In my previous three-part series on prayer, I asked the question "Why bother with prayer?" (Read part 1, part 2, and part 3) I closed the final post of that series by saying that prayer is really about the intimate communication that brings satisfaction. Which raises a new question: How do we move from a prayer life that is about getting God to do stuff for us, toward that satisfying communication? Good news—Jesus answers that question.
A Sanity Saving GPS
A few years ago my wife and I were driving across the country on an end of the season vacation. We had just finished a summer of work at a community church in Austin, TX. I was filling in for the pastor who had a baby and Alanna was working for the children’s summer camp. That experience could be it’s own book.
After our time there, we decided to take the scenic route home. Neither of us had really seen too much of the west side of the country (actually, none of it). So we planned to drive from Austin, north west, up through New Mexico, into the rocky mountains of Colorado. We stayed a couple of days in Colorado Springs and then made the “riveting” drive home straight across the heart of the USA. Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois—the most exciting states...or not.
Our drive was guided by our GPS. I am so grateful for that little GPS because so much of that drive, once you start heading east, is terribly boring. Once the rocky mountains are in your rear view mirror, there's nothing but straight, flat driving. Even though we drove 75 miles an hour for four or five hours at a time, it felt like we weren’t moving at all. I saw a storm fully forming in the distance while we were in Nebraska that didn’t hit us for 2 hours—it was like looking into the future!
It was enough to drive me crazy. Sure, there were some ups and downs, lane changes, and speed adjustments, but for the most part the moment to moment experience of the drive felt monotonous and, at times, meaningless. So every couple of hours it was nice to be able to zoom out on the GPS and see that we were in fact making progress. And not only were we able to see that we were making progress toward our destination, but zooming out also gave us some sense of what was to come along in the drive. We could anticipate some traffic, or change routes if necessary.
The biggest sanity saver of the GPS was that it gave us the ability to zoom out on our journey. We could, at least for a second, take a step back from the experience in the moment and push that little minus button in the corner of the screen—from the turns, lane changes, speed adjustments, traffic and bumps—zooming out to see that all of those seemingly monotonous, meaningless moment to moment experiences on the road were actually a part of a much greater journey.
Truth be told, it didn’t really change the actual drive—we still had to deal with traffic, lane changes, bumps and turns and speed adjustments. We still had to go through it. But changing the perspective changed our experience of the journey. Shifting our perspective, shifted our experience. It gave us the satisfaction of knowing we made progress, the hope of a final destination and the grit to keep driving.
When we talk about making the move from prayer being about "getting God to do the things we think God should do," towards a kind of communication of an intimate relationship that brings satisfaction, Jesus offers some instructions that can in effect be like zooming out on the GPS. Its almost like the first three parts of what many have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer are really three steps to shifting your perspective and, as a result, praying more satisfying prayers.
Jesus Zooms Out
After explaining how his listeners might be wrong about prayer, and offering three correctives to prayer, Jesus launches into his instructions on how to pray. Matthew records it in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus said,
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
(The New International Version; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, Mt 6:9–10)
Each of these phrases are like rungs on a ladder that take you to a different vantage point—shifting your perspective on life. Sort of like hitting the minus button three times on your GPS, to zoom out.
Our Father In Heaven
Jesus begins his instruction by inviting us to consider who it is that we’re talking to. And by contrast, who we’re not talking to. Jesus says when you pray, don’t start with you, but start with who it is your talking to. Start by addressing God as our Father in Heaven. In order to make that shift to zoom out, the first thing to do is take the focus off of ourselves and our moment to moment experience—and put it instead on the one we are talking to.
We aren’t praying to ourselves—to our inner ego or true self —and we aren’t praying to some distant deity, who doesn’t care, or who makes ridiculous demands for personal sacrifice in order to gain favor. We’re talking to our Father in heaven.
NT Wright, an author and bishop in the Anglican Church, points out that at times prayer can feel like we’re just shouting into some universal void hoping someone will hear us. It can feel like we’re tossing up a prayer to the universe hoping something or someone will take notice. Often prayer like that can function as an ineffective good luck charm. But Jesus wants us to begin to shift our prayer life by considering the fact that God is not like a universal void, or distant deity—but that he is our Father.
Perhaps for you, considering God as Father is a new idea that may take some time to get used to. This was not the case for Jesus’ listeners. For Jesus’ mostly Jewish crowd the idea of God as Father was not new. In fact, it would’ve brought to mind for them the idea of God as their protector, provider and savior. The first time God referred to himself as the father of Israel, was in connection with the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. They were familiar with the idea of God being Father because every year, celebrating passover, they were reminded that God was the protecting, providing, and saving Father.
The idea of specifying that our Father is in heaven, serves a dual purpose. First off, it corrects any thought of God being an earthly god or idol made by human beings. We’re not talking about a statue, temple, or special energy…or even earthly father. To pray "our Father in heaven," is to recognize that God is not like the flawed and broken fathers we know on earth. Nor is he like the other things that we often idolize in this life. He is our Father in heaven.
Secondly, to call him our Father in heaven, is to in some way affirm the fact that God has a very different vantage point from which to view all of reality. We tend to see things as we experience them moment to moment, but God holds everything all at once. God sees the past, the present, and the future all at the same time. He has a ten thousand foot view so to speak, the zoomed out screen of the GPS. What’s amazing about this Father in heaven, is that at the same time knowing all, he still cares about all of the twists and turns and traffic, and speed changes and ups and downs of your journey. He cares about your heart break, loss, disease, and difficulty. He sees the bigger picture, but still cares for you and me.
So Jesus says, to pray the kind of prayers that bring satisfaction, you’ve got to change your perspective—and instead of starting with what you, want, need or think—instead of staring with you start with who. Consider who it is you’re talking too. Consider slowing down to address God as your Father in Heaven, the almighty one who cares for you and your every lane change and speed adjustment and yet at the same time has the vantage point of heaven—to see all things and all time.
Which leads to the next step to changing our perspective, pushing the zoom-out button again: Hallowed be your name.
We'll go there next!