Category Archives: 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.


Absurdity

Praying hands

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful.  Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity.  The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus.  Case closed.

However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession.  There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship.  Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  So, if someone says we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences.  There is a lot at stake here.

There are several ways I could address this question.  I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here).  I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20).  I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction.  I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson.  We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church.  We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought.  There are all these different ways of going at this issue.

However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before.  It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church.  We were discussing healthy communication in marriage.  I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church.  The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church.  That relationship is spoken of in marital terms.  How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other!  Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband.  Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him.  We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way.  What healthy relationship only has one-way communication?  We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways.  If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?

As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful.  Think about it.  If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him?  How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak?  How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished?  I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) they may not pray to Jesus.

So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time.  I don’t pray to him all the time.  Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father.  But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times.  I may pray to him in my personal prayers.  I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon).  Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him.  He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.


Eric Liddell and the Transformative Power of Prayer

eric-liddell-400

I quite enjoyed David McCasland’s biography of Eric Liddell.  My generation remembers Liddell because of Chariots of Fire, the somewhat fictionalized account of his go at the 1924 Olympics.  Liddell won gold at the Olympics, despite being challenged to give up his belief in keeping the Lord’s Day holy.  Liddell was a man of Christian convictions.  Following his Olympic triumphs, he became a missionary to China.  The Second World War saw him interned in a Japanese camp.  He died there on February 21, 1945 because of an inoperable brain tumour.

McCasland’s biography includes some snippets of Liddell’s life in the prison camp.  In this excerpt, Liddell taught a powerful truth which many others have discovered:  prayer mysteriously changes the one who prays.

         …when Eric spoke in church or led a Bible study group with them, he rarely dealt with what might happen tomorrow.  Instead, he focused on what could happen today.  During one small group discussion, he read aloud the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:43:  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Then he asked if this was merely an ideal or something practical they could actually do.  Could they love the guards in camp and the Japanese people as a whole?  Most thought it was only a lofty goal.

“I thought so too,” Eric said, “but then I noticed the next words, ‘Pray for them that despitefully use you.”  When we start to pray,” he said, “we become God-centered.  When we hate them we’re self-centered.  We spend a lot of time praying for people we like but we don’t spend much time praying for people we don’t like and people we hate.  But Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.  I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude toward them.  Maybe you’d like to try it too.

Eric Liddell: Pure Gold, David McCasland, page 267.


Calvin’s Prayer Following His Lecture on Ezekiel 3:18-20

John Calvin

This coming Sunday we have the ordination/installation of office bearers at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church.  I plan to preach on the well-known passage of Ezekiel 3:16-21, where the prophet is appointed a watchman over Israel.  As part of my preparation, I was reading John Calvin’s commentary on these verses.  He has some very good insights and application.  However, what really struck me was his prayer.  The material in this commentary was originally delivered in the context of weekday lectures or sermons in Geneva.  Before starting, Calvin typically prayed the following:

Grant us, LORD, to meditate on the heavenly mysteries of your wisdom, with true progress in piety, to your glory, and our edification.  Amen.

Then after each lecture/sermon, he would have a prayer suited to the particular verses he’d been expounding.  The English translation of Thomas Myers (later republished by Baker) includes Calvin’s prayer after Ezekiel 3:18-20.  Unfortunately, it leaves a bit to be desired in terms of readability.  With the help of some friends who are far more proficient at Latin than I am, I hereby offer this improved translation:

O Almighty God,

You appoint the ministers of your doctrine. You raise them up, watchmen over us. You do so on the condition that they be vigilant for our safety. Therefore, grant that we also may be attentive to their instruction, and avoid that double destruction through our own fault, by error and obstinacy. But if we should happen to wander, may we at least, having been held back, come to our senses and so return into the right way, never to desert it again. May we persevere unto the end, that we may eventually enjoy that eternal blessedness which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.