Embracing the Tension of God
This last Sunday we continued our series through The Lord's Prayer. We examined the phrase, "Our Father in Heaven." As a model for prayer, this doesn't look too different from the way we might pray today. Perhaps we begin our prayers with something like, "Heavenly Father . . . " But to the disciples who heard Jesus' instructions for prayer, applying the word, "Father" to prayer was radical. The word, "Father" is "Abba" and is a more personal term than Yahweh or Elohim. It's something a bit more formal than "Daddy," perhaps "Dearest Father." At any rate, it indicated intimacy and closeness. It indicates active, personal care.
There are glimpses in the Old Testament of this father relationship. In Psalm 103 David describes God’s care as that of a father to a child. And in 2 Samuel 7, you can’t escape the powerful imagery God uses to talk to David, “I shall be your father and you shall be my son.” Proverbs 3:12 says that “the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” But typically, they thought of God in reverence and fear. We think of Moses experience on Sinai, when he came down from the mountain and his face glowed. We think of the entire sacrificial system and tabernacle and temple structure. It reinforced the idea that God was transcendent, great, and to be feared.
Jesus, however, introduced a new concept, the signaling of a new covenant between God and His people. It began with Jesus himself referring to God as his Father. Jesus first words, were "I must be about my father's business" (Luke 2:49).
The Sermon on the Mount takes this further, by instructing the disciples to call Jesus father. Particularly in this prayer, Jesus is instructing his followers to consider Elohim, Yahweh, their Abba. How can disciples of Jesus have this kind of closeness with God? Through Christ, who is the mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). All humans are, by creation, children of God in a corporate sense. They were created and are sustained by God's sovereign grace. But only those who have put their faith in Christ experience the closeness of God as their father and came come boldly before God (Hebrews 4:16). Consider what John writes in the first chapter of John 1:
But 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 (ESV)
John further distinguishes those who have God as their father through Christ and those who do not:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 1 John 3:1 (ESV)
Paul affirms this in Romans 14:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
We, who have been redeemed by Christ, are children of God. He is our Father. This is a special, exclusive relationship with God through Christ. And how do we know we have this, how do we know we are children of God? The Holy Spirit reminds us, He speaks to our hearts and reminds us that God is our Abba Father.
So there is an intimacy, a tenderness, a closeness we experience with God. Theologians call this immanence.
However, Jesus' intructions on how to begin our prayers don't stop there. He says to open our prayers, "Our Father in Heaven. The phrase, in Heaven implies two things, I think:
First it reminds us that we are not of this world. If our Father is in Heaven, that means that our home is in Heaven. This means that we will not ever be totally comfortable on this earth. In 1 Peter , Scripture describes our condition as "exiles" and temporary residents." This should inform our prayers in that while we pray for "daily bread" to a father who knows what we need before we need it, we should pray with a kingdom mindset, not merely seeking complete and total comfort on earth, but that God's mission through us might be fulfilled.
Secondly, and most importantly, it reminds us of the authority of God. If the word Father speaks to God's closeness, his intimacy, his immanence, the phrase in Heaven speaks to God's transcendence. Heaven, in Scripture is the seat of power and authority. There is a tension here in the text that reflects the rest of Scripture, of how we should think about God. He is both transcendent and immanent. That is to say His all powerful and sovereign and just and yet he is also near and loving and available. Both of those are true of God. His transcendance isn't diminished by his immanence.
This sounds like an egghead discussion for a few theologians, but it actually has implications for the way we approach God and the way we worship. Jesus instructed us to begin our prayers this way to reminds us of these two important attributes. We pray to a powerful, transcendant God who has chosen, in His grace through Christ, to be close to us. This gives weight to our conversation, to our prayers. We are not simply praying to another friend who is as limited as we are. We are praying to a transcendant God who can act.
This should also inform our worship. We tend, in modern evangelicalism, to emphasize the closeness of God, but we are in danger of ignoring the transcendance of God. We tend to fashion a God who is like us, we are often flippant in our worship. We'd do well to embrace this tension we find in the Lord's prayer. So with equal weight, we should, for instance, sing, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Immortal, Invisible." We should be humbled and awed before the majesty of God and yet praise Him at the privilege of an intimate relationship with Him through Christ.