Category Archives: prayer

Know Your Enemy — and Your Father

The earth can be a dangerous place.  In some places there are animals that will eat people, for example.   One such place is Africa.  In Tanzania people are still regularly attacked and killed by lions.  Some wildlife researchers recently looked into this.  They wanted to see if there were patterns in lion attacks on humans.  Were there more attacks at certain times than others?  They already knew that lions attack mostly at night, but were there times of the month where lions attacked more?  The research showed that most lion attacks on humans occur in the first week following a full moon.  This was important for two reasons. 

First, it demonstrated that the full moon is a reliable indicator of impending danger for people living in close proximity to lions.  It partly explains why there are so many superstitions and customs in connection with a full moon.  But it also and more importantly teaches people who live near lions to take extra pre-cautions right after a full moon.  You don’t let your kids wander outside in the dark after a full moon, for instance.  People are getting educated about how lions behave and, knowing their tactics and typical behaviours, they’re better protected.  Lives will be saved.    

The Bible teaches that Christians have sworn enemies who don’t stop attacking.  One of those enemies is the devil.  We ought never to forget what 1 Peter 5:8 says about this enemy:  he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  He sneaks around and he attempts to frighten us.  He wants to kill us.  Literally 1 Peter 5:8 says that he wants to drink us up.  He wants our blood.  He wants us dead.  Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that he has tactics and typical behaviours.  Just like rural Tanzanians benefit from knowing the behaviour of the lions threatening them, Christians benefit from researching and being aware of Satan’s ways.

Consider the ways in which he tempted our Saviour in Matthew 4.  Jesus was hungry after fasting for forty days.  Satan had a trick in his bag from way back.  Back in the Garden already, he had used food to destroy God’s creature.  He thought this might work again.  He appealed to the appetite of Jesus and urged him to abuse his divine powers to feed himself.  That tactic worked in the Garden, but it failed in the wilderness. 

His next temptation involved the use of the Word of God.  Here again we find a recycled tactic.  Satan had said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  Satan perverted God’s Word and turned it against God’s creature and against God himself.  That tactic worked in the Garden, but it failed in the wilderness. 

The third temptation involved power and the lies it often involves.  Once again, we need to see how Satan isn’t really creative when it comes to his tactics.  He told our first parents that if they would listen, they would be like God.  In the wilderness, Satan attempts a similar lie with Jesus.  He told him he could have power, he could have everything, if only he’d bow the knee and worship Satan.  Again, that lie worked in Eden, but in the Judean desert, the Second Adam stood firm.  He was aware of the lion’s ways. 

This lion is still prowling around today and he still throws the same kinds of temptations at us.  He tells the same kinds of lies.  He knows all our weak spots.  He’s had thousands of years of practice at tempting and turning people against God.  We should not underestimate the deceitfulness of this enemy and his vicious intent on getting his bloody paws on us to finish us off. 

Being aware of him and his ways is only one part of our survival plan here.  We need to cry for help.  Satan is a strong enemy.  And who are we?  We’re weak.  With our own resources, we can’t stand even for a moment against Satan or any other enemy.  We’re like a little child in a Tanzanian village.  Our father has told us to stay inside because it’s just after a full moon.  But we wander out anyway.  The lions are prowling around and they’re looking for some human tenderloin.  A little child is helpless and weak against these lions.  But if he calls for the help of his father, his father will come running with a large calibre rifle and fend off the lions and save his child.  The child can do nothing but call for help.  The powerful father, however, will hear and answer.  He’ll act. 

So it is with us.  Surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction, we need repeatedly to call to our Father God for help.  Without him, we’d invariably go down to defeat.  But when we humbly pray to him, he’ll hear and he’ll uphold and strengthen us by the power of his Holy Spirit.           

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to make it our practice regularly to acknowledge our weakness and our need when we pray.  It’s in the sixth petition:  “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  God wants to hear his children humbly admitting that they are but children, weak and powerless of themselves.  He wants to hear his children praying and asking for the strength to go on to victory in Christ.  We can and should pray frequently in this manner.  I assure you, God will hear your prayer and he’ll give you the help you need.  Your Father will come to your aid and fend off the lions.  The Word of God guarantees and promises us this:  “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honour him” (Ps. 91:15). 

