Our Father: Prayer
A Father’s Search
In the Daily Telegraph newspaper (Jan 31st 2011) there was the amazing story of a father’s search for his lost son, which reminded me of God’s search for us.
Ken Thomson’s son was kidnapped by his ex-wife on April 24th 2008 and taken from his home in Australia to somewhere in Europe. Ken spent many months trying to find his son and two years after the abduction moved to Europe in order to intensify the search. Over a three-month period he cycled over four thousand miles whilst using the media and the internet to publicise the search for his son Andrew.
Ken’s search came to an end when a woman in Amsterdam became suspicious about a new mother who turned up to enrol Andrew in a school. She put “missing child Australia” into a search engine and her boss also ran a security check because Andrew’s passport had expired. They found he was featured in more than 180 Interpol alerts. The police were contacted and in late 2010 Ken was able to return to Australia with Andrew.
Man is a lost and often arrogant rebel, yet God still came for us with the Son of God clothing Himself in flesh (Phil 2:5-11) and entering into space and time (Mt 1:23) so that we could find forgiveness and eternal life. This eternal life is a quality of life that comes through a deep abiding relationship with God as our heavenly Father. In Jesus’ fellowship with the Father and reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit we see just what that relationship can be like.
Our own ideas of God may let us down, yet God is much bigger than our ideas and plans, and has never got it wrong concerning our lives. He who paints the dawn and dusk sky with a myriad of colours and sees every sparrow fall to the ground is faithful and knows every hair on our heads. As one man once put it, “Our liberation comes through a person not a system of ideas and principles.”
“He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”
All across history in good times and bad and times of war and of peace, there are many believers who have gone through incredible difficulty and hardship and yet experienced God’s faithfulness as they remain faithful to Him. For example, in China in the 1990’s three Christian men in their seventies were each given a fifteen year prison sentence. A few years after their incarceration they had the opportunity of early release but instead chose to remain in prison because many prisoners were finding Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. We have a heavenly father and He is faithful in all His ways.
“The Lord's loyal kindness never ceases; his compassions never end. They are fresh every morning; your faithfulness is abundant! "My portion is the Lord," I have said to myself, so I will put my hope in him. The Lord is good to those who trust in him, to the one who seeks him. It is good to wait patiently for deliverance from the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.”
Our Father and Prayer
There are those who assume that prayer is simply speaking to God, yet there is more to prayer than this. Prayer isn’t only about speaking to God, because speaking can sometimes be no more than giving our opinion about something or presenting God with a list of all we want Him to do. There are many who talk, but how many of us really engage with God?
The purpose of speech is to inform, but prayer goes deeper than this: the purpose of prayer is to participate in the divine nature. Therefore prayer begins with opening our heart to God as we slow down and focus on who He is and all that He has done.
"Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." Psalm 46:10
Amazing Mercy and Incredible Grace
Prayer is not about just talking to God when we get it right or think we have done well, this being little more than veiled good works. Prayer is about being
open and honest before God, recognising that we are recipients of amazing grace and mercy (Heb 4:16). God’s incredible grace and mercy is seen in the first passage of scripture that mentions the word ‘pray’ – Genesis chapter twenty.
In Genesis 20 we find Abraham passing off his wife as his sister in a bid to protect his life and Sarah ended up in King Abimelech’s harem. Abraham was aware that if Abimelech knew that Sarah was his wife, yet still wanted her, he would probably have killed Abraham, hence the ruse. In seeking to protect his life Abraham effectively reduces his wife to the level of a self-help tool and bargaining chip.
On both occasions it was fear that motivated Abraham, possibly revealing a wavering trust in God and the promises that had been made to him. We can all buckle under stress if we are not careful and old methods of protecting self can quickly rise to the surface and create distance between self and God. Thankfully God is gracious and merciful as Abraham was to find out and as we see so clearly in Jesus Christ.
