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.
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.
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:
- 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.).
- 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.).
- 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.