Our Father in heaven

Those of us who have been parents know the challenge of dealing with the suffering of our children. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a bumped head or scraped knee, and all that’s needed is a soothing word, a warm hug, and a Band-Aid. Other times, the situation is more challenging, as with the loss of a beloved relative or pet. We may be trying to cope with grief ourselves, and feel the added burden of coming up with something wise to say that a child would actually understand.

This side of parenting never quite goes away, even as the children grow and become more independent. We help our children deal with the bullies at school. The taunts of other kids. The unraveling of friendships. The mean teacher. The failure to make the team. If or when we launch them off to college, we may lose some sleep over how well they’ll do, not just academically but socially — and whether they’ll tell us about it if they run into trouble.

It’s complicated, and we don’t always get it right. For example, our children may do things that scare the daylights out of us, and when we’re in panic mode… well, we’re not at our best. Sometimes, their behavior may trigger something old, painful, and unresolved in us, and we overreact. Even their appropriate movement toward having a mind of their own may feel to us like rebellion and rejection, and the more we clamp down, the more they want to get away. There are missteps in every parent-child relationship, and some missteps are more important than others.

But what matters most is not the occasional stumble but the quality of the relationship overall. We can’t expect our kids to say that we were perfect (and some research suggests that adults who talk about their parents that way are masking their pain). But would they say that we were dependable? That they could count on us to be there for them when they needed us? That even if we sometimes lost our temper, the more fundamental truth was always that we loved them?

. . .

When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus began with these well-known words: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt 6:9). “Hallowed,” of course, isn’t exactly an everyday word in English; it sounds musty and old. That’s why the Common English Bible translates the sentence as, “Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name.”

Was praying this way an entirely new idea? Not completely. There are references to God as Father or parent in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here are a few examples from the New Revised Standard Version:

  • As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him (Ps 103:13).
  • Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? …I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD (Jer 31:20).
  • You are children of the LORD your God (Deut 14:1).
  • You, O LORD, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name (Isa 63:16).
  • Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter… (Isa 64:8).

There was precedent, therefore, both in Scripture and in rabbinic writings, for calling God “Father.” As the gospel of John suggests, however, when Jesus called God “Father,” his detractors clearly heard him claiming a special and intimate relationship with God — and they weren’t wrong. But to them, it was an offensive and blasphemous claim.

Jesus, the Son of God, by teaching his disciples to pray, was inviting them to enter into that special relationship, a relationship in which the recognition of the holiness of God didn’t preclude intimacy. The disciples had probably never seen anyone who related to God in this way.

But I would argue that this is the quality of relationship we see in the Psalms, whether the word “father” is used or not.

. . .

Lament and praise. These are two of the most basic movements we find in the Psalms. As we’ve seen, this is not an either-or distinction, as if psalms could be classified as fitting exclusively into one category or the other. Some psalms lean in one direction and some in the other, but for the most part the Psalms show a creative tension between lament and praise that maps the territory of faith.

What I’d like to suggest, though, is that instead of thinking of this as a literary distinction, we think of lament and praise as moments in a relationship — a relationship in which God the Father has shown himself to be faithful and trustworthy. Both lament and praise are movements toward God, a Father who not only receives our gratitude and boasting about him, but listens attentively to our complaints — even our complaints about him.

Not all of us have been or will be parents. But we’ve all been children. We’ve all had parents. Some parents were accessible and approachable, and some weren’t, or at least not in a consistent and dependable manner. Some put strict limits on what we were allowed to say or even feel.

But the Psalms as a whole give us a picture of God our Father as one whose love for his children is steadfast and sure, able to listen to the full range of his children’s love and anger, gratitude and desperation, without abandoning that bond of love.

Our own kids can’t call us perfect. But our heavenly Father is (Matt 5:48). Jesus invites us to know the Father as he knows the Father — and to grow up to be more and more like him.