This post is the first part in a series on Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6, also known as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
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I grew up hearing that God was my “father.” I mean, I already had a father, but God was also my father.
This metaphor about God being “our father” has always been pretty easy for me to connect with. I have a great dad, and we have always been close. So when Sunday school teachers and pastors would tell me that God was like my father, I was cool with it. It made me think of God as a strong, safe, loving presence in my life.
The “God-as-father” language is not quite so accessible for everybody. I’ve even met a few people who say they stopped believing in God because of this very metaphor. “If God is like my father, I don’t want to be anywhere near him,” they say. For some people, the idea of a father reminds them of some of their most fearful, tragic, and unhappy memories.
Not unlike many things in the realm of faith, the language about God being our father serves as a kind of Rorschach test—everyone sees something different when they encounter it.
A major reason we use this language about God is because Jesus used it when he prayed. In Matthew 6, when Jesus teaches his followers how to pray, he begins by saying, “Our Father in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9).
When Jesus prays, he calls God “Father.”
(This is not the only time Jesus does this. He also prays to God as Father in Matthew 11 and John 17)
In calling God Father, Jesus is connecting to two dimension of how we are invited to think about God: Legacy and Intimacy.
Dimension #1: Legacy
In ancient language, the idea of “father” was not limited to the person who helped conceive you. It was much bigger than that.
In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a specific offering that people are instructed to give. Before presenting the offering, they are told to pray a specific prayer. This prayer begins with the phrase “My father was wandering Aramean” and proceeds to briefly tell the story of how the people of Israel became slaves in Egypt before being liberated by God. The story begins hundreds of years before the prayer is given, and yet every person who prays the prayer is told to say “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Of course, the prayer is not telling these two million people that they all have the same biological father and that he is over five hundred years old. No, the word “father” here refers to their common ancestor and the origin of their story.
In the book of John, Jesus gets into a debate with some religious people, and they begin to argue over the notion of “father.”
I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
“Abraham is our father,” they answered.
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things” (John 8:38-40, emphasis mine).
When Jesus and these religious people talk about Abraham (the ancestor of all Hebrew people), they call him their father. Jesus argues that Abraham is not, in fact, their father because they don’t act as if they were Abraham’s “children.”
When Jesus talks about the idea of “father” he speaks in terms of the legacy we have inherited and the story we are participating in.
So perhaps people struggle to identify with God as Father because they have been given a crappy story. Or perhaps people struggle with this language because they don’t feel as if they are connected to something bigger and more profound than themselves.
Jesus calls God Father because he knows his place within the larger story. He is connected to something rich and powerful, and he is drawing from a very deep well.
Dimension #2: Intimacy
When most people talk about God as Father, they are speaking in terms of intimacy. They are pointing out that they feel close to God. I think this is also reflected in Jesus’ prayers.
When Jesus is terrified and in agony, he cries out to God using the Aramaic word Abba, which is a very intimate term for a father. Abba is not merely a word that refers to an ancient ancestor—it is a term of closeness and personal connection. When Jesus calls God Abba, he is expressing that God feels near, or at least that he desperately wants God to feel near.
Later on, when a writer named Paul would try and describe how God interacts with humanity, he would write this:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 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 (Romans 8:14-16).
When Paul talks about God as father, he uses this same intimate word—Abba. He talks about how we are adopted, which was a sacred, irrevocable practice in his world. For Paul, we are God’s children, not merely in the sense that God created us, but that God is aware of us, accepts us, and loves us. For both Jesus and Paul, there is an intimacy to God’s father-ness.
So when Jesus prays to “Our Father in heaven,” he is tapping into something that is at once both enormous in scope and intimate in practice. He is reaching deep into his own story and connecting it to a much larger story while also making a personal connection with God.
Perhaps you feel disconnected from any kind of story or legacy. Perhaps the absence of a father has caused you to ask lots of questions about your own value and significance. If that is your story, Jesus’ prayer reminds us that we are invited to participate in something much larger than we ever thought possible.
When Jesus prays, he prays with an awareness of both legacy and intimacy.
May we find our place in the larger story.
May we draw closer to this God who invites us to call him Father.
Read Part 2.
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Note: If you want to read more about the idea of God as Father, I recommend the following books:
Father Fiction by Donald Miller
Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen