I will never forget a life-altering lesson learned fifteen years ago from my New Testament professor at Southern Seminary (long live Mother Southern). Dr. Mark Seifrid began each class with prayer. But not just any prayer. It was prayer remarkably different from the rote, I-know-exactly-what-this-deacon-is-going-to-pray-before-the-offering sort of prayers. They were far different than the “bless the gift and the giver for the nourishment of our bodies” variety. Dr. Seifrid’s prayers had a particular depth and sweetness to them (as did most of his answers in class).
I do not remember anything in particular Dr. Seifrid prayed, but I do remember how he began every prayer every Monday, Wednesday and Friday: “Father, you.” What a shame my prayer life was so anemic, shallow and thoughtless that beginning prayer this way was noticeable. To this day, it takes conscious effort to make God’s name the first name he hears from me.
This all came into more clarity when we worked through Matthew 6 and “the Lord’s prayer” in vv9-13. I wonder if it should rather be called “the Sinner’s Prayer”! Sinners, not the Lord, need forgiveness and protection from temptation. And, by the way, the prayer is corporate (“our” and “us”). The “Lord’s Prayer” is a congregational prayer! Apparently Jesus thought his disciples were well served by praying together.
What are we to make of this prayer? We do not find any apostle, who learned to pray by listening to Jesus pray it, ever repeating in their writings. We do not find any apostle treating it like a mantra or “stock” prayer like we do today. I am not suggesting it is wrong to pray it, but that we are not to treat it like a “Hail, Mary” or superstitious lucky charm. It’s not what we pray as last rites when death looms, just in case.
We are, however, to appreciate and model its focus, trajectory, simplicity. Why did Dr. Seifrid always begin prayer with “Father, you”? Because Jesus modeled that God’s name is to be the first name God hears in prayer. God’s name and character are the primary catalyst in all prayer.
Listen to how the overwhelming majority of us pray. Most every prayer begins with “Father, I just want to” this or “Father, we just want to” that. I do not suggest we are blaspheming God’s name or that prayer never should begin that way. But rarely do we hear “Father, you” in the sense Jesus taught his disciples. I do suggest more thoughtful praying so that our name is not always the first name God hears from us. Might we be assuming God should be more interested in what “we just want” than in who He already is? Might we be prioritizing who we are to God over who God is to us?
This is far harder than it seems. Try it. Make a conscious effort to begin every prayer with “Father, you” and then ascribe to him particular expressions of his glory, goodness and grace. We can run off a dozen things “we just want” to do before or ask God. Try “Father, you” and we will be shocked how tongue-tied we get. We will learn how hard it is to actually hallow God’s name, like Jesus. Finding it difficult to go to God, leading with God rather than ourselves, evidences a weak prayer life.
Committing to pray “Father, you” will force us to consider more of God’s name, character, works and word. This is how we address kings. We first make much of the king to show we entrust our lives to him. How much more our God? It is our greatest joy in prayer to ascribe Godness to God (Ps 96.7-8); therefore, beginning every prayer with “Father, you” only serves the increase of our joy.
I am thankful for Dr. Seifrid. He is no Jesus. But he did teach me to “Pray, then, this way.”