My phone rings. It’s Jack, a member of my congregation. He tells me that his daughter is having difficulty making friends and can’t understand why God is ignoring her daily pleas for help.
“Pastor, could you please talk to her about God and prayer? My wife and I try our best, but we don’t feel equipped to handle the hard questions she’s asking.” So far so good—pastors frequently get asked for advice or assistance. But then suppose Jack concludes his plea by saying, “I’m asking this for Rev. Hoezee’s sake, and in Scott’s name.”
Now there’s a turn-of-phrase to widen the eyes! When you’re asking someone for help, it would be profoundly odd to close your appeal by invoking the name of the very person to whom you are talking. I don’t know if anyone has ever made a pitch to someone “for Scott’s sake”—if so, I certainly wasn’t present.
That’s an offbeat example, of course, but let’s keep it in mind as we think about our approach to prayer and the difference our view of the Trinity makes.
I’m with Him
In the tradition of Christian prayer, no single phrase is as familiar as the concluding line “for Jesus’ sake” or “in Jesus’ name.” Both phrases remind us that prayer and worship are always directed to the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The only sensible reason to conclude a prayer “for Jesus’ sake” is precisely because the prayer is being offered to Someone other than Jesus alone.
Indeed, Christian prayer should be directed to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit and based on the mediating work of Jesus. That is, we dare to approach the God of glory (and call him “Father”) not on our own merits but only because Jesus has invited us to do so.
What’s more, the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood removes the sin that would otherwise disqualify us from appearing before a holy God in the first place.
By way of analogy, when I was in college a professor would occasionally invite me to join him for lunch in the faculty dining room. When as an undergraduate you find yourself rubbing shoulders with professors in a place that’s ordinarily off-limits to students, you tend to stick pretty close to the person who invited you. If another professor fixes you with a look that says, “What are you doing here?” you want to be able to point to your host and say, “It’s OK—I’m with him!”
Coming before the galactic God of glory is similar, albeit staggeringly magnified. It’s no trite thing to come before the Creator and Redeemer God to ask for something. Whether you’re praying for world peace or that Aunt Mildred’s thyroid surgery will go smoothly, the fact is you’re a puny being (and a sinful one at that) standing in the holy presence of God Almighty.
So why do you dare come to this God so freely?
Because you’re always able to point to your Savior, to say, “I’m with him.”
Can’t I Pray to Jesus?
But when I suggest that prayer is properly directed to God the Father, people become upset.
“Why can’t I pray directly to Jesus?” they ask with no small amount of intensity. “Surely we may pray directly to the Holy Spirit as well, can’t we? Aren’t there examples in the Bible where people do that?” Good questions. So let’s see what the Bible says.
It goes without saying that in the gospels Jesus always prays to the one he calls “Father.” Jesus never prays to himself, nor is there a recorded instance of his praying to the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ situation, of course, was unique. If we want models for our own prayers, we need to look at how other people prayed in the New Testament.
If we look beyond the gospels, we’ll find there is no instance in which anyone prays to the Holy Spirit, and there are only a couple of places where one could assert that Jesus is being prayed to directly. For the most part the New Testament bears out the pattern I mentioned earlier: prayers are addressed to God the Father in the power of the Spirit and in Jesus’ name.
No single New Testament letter talks about prayer more thanw Ephesians. Yet throughout this wonderfully rich letter, Paul again and again demonstrates that his own practice of prayer is to God the Father through Jesus. Ephesians 2:18 provides as succinct a summary as we could hope for: “For through [Jesus] we have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
The lyric prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 likewise goes directly to the Father through Christ and by the Spirit. And in case Paul has not yet made himself clear, he writes in Ephesians 5:20, “[Give] thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Yet most of you reading this have probably prayed directly to Jesus or the Spirit at one time or another. I have too. Is that wrong? Do those prayers bounce back like an e-mail with a wrong address?
No, our gracious God surely hears all our prayers. Sometimes my children forget to say “please” when asking for something, so I have to remind them to be polite. But I don’t act as though their petitions don’t exist just because they weren’t framed quite right. So also God does not blot out a prayer in case we forget to address the Father through Jesus’ name.
Still, our Christian identity should be formed by the triune (three in one) God whom we worship. The early church spent more than four centuries sorting out the complex witness of Scripture to arrive at the rich and mysteriously wonderful portrait of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They devoted a huge amount of time to figuring this out because when it comes to the nature of God, who would ever want to say, “Let’s just leave it loose”? The church refused to let so vital a matter drop. Ever since, the church’s liturgical traditions, including all of its creeds and most of its hymns, have been deeply Trinitarian in structure and content.
But in the past 25 years, even as there has been a renaissance in Trinitarian scholarship in academic circles, there seems to have been a decline in Trinitarian thought in public worship. Pastors and worship leaders readily address Jesus alone with little or no reference to the Father or the Spirit. Or at other times the Spirit gets addressed with little or no reference to the Father or the Son. But our spirituality is impoverished if such non-Trinitarian prayer becomes the norm.
Instead, we should celebrate the Trinity in all our prayer and worship. Why? Because the discipline of framing our prayers “in Jesus’ name” reminds us that prayer is among the most precious gifts we received from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. And remembering that Jesus is the reason we dare to approach God is properly humbling. We don’t barge into the heavenly throne room like some spoiled brat who doesn’t know his or her place—we are gently ushered in by Jesus’ grace on the wings of the Holy Spirit.
Above all, prayer and worship that display the Trinitarian fullness of God are part of our witness to the world. We don’t want people to pray to some generic “God.” We want people to worship the very specific God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
Sometimes pastors are asked to deliver a prayer at a public, nonsectarian event. In such settings the first suggestion someone often makes to the pastor is to avoid ending the prayer with “for Jesus’ sake.” “That makes the prayer too specific,” the person will say.
Yes, it does. That’s why we should never pray any other way.
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Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Tell A Better Story
- ‘Rebirth’ for a Wisconsin Church
- Book review: A Church Called Tov, by Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight