Speaking of God

prayingWhen I was a pastor some people addressed me as “Pastor.” Others called me “Pastor John.” Some called me “Preacher” and a few referred to me as “Reverend.” If they asked what I preferred, I usually said, “My friends call me John.” But what about God? How should we address Him? Sir? Your Majesty? Some other title? He has several in Scripture. Jesus reveals the answer in the opening to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9: “This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven….”

Jesus frames our conversation with God in terms of relationship. Speaking of God this way was not something new. God is spoken of as a “Father” in the Old Testament. But there the title generally speaks of His role as creator and deliverer. When Jesus speaks of God as Father in the New Testament He takes it a step further. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to address God as our Father. He teaches us to address God as our Father.

More often than not the thing that shapes our approach to God in prayer is the fact that we want something. It isn’t the only thing we are interested in but it is usually the main thing. It is why we are praying. We are interested in the request itself and the request is certainly not insignificant. But thinking about prayer only in terms of what we want from God can create a problem. Instead of bringing us closer to God, this kind of praying may actually drive us apart.

In his little book How to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “Let us think of our prayers, yours and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love, or something which matters in your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is recollected, in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject of your prayer matters to you.”

It is possible for the subject matter of our prayer–the request itself–to be so important to us that it overshadows God. The solution to this problem is not to set the request aside but to recognize that prayer is more of a relationship than a transaction. Don’t just approach God in prayer. Approach God as Father. Don’t just approach God as a Father. Come to Him as your Father.

Most of the people I know are disappointed with their prayer life. Ask them if they believe in prayer and they will say yes. Ask them if they are good at prayer and they will answer no. Usually we think that the problem lies in the mechanics. We don’t pray well. We don’t pray enough. We don’t stay on task. We get bored or distracted. But the root problem is really one of relationship. It is not that we have forgotten how to pray or even that we have forgotten that we should pray. Our problem is that we lose sight of the One to whom we pray.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke observed that we would all be orphans if it were not for Jesus: “There would be no one to hear us if He had not opened the gates of Heaven. We should all be like sheep gone astray without a shepherd. But now we have a shepherd. Now we have a father. What can ever cast us down, what can ever unhinge us as long as we look into that countenance and as long as we can say in the name of our brother Jesus Christ: Abba Father.”

Lord, I believe…

Prayer is the language
Image by Lel4nd via Flickr

 

 A news item in a recent issue of Christianity Today reported that the Albanian Minister of Culture recently signed an agreement giving legal recognition to 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance. I could not help but smile when I read the report.    

When I was a student in seminary, Albania was the particular focus of prayer in the Student Missions Fellowship. I had never heard of the country before. The president of SMF told us that its chief distinctive was that it was the world’s first officially atheist country. So that year we prayed for Albania.    

I wish I could tell you that I prayed with bold faith and conviction that one day Albania would be open to the gospel. But that would be a lie. I did pray for Albania. And I did ask God to open its doors to the gospel. But I prayed mostly out of a sense of duty. As I recall, my first prayer went something like this: “God, I know you can do anything. But it’s really hard for me to believe that you can do anything with this. Nevertheless, open Albania to the gospel.” In truth, I thought it was highly unlikely that anything would happen as a result of those prayers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.    

Several years after I graduated from seminary and was serving as a pastor in a church in central Illinois, I received a brochure in the mail from a mission organization. Two things about the brochure captured my attention. One was the fact that the mission was looking for farmers. The other was that it wanted to send them to Albania. “Albania?” I wondered. “Isn’t that the country we used to pray about in Student Missions Fellowship?” Our church was in the early stages of its missions program at the time and I passed the brochure on to Dave VanOrman, one of the farmers in the congregation.    

It was a long shot. Dave was a busy farmer. He didn’t seem a likely candidate for this kind of adventure. But to my great surprise, Dave went to Albania. When the trip was over, he immediately bought another plane ticket and went back, this time taking his wife Sarah with him. Then they went back again. And again. Before I knew it, Dave and Sarah had organized the Planter’s Seed Foundation and for years they have been helping Albanian farmers, working with women in the villages and sharing the love of Jesus Christ with young people. Recently the Planter’s Seed Foundation observed its first baptismal celebration. I would never have thought such a thing was possible. Certainly not back in 1985 when the Student Missions Fellowship was praying for Albania.    

So I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that the 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance were given legal recognition this past November. I immediately thought of Dave and Sarah. And of my days as a seminary student, when my prayers for Albania were more like those of the man in Mark 9 who prayed, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” than anything else. Those prayers were as much a confession of my doubt as they were an expression of my faith. The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1). And sometimes the fruit of faith is the substance of things we wouldn’t believe, if we hadn’t seen them with our own eyes. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.    

When the Prayer Matters to Us More Than God

In his little book entitled Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “…it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.” Bloom warns that one of the great dangers we face in this area is the temptation to take an impersonal approach to prayer.

 There are many times when we are ready to pray but we are not ready to receive God. “We want something from Him but Him not at all” Bloom warns. This can be true even of passionate prayer. Bloom asks us to think of those times when our prayers are marked by warmth and intensity. Times when the prayer concerns someone we love or something that matters to us. “Then your heart is open all inner self is recollected in the prayer” Bloom writes. “Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matters of your prayer matters to you.”

 My problem when it comes to prayer isn’t that I have been using the wrong posture or language. It is my angle of vision. I know cognitively that God is one who knows me deeply and personally. He is a God who is acquainted with my thoughts. A God who speaks my language and anticipates my words. This is a God who knows me better than I know myself. And no wonder. This is a God who became flesh and dwelt among us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:12).

But as long as the prayer matters more to me than God does, it will be a failure. I do not necessarily  mean that it will go unanswered. I may receive the thing I request. But in the process I may miss what I need the most. When it comes to prayer we are, as one writer puts it, like children who receive pennies from a father’s hand. Often more interested in the pennies than the hand that offers them.