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Biblical Prayer - Our Father


By Ted Schroder

Jesus said, "This is how you should pray: 'Our Father'. (Matthew 6:9) Our very familiarity with the Lord's Prayer, and Christianity, dulls our awareness of the unique relationship that Jesus made possible. To say "Our Father" is to claim membership in a family that has the right to call God, the Lord of heaven and earth, our Father. We do not do so on the basis of our creation. There is a general sense in which everyone created can call themselves children of God. But this was not what Jesus meant when he told us to pray to his heavenly Father in this way. This was something new in the world. We can approach God as our Father because of something supernatural that Jesus came to make possible.

Jesus came into the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him as the Messiah. He came to his own special people, but they rejected him. "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." (John 1:12,13)

The New Testament sees God as the Father of all humanity, but it does no t think of all men and women as sons and daughters of God. God's attitude to all people is that of a Father. All are his children in the sense that he made them, and that he provides for them. But men and women are his sons and daughters in the full sense only as they respond to what he does for them in Christ.

When they receive into their lives the Word who became flesh as Jesus the Christ, they are born into the heavenly family. It is only in this way that they are really God's children. The way to become a child of God, and to be able to call God as our Father, is to believe in the name of Jesus, i.e. to trust in the person of the Word made flesh. It is to believe in him a s revealing God as Father, and to put our trust in a personal relationship with that God. It is trusting him as a person.

Men and women who respond to Christ in faith are given the 'right to become children of God'. This right is not automatically conferred with human existence. It does not come with natural descent - human biology, or genealogy - but it is born of God. It is given by grace - an undeserved gift. It speaks to us of the privilege of adoption, and being born again by the Spirit o f God. Paul declares this when he writes: "you received the Spirit of 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." (Romans 8:15-17)

This crying out to God as 'our Father' was something new. It would not have been expressed in Judaism. It is the cry of a child calling for his father. When we cry 'our Father' the Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirit that we are truly God's children. Martin Luther comments: "This is but a little word, and yet not withstanding it comprehendeth all things. The mouth speaketh, but the affection of the heart speaketh after this manner.

Although I be oppressed with anguish and terror on every side, and seem to be forsaken and utterly cast away from thy presence, yet am I thy child, and thou art my Father for Christ's sake: I am beloved because of the Beloved. Wherefore this little word, Father, conceived effectually in the heart, passeth all the eloquence of Demosthenes, Cicero, and of the most eloquent rhetoricians that ever were in the world." (Commentary on Galatians, on 4 :6)

Jesus makes it possible: by his work of salvation, by the work of his Spirit in our hearts, and by bringing us to faith through his death and resurrection; to give us access to God as our Father. When he said, 'no one comes to the Father except through me,' (John 14:6) 'no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,' (Matthew 11:27) he is revealing that our only way to become children of God, and to know God as our Father is through his revelation, and work of salvation. We know God as our Father because Jesus made us co-heirs with him in the kingdom.

This unique way of looking at God enables us to pray to God in a persona l, familial way. God is not an 'it'. God is not just an amorphous spirit, or cosmic force. God is not merely the Supreme Being, or Higher Power. God is our loving Father, who cares for us. As parents we experience our feelings o f protective paternity and maternity because we are made in the image of God.

Jesus argued from our human concern to take care of our own children how much more God wants to take care of us. "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Fat her in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him." (Matthew 7:11)

He also compared that concern with God's care for the sparrow. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:29-31) We matter to God. He knows everything about us, even down to the smallest detail - the hairs on our head - and cares for us as our Father. No thing is too insignificant to bring to him.

While all this is true, there are many people today who are troubled b y the designation of God as our Father. They object to God being perceived in masculine terms, at the expense of the feminine. This traditional teaching has been used to support masculine authoritarian structures in church and society that has oppressed women and denigrated their contributions, and gift s of ministry, and leadership. Some want to remove all gender-specific language about God and refer to God in gender-neutral terms of roles such as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. But that would depersonalize our understanding of God. All of us have gender. No person is an 'it'.

Some theologians suggest that we use the traditional terms in an inclusive way to include the feminine. That means that when we call God 'Father' we do not think in terms of masculinity but in terms of parenthood as a whole (mother and father). We believe that our understanding of God must include both genders since "God created man in his own image, in the image of God h e created him; make and female he created them." (Genesis 1:27) There are passages of Scripture that speak of God in terms of the feminine. (Matthew 32:3 7; Isaiah 46:3,4; 49:14,15) God loves his creatures from the womb, watches o ver them as infants, nurtures them in their youth, and mourns for them in their journeys. God does not have a body so he cannot be either male or female in the ways we are.

While being sensitive to the weight of feminist arguments I am opposed to altering the forms of prayer and hymns we use in public worship to cater to these concerns. I think we should continue to pray as Jesus taught us an d use the language that Jesus used. The Anglican New Zealand Prayer Book published in 1989 contains this substitution for "Our Father" in its modern version of the Lord's Prayer:

Eternal Spirit,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven.

It attempts to be inclusive of the native Maori understanding of God as well as the feminist perspective. While these words do not contradict the biblical view of God I think that it is a mistake to change historic texts w hen the entire community is gathered in public worship, to suit one's own personal needs. However there is no reason why they may not be used in one's personal devotions if it helps one to relate to God.

While some Christians have suffered from a distorted view of fatherhood in their own experience, many others have been blessed by their fathers, and have been a blessing in their own fatherhood. Our conception of God is no t, as Freud argued, simply a projection from our human experience of fatherhood, or derived from patriarchal systems in society. Our Christian understanding of God comes from the way the people of God experienced God as recorded in the Bible. It comes from the way Jesus related to God as his Father. It comes from the way the Holy Spirit moved in the lives of the apostles and saints of the New Testament and church down through the ages. We do not call God Father because of our male parent. We come to understand all fathering be cause of the way God is Father: "For this reason [the way God has acted in t he world through Christ] I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name." (Ephesians 3:14)

There is no one name which captures the entire character of God. God is the name above all names. We relate to God as citizens of his kingdom, as servant to master, as bride to bridegroom, as guilty sinner to the pure and holy one. Yet Jesus introduces us to God as our Father. Therefore we come to him in prayer as children, for it is only as children that we can enter the kingdom of heaven.

I am a father, and a grandfather. There are no words to express how much I love my children and grandchildren, how much I care for them, how much I want to protect them and provide for them. If that is true for me, a mere mortal, how much more must my heavenly Father love me.

I am also a child of my parents, and a member of my family. I am a child of God, and a member of the family of Christ. I belong to the body of Christ. I have spiritual brothers and sisters to look out for, and who care for me.

When I pray "Our Father" I am approaching God, not as a stranger, but as his child, with his other children, as part of his family. I am not alone. I have an identity. I am valued and loved. I can come to God with confidence because I have been adopted into this family by the blood of Christ, I have been made an heir of God and co-heirs with Christ, and the Holy Spirit bears witness with my spirit that I am God's child.

Jesus said, " 'Let the little children come to me. for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.' And he took the children in his arms, put his hands upon them and blessed them." (Mark 10:14-16)

When you pray, "Our Father," you are entering the kingdom of heaven as a child, and you will be blessed.

A Prayer: "Father in heaven, when the thought of you wakes in our hearts, let it not wake like a frightened bird that flies about in dismay, but like a child waking from its sleep with a heavenly smile." (Soren Kierkegaard)


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