How Knowing God as “Father” Informs My Understanding of Prayer

Father Knows Best was a popular television show when I was a child. It was about the Anderson family whose dad offered sage advice whenever one of his children encountered a problem. The image of a caring father who acts in the best interest of his children is an anomaly for victims of sexual abuse who knew their abusers as “dad.” For them, dad was a self-serving man they dared not trust. It is no wonder that abuse victims sometimes struggle with the image of God as a Heavenly Father. Even those of us whose perpetrators were not our dads, can still struggle to relate to a good God. Trust can be difficult, especially if safety was lacking in our formative years. Rather than trust anyone to care for us, we have often fought for some illusion of control.

Even though I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior as a teenager, my walk with God has been a long journey. Even now, forty years later, I am still learning to really trust Him. As a young Christian, the discipline of prayer became very important to me.  I was so excited to see all the ways God answers prayer! Now I also recognize there were times I trusted more in the power of my prayers than in the One I prayed to. It’s a subtle distinction. 

We frequently think if enough people pray about a matter or if we invoke the proper prayer promises, then God is obligated to act. In doing so, we miss the essence of God’s heart and the trustworthiness of His wisdom. It’s like when we were kids, and we thought if our friends joined us in asking dad for ice cream, he was more likely to stop at the store! Our hope was in the form of our appeal rather than a reflection of our confidence in dad. Other times we are like kids who scream “but you promised,” while failing to recognize that going to the lake during a thunderstorm is not truly in our best interest! If we don’t see the storm out our window, we fail to realize that the weather report is true, and we question dad’s judgment.

Often I prided myself in being a committed “prayer warrior” who grasped prayer’s principles and trusted in its benefits.  I relied on the knowledge I felt I had gained from much study about prayer. Recently, God reminded me again how our perceptions of Him and of scripture itself can sometimes be colored by our own experiences or the teaching of others. The story of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19 is a case in point.  Often I have read how Abraham wrestled with God in a commendable fashion and seemingly persuaded Him to spare judgment for only ten people’s sake.  However, a prayerful perusal of the text recently revealed some noteworthy, new insights to me.

First of all, the scriptures do not say that God told Abraham that He was going to kill everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah. What He actually said was, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” (18:20-21).  Immediately, Abraham seems to assume that God will not only destroy the cities, but also everyone in them!  As he stands before the Lord (while the other two visitors continue toward Sodom), he begins to accuse God of “treating the righteous and the wicked alike.” