I’m sure that you have heard this before: “I just prayed and prayed but nothing happened. I did not seem to find peace. I did not seem to get any satisfaction out of it.” Also, we ourselves seem to hate to pray. I know that I myself really struggle with this. I find it difficult to pray on a regular basis. I also find it difficult to enjoy praying. I feel as if it is something that I have to do, rather than something I get to do. Jesus has some very good words for us. And they are still helpful, even though we know these words extremely well. Let’s dig deeper and find some fresh water to cure our prayer desert.
First of all, we must remember what Jesus said right before. He warned us of two dangers that constantly beset our desire to pray. The first danger to avoid was ostentation; praying so that others might see just how pious we are. The second danger that we must avoid is that we pray in such language that we think God must hear, regardless of whether our heart is in it or not. With those two negative examples behind us, now we can turn to the positive example of how to pray. Having taught us how not to pray, now Jesus tells us how to pray. It should be mentioned in passing, that while the Lord Jesus did give us this prayer; still, it could more accurately be called “The Disciples’ Prayer.”
We should not pass over too quickly those first words of verse 9: “This, then, is how you should pray.” Notice that Jesus does not say, “This, then, is what you should pray.” In other words, Jesus is not here giving us a formula to which God will automatically respond. Of course, it is not wrong to pray this exact prayer, as we do so often in our worship, and as many of us do at home. But this prayer is not a formula. Rather, it is a model. We should model our prayers after this prayer. We should pray for the kinds of things that are in this prayer. Now, this prayer is not exhaustive. We should not think that because Jesus did not mention something specifically in this prayer, that therefore we should not pray for it. For instance, this prayer does not explicitly mention what all our daily needs are. It is a summary of what prayer should contain. It is remarkable how much this prayer does contain.
We should contrast this prayer with how some people think of prayer. For instance, some of us may be familiar with the Prayer of Jabez. That is a prayer in Chronicles that Bruce Wilkinson siezed upon as the basis for a health and wealth Gospel. He recites it as a mantra, almost. That falls into the very trap that Jesus warned us against in the previous verses. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He didn’t say, “Don’t you remember that great prayer in Chronicles about enlarging your borders?” Jesus gives us a much more comprehensive model on which to base our prayers. We will examine this prayer over the next several weeks in order to refresh our minds as to its full meaning, and in an effort to help us to pray this prayer with our hearts and minds fully engage, rather than merely repeating it as an empty exercise.
Let’s take a look at the prayer as a whole briefly before we look at the first sentence. First, we must notice that the prayer starts talking about God, not about ourselves. This is what is so wrong about people who pray only when they need something from God. That approach is so wrong, because it stems from a wrong view of God. God is not primarily someone who is supposed to meet our needs. God is someone who is primarily someone to be worshipped by us. That is why the whole first half of this prayer glorifies God, seeks His righteousness, and His kingdom first, before all these others things are added. How many times do we only perfunctorily pray about God’s glory, and then rush right to our wish list, which is a mile long? Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that “We tend to be so self-centred in our prayers that when we drop on our knees before God, we think only about ourselves and our troubles and perplexities.” As John Calvin says, we think that God doesn’t love us if He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want Him to. Oftentimes, the reason that God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want Him to is that we haven’t even begun to address Him the right way. You wouldn’t go in front of a prince or a king without knowing the proper way to approach him. There are rules you must follow, etiquette that is important. The same thing is true of our heavenly Father. Yes, He is our Father, but He is god of the universe, and we must remember that when we come before Him.
The other aspect of the Lord’s Prayer as whole that we must look at is the outlook of the prayer. The first half of the prayer is eschatological. That is a long word that simply means that we are concerned about heavenly things. We have an eye toward the future establishment of God’s kingdom, even though that kingdom has come already. What we pray for then, is the consummation of the kingdom, the climax of Jesus’ rule on earth. That part of the prayer that is about God is also about God’s kingdom, and we pray that that kingdom will come. It is future, though the kingdom is also already here. We must always pray, then, with the future in view, and not just the immediate future, but the entire future. The second half of the prayer could be labelled “meanwhile.” As we wait for the first half to take place, we pray for more immediate things as well.
Every word in this prayer counts. The first word is “our.” There are two things to notice about that word. The first is that prayer should be corporate as well as private. He gave us instructions for individual prayer before. Now, He gives us a corporate model. The second thing we should notice about this word is that it is what is known in grammar as a possessive pronoun. That it, it indicates that we possess something. Now, we do not possess God as we might possess our car. However, the word does indicate that there is a special relationship between us and the Father. This means that we must be in a right relationship to the Father, in order to call Him “Our Father.” He cannot be ours, unless we are His children. You cannot call God “Father” if your true father is the devil. This prayer is a prayer for disciples only. This is not a prayer that anyone can pray. This is because only disciples can call God “Father.” What is true in the Beatitudes must be true for us, if we are to be in a position to pray this prayer.
