When You Pray, Say "Our Father"

by Rev. William M. Cwirla

It’s a tender invitation to pray as a member of the family. Jesus invites you to address His Father as your Father and to say “Our Father,” and to come as a dear, little child coming to his or her dear Father in heaven. The pious Jews of Jesus’ day would not have been so familiar and forthright in their prayers. They rarely, if ever, addressed God as Father. Instead, they would say, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the great, mighty, and most revered One, the most high God, the Master of all things....” But “Our Father?” Not a chance!

One reason for their reluctance was that God rarely referred to Himself as “Father” in the Old Testament. “Father” had overtones of “Father Baal” and the whole idolatry of Baalism. They didn’t want to go anywhere near that sort of thing.

Another reason was that it seemed just a bit too familiar, which today would be like coming up to the President of the United States and addressing him by his first name.

Still the psalmist could pray, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him (Psalm 103:13). The prophet Isaiah could say, “Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand.” (Isaiah 64:8). And Jesus, with the same tenderness and compassion, teaches His disciples, “When you pray, say ‘Our Father.’”

Prayer is tender, familiar speech. It’s like a little child coming to his or her dear father and saying, “Daddy, let’s talk about stuff.” The apostle Paul reminds us that we have received the Spirit of adoption in our Baptism, and it’s by that Spirit that we cry “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). That’s why we pray the Our Father in the rite of Holy Baptism with the pastor’s hand laid on the head of the person being baptized. In Baptism you are made a member of God’s family. You may now say “Our Father” along with us and with our big brother Jesus.

Don’t forget the “our”! Jesus didn’t say “My Father” but “Our Father.” Even when we pray by ourselves in secret, we never pray alone. We pray for and with all baptized believers everywhere. And Jesus prays along with us as our elder Brother.

I heard a great image of prayer from my pastor on vicarage who was a wise man of prayer. He pictured prayer like a long distance phone call (though it actually isn’t “long distance” since God is always very near to us). The Father is in His comfortable easy chair watching the game (you may pick whatever team you wish), and the phone rings in the next room. Jesus picks up the phone and answers it. He brings the phone to the Father and says, “You have to take this call. It’s one of the family.” The words “Our Father” invite us to bother our Father in heaven with our prayers, as children coming to their dear Father in heaven.

This gives us confidence and even boldness. Jesus once compared the life of prayer to a pesky widow who kept coming to a dishonest judge who didn’t want to be bothered with her (Luke 18:1-8). Or to a man who had the audacity to bang on his neighbor’s door at midnight to borrow some bread for out of town guests (Luke 11:5-10). How much more is our loving Father in heaven willing to hear the prayers of His children?

Prayer is an exercise of faith. You can’t pray without faith. Jesus dares us to be big and bold with our prayers and to come the way children come trustingly to a father who loves and cares for us and to talk about anything, trusting that He listens to us and will act on our prayers in the best interests of our salvation.

Sadly, for some people the image of a “Father in heaven” is not a comforting or inviting picture. They have been neglected, harmed or mistreated by their fathers on earth. Some have been hurt deeply. It’s understandable when someone says, “I can’t pray to a Father in heaven because I can’t trust my father on earth.” Our fathers on earth are sinners; some are terribly broken by sin and the sins of fathers have trickled down for three and four generations—alcoholism, abuse, adultery—to name but three of the ways.

Here we must view our Father in heaven, not through our experience with our fathers, but through the cross of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the One who reconciled the world to His Father, who became our sin, who trumps every evil in this world with the good of His suffering, death, and resurrection. And it is this same Jesus, who shed His blood to make you a member of God’s family, in whom you were baptized and born as a child of God, who says to you, “No matter what your father on earth was like, dear child of God, you have nothing to fear of your Father in heaven. I am always with you, praying with you, praying for you. When you pray, be bold and confident and say, ‘Our Father.’”

Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and President of Higher Things. He can be reached at wcwirla@gmail.com.