How a child asks its parents for things speaks volumes about their relationship. E.g., just imagine three different six-year-olds walking past the ice-cream man with their respective Mums and Dads. The first one announces stridently, ‘I want an ice-cream,’ and makes a scene until they cave in. What kind of relationship do they have? The second one says quietly in his mother’s ear, ‘Please may I have an ice-cream?’ and is perfectly happy to be told he’ll get one later. (He really stretches the imagination doesn’t he?) But what kind of relationship do they have? And the third one doesn’t ask anything at all, and from the surliness of his parents and the fear in his eyes, you can guess why. What kind of relationship do they have?
How a child asks its parents for things speaks volumes about their relationship. And likewise, how you and I ask God for things – and even whether we do – speaks volumes about our relationship with him. And as we continue to look at the Lord’s Prayer, we’re going to see this morning that God wants us to ask him for things as a child would ask the perfect father. So would you turn in the Bibles to Matthew 6, verse 9. The Lord Jesus is speaking, teaching those who trust in him how to pray, and he says:
"This, then, is how you should pray:
So praying to God as our Father is our topic this morning. And if you’re thinking something else would have been better for Mothers’ Day, I agree. But can I say, for one thing, that we’re in a series on the Lord’s Prayer and this is where we happen to have got to, today. But can I also say that in the Bible, God does speak of himself as acting in a motherly way even though he clearly reveals himself as being our Father. After all, fathers can be motherly. E.g., speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God says this:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast,
And have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49.15)
The point is that God made us male and female so that together we’d be ‘in his image’ – i.e., reflect the whole range of his character. The idea was that as we experienced the love of both our fathers and our mothers we’d glimpse something of what our heavenly Father is like – albeit an imperfect image in imperfect ‘mirrors’. And before we think about praying to God as our Father, it’s important to underline that our human fathers are, or were, imperfect. So we mustn’t think of God as just a bigger version of our imperfect fathers. Instead, we need to think of God as the Bible reveals him–as the perfect Father, whom our human fathers have imperfectly mirrored. So if we’ve not had the greatest experience of human fathers, let’s not project onto God all their shortcomings, but learn from the Bible what our Father in heaven is like in contrast to them, as well as in similarity to them.
So look at Matthew 6, verse 9 again. The Lord Jesus says to those of us who are trusting in him:
"This, then, is how you should pray:
And coming to God in prayer as our Father really involves two things: it involves trusting that we really do have access to him, and then trusting that he’ll answer in a way that is good for us. And those are my two headings for the rest of our time:
1. TRUSTING WE HAVE ACCESS,and
2. TRUSTING HIM FOR ANSWERS
Firstly, TRUSTING WE HAVE ACCESS
Just think of the times you sit down (or whatever you do) to pray. How do you know you have access to God? One prayer in the Church of England Prayer Book starts like this, ‘O God, you are more ready to hear than we are to ask....’ But how do we know that? How do we know that God is listening and will welcome any approach we make in prayer? Because it seems to me that one of our big struggles in prayer is to believe that. Often, e.g., we feel too sinful to pray. We sit down to pray and Satan reminds us of our recent shortcomings and whispers in our mind, ‘You can’t come to God like that.’ And often it’s the particular shortcoming of prayerlessness that keeps us from praying. We sit down to pray and Satan whispers, ‘But you haven’t prayed since last Wednesday. What makes you think you can start now and be heard?’ Or often it’s the problem of wondering what, if anything, we should feel as we pray. So, e.g., you phone Tesco to renew the car insurance and after the long wait you suddenly hear, ‘Hello you’re through to Tracey, how may I help you?’ But how do you know you’re ‘through’ to God? Are you supposed to feel his presence, feel he’s listening?
Well, to all that, Jesus would say: ‘You need to trust that you have access to my Father in heaven as your Father in heaven, through me.’
There’s a true story from the American Civil War of two young men, Charles and James. Charles was the son of a very rich home. And he was conscripted to fight, along with James – a much poorer man from his village whom he’d never known. They became good friends and fought alongside one another until, one day, Charles was wounded. His friend tried heroically to get him back to safety and to medical help. But Charles realised he was dying and, before he did, he handed James a note and said, ‘If you make out of here, please get this to my parents.’ Well, he did make it out. And after the war was over, James returned to their home village and presented himself at the front door of this gleaming white mansion, looking like something the cat had dragged in, standing in the clothes he’d worn and fought in for months. One of the servants answered the door, said they didn’t deal with beggars and told him to leave. He simply replied, ‘I have a note from Charles.’ So the servant went and fetched Charles’ father. James handed him the note, the father read it, looked up and said, ‘Welcome home.’ This is what the note said:
“Dearest Father and Mother,
By the time you read these words, I will no longer be alive. They come to you by the hand of my closest friend in life and in death. Please take him in as your own, for Charlie’s sake.”