The pagan king Abimelech, (like Pharaoh before him), was initially unaware of Abraham’s deceit, yet soon realises he is in trouble when God steps in and inflicts illness on his harem. God then speaks to Abimelech in a dream, and it is here that we find the first use of the word ‘pray’ in the Bible (Gen 20:7).
God tells Abimelech to give Sarai back to Abraham because Abraham is a prophet who would then pray for Abimelech so that Abimelech’s life would be spared by God. In working this way God is reminding Abraham of his calling and protecting his life from a king who would otherwise probably have killed him.
On reading this story we can all wonder (if only for a short time) why God didn’t just let Abraham and Sarai reap the harvest of their actions. The answer as to why He didn’t is because God is faithful to His covenant.
At times God will allow us to reap what we sow as a means of discipline and encouragement to learn to walk the right path yet it is up to God as to when and how this occurs. God’s dealings with man do not negate His grace and mercy and neither is holiness and justice overlooked as God reaches in to bring Abraham out of the hole he had dug for himself.
In God’s dealings with Abraham and Abimelech a struggling prophet is reminded of his calling and of God’s amazing grace whilst a pagan King sees grace and mercy and a power that reaches into his harem with judgment and then healing. I wonder what sort of conversation went on in his household that night.
Whilst we cannot use this story as an excuse to do what we like, we can be encouraged and uplifted. We all make mistakes at times yet there is never a time when we cannot come to God in prayer. Whilst we are precious in His sight we are never worthy through our own strength or achievements and our every living moment is an act of His grace and mercy. Despite being those who disturb shalom-peace in His world we are, in Christ, those who are forgiven and blessed.
“In Jesus, God blessed his people by giving them the gift of himself. He kept those who loved him by imprinting his own identity upon their lives (see John 17:11-12). He shone his face upon his followers – not only by giving them his love, but also by giving them a glimpse of his glory on the mountain, where his face ‘shone like the sun’ (Mat 17:2). And he gave peace – not peace like the world offers, but the perfect contentment, the shalom of his own presence (see John 14:27). In Jesus, the living God blessed his people, kept them, caused his countenance to shine favourably upon them, and offered them grace and peace – forever."
T.P. Jones in, Praying Like the Jew, Jesus, page 117.
Our Father is, ‘Abba Father’
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, "Abba, Father."
Whilst the Greek word for ‘father’ can refer to either a gentle or a severe father, the Hebrew term ‘Abba’ only speaks of care and concern which is why Paul uses it in the above verse and Gal 4:6.
The two Hebrew letters making up the word, ‘Abba’ (Aleph and Beyt) both have pictures attached to them (as do all letters in the ancient Hebrew alphabet). Together these letters remind us that God is the all-powerful Father who seeks to be with His people as the uplifting presence and strength in the family home. So how do we arrive at this picture?
The Hebrew letter Aleph is a picture of a strong and powerful Ox and in the word ‘Abba’ points to a strong and powerful Father. In the Ancient Near East Oxen would often work in pairs with the stronger Ox leading and guiding the weaker one whilst also taking on the great burden in the work. The yoke (spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30) speaks of God’s perfect law – the Torah with the picture behind ‘Torah’ being of a Father stooping and showing a child the right way to go. The second Hebrew letter in ‘Abba’ is ‘Beyt’ and carries a picture of the floorplan of a tent. Our heavenly father is the One who unites the household of faith. Now let’s put all of this together.
Jesus is the Law-giver who enters space and time in order to stand in the place of the Law-breaker (you and I). He also tells us that those who have seen Him have seen the heart of the Father (John 14:9) whom He spoke about in parables such as the loving father and prodigal sons (Luke 15). Therefore when we see Jesus opening the eyes of the blind, casting out demons, healing the Centurion’s servant and weeping over Jerusalem we see exactly what our Father is like and also exactly what the Holy Spirit is like.
The Holy Spirit is the ‘another’ counsellor (John 14:16) with the word ‘another’ speaking of one who is exactly the same in nature and character as the Father and the Son. In and through the work of the Trinity we are brought into our true home with God as our Father.
