Lesson 6: Petition, Part 1 (Praying to My Father)
As most of you know, for the past five weeks, we’ve been studying prayer. So far, we’ve talked about prayer in general, and praise and repentance specifically. This week, we’ll begin discussing petition.
This is where things can get interesting. Not that the past five weeks have been boring (at least I hope they haven’t), but I’m discovering that most of the difficult questions regarding prayer have to do with petition. This past week in my studies, I felt like I had stepped off into the deep end of the pool. There are so many questions! “What should I pray for?” “Is it okay to pray for tangible things as well as spiritual needs?” “Should I pray for people to get saved?” “What if God doesn’t answer my prayer? Should I keep praying, or should I stop?” “What role does the Holy Spirit play in prayer?” Or how about this one: “If God is sovereign, does prayer really change anything?” How many of you have asked one of those questions before? Put your hand down in you’re no longer curious about any of those topics.
You see, there is a lot here for us to discuss; but remember, our study is specifically about prayer and my heart. That’s the focus. That said, I am committed to answering those questions, even if we don’t dwell on them for a long period of time. Whatever questions I don’t get to in the next couple of weeks, we’ll cover in our last lesson, which will probably be on July 23rd. So, hang on to those questions; we’ll get to them eventually.
Viewing God as My Father
Today, I’d like to focus specifically on viewing God as my Father. You say, “Pastor Kris, how are you going to spend forty-five minutes talking about that?” Watch me. All joking aside, this topic is so important that I think it deserves its own lesson in an eight-week series on prayer. Hopefully, by the time I’m done, you’ll agree.
Jesus And His Father
Every Christian author who writes a book about prayer talks about the Lord’s Prayer. And rightly so, because the prayer is intended to be a pattern for us to follow. In Matthew 6:9, Jesus said, “In this manner, therefore, pray." So, what can we learn about prayer from the Lord's Prayer? Well, first, we learn that God wants us to view Him as our Father, because He is our Father. He starts out, “Our Father in heaven.”
That phrase is very significant. Old Testament Jews didn’t pray to God as “Father.” A famous Bible scholar named Joachim Jeremias conducted a study of the Old Testament and other Jewish writings and concluded that there is not a single example of a Jewish writer addressing God directly as “Father” until the 10th century AD! Now, other scholars since then have come along and said, “Well… he may have overstated the case”; however, generally speaking, they agree that Jeremias was exactly right—Jews did not address God in prayer as “Father.” To them, that was way too personal.
Jesus, however, was different. When we examine His prayers, we find that there was only one time He didn’t address God as “Father.” Do you know when that was? It was when He prayed on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me”! Were the Jews comfortable with Jesus’ sense of familiarity with God the Father? No! According to John 5:18, they sought to kill Him because He “said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.”
What Right Have I to Call Him "Father"?
Now, Jesus obviously has all the right to call God “Father.” After all, He is the “only begotten Son.” But what about us? As we read the Bible, the amazing thing we discover is that Jesus wants us to call God “Father,” too! What right have we to address God like that? There are two theological answers to that question: “regeneration” and “adoption,” and both of those words have to do with our salvation.
We don’t have time for a theology class this morning, but we can summarize a bunch of biblical material and say that “regeneration” means that I am born again into God’s family and that “adoption” means that I have all the rights and privileges of sonship. Regeneration is one of John’s favorite themes. We talked about it a lot when we studied his gospel. Adoption is more of a Pauline focus. Paul talks about adoption in Galatians 4 and Romans 8. He says that we “received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” and that “we are heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” If those truths don’t get you excited, there’s something wrong with you! Not only were you born into God’s family, He also adopted you! Does that seem like overkill? It just goes to show the kind of relationship God desires to have with us. “We who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ!”
What does this mean in terms of my prayer life? It means that I ought to approach God with a sense of familiarity. What? A sense of familiarity? Yes, that’s right, because God is not just the King of the world; He’s also my Father. I’m sure most if not all of you have seen this famous picture of John F. Kennedy. It was so striking at the time it was taken because J.F.K. was the first President in many decades to have small children in the home. Of course, where is the picture taken? It was in the Oval Office, of course. The Oval Office is completely off limits to the public. Even to get a tour of the West Wing, you must be a select VIP and go through a rigorous screening process, and even then, the Oval Office is strictly off limits. You can look inside, but you may not enter. So how on earth does little John Jr. find himself playing under the Resolute Desk? His daddy’s the President.
