Tag Archives: prayer to Jesus

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.


Paul’s Thorn and Prayer

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

This piece of Scripture often gets discussed because of the “thorn” Paul mentions.  Bible readers are interested in understanding what exactly this “thorn” was.  There are all sorts of theories, but they’re all speculative.  The truth is we have no idea what exactly it was that God sent to Paul to keep him humble.

More important than the exact identity of the “thorn” is the fact that God sends it.  He sent something to Paul which he perceived as difficult, as an adversity.  God had a purpose behind it, but Paul experienced it as something that he would rather do without.  Believers have no difficulty believing that God sends the things we experience as delightful and good.  The challenge is believing that God also sends hardship.  Yet Scripture teaches that, not just once, but repeatedly:  Isaiah 45:7, Lam. 3:28, Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 71:20, Psalm 102:10 and many more places.

In this case, Paul struggled with why he had to deal with this adversity.  So he prayed.  Interestingly, he says that he prayed “to the Lord” about this.  From what follows in verses 9 and 10, it’s clear that this is a reference to Christ.  Paul prayed to Christ, not just once, but three times about his “thorn.”  There are those who continue to argue that believers may not pray to Jesus.  Instead, they say, we must only pray to God the Father (the first person of the Trinity).  That argument is based on a misunderstanding of the address of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who is in heaven…”  It misunderstands “Father” there to be a reference to the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, “Father” is used there in the Old Testament manner of speaking as a reference to God.  If Christians are only supposed to pray to the first person of the Trinity, then, to be consistent, one must conclude that Paul sinned here in 2 Corinthians 12.  However, the fact that the Lord Jesus heard him and answered him would indicate that there was nothing inappropriate in Paul’s prayer.  It was acceptable for him to pray to the Lord Jesus — and so it is for believers today as well.

The answer Paul received from Jesus is also worth pondering:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Surprisingly, weakness is the way God has often worked.  In the Old Testament, he takes the runt and makes him a leader.  You can think of Gideon or David.  In the New Testament, this principle is exemplified at the cross.  What could be weaker than a naked dying man on a Roman instrument of torture reserved for criminals?  Christ himself exemplified the principle of power made perfect in weakness.  Now he speaks to one united to him and says that he is experiencing the same.  Just as with the cross, there is a goal in the weakness.  There is a purpose in the thorn.  And there is enough divine grace from the Saviour to see it properly and endure it contentedly.

Does it really matter, then, what the “thorn” was?  Obviously it was something difficult.  Yet the Spirit, in his wisdom, hid it from our view.  The situation is comparable to many of the Psalms.  Many of the Psalms are laments — they feature the psalmist singing the blues.  Some of the lament Psalms are tied to concrete historical situations, but many are not.  There too, the Spirit has hid the circumstances from view, reminding us that there is a timeless quality to these words.  The words of Scripture in these cases can and should be easily “universalized.”  As we suffer adversities and hardships, these passages of Scripture can help us with the right perspective.  We too can learn contentment in the midst of difficulty, knowing that God’s strength comes in weakness.


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.


Tim Keller on Prayer Directly to Jesus

Tim Keller

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a Tim Keller “fanboy.”  He has his devotees — those for whom the man can say and do no wrong.  I have been critical about Keller’s approach to apologetics and his views on creation, especially his openness to theistic evolution.  However, I recognize that Keller is helpful in some areas.  I recently started reading his book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.  I’m about half-way through and, so far, I am impressed.  As an example, in chapter 9, he deals with the question:  “Are we to pray only to the Father and not to the Son or to the Spirit?”  Here’s his answer:

Jesus invites his disciples to pray to him (John 14:13-14, Matt. 11:28).  Nevertheless, Jesus also taught his disciples to pray to our Father, and while we are not bound to the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer, that initial direction must be taken seriously.  Only three times after Jesus’ ascension — in the rest of the New Testament — is prayer addressed directly to Jesus.  In the vast majority of cases, prayer is addressed to the Father.  While it is not at all improper to address the Son or the Spirit, ordinarily prayer will be addressed to the Father with gratitude to the Son and dependence on the Spirit.  Packer uses an interesting rule of thumb.  “I pray to the Father through the mediation of the Son and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.  I may speak also to the Son and the Spirit directly when this is appropriate: that is, when I am praying about something that Scripture specified as the direct concern of either.” (125-126)

In other words, our normal practice will be to pray to God as Father, but we have the freedom to address each of the persons of the Trinity as well.  To forbid such a thing goes beyond what Scripture teaches.  I fully agree — you can read more here.


Even the Arians Prayed to Christ

I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of early church history with the help of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition.  In chapter 4, he tackles the Arian controversy.  As is well-known, the Arians denied the divinity of Christ.  They maintained that he was merely a creature and therefore subordinate to the Father.  Interestingly, the Arians failed to carry through with the logical consequences of their view.  Together with the orthodox in the church, they continued to pray to Christ.  Says Pelikan, “The Arians found prayer to the Logos an unavoidable element of Christian worship” (Pelikan, 199).  The Arians continued to worship Christ, even praying to him, all the while arguing that he was less than God.  There was an inconsistency between their dogmatic principle and liturgical practice.  However, Pelikan also notes that some of the Arians may have revised the Gloria Patri in an effort to be more consistent.  The orthodox form of the Gloria Patria, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…”  The Arian revision read, “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit…”