And that is called ‘having access through the son’. That guy James must have walked past that mansion every day as he grew up, but it had never occurred to him to walk up the drive and knock on the front door, because he knew he had absolutely no right to be there, no access to the house or the relationships in it. But his relationship with the son of the house gave him access. And that’s how it is with us and God. Just keep a finger in Matthew 6 and turn over to Ephesians 2. This is the great chapter where Paul describes the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of coming to trust in Christ. And he starts by describing the ‘before’ and says that we’re all by nature miles from God and, on our own, without a hope of acceptance with God. But look at Ephesians 2.13. He says to those who are trusting in Christ:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. [I.e., through Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins. And then skip down to verse 18:] “For through him [that is Jesus] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
So when Jesus, the Son of God, died under his Father’s judgement on the cross, he was being treated as only we deserve, so that we might be treated as only he deserves: the Son was being treated as a sinner so that sinners like us might be treated as sons and daughters of God. So, just as that note said, ‘Please take him in as your own, for Charlie’s sake,’ so the cross says that God will accept anyone who trusts in his Son and what he did there – for Jesus’ sake.
So when we sit down to pray, let’s remember that it’s through Jesus – through his death – that we have access to his Father as our Father.
So, e.g., when we feel too sinful to pray, we need to preach Ephesians 2.18 to ourselves. We need to say to ourselves, ‘Through Jesus we – and therefore I – have access to the Father.’ We don’t come to God in prayer on the basis of how good a Christian life we’ve lived for the last 24 (or however many) hours; we come to God on the basis of what his Son did for us on the cross. We don’t come to God in prayer on the basis of how much we’ve prayed recently; we come to God on the basis of what his Son did for us on the cross. That’s what we mean when we end our prayers ‘In Jesus’ name’. We mean, ‘Please accept me as I come into your presence, and please accept and answer my prayers, for his sake, on his account – not because I’m deserving, but because he died to secure me forgiveness and all the other things I need but don’t deserve.’
And the wonderful thing to remember about this father-child relationship is that a father’s child is always his father’s child. If you’re a believer, you may have been a good child of God recently or a bad child of God recently. But forget the adjective (good, bad, or somewhere in between): the point is, we remain children of a perfect heavenly Father, and the access we have to him is constant and unconditional.
So don’t stay away from prayer because you feel sinful or because you’ve been prayerless – that’s a vicious circle: the more sinful/prayerless you feel, the less you pray; and then the less you pray, the more sinful/prayerless you feel... And don’t try to feel anything particular when you pray. Instead, trust that you have access to God as your Father through Jesus – and anchor your confidence in that not in how you feel at the moment but in his death on the cross. And feelings will follow as the Holy Spirit in us assures us that, on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross, we do have access to God and that he is listening and willing to answer us.
That’s the first thing it means to pray to God as ‘Our Father’: trusting we have access. But the other thing it means is:
Second, TRUSTING HIM FOR ANSWERS
Would you turn back to Matthew – this time to Matthew chapter 7 verse 7 to 11. Again, speaking about prayer, the Lord Jesus says:
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil [though you are imperfect mirrors in reflecting God’s character] know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
I.e., God will answer our prayers only with what is good for us. And it seems to me that one of our other big struggles in prayer is to believe that. But that’s the other thing we need to trust.
And on the one hand, that makes all the difference to the business of trying to work out what to pray for. E.g., what do you pray for that interview to get on a course or to get a job? Do you set your heart on it and pray you’ll definitely get it? What if there are things about it that in fact wouldn’t be good for you? What if it could turn out to be a nightmare? You see, it would be a frightening thing if God were a heavenly genie who granted every request we made, because we so lack insight and foresight into what is really good for us. And I guess many of us can think of things we’ve set our hearts on, and hoped and prayed for, which, looking back, we’re very grateful that God in his greater wisdom didn’t give us. It’s a great relief that he’s a heavenly Father and not a heavenly genie – and that he ‘filters’ our requests and will only give us what is good for us. So if, as far as your wisdom can see, that course or job looks good, then by all means pray more than just a general, ‘Your will be done’. By all means pray that you get it – but with the added ‘P.S. If it’s your will, Father.’ I.e., ‘If it really would be good for me. But, Father, I submit to you on that one.’