“For the Holy Spirit is redemption – continuing redemption within us. Apart from the Holy Spirit the redemption is outside of us – in history in the historical Jesus, but the historical becomes the experiential in the Holy Spirit. The redemption would not be complete unless it became experience. So the last words of Jesus were: “You believe it, now experience it! Lo, I am with you always…”
Dr. S. Jones, Power and Poise, page 64.
Our Father’s willingness to help us
In Luke 11 we find Jesus telling a parable in response to a request made by His disciples who came to Him saying, “Lord teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). Jewish Rabbis often taught their disciples a prayer of their own construction, which, among other things, identified whose disciples they were. This given prayer would be seen by some as a ‘badge of recognition’ or ‘inner circle’ prayer for a select few.
Jesus’ disciples would have been aware of this type of prayer and having seen the miracles that Jesus did and way He lived now wanted an ‘inner circle’ prayer. In what Jesus says to them and then the parable He gives, Jesus points out that there is no such thing.
With God there are no queues when it comes to prayer, no special words that magically get things done and no two-tier system. Prayer is about an open and trusting heart meeting with the One who loves us most. In light of this prayer is about an attitude of heart before it is words that are spoken.
Jesus responds to the disciples request by giving them the same prayer He had given to thousands of others in His message to humanity on a mountainside (Matt 5:1ff). The central theme in His message at that time was, “…be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat 5:48). The word perfect refers to wholeness, maturity and being all that God wants us to be as we learn to live in obedience to Him. It speaks of the pauper coming home and taking his or her rightful place as a son or daughter and the damaged and dysfunctional rebel finding healing and forgiveness. Above all else it speaks of relationship; of the weak growing in the strength of wisdom, knowledge and understanding under the guiding hand of a loving Father.
The picture Jesus paints for His disciples in the parable would be familiar to the disciples because Jewish life is about community and community obligations and not about individuals vying with one another for recognition, position and success. Therefore in the communities in which the disciples lived everyone would be expected to help friends and neighbours look after guests, even if those guests arrived in the middle of the night.
No one likes getting up in the middle of the night to open the door for an unexpected visitor, especially in a small house where the family would usually sleep in one room and therefore across the doorway. Yet you would know your obligations and although tired and not wanting to disturb the family you would get up and help your neighbour. In this case the unexpected visitor needed bread.
In communal living bread would usually be cooked in one or two homes and later distributed. Because of this practice you would know exactly where to go if you suddenly found yourself in need of bread – even at midnight. The cultural norm meant that you would not find it a problem to knock on a neighbour’s door – even in the middle of the night. As already mentioned, the man who had the bread would also be aware of his community responsibilities.
In speaking to the disciples and giving this short parable, Jesus is effectively saying, “How is it that you know your own customs and practices, and can carry them out even when inconvenient, yet don’t seem to know your Father? If you did know your Father you would be confident in your approach to Him. You would know that there is no ‘inner circle prayer’ and that all are welcome before the throne of grace.”
Jesus continues to speak to His disciples and in doing so encourages them to really apply their minds to what He is saying as He says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
Many struggling Christians can read the above words and wonder if they have asked but not knocked or sought, but not really asked because they don’t seem to get answers to prayer. In thinking this way they miss out on an important point. Luke 11:9-10 is in the form of Hebrew poetry, which contains similar ideas (whereas English poetry rhymes) in order to make one point: the need for us to really apply their hearts and minds and think about what we are praying. We need to be remembering who God is, who we are in the Lord and continue to come to Him at all times. From this we see that asking, seeking and knocking are not about intensity of prayer as if this is going to open the door to heaven. If this were so then we would all be saying to someone who is struggling, “you need to pray more intensely” which does little more than add another burden to someone who is already in difficulty. Apart from this if prayer is about intensity then it can seem as if answers come through our efforts and not God’s grace. We need to persevere in prayer recognising His grace and mercy and opening our hearts to Him unreservedly. When we don’t know what to pray or how to pray about a certain situation we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us recognising that God reads our hearts. As Paul says in
Romans 8:26: -
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
God is willing
Having told the disciples to apply their minds to knowing and engaging with God, Jesus then reasons with them in order to help them see how willing God is to give out to His children. Jesus does this by saying…
"Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" Luke 11:11-13
So why is there a contrast made between a fish and a snake and an egg and a scorpion?
