Our Father in Heaven
How God’s character motivates and directs our prayers
Today is the U.S. National Day of Prayer. When Jesus’ disciples asked for a lesson in how to pray, Jesus laid out a model prayer that starts like this, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven … .”
Whom You Pray to Matters
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) consists of six petitions. When we pray, we ask God that:
- His name be hallowed,
- His kingdom come,
- His will be done,
- our needs be met,
- our sins forgiven,
- and our souls protected.
Notice the order of these requests. First, we direct our attention to God and His concerns; then — and only then — we direct God’s attention to us and our concerns. When we prioritize God, we receive His blessing: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing, etc.] will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Notice also what Jesus assumes about God. 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?
Who you pray to matters, it turns out, as much as — if not more than — what you pray for.
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).
The Father as God
Why did Jesus call God Father? And what difference does it make for our prayers? The New Testament suggests three answers to the first question and one to the second. We call God Father because:
- as God, He is the Father of Jesus Christ,
- as Savior, He is the Father of all believers,
- and as Creator, He is the Father of the entire world.
Because our heavenly Father is God, Savior and Creator, we can be confident that He loves us and gives us what we need. This is the difference God’s Fatherhood makes to our prayers.
When we examine the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, two things become apparent: (1) Jesus related to God uniquely, and (2) that uniqueness arose from the fact of His divinity.
Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows Jesus’ unique relationship with God. John 20:17 is a prime example: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus is not referring to two gods but to two ways of relating to God: His and ours.
The best explanation for this unique relationship is Jesus’ own divinity. Notice what He said in John 5:17: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” John tells us that this angered Jesus’ religious opponents because “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (verse 18).
We are wading in very deep theological waters when we affirm Jesus’ divinity. If there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), how can two persons — Father and Son — be God? (Or three persons, if we add the Holy Spirit?) And how can a man born in a stable be God?
As God’s children and heirs, we can joyfully ask Him for anything we need.
Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has developed the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to answer these questions. The Trinity teaches that one God eternally exists as three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. The Incarnation teaches that the Son has two complete natures — human and divine.
I do not fully comprehend these doctrines — they are mysterious! — so I will not attempt to explain them to you here. Nevertheless, I believe both are based on the Bible and do not contain any obvious logical contradictions. They conform, in other words, to revelation and reason.
What I will point out is this: Both doctrines give us a powerful reason to pray. Paul writes in Romans 8:31-32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
If the Father loves us so greatly that He gave the Son to save us, how can we not approach him confidently in prayer? Nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
So, let us pray to God, the Father of Jesus Christ!
The Father as Savior
The first reason we call God Father is because He is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The second reason is that He is the Father of all believers. Jesus has a unique relationship with God, but we can have a relationship with Him too, although in a different way.
That difference can be expressed as the difference between a natural-born and an adopted child: Jesus is God’s natural Son, but we are God’s adopted sons and daughters. As a natural Son, Jesus shares the Father’s DNA. He is divine by nature. We, on the other hand, do not share the Father’s DNA — we are not divine — but He invites us to enter a relationship with Him, a relationship of His choosing.
Please do not stretch this analogy too far. It is only a metaphor. God does not actually have DNA. But by the same token, do not ignore the analogy’s power! It is rooted in the biblical language of salvation. Consider Ephesians 1:4-5, “In love, [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
If you think about it, the adoption analogy is a vivid picture of the gospel. Because of sin, we are orphans. Precisely because we are orphans, however, God has no parental duties toward us. We are someone else’s children, someone else’s problem. But God chooses to adopt us anyway. It is His “pleasure and will” to do so.
Like all adoptions, the cost to the would-be parent is exorbitant. We become God’s sons and daughters “through Jesus Christ,” that is, by means of His death and resurrection. But God is willing to pay the cost because He loves us.
How does our adoptive Father treat us? Are we merely wards of the state of heaven? Are we second-class members of God’s household? Are we like Cinderella — begrudged by the natural-born children and made to do slavish tasks? No! No! No! Listen to Galatians 4:6-7: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”
What difference does this change in status from slavery to sonship make for our prayer life? Listen to Romans 8:15-17: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to 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.” As God’s children and heirs, we can joyfully ask Him for anything we need. He chose to love us in the first place. Will He not also care for us on an ongoing basis?
So, let us pray to God, the Father of all believers!
The Father as Creator
A third and final reason we call God Father is that He is the Creator of and Provider for the entire world. James describes him as “the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).
Paul writes, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6). No wonder, then, Paul writes, “every family [literally, all fatherhood] in heaven and on earth derives its name” from the heavenly Father (Ephesians 3:15). Or that, quoting a Greek poet, Paul remarks: “We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
God created and provides for us; therefore, He is our Father.As Creator and Provider, the Father dispenses His blessings with impartiality and expects us to do the same.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).
When it comes to the blessings of salvation and an eternal life with Him, God requires faith of us. With creature comforts and temporal goods, however, God is an equal-opportunity giver.
God’s creatorship makes a tremendous difference in our prayer life, as Jesus himself pointed out. We spend our lives working hard to get stuff, some of which is good and necessary, some not. But often, we develop acquisition anxiety. We worry about acquiring what we need as well as what we simply want.
To paraphrase the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34, we worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink; and we worry about our bodies, what we will wear. We shouldn’t. To see why, we should pay attention to three questions Jesus asks us.First, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”
When we pray, God reminds us of our priorities and helps us see the difference between our needs and our wants.
Second, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” When we pray, God reminds us of our value in His eyes and assures us that He will meet our needs.
Third, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” When we pray, God administers a dose of reality medicine. Anxiety does not prolong life. Medically speaking, it shortens it. So do not worry; God will provide. Only the pagans run after all these things [food, drink, clothing, etc.]; our “heavenly Father knows that [we] need them.”
God is the Father of the entire world. He created us; He also will provide for us. So, let us pray to Him!
Fatherhood, Feelings, Facts and Faith
God is our heavenly Father. He created us, saved us and provides for our needs. So, when we pray, we ought to remember and give thanks for His powerful love.
Unfortunately, we do not always feel God’s love. Sometimes, we feel that God is ignoring or neglecting us. When we are anxious about our material needs or disconsolate about our spiritual condition, we want to feel God’s reassuring hand and hear His soothing voice. But we don’t. What should we do?
First, we should remember that feelings are not reliable guides to reality. In high school, I competed in a speech meet that I felt I had won. I spoke flawlessly. My only real competitor, however, jumbled the opening lines of her speech and started over. I was sure the trophy was mine, but the judges pronounced my competitor the winner. My feelings had led me astray, as feelings often do.
Second, in light of the unreliability of our emotions, we should let facts determine our feelings. God’s Word is the most reliable source of information we have about Him, so what it says about Him should determine how we feel about Him, especially when we go through difficult circumstances.
In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus noted two facts: (1) God cares for you more than birds, whose needs are always met; and (2) anxiety is unhelpful. Jesus let those facts shape His emotional life, and He encouraged His followers to do the same.
Third, and finally, we should walk by faith. St. John of the Cross wrote about “the dark night of the soul,” when we do not feel God’s presence or comfort at all. Interestingly, he considered such nights a gift from God.
When life is going well and our emotions are all positive ones, it is easy to believe in God and do His will. But take those crutches away, and will any faith in Him remain? Are we fair-weather friends to God? Do we love God for God, or selfishly?
Faith is not a leap in the dark. It is not a belief in the bizarre or absurd. It is the simple trust that God can be taken at His word. God loves you powerfully. That is a fact whether you feel it or not. Have faith, and one day — if not today — the facts and your feelings will meet, and you will see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians13:12).