Here’s a picture I’ve personally found helpful, as I’ve thought about this:
This is John F. Kennedy, President of the United States from 1961-‘63. This guy ruled over one of the world’s most powerful nations, through some of its most significant challenges. This is him sitting in the Oval Office; the place from which he exercised his power. This was not a place you could just rock up and wander into. Kennedy was not the kind of chap you could turn up unannounced and hope to hang out with. He was a powerful man in a powerful place. But this is only half the picture.
Here, sitting at the feet of the President is John Jr., Kennedy’s son. He looks relaxed, like he’s happily playing and comfortable being where he is. I’m sure that John Jr. knew something of who his daddy was, what he was capable of. I’m sure he understood at least something of the powerful potential of the room he was in. This child was also an American citizen, coming under the governmental rule of the President, not to mention his fatherly rule. But he also felt free to play at his Father’s feet. And nobody would look at that and think ‘how dare he be there in the Oval Office!? A child?!’ No – it’s fine, it’s permissible, it’s right, because the one behind the desk is not only the President, he’s the child’s Father, which grants John Jr. access into a room you or I would never have permission to enter.
This picture captures something of the combination of intimacy and awe that comes with knowing God as our Father. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we have permission to approach God like children to a Father. We can enjoy being in His presence, knowing He delights in us, loves us deeply, invests in us, protects us and provides for us. But we must also know that when we enter His presence, we come into the place of power. For He is not a powerless but well-meaning Father; a big softy who can be manipulated and turned doe-eyed by the cuteness of his children. He is an all-powerful Father/King who is fully worthy of our respect and awe as both his Children and Citizens.
When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he gave them this opening phrase: “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)
This introductory appeal contains three important elements that help us keep the attributes of God in balance (before we’ve even got to words like kingdom, will, power and glory!).
Our Father: The prayer begins with intimacy: Father. It’s possible Jesus originally taught the prayer in Aramaic, in which case the prayer would begin Abba, with the resonances of intimacy that word at least partly contains. But whatever the language and full meaning of Abba, there is a sense of intimacy in this address. It’s not just ‘Father’ in some abstract sense. It’s our Father. He’s a Father as he relates to us. There’s something personal and intimate about the way Jesus encourages us to address God.
Our Father in Heaven: On a first reading the second part of the phrase can sound a little strange. Many people have a cosmology that says ‘Heaven is distant’ in which case the first two clauses of the Lord’s Prayer can feel contradictory. He’s our Father but He’s far away; intimate, but distant – an absent Father? But that’s not the way Heaven and Earth work in a good Jewish-Christian cosmology. Heaven is God’s sphere of reality. Heaven is the Oval Office (and not the other way round!!). God sits in the place of power.
Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name: The third clause speaks about the hallowedness of God’s name. He is holy, separate, set apart, pure, unlike anyone or anything else. He is incomparable.
In one sentence, Jesus has told us that God is close and intimate, yet also seated in the place of power with authority over everything, and He is totally pure and unlike anyone else who has ever and will ever exist. I propose that we need to hold all three of these things together if we are to have a healthy picture of the Fatherhood of God. He is intimate like a Father. He loves us and we can come to Him with everyday language, with our every request, need, success and hurt. He’s also powerful. He’s in control, which means that my prayers find the ear of One who has the ability to answer them. He’s not a well-meaning but under-resourced dad. He is powerful and able to provide and protect because He is seated in the place of power. But he’s also deeply, immeasurably holy. He demands our utmost respect and awe and worship. He’s not one to mess around with. He is also incomparable. No other earthly Father can come anywhere close to Him, which means that if we have had poor experiences of Father figures and are ever tempted to see God through the lens of failed Fathers, we need to think again. He is hallowed. He is different. No other Father, good or bad, compares to Him.
If we can hold these three concepts together when we approach God in prayer and worship, I think our understanding of His Fatherhood will be richer and healthier for it.