This picture is an excellent illustration of our relationship with God. Because of Jesus, we have access to a place far more exclusive than the Oval Office. We have access to the throne room of heaven! Not only that, but our access is unlimited! J.F.K. could take a little time out of his day to play with his kids, but then he had to get back to work! God, on the other hand, tells us to come whenever we want, and promises to give us His full attention. Why? Because we are great and powerful angels? No, because we're His kids. These are kinds of truths that make angels scratch their heads. Why would God invite tiny, insignificant, smelly, sinful little people like us into His presence? And yet, He does!
How Do Children Relate to Their Dads?
One of the reasons I like to use this picture as an illustration is because we are supposed to relate to God not just as children, but as little children. Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” In a good home situation, how do little children relate to their daddies? I came up with three points about how kids relate to their dads.
First, children are attracted to their dads; they love them and want to be close to them. One of the things that warms my heart as a dad heart is seeing my daughters’ excitement when I come home from work. Before pulling into the driveway, I usually stop across the street to pick up the mail. When I look over at the house, Anaya’s little head is usually there in the window, watching for me. Her eyes light up when she sees my truck, and by the time I get out of the car, both girls are often in the driveway waiting for me.
Why do little kids do that? They just do. That’s how God made them. They love their parents. When they fall down and skin their knee, what do they do? They run to Mommy or Daddy. Parents of little children know that they don’t have to set their alarms in the morning. Why? Because when their kids wake up, the first thing they do is run to Mommy and Daddy’s room. What would you think if an adult acted like a little child in that respect? What if you spent the night in my guest room, and as soon as I woke up in the morning, I jumped out of bed, ran full-blast to your room, and started banging on the door. “Wake up! Wake up! It’s morning time!” And then, of course, I wouldn’t wait for you to answer; I’d just walk right in, get as close to your face as possible, and start pulling on the blankets. “Hello! Wake up!” I’m sure you’d never spend the night at my house again! But isn’t that just how kids are? They love their parents.
Second, kids are humble. Have you ever noticed that? They have no inhibitions. They aren’t self-conscious. When they’re happy, they just sing. In fact, they sometimes make up their own songs spontaneously and sing them at the top of their lungs! Again, what if adults did this? “I’m shopping, at the mall! I love shopping, at the mall! I love shopping, and when I’m done, I’m going to get a milkshake!” “Stay away from that guy!” Right? But kids don’t care. They haven’t learned to be self-conscious. Now, give them a few years, and they’ll care a whole lot about what people think when they become teenagers. But as kids, that’s not really on their radar.
We must learn to approach God with child-like humility. Nothing will kill your prayer life like pride. Remember James 4:6? “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” God refuses to interact with proud people; He pushes them away.
When I think of a humble person, I think of King David. Do you remember when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem? Not the first time, when Uzzah was struck dead, but the second time. The Bible says that in the process of worshipping God, “David danced before the LORD with all his might.” There was a sense of self-forgetfulness about Him as He focused completely upon the LORD. Did Michael his wife like this? No, the Bible says that when she looked through a window and saw David leaping and whirling before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. Later on, when David returned home, Michael accused him of wrong motives and of acting indecently. But David didn’t back down. He said that he was willing to become even more undignified, if necessary, to honor the LORD. He would even allow himself to be humiliated.
Then, of course, there was the time that David sinned with Bathsheba. When he finally got right with the Lord, he not only confessed his sins to God, but also wrote two hymns about the situation and published them for all of Israel to sing! Talk about humility! That’s why David was a man after God’s own heart. If you want a vibrant prayer life, you must learn to approach God with child-like humility.
Number three, kids trust their dads. There’s a funny story in one of the counseling books I read in seminary. The author of the book is a seminary professor with two boys. One day, when they were young, the boys were playing in the backyard; and as boys often do, they got too rough, and one of them got hurt. So, the other boy comes running into the house, “Dad, dad, come quick! Johnny’s hurt really bad!!” So, the professor comes running out of the house, and as he makes his way across the backyard, he begins to assess the situation. Johnny certainly is hurt. There’s lots of blood. But oddly enough, he’s not crying! Instead, he’s saying something to himself over and over again. Finally, when he gets close enough, he realizes what his son is saying. “At least my dad’s a doctor! At least my dad’s doctor! At least my dad’s a doctor!”
