These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
"When you pray, say: 'Father...' "
We won't achieve anything of note or lasting worth but by prayer. Both the Old and New Testaments assure of this reality. When God paints a picture for Solomon of the future troubles Israel will face if they're unfaithful he adds a hope that's conditioned on prayer: "...if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chron. 7.14). James puts it very simply and starkly: "You do not have because you do not ask" (James 4.2).
And yet every Christian experiences the difficulty of prayer. The disciples' question to Jesus makes that clear: "Lord, teach us to pray..." So nothing could be more important than coming back to the Lord's Prayer to teach us once more how to pray.
The moment we start to read the prayer we can't move past the first word, "Father". It's the foundation of the prayer, and should be the foundation of your prayer life. As JI Packer put it,
"If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God's child, and having God as Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means he does not understand Christianity very well at all... 'Father' is the Christian name for God."
There are a number of approaches we can take to understanding the Fatherhood of God.
1. God is your Father because he designed and made you
We have to begin at creation. There is a sense in which all humanity should know God as Father. Adam is called the "son of God" (Luke 3.38), and by extension we are all God's children. And as such, we discover that God takes a very special interest in us:
"You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether."
But this is more than a detached interest; God looks with admiration on his creatures, and on us humans in particular. The Psalmist goes on:
"For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth."
This is important as a place to begin in prayer because we might think that God is far away and uninterested because of his great transcendence. He's far, far above us, it's true. But the Bible shows us God's personal interest in you. He made you according to his plan and design. It means that we can approach him unmasked since he knows us better than we know ourselves. There is something so freeing about this knowledge in prayer, that your maker cares about you as his creature, as his child. And he's not surprised by your failings since "he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103.14); he remembers, of course, because he made us from the dust.
2. God is your Father because he chose, adopted, and loves you
The NT goes much further and deeper in showing the special relationship God has with those who are part of his kingdom, his family.
It begins with God's call of you by name. The Scriptures are clear in showing that you did not find God, he found you. In fact, he called you from before you were born (Eph 1.4). We might ask, why me? And if we could pin it down to any one thing in us – any aspect of our lives or character that make us suitable choices – then we would face two problems: First, we would be able to boast about why God chose us. Second, we would always be in danger of losing the thing that qualified us in the first place. But God's choice of us is never explained and that is profoundly comforting. It means his love is unconditional in that it's not conditioned on your worthiness or suitability. And all of this has huge implications for our understanding of prayer because if he called you then you are not imposing anything on him when you come to him in prayer, like an unwelcome guest at a dinner party. He issued the invitation after all! And he's not going to change his mind or reject you.
But it goes deeper still as we discover the New Testament doctrine of adoption. While all people are God's children in the general creation sense, they are also called "sons of disobedience" and "children of wrath" (Eph. 2.1–4), and as such we're born alienated from God (Eph. 2.12). But when God saves us he takes away our sin (justification) and then brings us into his family (adoption). Packer writes:
"Justification is the primary blessing, because it meets our primary spiritual need. We all stand by nature under God's judgment; his law condemns us; guilt gnaws at us, making us restless, miserable and in our lucid moments afraid; we have no peace in ourselves because we have no peace with our Maker. So we need the forgiveness of our sins... But this is not to say that justification is the highest blessing of the gospel. Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves... Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater."
And so in adoption we discover the loving care of a Father, and that entirely reframes the way we pray. How do we experience God's loving care? Sometimes through discipline and chastisement. Always through provision, since an earthly father who doesn't provide has "denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5.8), how much more will God provide! We experience his love in protection: "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121). And, perhaps most powerfully, we experience his love by his very presence. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray he goes on to say this:
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
His point is this: God is not going to withhold his presence from his children if they ask. God wants you to know his nearness in increasing measure. His love for you ought to be felt.
3. God is your Father because he hid you in the Son
While Jesus is called the "beloved" you might think there's no way God could love us since our older brother is so much superior to us! But part of the mystery of salvation is that we become joined to Jesus – we die with him, get buried with him, raised with him, and now our life is hidden with him in God (see passages like Romans 6.1-4 and Colossians 3.3). This is called Union with Christ.
How does this affect the way we pray? It means that there's a sense in which, as you approach God in prayer, it's not really you that God sees, but rather he sees Jesus. I like to think of the story in Genesis 27 where Isaac ends up blessing Jacob instead of Esau. Jacob is able to trick his blind old father by putting on Esau's cloak and putting animal skin on the back of his hands. Isaac then smells Esau, and feels the hairy hands and assumes it must be Esau. In a similar way as we approach God we're hidden in Christ; it's as though we smell like Jesus! So all of our unworthiness becomes irrelevant as God treats us like Jesus.
As you learn to pray you are learning to relate to God as Father. This is foundational. It means he is always seeking your good, and loves you unconditionally.