But on the other hand, these verses in Matthew 7 make all the difference to the business of trying to interpret how God is answering our prayers. Because unless your prayer-life is very different from mine, I take it we all face the question, over at least some of the things we’re praying for, ‘Why is God (apparently) not answering my prayers?’ – e.g., prayers for health, prayers for a job, prayers to start a family, prayers for people we know to come under the sound of the gospel and come to faith, prayers for marriage, prayers for all sorts of things.
Now there’s no formulaic answer to that which begs no further questions. There will always be some things about God’s working and timings that are a mystery to us – at least in the present. Which is why we need to trust that he is being good even when we can’t see how he is being good. But these verses in Matthew 7 do give us some help in trying to interpret how God is answering our prayers.
For one thing, they remind us that there are things which God knows are not good for us. E.g., I prayed that I might get a first in my university theology degree – not just because I was close to that, but mainly because I thought it would be good as a witness to Christ that a Christian could do so. But God knew that it wouldn’t be good for my humility. And, knowing the future he had planned for me, he also knew that not having a first wouldn’t close any door in the future that he intended me to go through. (He knew that Jesmond Parish Church wouldn’t be that choosy!)
But then, there are things that are good for us – but not yet: things that God does plan to give us, but not immediately. And, again, we can’t always see in the present the reasons why he keeps us waiting and therefore keeps us asking. Maybe it’s to test whether we really want what we say we want. Maybe it’s so that when we’re given whatever it is, we don’t take it for granted (like my spoilt ice-cream-child no.1, at the start). But maybe we don’t know how it’s for our good and maybe we won’t know this side of heaven. We just have to trust that it is.
And then, in the light of these verses, there are times when we need to reconsider what we’re praying for. E.g., I was part of a group of friends who prayed concertedly for a year for the health of the man who led me to Christ – a friend called Vernon. He was a teacher at my school and also ran the rock-climbing club – which is how he got to know me and started to pray for me and invite me along to the Christian Union, so that I could hear the gospel. Now his back suddenly went – he had a slipped disc, and was in enormous pain and could barely move. He had several operations and then we prayed, if it was God’s will, for him to be restored to fitness and mobility, so that he could continue that kind of life and ministry he’d had before. But he never did recover that kind of fitness and mobility. And after a year of praying, we received a prayer-letter from him that said this:
“After a year, I think we have to accept that we have our heavenly Father’s answer. I think his answer is that he is moving me into a different time of life and way of ministry, and that this will be as good as the time of life that’s just come to and end. So can I ask you now to stop praying for any significant change in my health and to start praying that I accept and understand how best to use my new situation?”
Which is a real example of Christian maturity.
And linked to that last point (about reconsidering what we’re praying for), there are times when, in retrospect, we can accept an answer to prayer as good in a way that we couldn’t earlier. Here, e.g., is a single female missionary writing in her biography:
“For a long time I did not consider that my single status was a gift from the Lord. I did not resent it – to be frank, in my earlier idealistic period I thought that because I had chosen singleness I was doing God a favour! But in later years I was severely tested again and again on that choice. Then, through Paul's words and life and my subsequent experiences, it gently dawned on me that God had given me a superb gift! (Ada Lum, Single and Human)”
I remember my mother once talking over with me some of the decisions that she and my father had made on my behalf – like where they sent me to school. And she wistfully said, ‘I hope we did the right things for you.’ And I guess every human parent resonates with that concern – because with only a human parent’s wisdom, there’s always room for doubt about that. But there’s no such room for doubt about that when it comes to our heavenly Father – even though we’re tempted to doubt, and do. So we need to learn to trust his wisdom and goodness in answering our prayers – even when we’re ‘in the dark’ with apparently, perplexingly, unanswered prayer.
There is much more that could be said about praying to God as our Father. But those, it seems to me, are the two fundamental things it involves. Trusting we have access – and anchoring that trust in Jesus’ death on the cross. And then trusting him for answers – and anchoring that trust, likewise, in Jesus’ death on the cross. Because, as the apostle Paul put it in Romans 8:32:
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Not all things we might ask for or want – but all things we need and that are, truly, good for us.