If a Jewish father’s son asked him for a fish he would not be given a snake. All snakes can swim and can look like eels which were also regarded as unclean. Neither would a father give his son a scorpion if he asked for an egg. In the Middle East people would know that a rolled-up scorpion looked something like an egg but is most definitely not an egg! A modern day equivalent to the point Jesus is making could be along the lines of “If your son asks for a car because he needs one and you have the means to give him one, you’re not going to end up giving him a toy car?”
Jesus then points out to his hearers that even though they are evil they know how to give good gifts to their children – so how is it that they don’t think their heavenly Father, who is perfect can give abundantly?
To the western mind it can seem incredibly harsh to call the disciples evil because we often relate evil to Satanists, murderers and paedophiles. However, in seeing how the scriptures use the word ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we get a better idea of what is being said.
The word ‘good’ refers to in-covenant living and thinking and speaks of a life receiving grace, mercy and blessing from God. As Jesus says ultimate goodness is found in God alone (Mark 10:18) and in Jesus we have the Good Shepherd (John 10:10) – the real Shepherd of the Covenant.
The word evil, on the other hand, speaks of outside covenant living and wrong thinking – a life of existence rather than of freedom. Evil is dysfunctional, fragmented and harmful and is the fruit of refusing to engage with God. In the disciples attempt to get recognition and an inner circle prayer they were dysfunctional in their thinking. They were in the sphere, so to speak, of ‘outside-covenant thinking,’ and this is why Jesus reasons with them. He is effectively saying, “Look if you are dysfunctional, fragmented people who focus on what is often harmful, yet can still give gifts to your children, how much more willing and able is my Father, who is perfect in every way, to give out of Himself to you?
“…how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" Luke 11:11-13
In saying, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" Jesus is not speaking about God giving particular gifts or set answers to prayer but of giving Himself. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what is or is not happening when we come to pray that we forget this simple truth: God has given Himself to us so that we can give ourselves to Him. We need to focus on Him and not just what we think we need; think of it like this.
Imagine a young person who is going to be walking home late one night in an area that is not always safe. What would you like to give that person? Would you give them a torch or offer to walk with them or pick them up in a car? In a sense we are often more preoccupied with getting the torch instead of getting to know the One who has said He will never leave us or forsake us.
Drawing to a close…
Prayer is not just about talking; it’s about engaging with God who has come to us through the work of Jesus. He willingly gives more of the Holy Spirit to those who engage with Him and ask for His help. The question for us is, do we slow down enough and genuinely seek His leading?
Never lose sight of the fact that your heavenly Father really cares for you and is willing to help you even if it is your fault that you’re in a mess. Don’t give up on your heavenly Father because He never gives up on you. Open your heart to God and be honest with Him because His love, grace and mercy is far greater than any of us can imagine.
Jesus has said that God will do whatever we ask in His name so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. He says we can ask Him for anything and He will do it (John 14:13). A name speaks of the nature and character of that which is named; for example Jesus means ‘Saviour’ and Christ means ‘Anointed One’ and is where the word ‘Messiah’ comes from). From this we see that praying in the name of Jesus is not using ‘in the name of Jesus’ at the end of each prayer or using it as if it were some sort of magical incantation (as the sons of Sceva found out to their cost: Acts 19:14-16).
Praying in the name of Jesus is recognising that we only come to God through what He has done and also means we are doing our best to pray as servant-hearted sons and daughters in seeking His will for our lives. In asking for His help, guidance and more of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we cannot go wrong if our motives are right. We have a heavenly Father who loves us, so be encouraged and ask Him to help all of us really engage with Him in prayer.