This brings us to the second word in the prayer, “Father.” In what sense is God our Father? Well there is more than one way that He is our Father. He is our Father because He has created us. In that sense God is the Father of all mankind. But that is not the kind of Fatherhood that Jesus means here. Jesus is not talking about modernist humanistic agenda. D. Clair Davis, my professor of church history at Westminster Seminary, once said, “Unitarianism talks about the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man, in the neighborhood of Boston.” Well, that is not the kind of Fatherhood about which Jesus is speaking. The other kind of Fatherhood spoken of in Scripture is the far more important Fatherhood by adoption. That is, we become adopted into God’ family, becoming brothers to Christ, who is preeminently the Son of God. You see, Jesus Christ is the Son of God by right, and by eternal generation. That is a fancy way of saying that Jesus was always the Son of God, even in eternity past. His Sonship is by right and by eternal generation. Our sonship comes by adoption. We had thrown off the yoke of God before, when we fell into sin. Adam is the true prodigal son, and we are all in Adam. There was nothing left of our sonship. We disinherited ourselves. But God is the great Adopter. He loves adoption. There is no one who has adopted more children than God has. Every Christian who has ever lived is a child by adoption. The question then becomes, “How are we adopted?” This is nothing less than the question of salvation itself. The only way that we can become adopted by God is if first the legal problem of sin is dealt with. We owe God so much that we can never repay Him. That debt has to be paid if we are to become part of God’s family. That debt is what our Elder Brother Jesus Christ paid for us. And He did that by taking on our sin on to Himself. He took our debt on to Himself. He tells the Father, “I have paid that person’s debt in full. There is nothing in the way now for you to adopt that person.” And if we are adopted, then we are full heirs. We have an inheritance. When we call God Father, then, that is what we mean.
Notice here that the relationship with God as Father means that we can come to Him anytime. There is no time in which He is unavailable. He is close to us. And He runs to hear us. He earnestly desires that we speak with Him, even as we earthly fathers love it when our children come to us wanting to talk, and ask questions, and learn, and grow. So also our heavenly Father loves to instruct us and see us grow. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “You will find that the outstanding characteristic of all the most saintly people the world has ever known has been that they have not only spent much time in private prayer, but have also delighted in it.” We should delight to talk with our Heavenly Father.
Now it is right here that many people have a problem. When someone tells them that God is their Father, they conjure up in their minds images of their earthly fathers, and some of those images are not very pleasant. Some of the things that our earthly fathers do are not very helpful, for indeed, they sin. Sometimes, they even abuse their children, verbally, or even sexually. We must be careful not to equate God the Father with images along those lines. That is not what our Heavenly Father is like. God is just, and God is merciful, and He is both at the same time. If you had a bad father, or one who never demonstrated his love very well, then cleanse your mind of that image and think of a different image of father: imagine a father who is always patient, who always listens, who always looks out for your true best interests, who writes so many letters to you that it constitutes an entire book, who sacrifices His true Son for you, an adopted son, who is quick to notice anything you do that is right, and praises you for it, even though it was His strength that gave you the ability in the first place, and who overlooks countless wrongs and insults given by you to His very face. That is a more accurate picture of our Heavenly Father. It is He Whom we address.
Now, there is always the temptation to go the other way, too. We can be so taken with the fact that we can approach God, that we forget Who He really is. He is not our chum, with whom we joke around. This is not to say that God is without humor; there are several passages in Scripture that indicate that God has a sense of humor, and that God created laughter. However, we are not to treat God lightly. That is why Jesus tells us that when we address God as Father, it must come also with the recognition that He is in heaven. Theologians talk about God being immanent in creation; that is, that He is present in creation. God didn’t wind up the world like a toy and then set it goin, never to influence the world again. No, God is present everywhere, and works out His will. He is immanent. However, God is also above the world. That is, He is transcendent. God transcends the world. He is not to be equated with the world, as many religions do. Hinduism, for instance, would say, “Our Father, who is in us.” New Age religions would also say that. But that is wrong. God is in heaven, even as He is also present everywhere on earth. The Jews, on the other hand, saw God as so transcendent, that they could not really talk with Him on a regular basis. They had no Mediator, such as we have in Jesus Christ. That is why they would never even call God by name. They would simply pray to “The Name.” Now, that practice was designed to make sure that they never used God’s name in vain. However, it also meant that they could never address God as Father. Understand, then, that what Jesus is saying here was rather revolutionary in Jewish circles. But to us, we need to hear the second portion of that address: God is not our buddy. He is our Friend, but He is also God of the universe. He is in heaven. And so we must avoid both extremes. We must avoid being to chummy with God, and so depriving God of that worship and adoration which we should always bestown on Him when we pray. But we should also recognize that we can indeed call God our Father. He is not a God who is far off, but a God who is near. And He is for us.
He is for us as we are in the church. The great early church father Tertullian once said, “Nor is Mother Church passed over without mention, for the mother is recognized in the Son and the Father, as it is within the church that we learn the meaning of the terms Father and Son.” Do you understand that profound statement? It is only in the church that we learn what it means for God to be our Father, and for Jesus to be His Son. That is another implication of the word “our” at the beginning of the prayer. Augustine says it this way, “You cannot have God for your Father without having the church for your mother.” and that is certainly true. To say otherwise would be to agree that an eye can live without being connected to the rest of the body, or that a hand can be used without a brain to wield it. It is absurd.
And so, we pray to our heavenly Father. It is a marvelous privilege. If you want to pray and pray and have God hear and answer, then we must consider what these words mean, what they imply. We must be disciples, concerned about God’s glory and kingdom. We must have God as our Father. We must see Him also as the transcendent God of the universe. We must have the church for our mother. That is of the essence of true prayer. To close, let’s hear from our catechisms: HC 120: Q. Why did Christ command us to call God “our Father”? A. 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. Our fathers do not refuse us the things of this life; God our Father will even less refuse to give us what we ask in faith. 121. Q. Why the words “in heaven”? A. these words teach us not to think of God’s heavenly majesty as something earthly, and to expect everything for body and soul from his almighty power. The Westminster Larger Catechism says this: “Q. 189 What does the preface of the Lord’s prayer teach us? A. The preface of the Lord’s prayer (contained in these words, Our Father which art in heaven,) teaches us, when we pray, to draw near to God with confidence of His Fatherly goodness, and our interest therein; with reverence, and all other child-like dispositions, heavenly affections, and due apprehensions of His sovereign power, majesty, and gracious condescension: as also, to pray with and for others.” Hallelujah! We have a God who answers prayer!