This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(120) Q. Why has Christ commanded us to address God as “our Father”?
A. To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer what should be basic to our prayer—a childlike reverence and trust that through Christ God has become our Father, and will much less refuse to give us what we ask in faith than will our parents refuse us the things of this life.
(121) Q. Why the words “who is in heaven”?
A. These words teach us not to think of God’s heavenly majesty in an earthly way,and to expect from his almighty power everything needed for body and soul.
Is there a right way to begin a prayer? To ask it differently, is there a proper way to think about God when we pray? According to Jesus there is. When the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), Jesus didn’t just teach them a prayer, he taught them how to pray. The beginning of his prayer is a lesson on how to approach God.
Jesus’s lesson on the right way to start a prayer could be summarized by two words: reverent familiarity. Familiarity is closeness, even intimacy. Reverence is respect, even awe. And we need both.
Familiarity in Prayer
Why does familiarity matter?
“Child-like reverence and trust” are “basic to our prayer.” Young children suppose that their parents can do no wrong. Children trust their parents in matters vastly beyond their understanding. Adoring, trusting children can teach believers how to approach God. But God’s Son is the perfect model of childlike reverence and trust.” Jesus revered his “Holy Father” (John 17:11). He also trusted him. He knew God loved him (John 10:17) so he honored his will even when it was scary (Matt. 26:39). In contrast to the Old Testament’s rare description of God as Father, Jesus taught his disciples to know God as their personal, loving, providing Father. His Father was their Father (John 20:17).
How is familiarity possible?
Jesus doesn’t want us to imagine God as a father whom we must revere and trust. He wants us to know that by faith he is our Father. “Through Christ God has become our Father.” Jesus’s atonement and the Spirit’s personal renewing work make sinners into sons. In every prayer of Jesus in the Gospels he addresses God as “Father”—with one exception, when he cried from the cross as he was being rejected by God to make us accepted by him.[i] The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead also dwells in those who trust in him (Rom. 8:11; Luke 11:13). As adopted sons and daughters we, with Jesus, can cry out to God, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). We are joint-heirs with Christ and have full legal rights to seek personal help from the God who made heaven and earth.
As our Father, God is much more trustworthy than any earthly parent. Because God cares about us, we can pray with confidence no matter what it is we have to tell him. We don’t have to use special words to make God interested in our prayers; he’s absolutely interested already! He knows what we need even before we ask him. It’s infinitely more likely for a woman to forget her nursing child than for God to forget his children (Isa. 49:15). He has sworn himself to our care: “I will lift My hand in an oath” to care for my people” (49:22 NKJ). God “will much less refuse to give us what we ask in faith than will our parents refuse us the things of this life.” God takes his fatherhood more seriously than any human father does. When I return from a trip, my wife sometimes reminds me, “Time to start doing dad things again.” God never has to be told this.
“Father” is a term of endearment, closeness, and approachability. We need it. To truly pray we must know that we’re not appealing to a stranger, much less to an enemy. God is not far from us or inaccessible to us. “We are not bowing before a tyrannical despot or distant deity.”[ii] He is our Father.
But lest we grow wrongly familiar with God, Jesus reminds us that he is in heaven.
Reverence in Prayer
God’s heavenliness raises our thoughts of God.
Our Father is not tyrannical or distant. But he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. “‘Am I a God near at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:23–24). We should “not think of God’s heavenly majesty in an earthly way.” In our communion with God, we must never forget that he is a consuming fire, deserving “reverence and awe” (Heb. 13:29). We must remember that our loving, gracious Father is a violent warrior (Ps. 68:1–6). He isn’t domesticated. But he is good. And that is just the God we need.
God’s heavenliness reminds us of his almighty power.
It’s all very well to have an approachable, loving father. But if he is a poor, old, sick man, he will be of little help. God isn’t like that. God is both our Father and the Lord of heaven and earth. God is rich. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10). He has more than abundant resources to meet our needs. Because of God’s “heavenly majesty,” we can have confidence that his riches and power are advantages to us. He created all things and rules over all things from heaven. Everything is at his disposal. And he bestows “his riches on all who call on him” (Rom. 10:12). Nothing stops God’s plan to restore the eternal fortunes of his children. God is so great that he can even use tribulations, persecution, and famine to demonstrate his love to his children (Rom. 8:35).
Of course, God could easily care for us apart from prayer. But God teaches us to pray so that when our prayers are answered he will get the credit. By hearing our prayers, “he may the better prove his love toward us.”[iii]
At the “very beginning of our prayer” we need to approach God as children of a good Father. The introduction to the Lord’s Prayer does at least three things. First, it frames the relationship between ourselves and God—for believers he truly is our Father in heaven. Second, it teaches us to approach him in a way consistent with the relationship—with a reverent familiarity. Believers must not approach God casually; he is holy. We must not approach him cautiously; he is our Father. Third, it reminds us of what we can expect from God. And it is impossible to expect too much. We can always count on him to do what is best for us.
Prayer is not a kind of mental journaling. When we pray, we’re not just giving words to our worries and our desires. We are approaching the throne of the “God that made the world and all things therein” (Acts 17:24; KJV), who is also our Father.
[i] Fred Klooster, Our Only Comfort, 2.1075.
[ii] Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 216.
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.3.