Someone Who Loves You
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus, especially as described in the Gospel of Luke, was a frequent prayer. He took time away in prayer regularly to recharge and reconnect with God (Luke 5:16), he prayed before important decisions and actions, and in times of great need. And he prayed enough that his disciples saw him doing it and asked that he would teach them to pray.
And Jesus gave them this prayer:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
If you’ve been in church a few times, you probably recognize in this prayer an outline or germ of what we pray each week, the Lord’s Prayer. Christians throughout the world share in this prayer every single Sunday, and chances are that at any given moment, someone is saying that prayer. The common version of the Lord’s prayer uses the version found in Matthew, which includes a few more petitions, and seems to reflect communal use. But both reflect very early tradition about Christian prayer and share in some characteristics that tell us a lot about what it means to walk with God.
The petitions in the prayer Jesus gave us tell us a lot about what it means to be God’s people. We say, “hallowed be thy name” but also “give us each day our daily bread” We remember that God is holy and beyond our understanding, but God is not above caring for our needs. We don’t ask for bread forever, but just today. We remind ourselves of God’s miracle of manna in the wilderness that provided for each day, and we commit ourselves to trust God for tomorrow too. The choice to pray for our daily needs helps us avoid the danger to our soul of accumulating too much. And we pray for forgiveness—but we know that our own forgiveness is connected to our willingness to forgive. We cannot expect to be able to receive grace without also being able to offer it to each other. It’s a reminder that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with our neighbors.
Even more so than the petitions, the address tells us what it is to be in relationship with God. Jesus tells us to call God “Father.” Jesus is emphasizing the intimacy of your relationship with God. It is a reminder that when you’re talking to God, you’re talking to someone who loves you. Before I go further we should take a detour to talk about how calling God father doesn’t always have the best track record. Christians have used the image of God as Father to justify or excuse the subjugation of women in the home and in society, the justification of violence, abuse, and genocide. It has been used to justify or excuse harsh, cruel, and even abusive treatment of members of our families or church families. And quite frankly, I don’t think Jesus intended for us to do that. There are good reasons to be careful about what we mean when we call God father.
When we tie God too tightly to the image of father, we run into all sorts of problems. First, Christians have erred by using ever-changing notions of what a father should be to describe a God who refuses to be defined. The description of a good father has changed dramatically over your lifetimes. Was it Dr. Spock who said that a parent should touch or hug their child as little as possible? More recent parenting philosophers described just the opposite. Fathers once saw themselves as breadwinners and nothing more. Now good fathers are home raising their kids while their husbands are at work. Is God authoritarian or kindly, strict or forgiving? Is God a helicopter parent or more free-range? Instead of describing our amazing God, we end up projecting all our preconceived notions about fatherhood onto God, and instead of worshipping God, we end up worshiping the current social order.
Second, Christians have erred by making fathers into gods. The image of God as Father has been used to make the argument that fathers serve the role of God in the family, and that the commands of a father, no matter how unjust, should be obeyed like God’s. Similar arguments have been used to justify kings and dictators. Calling God father does not mean that fathers should be given godly authority. It flies in the face of scripture’s witness, which bears great suspicion of any absolute human power other than the power of absolute weakness in love revealed by Christ on the cross.
And finally, when we emphasize God as father too strongly, we universalize an experience that not everyone has. What about those raised by their mother, or grandmother? Are people who grow up with two mothers unable to understand the love of God? What about those whose fathers were drunk, cruel, and abusive more often than not. For some the image of God the father may not provide comfort but instead bring feelings of anxiety, hurt, or abandonment. Father-language is not necessary, nor is it always appropriate. That’s why I try to use language that celebrates the biblical witness of God as mother, and use a diverse set of scriptural images. When Jesus tells us to pray to our father, he’s telling us that when we pray, we’re talking to someone who loves us. We should not let our loyalty to a metaphor trump our loyalty to God. Calling God father does not mean that fathers are closer to God, or that any one is less close to God for not having a father or not being one.
That doesn’t mean we have to excise father from our prayer vocabulary if we want to keep it. We simply need to understand what it means. Jesus chose to teach us to say Father for a reason—to emphasize that God is near to us. Calling God father in prayer is about relationship. In contrast to the other ways of talking to God that occur in scripture: King of Kings, Lord of Hosts, Ruler of the Universe, Shepherd, Lord, Master, Hope of the Nations, calling God father puts an emphasis on the closeness of the relationship between you and God. Jesus chooses this image not to say that God is like a helicopter parent or a free-range one, or that fatherly authority is derived from Godly authority, but to say that when you talk to God you are talking to someone that loves you.
Jesus makes this clear by explaining to the disciples in a few brief parables in which the request is dependent on a relationship. A neighbor who needs help from his neighbor. A parent who wants to give a gift to their child. For both the neighbor and the parent, the gift is given because of the relationship. You’ll help your neighbor in need because you don’t want your neighbor to think ill of you. You’ll give your child a fish and not a snake because you love your child. And in the same way, prayer is about a relationship with God. Our prayers are not coins we put in a vending machine to get the right results. They are conversations with someone who loves you and wants good for you. They have the intimacy of family love at its best.
Can you remember the last time you talked with someone who loves you? Not someone you love, that’s a little bit different. But someone you are confident loves you. Take a moment and think of a conversation you had with someone who loves you. Maybe it was this morning. Maybe it was ten years ago. But what was it like to talk, to really talk, with someone who loves you? What did it feel like? Were you scared to open up? Or able to trust deeply? Were you confident that you would receive something good from the conversation? Were you comfortable?
Talking with God should hold the best of those feelings for us. Most of us barely know how to pray. And even for the most expert prayers among us, there is always much more to learn. You don’t need to pray too loud – God is closer than you think. But what Jesus taught us was simple. Ask God for what you need for today, and trust God to take care of the rest. Know that your relationship with God and your relationship with your neighbor go together, and hurting one will hurt the other. And know, whenever you pray, however you pray, whether you are using someone else’s words, or your own, or no words at all, that you are talking to someone who loves you.