It’s sometimes said so quickly that it actually becomes a title for the prayer rather than the content of it. Yet there is so much packed into that short phrase that it deserves a few minutes of our time and meditation.
When Jesus gave this example of prayers to instruct his disciples, it would have sounded unusual, probably uncomfortable and definitely radical. You see, there is no Old Testament context for addressing God in those terms. The men and women on that Galilean hillside would have grown up using the term “Abba” to refer to the one who came home at night after a hard day’s work and led the family in prayer for their evening meal, shared stories around the fire, and tucked them in as the sunlight faded and the stars began to appear. He was the one the boys looked to for their vocational training and the girls saw as an example of what they had to look forward to in a husband. To most Israelites, God was entirely different. Since the time he had revealed himself to their ancestors in smoke and fire on Mount Sinai, God (whose name they would not utter for fear of speaking it vainly) was powerful, holy, and just. God was big. God was king. But outside of a few references to Him being the father of the nation, he was not “Dad.” That is, until Jesus came along. Jesus never spoke to God as anything other than his Father. And now, he welcomes, even instructs his followers to do the same. As we read the New Testament, one of the things that is “New” about it is that Christ Jesus is presented as the Son of God who loves his Father completely, trusts his Father unreservedly and laid down his life so that slaves could become sons and daughters, could receive the spirit of adoption, and begin to call God their Father as well.
Having a new title with which to address God comes with many benefits. Here are four that directly impact our prayers:
1. There is a warmth of familial relationship to the term that ought to be enjoyed
I’ve noticed recently that many conversations initiated by my son start with “Hey dad, when you were little….” or a variant thereof (i.e. “have you ever…” usually followed by a description of eating something gross!). Most of the time, the stories that follow bear some instruction on how he might NOT want to repeat what I had done… As a parent, I enjoy these questions, however silly they may seem. It reveals a desire that he has to know me and it’s a desire I share in those late-night moments after the kids go to bed when my parents are visiting and I have the same opportunity to ask my father what things were like back in “the good old days!”
On the flip side, I know my son. One night, a few years back, some bully at school had been mean. He didn’t want to tell us the details for fear that we might address the issue, bringing embarrassment into the mix. But he didn’t have to tell us something was wrong, Deb and I could read that all over his face. We know our children. We are invested in their victories and in their defeats. We are conscious of their needs and so is our Heavenly Father, as Jesus has already alluded to in verse 8- “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
2. There is a personal value we ought to sense in this and grant toward others.
As George Beverly Shea puts it in the hymn The Wonder of it All, we also wonder “just to think that God loves me.” It should not puff us up, but we should sense the great value that God places on his children. ALL his children. John, reminds us (1 John 4:7-12) that those who were born of God understand what love is. We’ve seen it first-hand in our own lives. “If God so loved us,” he naturally concludes, “we also ought to love one another.” This transformation in our Christian relationships: selflessly setting aside things that cause division, using our gifts to serve one another, choosing to overlook offenses, etc. has a direct connection to God’s own nature being reflected in us.
3. There is a reflection we ought to strive for
In Romans 8, we read similar words about how normal and natural it is for those who have become children to cry “Abba! Father!” in our spirits to God (v.15). The context reminds us that this wasn’t always the case. We used to be slaves, debtors to live for the flesh. Those who are sons of God, he says, are now led by the Spirit of God, and we put to death the deeds of the flesh. (v.13-14) and become like our Father.
4. And we ought to do this alongside our siblings.
Notice how Jesus begins the prayer with the plural “Our Father.” Is that the way you typically phrase it when talking with God in solitude? If not, then what is the implication? Is it not that the person praying would be in the company of other “family members”? Jesus is affirming the unity that we enjoy standing on this common ground before Heaven. Certainly that includes the benefits of praying FOR one another given our equal access to the Father. But He is also affirming the need to pray WITH one another.
When was the last time you prayed with someone else, or prayed over them, laying your hand on them and praying for them in their presence?
In his book “Dark Clouds, Deep Mercies,” Pastor Mark Vroegop speaks of a difficult time in their family after losing an infant in the womb. Their next pregnancy was a time of battling great fear and worry. He writes:
“A pastor named Bernie placed his thick hand on my chest. He prayed with bold confidence: ‘God, I call on you to give strength to my brother!’…. As I was circled by these pastors in prayer, something happened in my soul. Bernie’s prayer was filled with such confidence in the Lord… My fear didn’t vanish, but Bernie’s confidence in God became mine.”