between us and blessing. No. God is the Father who loves us, knows what we need and is ready to give it. He wants us to come to him for the same reason you want your child to come to you to talk about her problems, hopes and desires: because you enjoy the contact and know that it’s good for your child too.
OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
I’ve said quite a lot about the noun in the opening of our model prayer, but let’s not overlook the pronoun: the God to whom we pray is Our Father. When we pray as Jesus taught us, we pray in fellowship within the communion of the saints.
This reminds me that I am not God’s only child. I’m part of a large family, I have many brothers and sisters about whom God is concerned just as much as he is about me. Despite what I might think his priorities should be, God does not pay exclusive attention to my needs, my family, my church, my race, or my country. Whenever I pray “Our Father,” it means that everything I ask for myself I am also asking for others, especially those who are of the household of faith. Are your prayers too self-centered? Are they overloaded with singular pronouns, filled with “I,” “me,” and “my,” with too little of “our” and “us” in them? Jesus teaches us to pray inclusively, not exclusively.
OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
One final thing to observe about the opening of Jesus’ model prayer: He tells us to lift our prayers to our Father in heaven. Why is that added? After all, God is everywhere, “omnipresent,” as the theologians say. As Christians we know he is with us always, closer than our breath, than life itself. So why say he’s in heaven? Why focus our attention there? Why not just have a conversation with him wherever we happen to be?
Heaven is God’s particular dwelling place. It’s the place where God’s power and glory are most clearly revealed. Heaven is where the Bible locates God’s throne – not a literal throne, of course, not a golden chair in the sky, but the symbol of his majesty and rule. Jesus wants us, when we pray, to lift our thoughts to God’s throne and heavenly majesty.
As we pray, we need to recognize more than God’s fatherly goodness. We must also remember his almighty power and authority. The truth that God is our Father reminds us that he always wants to give us what’s best. The truth that he’s our Father in heaven reminds us that he’s in charge, that he has the power and the authority to make sure we get what we need. Remembering both these truths together gives us a confidence to come to him, not hesitantly or fearfully, but reverently and expectantly. Prayer is the place where the love and power of God meet and are made available to us.
I like this little poem by Richard Trench, a nineteenth-century Anglican archbishop of Dublin:
Lord, what a change within us one short hour
Spent in thy presence will prevail to make!
What heavy burdens from our bosoms take,
What parched grounds refresh as with a shower!
We kneel, and all around us seems to lower;
We rise, and all, the distant and the near,
Stands forth in sunny outline brave and clear;
We kneel, how weak! We rise, how full of power!