We Distinguish: Essentially/Personally

Theological distinctions matter.  We need them for sound theology.  That theology then goes on to inform how we think and live as Christians.  Today I want to look at a key theological distinction that can have a significant impact on how we pray.

The name “Father” appears in relation to God numerous times in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.   For many Reformed church members, basic Trinitarian theology has been drummed into us from childhood.  We’re taught that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus conditioned, whenever we see the word “Father” in reference to God, we all too quickly conclude that this is speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  This is true with the Old Testament, but also with some key passages in the New Testament.

One of those passages is the Lord’s Prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to begin our prayers by saying, “Our Father in heaven…”  Many conclude that our Lord Jesus is teaching us to address the first person of the Trinity, even to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  After all, it seems obvious:  he uses the word “Father,” and we’ve been conditioned to see God the Father. 

A child or someone immature in the faith can be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion.  But for older and more mature disciples of Christ, familiar with a broader range of teaching in Scripture, this ought not to be.  The reason is that, in the Old Testament context, “Father” is often used to describe God in his unity (Yahweh); it’s used to describe the one true God.  It’s not being used in reference to God the Father as distinct from the Son or the Holy Spirit.  The classic example of this is in Isaiah 9:6 where the child to be born is called, among other things, “Everlasting Father.”  This is a prophecy about Christ’s incarnation.  The second person of the Trinity is denominated “Everlasting Father” by virtue of his divinity.  He can be called that because he is God.

There’s every reason to think that Christ was using the term “Father” in the same way in the Lord’s Prayer.  He was teaching us to pray to God, the one true God, as our Father.  That makes the most sense in that context where our Lord Jesus was speaking to Jews familiar with the Old Testament.  You could think also of Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?” 

To put it in theological terms, we have to distinguish between the uses of the word “Father” in Scripture.  Sometimes it is used personally.  In passages like John 17:2-3, the reference is clearly to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father as distinct from God the Son.  At other times, “Father” is used essentially.  In passages like Isaiah 9:6, the reference is to the Triune God together in his essence.  To determine which is which in any given place requires careful consideration of context.  Specifically, if the context includes references to the other persons of the Trinity, then it is likely the term “Father” is being used personally.  For example, Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There “Father” clearly means the first person of the Trinity.

This is a well-accepted distinction in Reformed theology.  According to Richard Muller (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), you’ll find it used by John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Amandus Polanus, Herman Witsius, and a host of Puritans.  It’s important for us to be aware of it today too, especially since it can inform how we pray.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray to God the Father, but to God as Father.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray only to the person of God the Father to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Saviour’s intent was never to tell us we can’t pray to him or to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, elsewhere in Scripture we do hear believers praying to Christ (e.g. Acts 7:59).  When you understand this distinction, it frees you to do likewise.

What’s the Point of Prayer?

Two Relationship Cripplers

As a pastor one of my chief goals is to see the believers entrusted to my care grow in having a vital relationship with God.  I want to see the people in my church mature in a relationship of fellowship with him.  Growing up in the church or being discipled in the church, there are habits we can pick up that can stand in the way of this growth.  Today I want to look at two “relationship cripplers.”  Both of these have to do with one of the chief ways in which our relationship with God comes to expression on a daily basis:  prayer.  Every healthy relationship includes communication, and prayer is the biblically-ordained means by which we communicate in our relationship with God.

The language we use in prayer reflects how we think about our relationship with God and, to some degree, how that relationship functions.  Specifically, I’m thinking about how we address God in our prayers.  The words we use to address anyone in any relationship often reflect how that relationship works.  For example, husbands and wives often use terms of endearment and this reflects their love for one another.  Now, when it comes to God and how we address him, there are two possible “relationship cripplers.”  There are more, but let’s focus on these two.

Never “Father”

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer as a model.  While there are other many other prayers in Scripture we can learn from, the Christian church has always given pride of place to the prayer which Christ himself taught us.  In that prayer, our Lord taught us to address God like this:  “Our Father in heaven…”  So Jesus taught us that we can pray to God as “our Father.”  Believers are adopted children of God and so they have the inestimable privilege of addressing God as their Father.

