What we need when we pray is less awareness of ourselves and more awareness of God. When I get distracted or discouraged in prayer, I have to remind myself of the simple fact that someone is there, someone is listening, and not just anyone, but my Father who is in heaven. When I pray, I’m not going through a spiritual soliloquy, a ritual for the day, or something important to check off before I go to work; I am speaking to my Father and my God.
A Family Affair
The first word of the Lord’s Prayer in our English translation is “Our” (Matt. 6:9), but the first word in Greek is pater, father. Sometimes you’ll hear the Lord’s Prayer called “Paternoster,” which comes from the first two words in the Latin version of the prayer. Interestingly, there is an old type of elevator called a paternoster that is found mainly in Europe. It has a number of wooden platforms that cycle up and down without stopping. In order to ride on the paternoster, you have to step on and step off as it moves. According to some people, the device is called a paternoster because the contraption resembles rosary beads. I was told the name came from people praying every time they dared to use the thing.
Matthew 6:9 is not about elevators (even if it is elevated speech!). Again, we are probably too familiar with the prayer to properly marvel at what it says. The God of the universe—the God who made the world out of nothing; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the ten plagues and the Red Sea; the God of the glory cloud in the tabernacle; the God who shakes the cedars of Lebanon; the God who showed himself to Daniel as the great Ancient of Days; the God before whom no one can stand face to face and live—Jesus wants us to call this God “Father.”
To pray with intimacy to God as father is not a human right; it is a spiritual privilege. It is a privilege for the people of God who have been born again by the Spirit of God. “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). It is not our natural human birthright to call God “Father”; it is our born-again spiritual birthright.
Granted, there is a sense in which one could say that God is father to all, insofar as all people owe their existence to God (Acts 17:28–29). But that’s never how Jesus speaks of God the Father. One book I read made the old liberal argument about the universal fatherhood of God: “He is the father of all men.” As proof of that point, the author cites not a single Bible verse but quotes Rudolf Bultmann.1 There is no biblical warrant for thinking that God is father to all and that we are all his children in a spiritual sense.
God, Our Father
Only disciples get to call God “Father.” Even in the Old Testament, where the fatherhood of God is less clear than in the New Testament, we see that this intimate relationship of a father and his children is the special privilege reserved for God’s people.