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The Good Father

Prayer and the character of God

George P Wood on June 19, 2020

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The Lord’s Prayer tells us what to pray for, but it assumes certain things about God’s character and power. It assumes He is worthy of our requests and able to grant them.

These assumptions find expression in the name Jesus uses to address God: “our Father in heaven.” We are so accustomed to referring to God as our Father that we forget what a radical idea and innovative practice it was in Jesus’ own day. 

New Testament scholars believe that Jesus invented the habit of calling God, “Father.” Jesus did so because He was conscious of His unique relationship with God. In John 20:17, for example, Jesus distinguished His way of relating to God from ours: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

But Jesus’ relationship with God is not a zero-sum game. We too can become God’s sons and daughters because Jesus is God’s Son par excellence: “In love,” Paul writes, “[God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5).

When we call God “Father,” we say something important about His character: He loves us, and it is His pleasure and will to welcome us into His presence. When we call God “our Father in heaven,” we say something equally important about His power.

In the Bible, heaven is God’s dwelling place, the throne room from which He rules the universe. It connotes divine majesty and absolute power. Revelation 4:1-11 records John’s vision of heaven. It is a place of unimaginable beauty. 

All day long, angels and human beings worship God to the fullest extent of their abilities. They sing,

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things,
and by your will they were created and have their being.

In light of this song, stop and reflect for a moment on the meaning of the words, “our Father in heaven.” The God who created and sustains the universe is pleased to be a Father to you and me. How can we not rest assured, then, that our prayers will be answered when we pray to such a God?

Whom you pray to matters, it turns out, as much as — if not more than — what you pray for.

The God who created and sustains the universe is pleased to be a Father to you and me.

Responding to an Objection

Many people find it difficult to pray to God as their Father in heaven. Their earthly fathers were so bad that they cannot conceive of a heavenly Father in anything but negative terms. 

Additionally, some object that since God is neither male nor female, it is inappropriate to think of Him in masculine terms. They argue that either we should stop thinking of God in terms of sex, or we should start balancing masculine terms with feminine ones, praying to God as both “Father” and “Mother.”

Both points of view share a mistake. They assume that our God-talk is the result of projection rather than revelation. For them, the flow of imagery is upward: We conceive of God in our own image. 

According to the Bible, however, the flow is downward: He reveals himself through our language. Consequently, we should not see our heavenly Father through the distorting prism of earthly fatherhood — with its sinfulness and limitation. Instead, we should view earthly fatherhood in the light of heaven — with all its boundless perfection.

As Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:15, it is from our heavenly Father that “every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” (The Greek word rendered “family” is patria, literally, “fatherhood.”) When we pray, then, we must remember the contrast between our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers.

By the same token, however, we must remember that Jesus chose the image of fatherhood to describe God for a reason: We learn about what we do not know by means of what we do know. When, therefore, our earthly fathers act as God created them to, we see through their examples glimpses of how our heavenly Father treats us.

Calling God “our Father in heaven” implies both contrast from and comparison to our earthly fathers, in other words. A little parable in Matthew 7:7-11 makes this point clearly. Jesus asks, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Jesus admits that some earthly fathers are “evil,” in strong contrast to our morally perfect heavenly Father. This is a point of contrast. But even bad dads know how to give “good gifts.” So, a great dad — our heavenly Father — must know how to give really excellent gifts. This is a point of comparison.

Precisely because our heavenly Father gives great gifts, then, Jesus tells us: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Our good heavenly Father will see that we get what we need, “and quickly”; so let us “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1,8).

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