Yet when you listen to many Reformed believers pray, they don’t take advantage of this privilege!  Instead, they often default to the more Old Testament way of speaking to God as “Lord.”  Now, there is certainly nothing unbiblical or sinful about addressing God as “Lord.”  Yet Christ taught us “our Father,” and why?  Because he wanted us, when we pray, to remind ourselves that our relationship with God is familial:  he is our Father, we are his children.  When we never use the language taught to us by Jesus, we run the risk of crippling (at least in our experience) the reality of our relationship with God.

“Lord” emphasizes God’s transcendence, his highly exalted majesty.  “Lord” has the tendency to focus on God’s holiness and his distance from sinners.

“Father” emphasizes God’s immanence, his gracious presence and nearness.  “Father” has the tendency to focus on God’s compassion and his love for sinners.

With good reason, then, Jesus taught us to pray “our Father.”  When we do that, we also express something of God’s transcendence (a father is always greater than his children), but when we combine it with “in heaven,” then that emphasis is also explicitly present.  In that you can see the brilliant wisdom of the Lord’s Prayer.  So, think of God as your Father, and use the privilege of addressing him as such.  It will enrich your relationship with him.

Only “Father”

The first crippler is a matter of emphasis; our second is an outright erroneous interpretation of Scripture.  Again, it has to do with the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven.”  There have been some who have argued that when Jesus said to pray “Our Father,” he was teaching us to pray only to the first person of the Trinity.  So, on this interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, Christians are not supposed to pray to Christ or to the Holy Spirit.  We are only to pray to God the Father.  Ironically, often the same people who hold this view are the ones who chronically pray “Lord,” instead of “Father.”

I have discussed this at length before.  Let me just summarize three of the strongest counter-arguments:

  1.  In the original context in which the Lord’s Prayer was taught, Jesus was speaking to Jews who had, at best, a shadowy understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.  No original audience member would have concluded that Jesus was speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, he was using language from the Old Testament that had been used to speak of Yahweh (the one God) as Father (Deut. 32:6, Ex. 4:22-23, Is. 63:16, etc.).
  2. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see several examples of prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ with no indication this is unlawful (Acts 7:59, 2 Cor. 12:8, etc.).
  3. In Ephesians 5, the relationship between Christ and his church is said to be like a marriage relationship.  A relationship in which one party is forbidden to communicate with the other is absurd.

Further, it’s clear in church history that such an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is a quirky outlier.

When we use the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” we are addressing the one Triune God as our heavenly Father — “Yahweh,” if you will.  But this in no way precludes the freedom and privilege Scripture gives us to also speak to the individual persons of the Trinity.  If we have a real relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we ought to be communicating with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we don’t, we run the risk of crippling our relationship by reducing one or more of the persons of the Trinity to an abstract theological concept.  Ask yourself:  why do so many believers refer to the Holy Spirit as “it,” rather than “he”?

There are moments in Christian devotion when it is appropriate to pray to Jesus in particular.  For example, if your personal devotions take you through the gospels where you see the person and work of Christ explicitly on display, it makes good sense to pray to him and praise him for how you see him revealed there.  It makes sense to vocalize your love for Jesus and your praise to him.

There are moments when it’s also appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit.  He is the one who dwells in us and who gives us the strength to hate sin and fight sin.  We ought to plead with him to do his work, to sanctify us, and to help us grow in becoming more like Christ.

A robust Trinitarian spirituality is crippled when we erroneously believe that the line of communication is only open to one person of the Trinity.  This is not biblical and this is not helpful.

So, dear reader, do make use of the privileges Scripture gives us in regard to our relationship with God.  When it comes to prayer, you have the privilege of addressing the one Triune God as your Father.  You also have the privilege and freedom to address each individual person of the Trinity.  When you understand and use both of these privileges, you’ll find that your relationship with God will grow stronger and more meaningful.

New Liturgical Help

One of the challenges faced by pastors is the organization of public prayer.  I have long used a document for myself, Regular Items for Thanksgiving and Intercessory Prayer.  This document has all the regular things which should be remembered in public prayer on the Lord’s Day — at least the ones I could think of (with the help of my elders).  They are organized into eight groups.  The idea is to pray through one group each Lord’s Day.  I typically do this in the second prayer in the PM service.  Using a system like this helps prevent lengthy “around the world” prayers, as well as the neglect of certain matters.  I’m sharing it as a MS Word file so other pastors can modify it for their own purposes.