In our previous post we explored the idea of the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our prayers. This week I’d like to begin taking a closer look at each piece of the Lord’s Prayer, beginning with …
Our Father in heaven.
I don’t think we can begin to appreciate the audacity of addressing God as father. It was foreign to both Jew and pagan alike. Consider the words of King David in Psalm 8:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3)
Have you ever stood under a cloudless night sky and gazed up at the vast number of stars? David, who grew up as a shepherd boy, spent many nights looking up at the countless stars of the Milky Way. The God he worshiped as a Jew was the one God who created the entire universe, who numbered the stars and called them by name. David marvels that the God who created all he could see in the night sky even thought about someone as small as himself. But call him father? I don’t think the thought ever occurred to David. He knew God as shepherd. The nation of Israel knew him as the God of fire and lightning on Mount Sinai, the Savior who parted the Red Sea, inflicted plagues on the Egyptians and brought his people to the Promised Land. Would they have addressed a God of this magnitude as father? It would have struck them as too familiar and yet we are called to address him as father.
Praying to God as our father was unthinkable for pagans as well. If you read Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that the prayer is offered as a contrast to the Lord’s Prayer.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:7)
The pagan way of relating to God is one that tempts us every day. I think it is our default mode of spirituality. The pagan mentality tended to bring the gods down a level so that we could manipulate them for our purposes. The common belief in the ancient near eastern religions was that the gods, while being powerful, were incapable of feeding themselves. You brought sacrifices, not as a plea for the forgiveness of sins, but as a meal. You fed the god and the god was expected to grant your wish. If he or she didn’t come through, you moved on to the next god. Prayer was business, it had nothing to do with the love of a family.
I pray like a pagan all the time. “God, I am in a jam. If you come through for me this one time, I promise to serve you.” The Lord’s Prayer is quite different.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:8)
Prayer, as Jesus teaches us, is an appeal from a child to a perfect father in heaven, in contrast for some to the imperfect fathers we had or didn’t have on earth. A son or daughter does not earn what they need from a loving father, it is given to them because of who they are. If we believed that, would we try to manipulate God with our prayers? Wouldn’t our prayers take on a different tone?
The Lord’s Prayer is more about the posture we assume as we approach our God in prayer and less about the words we recite. Do we approach him as the servant of a needy God who demands his pound of flesh in sacrifices and acts of devotion or do we approach him as a father who if we ask for bread will not give us a scorpion? Will we need to pour out many words in an attempt to get his attention or will we be able to rest in his goodness so that we are able to align our will with his will? It all begins with how we see him. He is “our”, not “mine”, but “our Father”, who is in heaven.