Praying to God

July 11, 2023

A compilation

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Christians today take it for granted that God is our Father, but few people stop to think what this name really means. We know that Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father” and that the Aramaic word Abba (“Father”) is one of the few that Jesus used and that it has remained untranslated in our New Testament. Nowadays, hardly anybody finds this strange, and many people are surprised to discover that the Jews of Jesus’ day, and even his own disciples, were puzzled by his teaching. …

Jesus’ assertion that God was his Father first occurred in a debate about the Sabbath day of rest. Jesus claimed that it was proper for him to perform healings on the Sabbath because, in his words: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). In other words, although God rested on the seventh day from his work of creation, his work of preservation and ultimately of redemption was still ongoing. Moreover, Jesus associated his own ministry with that continuing work of the Father…

Christians call God their Father because that is what Jesus taught his disciples to do. He did this not in order to emphasize that God was their Creator (though of course he was) but because he was their Redeemer. Jesus had a unique relationship with God the Father that he wanted to share with his followers. During his time on earth, he was quite clear about this. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” he said (John 14:9). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). …

We are encouraged to pray to the Father and enabled to do so because the Son has united us to him in his death and resurrection (Galatians 2:20). By this act, Jesus has associated us with himself as his siblings. The difference is that he is the divine and sinless Son of the Father by nature, whereas we are sinners who have been adopted by him. Jesus himself said as much when he told Mary Magdalene, after his resurrection, to go to his disciples, whom he now called his brothers, and tell them what was about to happen: “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).—Gerald Bray1

God’s personhood

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus refers to God as Father; and in the Lord’s Prayer, He teaches His disciples to call God “Father.” To some people, calling God Father can be offensive, as they feel it supports the concepts of patriarchy and the subjugation of women, and they have called for the deletion of all reference to God as Father. Charles Talbert’s book Reading the Sermon on the Mount provides a good explanation for why God is called Father, parts of which I am summarizing here.2

There are two views of religious language in Christian churches today. The first is a relational view, the second a political view. The relational view assumes that religious speech arises out of an ongoing relationship between God’s people and God. It’s similar to speech used in human relationships. One can say things about their relationship with God which have similarities to the type of wording one would use in speaking about their relationship with another person.

Understanding religious language as political assumes that religious language originates as a projection of the organization of human relationships on earth onto the canvas of heaven, and therefore any change in the human social order demands a corresponding change in the way one speaks of the heavenly world. In this view, if God is spoken of in masculine terms such as Father, this is considered a projection onto heaven of a patriarchal social system on the human level. It assumes that father-language for God is a reflection of the patriarchal world in which the Bible was written. It assumes that the Bible was written by men, therefore God is cast as male.

The relational view of religious language assumes that deity transcends sexuality, that God is neither male nor female. However, God is spoken of in Scripture in gendered terms. Sometimes He is spoken of in feminine terms: “I will cry out like a woman in labor. … Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 42:14; Isaiah 49:15; 66:13).

Whenever God is spoken of in feminine terms, it is always a simile, the comparison of two things. God is compared to a mother but is never named “Mother.”

At other times within Scripture, God is spoken of in masculine terms, again with simile: “The LORD goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal” (Isaiah 42:13); as well as with metaphor/comparison: “You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 63:16; 64:8).

In the Bible, God is both compared to a male (simile) and addressed as Father (metaphor). Jesus prayed Abba, Father (Mark 14:36).

Why is it that in Scripture God is sometimes said to be like a mother, but isn’t called a mother, while God is both like a father and is called Father? There are two main reasons.

The first has to do with the understanding of who God is in relation to His creation. God who is all-powerful and above creation created all things from nothing, and therefore is distinct from the universe. Some religions or belief systems look at this differently—they consider that God and creation are either the same thing or that creation is a part of God. Generally speaking, belief systems that see God as not being distinct from creation fall under the category of pantheism.

Beginning in Genesis and throughout the whole of Scripture, God is spoken of as existing above and independent of creation. If in Scripture God was called “Mother,” there could have been a misunderstanding regarding God’s transcendence. Calling the Creator “Mother” in ancient times would have been interpreted to mean that the creation was a birthing process, and therefore the universe and all that is in it would be part of God; which would mean that the universe is divine (pantheism), rather than being created by God (theism).

God revealed Himself to the writers of the Old Testament as being Spirit, thus not male or female. However, He referred to Himself metaphorically as a male, thereby maintaining the “otherness” of God, and avoiding the perception that the world was “birthed” instead of created. This allows us to relate to Him as a personal Being without getting the wrong understanding of His relation to creation.

An important reason for calling God Father grows out of the practice of Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus not only spoke of God as Father, He also spoke to God as Father (Mark 13:32). He expressed His relationship with God using the concept of a loving Father, who cares for and deeply loves His children, and He invited His disciples to enter into a loving relationship with His Father.

Jesus also made it clear that God is Spirit (John 4:24) and is therefore genderless, but He conveyed His relationship to God using the concept of Father, He called God His Father, and He invited His disciples to call God Father as well. But this is a concept to convey God’s personhood and not a gender statement. For those whose experience with their father makes it difficult to call God Father, there are other expressions that can be used to address God, such as Lord, God, Almighty One, Creator, etc.—Peter Amsterdam

The Abba experience

In His human journey, Jesus experienced God in a way that no prophet of Israel had ever dreamed of or dared. Jesus was indwelt by the Spirit of the Father and given a name for God that would scandalize both the theology and public opinion of Israel, the name that escaped the mouth of the Nazarene carpenter: Abba.

Jewish children used this intimate colloquial form of speech in addressing their fathers, and Jesus Himself employed it with His foster father Joseph. As a term for divinity, however, it was unprecedented not only in Judaism but in any of the great world religions. Joachim Jeremias wrote, “Abba, as a way of addressing God, is … an authentic original utterance of Jesus. We are confronted with something new and astounding. Herein lies the great novelty of the gospel.”

Jesus, the beloved Son, does not hoard this experience for Himself. He invites and calls us to share the same intimate and liberating relationship. Paul wrote, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba,’ it is that spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:14–16). …

The greatest gift I have ever received from Jesus Christ has been the Abba experience. “No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).—Brennan Manning3

Published on Anchor July 2023. Read by Jerry Paladino.


2 Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 113–15.

3 Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Tyndale House, 2014).

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