The mood of the Lord’s Prayer is set with the first two words (Matt 6:9). The first word fractures the hermit’s life. This plural prayer is not for an only child, but a brotherhood. It smashes barriers, splits the walls of exclusivity, bursts the little whispering circles, and shouts welcome, ringing far and wide. The second word hits even harder: “Are we not all children of one Father?” Stepping into God’s presence with a collected mind, detached from the disturbances of the day, we address Him with the term—Abba in Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue—that Christ Himself had on His lips, and which is best translated as “Papa.” There is no trace of awe with which a fearful people might approach its sovereign lord. We count on God’s benevolence. Between supplicant and listener a relationship of trust is established. We have come as children. By authorizing us to approach God in this way, Christ gives us the benefit of His own intimate relationship with the Father.
What is the value of the word “Father” in our relationships?
I. THAT GOD IS NOT IMPERSONAL
What good is an impersonal God? When we discover that the God to whom we pray has the name and heart of a father it makes literally all the difference in the world. The springs of this truth about the paternalism of God were rooted in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament. The Psalmist wrote, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps 103:13). And Malachi could exclaim, “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us?” (2:10). Hosea, in a moving passage, called Israel the son of God (11:1). The later chapters of Isaiah return several times to this thought: “You, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name” (63:16). And Jesus in extremis used this familiar form of address: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46, quoting Ps 31:5). Jesus teaches us to see one who can best be thought of in the tender terms of fatherly love, one without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground—our Father.
II. THAT GOD IS NOT ANYONE’S PERSONAL POSSESSION
If God is Father, He is the Father of all. The Lord’s Prayer does not teach us to pray “My Father”; it teaches us to pray “Our Father.” Some twenty seconds are required to say the sixty-six words of the Lord’s Prayer. During that time, most of us have not noticed that one little word—the word “I”—is never mentioned. Nothing indicates more clearly the spirit in which we pray. There is no room here for egoism. It is as members of the brotherhood of man that we face the Creator; and what we ask for ourselves, we ask also for others. The phrase “Our Father” involves the elimination of self. The fatherhood of God is the only possible basis of the brotherhood of man.
III. THAT GOD IS NOT ONLY INTIMATE BUT ALSO MAJESTIC
Attached to the phrase “Our Father” is “which art in heaven.” Here is no handshaking relationship with God. Here is no sentimentality in religion. Here is no grandfather in heaven whose only concern it is (as C.S. Lewis put it) that at the end of the day it should be said that a good time was had by all. There is something awe-inspiring in the phrase “which art in heaven.” “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few”—it was a timely warning the ancient writer gave (Eccl 5:2). This sense of the majesty and holiness of God is the “antiseptic element” in our religion that saves it from lapsing into an easygoing sentimentalism.
The phrase is a reminder that he who would come into the presence of God can only come as a worshipping sinner. For in worship I hold myself, sinner that I am, to attention in the presence of the All-holy; weak as I am, in the presence of the Allmighty; ignorant as I am, in the presence of the All-knowing. I press my sinfulness close to His forgiveness, my weakness to His strength, my ignorance to His wisdom. I come in silence, ready to wait on the God who speaks and who is always there before me. I come in awe to the God of majesty.
I come, too, as a member of a worshipping community, sharing in corporate need. As already mentioned, I do not pray “my Father” but “our Father.” Thus, there is the sense in which the fatherhood of God embraces the whole world. He causes His sun to shine on just and unjust alike. “God so loved the world.” The love and compassion of God go out to His entire creation. (This great doctrine has as its corollary the doctrine of the brotherhood of man; if God is Father of all and I am His child, all men are my brethren.)
- Hence springs the Christian hatred of all barriers of race, of segregation, of anything that degrades personality or uses persons as the mere means of another’s pleasure.
- Hence springs the Christian concern over social issues, and the Christian participation in reforms that make for the total welfare of persons as persons.
- Hence springs the Christian conviction that involvement in social issues is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian disciple.
IV. THAT GOD IS POWERFUL
In human love there is so often the tragedy of frustration. We may love a person and yet be unable to help him achieve something, or to stop him from doing something. Human love can be intense—and quite helpless. Any parent with an erring child, or any lover with a wandering loved one knows that. But when we say “Our Father in heaven” we place two things side by side. We place side by side the love of God and the power of God. William Barclay reminds us, “When we pray ‘Our Father in heaven’ we must ever remember the holiness of God, and we must ever remember the power that moves in love, and the love that has behind it the undefeatable power of God.”1
V. THAT GOD HAS AN EXCLUSIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS CHILDREN
Interestingly, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus calls God “Father” only six times, and never outside the circle of the disciples. Therefore, in a deeper and more limited sense, God can only be the Father of those who respond to His love, and of those who, in obedience to Him, are willing to share in the discipline of the life of His family, the church. Indeed one must say that the idea of the church is implicit in the idea of the divine Fatherhood. This doctrine is no “optional extra” added on by later generations to the originally simple teaching of the Galilean prophet. Fatherhood implies a family; a family implies obligations, and a family table. “When ye pray, say, ‘Our Father.’”
So the Master taught. So the Master teaches. So we falteringly learn.
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
“Our Father which art in heaven.”
1 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew: The New Study Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster and John Knox, 2001), 204.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.