A Family Affair
The first word of the Lord's Prayer in our English translation is “Our” (Matt. 6:9), but the first word in Greek is pater, father. Sometimes you’ll hear the Lord’s Prayer called “Paternoster,” which comes from the first two words in the Latin version of the prayer. Interestingly, there is an old type of elevator called a paternoster that is found mainly in Europe. It has a number of wooden platforms that cycle up and down without stopping. In order to ride on the paternoster, you have to step on and step off as it moves. According to some people, the device is called a paternoster because the contraption resembles rosary beads. I was told the name came from people praying every time they dared to use the thing.
Matthew 6:9 is not about elevators (even if it is elevated speech!). Again, we are probably too familiar with the prayer to properly marvel at what it says. The God of the universe—the God who made the world out of nothing; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the ten plagues and the Red Sea; the God of the glory cloud in the tabernacle; the God who shakes the cedars of Lebanon; the God who showed himself to Daniel as the great Ancient of Days; the God before whom no one can stand face to face and live—Jesus wants us to call this God “Father.”
To pray with intimacy to God as father is not a human right; it is a spiritual privilege. It is a privilege for the people of God who have been born again by the Spirit of God. “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). It is not our natural human birthright to call God “Father”; it is our born-again spiritual birthright.
Granted, there is a sense in which one could say that God is father to all, insofar as all people owe their existence to God (Acts 17:28–29). But that’s never how Jesus speaks of God the Father. One book I read made the old liberal argument about the universal fatherhood of God: “He is the father of all men.” As proof of that point, the author cites not a single Bible verse but quotes Rudolf Bultmann.1 There is no biblical warrant for thinking that God is father to all and that we are all his children in a spiritual sense.
God, Our Father
Only disciples get to call God “Father.” Even in the Old Testament, where the fatherhood of God is less clear than in the New Testament, we see that this intimate relationship of a father and his children is the special privilege reserved for God’s people. Fifteen times the Old Testament uses father in a religious sense. But in the New Testament it is used 245 times. What was occasionally present in the Old Testament has become central in the New Testament, namely, that by God’s initiative we can approach God as our father. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).
Incidentally, but importantly, we cannot substitute “Mother” for “Father.” Yes, the Bible sometimes describes God with maternal characteristics, e.g., tender like a nursing mother (Isa. 49:15) or like a hen brooding over her young (Matt. 23:37). We don’t have to be embarrassed using those same sort of images, but that is not at all the same as naming God as mother. God is spirit, and he doesn’t have a body. He does not have a biological gender; he’s not male or female. Throughout Scripture he reveals himself as a king, a husband, and a father but never as a queen, a wife, or a mother. We have no warrant to pray to God in ways we may think sound better, are more culturally attuned, or our world thinks are more appropriate. The act of naming is an inherent act of authority (think of God naming Adam, and Adam naming Eve). We would be greatly presumptuous to think that we could give God a new identity and a new name without doing violence to revelation and usurping God’s divine prerogatives (Ex. 3:13). This is not about the superiority of men over women; it is simply the way in which God has chosen to reveal himself, with masculine pronouns and titles.
[God] delights to hear from his children, to know that we love him, that we want to be with him, that we trust him, that we believe he cares for us, that we know he can do anything about everything.
To call on God as father is a gift of the triune God. It may look like prayer involves only the first person of the Trinity, but Romans 8 tells us that it is the Spirit of God who enables us to cry, “Abba! Father!,” bearing witness that we are children, heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ (vv. 14–17). Anyone who truly prays the Lord’s Prayer from the heart is demonstrating the work of the glorious Trinity. In union with God the Son, God the Spirit works in our hearts so that we call out in faith to God the Father.
The biggest indicator of Christian prayer (because, after all, lots of people pray) is not the geographic direction in which we pray, or the body position while we pray, or even that we experience a certain feeling when we pray. What makes it Christian prayer is, first, an awareness of the one to whom we pray. God doesn’t want or need or delight in the mere repetition of words and phrases. He delights to hear from his children, to know that we love him, that we want to be with him, that we trust him, that we believe he cares for us, that we know he can do anything about everything. What we need when we pray is less awareness of ourselves and more awareness of God. When I get distracted or discouraged in prayer, I have to remind myself of the simple fact that someone is there, someone is listening, and not just anyone, but my Father who is in heaven. When I pray, I’m not going through a spiritual soliloquy, a ritual for the day, or something important to check off before I go to work; I am speaking to my Father and my God.
Remember who you are talking to in prayer. Jesus puts the prayer into the most intimate family terms. It’s not, first, about proper protocol; when we know to whom we are talking, the right approach will follow. He’s not your roommate or your butler or your girlfriend, so don’t be chummy or demanding or romantic. But neither are we told to pray to him as a dictator, a parole officer, or a harsh taskmaster, like we have to plead with him against his better judgment to listen to us. So don’t grovel, don’t squirm, and don’t be afraid. Come to him as a child, comforted that your Father loves you and confident that he wants to hear from you.
- Charles M. Laymon, The Lord’s Prayer in Its Biblical Setting (Nashville, TN: Abingdon: 1968), 85.
This article is adapted from The Lord’s Prayer: Learning from Jesus on What, Why, and How to Pray by Kevin DeYoung.
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