What a perfect picture of child-like faith! Of course, the funny thing is that his dad was a PhD—not a medical doctor! He had no idea how to fix a broken arm or sew stitches! The best thing he can do is say, “Everyone in the van! We’re headed to the emergency room!” But in that little boy’s mind, he’s thinking, “My dad’s a doctor; he can fix this!” Of course, our heavenly Father is infinite in power and resources. He really can fix anything! So, the next time you face a trial, say to yourself, “It’s going to be okay. I know my Dad can fix this.”
So, let’s get practical. How does viewing God as your Father change the way you pray?
First, it helps us to avoid “vain repetitions.” Turn to Matthew 6:7-8. In this passage, Jesus is teaching on prayer. First, He says not to pray for show, but for God. He says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites, who love to pray ostentatiously, to receive glory from men.” He says, “I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get.” But then He says, “Don’t pray like the Gentiles, who use vain repetitions.” In Greek, “vain repetitions” is one word that literally means “stammer” or “babble.” “When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles do.” What is Jesus talking about? Well, the pagan gods were construed as aloof and immoral. They often took no notice of men; and even if they did notice, they probably didn’t care. When Gentiles prayed to gods like these, their goals were 1) to get the god’s attention, 2) to inform him of the situation, and 3) to badger, manipulate, or appease him, so that he’d answer the request. A perfect example of this is the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. But Jesus knew that God’s people are also prone to slip into this way of thinking. That’s why He said, “Don’t pray like the Gentiles.” This isn’t a command for pagans, it’s a command for saints. We too, are liable to slip into vain repetitions when we forget that we’re talking to our Father.
I’ll give you a couple of illustrations of vain repetitions in my prayer life. My wife and I have a habit of praying every night before bed. And for years, we’d pray every night for the salvation of 8-10 loved ones. “Lord, I pray that You’d save... and I would list all of their names in order. I got very “good” at reciting that list, but often put very little thought into it. I wonder what God would say if He was sitting right there. “Kristopher, what are you doing? Hello, I’m right here! Why are you reading me that list?” Not that it’s bad to pray for those people, but it was almost like I thought that if I skipped one night, I would be neglecting my duty, and would be less likely to get results. But that’s not how it works in our other relationships! God is your Father! He knows what you want, and He’ll always do what’s best for you. So, yes, pray for those people every time they’re on your heart. But don’t think there’s something magical about saying the words.
There have been other times that I really wanted God to do something, so I’d sort of work myself up, and ask for it over and over again. “God, please do this.” “God, You’ve got to do this.” “Lord, do this.” “God, answer my prayer.” Now, there are times where something is so heavy on our hearts that we just go to God and beg Him to answer. That’s what Hannah did when she prayed for a son. But don’t think that if you sort of work yourself up and repeat yourself dozens of times, you’re more likely to get an answer. That’s not a biblical way to pray. That’s more like what the prophets of Baal did on Mt. Carmel. If you wanted something from your dad, you wouldn’t ask like that! So don’t approach your heavenly Father that way! I know it sounds cliché, but just talk to Him like He’s right there—because He is—and tell Him what’s on your heart. If your prayer sounds unnatural, you’re probably not doing it right.
Viewing God as my Father also gives me boldness. Turn to Luke 11. This is the passage in Luke where Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer. After He’s done, He also gives a parable about prayer (Luke 11:5-8). This is a fascinating parable! It starts with a rhetorical question. In fact, the entire parable is a rhetorical question (11:5-6)! So, here’s the situation: a friend shows up at your house late at night, unexpectedly, and you haven’t been to the grocery store. You’ve got nothing to feed him. So, you knock on your neighbor’s door and ask for three small loaves of bread. Jesus asks, “What’s he going to say—no? I know, he’s going to say, ‘Go away! My kids are trying to sleep!’” (Jesus’ audience is probably chuckling at this point because they know that according to Jewish custom, that is not what the neighbor is going to say. He may want to say that, but he won’t.) Instead, he’ll rise and give him the food. Why? Because their friendship is so deep and his heart has been warmed? Actually, Jesus says that’s it’s just because of his neighbor’s boldness. “Even if he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, at least because of his shamelessness [that’s the idea there], he will rise and give him as many as he needs.”
