As we begin 2019, I have a fresh hunger to follow Jesus and to live a life radically open and obedient to the God Jesus reveals. I’ve found that praying with Jesus helps us to reimagine who God really is and what it means to be faithfully and fully human.
How did Jesus pray? How should we talk and listen to God today?
These are ultimate questions that interrogate who God is and how we should see and relate to God in our daily lives.
As we start a new year, I invite you to pray with me as I pray with Jesus, and let’s see how his prayer changes us and prepares us for the year ahead.
How Jesus Prayed
Jesus teaches his followers a surprisingly short and simple prayer. It’s only fifty-seven words in Greek, and you can say it in less than thirty seconds. Here it is:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come, you will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
(Matthew 6:9-14; Luke 11:2-4)
I find this extremely fascinating: when God’s Son gives a personal seminar on prayer, the prayer itself takes half a minute; it has only seven lines; and you can memorize it easily and pray it anywhere. (My roommate at UChicago prayed it every time he used the restroom, which hilariously inspired me to pray it throughout my daily life as well.)
Jesus’s prayer serves as an alternative to two other forms of prayer, which Jesus explicitly rejects. The first is religious prayer, which turns God-talk into a performance for others to see – “hypocrisy.” Religious prayer is really about pride and power. The second is pagan prayer, which assumes that we need to manipulate God with many words and loud voices to be heard – “babbling.” Pagan prayer is really about fear and force. Jesus bluntly says, “Do not be like them” and teaches a third kind of prayer (Matthew 6:5-8).
Jesus’s prayer is secret and simple. It’s ultimately about love and liberation. And it trusts God to listen and respond. Jesus promises, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). This is a prayer that concentrates, articulates, and generates powerful faith, hope, and love for life in the real world.
Our Father in Heaven: Lover and Liberator
The first words of Jesus’s prayer subtly ask the ultimate question in life: Who is God? When we pray, who are we talking to, and who is listening?
Jesus boldly teaches that “God” is “our Father in heaven.” This is who we should pray to and trust is listening. Here Jesus likely has at least two overlapping meanings in mind.
First, God is a Lover who intimately cares for our flourishing.
Jesus describes imperfect human fathers as generous gift-givers who want good for their children. Jesus asks, “How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:11). For Jesus, God is a generous gift-giver who desires our wellbeing.
There are several other passages in Matthew’s story that nuance how Jesus sees God as Father:
“Your heavenly Father” values you as precious beyond any other form of life (6:26; 12:12).
“Your Father” cares for you so much that he counts the hairs on your head (10:30).
“The Father” is gentle and humble in heart, and gives rest to the weary (11:28).
“Your Father in heaven” assigns angels to watch over “the little ones” and cares intensely for their safety (18:10-14).
Jesus introduces us to the God who is extraordinarily tender and elevates the value of each person to divine preciousness. Jesus insists and celebrates that God loves us and promises to take care of us with supernatural compassion.
We should remember here that Jesus was a refugee as a child and had likely already experienced persecution in his ministry. He was also keenly aware that his work was leading to radical sacrifice and suffering. So rather than praying out of theological abstraction or cushy comfort, Jesus is praying to God out of the depth of his own faith.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story about a counter-cultural father that further clarifies his vision of God as “our Father.”
The crucial background is Deuteronomy 21:18-21. There Moses commands Israelite fathers to have their “rebellious sons” stoned to death at the city gates. This brutal law was meant to stamp out any hint of defiance or disobedience in ancient Israelite families and culture. Moses says, “All Israel will hear of it and be afraid” (21:21).
So when Jesus tells a story about a severely rebellious son, how does his father respond? No doubt, Jesus’s listeners were expecting Deuteronomy 21.
But the father in Jesus’s story does the unthinkable: he breaks the Law and lavishes kindness on his rebellious son – not once but twice. First, when his son arrogantly asks for his inheritance (basically saying, “You’re already dead to me!”), the father shockingly agrees. Second, when the son wastes it all on sex and finally returns home with nothing, his father runs to him, embraces him, kisses him, and won’t hear his apology. The father is “filled with compassion” and declares, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate!” (Luke 15:20, 23).
This is the “Father” Jesus teaches us to address as “our Father” – the one who is filled with compassion and says, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” According to Jesus, God breaks every barrier – including the Law itself – to embrace us with love when we come home. God is not only our ultimate Source or an impersonal Power. God personally and passionately cares for each one of us as our Father.
Second, God is a Liberator who wills freedom for his oppressed children.
Notice that Jesus teaches us to call God our Father rather than my Father. We cannot pray to God alone or only for ourselves.
Embedded in Jesus’ prayer from the start is a recognition of human community and our equality before God: we – all of us – are children of God. The one who prays to God in forgetfulness, exclusion, or violation of others doesn’t pray to “our Father” at all but to an idolatrous imagination. True prayer addresses the One before whom we’re all sisters and brothers rather than orphans and aliens struggling against one another.
Here Jesus is probably tapping into Exodus 4, where God gives Moses a defiant message for the brutal slave-master Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go’” (Exodus 4:23). This is perhaps the first place where God is described as Father in the Bible, and God is the Father of the oppressed. He sees their “misery” and “suffering,” and he insists that they are set free (Exodus 3:7).
Radically, Jesus teaches, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father’” and declares ”justice, mercy, and faithfulness” to be the truly “important matters of the law” (23:9, 23). It’s as if Jesus doesn’t want his followers to have anything to do with patriarchal systems that privilege some and oppress others – to the extreme of not even calling any human “father” (pater). Jesus insists, “You have one Father, and he is in heaven” (23:9).
Jesus’s point is powerful: when we recognize that there is only one Father and thus that all people belong to him, any form of unkindness or injustice toward others is not just an attack on them. It’s an attack on God as Father – on our Father.
Imagine how much evil, past and present, would be prevented if Christians prayed to our Father, who wills justice and liberation for all who experience “misery” and “suffering” like the enslaved Israelites. This is the passion that led Jesus to pray in the garden, “Father, if it not possible for this cup [ultimate sacrifice] to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
Invoking God in 2019
In sum, the very first breath of Jesus’s prayer is a trusting invocation of God, the Lover and Liberator who listens to us when we pray. Religious pride and pagan hype are left behind for sincere and simple communication with “our Father.”
I find Jesus’s prayer comforting and challenging. It comforts our fear – that God isn’t really there or that God is an impersonal force that doesn’t care about our wellbeing. Jesus invites us to meet God again as our Father.
But Jesus’s prayer also challenges our selfishness – that we can pray alone or to a tribal god who doesn’t care about liberating others who are suffering. Jesus invites us to meet God again as our Father.
Let us begin each day of this new year by praying with Jesus to our loving and liberating Father. As we do so, may we too become lovers and liberators for others in our world.