Praying to God as Father

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Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!

 

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What is Prayer?

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I’ve asked this question to myself too many times to ask. I know what prayer involves: petition, thanksgiving, etc. But, what is it? 

Eugene Peterson has a helpful answer to this question in his Working the Angles: Peterson says simply that prayer is “answering speech”. He explains what that means:

[P]rayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily “address” but “response.” Essential to the practice of prayer is to fully realize this secondary quality. It is especially important in the pastoral practice of prayer since pastors are so frequently placed in positions in which it appears that our prayers have an initiating energy in them, the holy words that legitimize and bless the secular prose of committee work or community discussion or getting well or growing up…

[But] the first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.  (Kindle loc 450-453, 466-471)

For Peterson, prayer is not a human initiative toward God: it is not man attempting to begin a conversation with an aloof God. Rather, prayer is a response to the first initiation of God’s own word to mankind. Prayer is a logical response to God’s condescension and communication with us.

Peterson goes on to explain that the best way to pray is first to listen! God talks and acts first, then we respond. And so listening to God’s communication to us is how we learn talk to him. And of course, listening to God entails reading his divinely inspired Word: it is there that we hear his speech, see his acts, see his gracious iniative. And it’s there that we can respond.

Peterson also puts his finger on something when he says that rather than seeing prayer as “answering speech”, we are tempted to see prayer as the “first word”, something that “gets God’s attention”, something that “makes God act”. In other words, it is our temptation to see our own words as something that can initiate God’s response to us. This is dangerous, he says, because it makes human beings the “first cause”. In fact, Peterson will go so far as to call this mindset “closet Pelagianism”!

Jesus himself warned against the thought that prayer is something that “gets God’s attention”. Jesus says in Matthew 6:7-8:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him

Frederick Bruner, commenting on this verse, says:

[A common] misconception of prayer that Jesus attacks is believing there must be much of it before it works… Some pagan convictions taught that the gods are reluctant to hear prayers unless prayers are long, and that only when the petitioner has proven oneself sincere by spending time in confession, praise, or even quiet do the divinities listen… (Christbook I, 289)

The thought during Jesus’ time was that in order to get the gods to listen, one must pray a lot and yell and get their attention; and then finally will the gods lend an ear (recall to mind the story of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, who went to such lengths as to cut themselves to gain the gods’ attention).

But what Jesus says is that “the Father already knows what you need before you ask” (v. 8)! What is implied in this statement is that God, your Father, knows and cares, and is already attentive. You don’t need to “pray much” for him to listen; you don’t need to initiate the conversation. Jesus denounces this thought that the human must initiate through prayer to get God’s care and attention. God the Father already knows what you need, and already cares. Rather, prayer is a response to God’s Fatherly care and love!

So then, prayer is a response to the loving care of Father who already knows and is already concerned with your needs. It is a response to what he has already said and done.