Now, just to clarify, there are a couple of ways to take this parable. Some people assume that the man at the door is initially rejected, but that he keeps knocking and asking until his neighbor gives him the bread. However, I think it’s better to take verse 8 as a statement that has to do with motivation. The understood answer to the question Jesus poses in vv. 5-8 is “No one would be grumpy enough to turn down that request!” And then Jesus says, “Right. Even if not on the basis of friendship, the neighbor would give his friend the loaves just because he asked.” In other words, the parable is about boldness, not persistence.
Then look at how Jesus applies the parable (vv. 9-13). The point is this: “if even a grumpy neighbor responds to shameless boldness or “importunity” (as the KJV calls it), how much more will our heavenly Father respond to the same?” So, ask God for things! You don’t have to apologize, like, “Hello, God. It’s me again. Listen, I know you’re terribly busy and I’m sorry to intrude, but if I could just have a minute of Your time. I’ll try to keep this brief.” That’s not how God wants us to pray! After all, He’s your father! He wants to give you good things! If you ask for a fish, He’s not going to give you a snake. If you ask for an egg, He’s not going to give you a scorpion! Also, you’re not going to offend Him. He expects you to ask! So, knock on His door at midnight and tell Him what You need!
What About When God Says "No"?
Before I move on to my conclusion, I should say this. One of the ways a father demonstrates love for his children is by denying some of their requests. If my daughters ask for ice cream for breakfast, I’m going to say “no.” If I’m taking prescription medicine, and Felicity thinks it’s candy and asks, “Can I have some, too?” I’m going to say “no.” If my daughters want to go play at someone’s house and I’m very uncomfortable about one of the family members, I’m going to say “no.”
It’s the same way with God. Have you heard the saying, “Be careful what you ask for cause you just might get it”? I don’t like that saying. It’s not consistent with the character of God. “Felicity, you really want some of this prescription medicine? Well, you asked for it!” Parents get thrown in prison for stuff like that! So what makes you think God would act that way? He won’t. And I’m so glad!
If God answered all of my prayers, I’d be terrified to pray! What if I ask for something dangerous? How am I supposed to know what’s going to hurt me? In Genesis 17, Abraham prayed that God would make Ishmael the child of promise. Can you imagine if God had answered that prayer? Isaac would never have been born. We should be thankful that sometimes, God says, “no.” Will my daughters always understand why I don’t give them what they ask for? No, but that’s okay. They don’t need to understand. All they need to know is that Daddy loves them and He’s doing what’s best. The same goes for us, as well.
There’s more that could be said about how viewing God as our Father affects our prayer lives, but I think I’ll save those comments for another day. For now, I’d like to conclude with three final thoughts.
First, lest we become imbalanced, we must remember that familiarity does not exclude reverence. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to address God not just as our Father, but as “our Father in heaven.” He created everything that exists and He rules the universe with a mighty arm! He is so holy that no one has ever seen His face, and the angels around His throne cry out constantly, “Holy, holy, holy!” He is to be feared because He takes vengeance on His enemies. We could go on and on and on, but the point is that we must approach Him with reverence. The balance between familiarity and reverence can be a hard to strike, but we must strive toward that end. Sometimes, we would do well just to pause for a moment before launching into prayer to consider who it is that we’re praying to. He’s not “my homeboy.” He’s not “the man upstairs.” He’s the God of the universe, and I ought to respect Him as such.
Second, God is not everyone’s father. That may be a popular concept in liberal Christianity, but it’s certainly not biblical! If you are not saved, then God is not your father. You do not have access to His throne room, and He does not promise to listen to your prayers. Many people are mistaken on this point. They assume that just because they attend church or live somewhat moral lives, they are good with God. But that simply isn’t true. If you don’t know for sure that you’re saved, please settle that today.
Third, many people have difficulty viewing God as their Father because their earthly fathers were mean, distant, absent, or abusive. If that’s you, let me just say that I’m sorry. But let me also say this: God is not like your earthly father. He is a perfect heavenly Father. He would never mistreat, abuse, or abandon you.
But that also raises a sobering reality for us dads in the room. Our actions affect how our children view God. So, dads, let me give you a question to chew on this week: How can you more accurately represent God to your children?