Say the Word

The telephone rang. It was a message that my younger son, a singer, was about to get on an aeroplane to go with his choir to the other side of the world. If I was quick, I might just be able to catch him with a call to wish him well. I phoned, caught him, and we had a good chat. There are times when I wonder where fatherhood ends and friendship begins.

Friendship and fatherhood together teach us something about God and prayer. Actually, the learning can be a two-way street. It isn’t just a matter of thinking about earthly friends and fathers and then learning that God is like that. There are times when a father needs to take a long, hard look at what God’s fatherhood is all about, and start changing his own fatherhood behavior to be more like it. And most of our friendships, I suspect, could do with the improvement that some reflection about God as a friend might provide.

It is that picture—of God as a friend, in bed and asleep, with his children around him—which probably strikes us as the more peculiar. (We are used to saying that God is our father, though we may not always ask what exactly that means; but God as our Friend is less obvious.) In the sort of house Jesus has in mind, the family would all sleep side by side on the floor, so that if the father got up at midnight the whole family would be woken up. My children are now past that stage (my wife and I are more likely to be woken up when they come home at midnight or later), but it’s obvious what a nuisance it is when the knock comes on the door.

Yet the friend outside has a real problem, and the sleeping friend can and will help him. The laws of hospitality in the ancient Middle East were strict, and if a traveler arrived needing food and shelter one was under an obligation to provide them. The friend in the street knows that the friend in bed will understand; he would do the same if the roles were reversed.

What counts is persistence. There are all sorts of ways in which God isn’t like a sleepy friend, but Jesus is focusing on one point of comparison only: he is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking on the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That’s what our prayer should be like. This isn’t just a routine or formal praying, going through the motions as a daily or weekly task. There is a battle on, a fight with the powers of darkness, and those who have glimpsed the light are called to struggle in prayer—for peace, for reconciliation, for wisdom, for a thousand things for the world and the church, perhaps a hundred or two for one’s own family, friends and neighbors, and perhaps a dozen or two for oneself.

There are, of course, too many things to pray about. That’s why it’s important to be disciplined and regular. If you leave it to the whim of the moment you’ll never be a true intercessor, somebody through whose prayers God’s love is poured out into the world. But because these things are urgent, important and complex there has to be more to prayer than simply discipline and regularity. Formal prayers, including official liturgies for services in church, are vital for most people for their spiritual health, but they are like the metal shell of a car. To be effective it needs fuel for its engine, and to be effective prayers need energy, too: in this case, the kind of dogged and even funny determination that you’d use with a sleepy friend who you hoped would help you out of a tight spot.

The larger picture, though, is the more familiar one of God as father. This isn’t just an illustration drawn from family life, though of course it is that at its heart, and Jesus’ illustrations about giving a child real food rather than poisonous snakes make their point. If we are ever tempted to imagine God as a tyrant who would take delight in giving us things that weren’t good for us, we should remember these pictures and think again. But the illustration is bigger than that as well.

The idea of God as father goes right back to the time when Israel was in slavery and needed rescuing. ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn,’ declared God to Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron; ‘so let my people go!’ From then on, to call on God as ‘father’ was to invoke the God of the exodus, the liberating God, the God whose kingdom was coming, bringing bread for the hungry, forgiveness for the sinner, and deliverance from the powers of darkness.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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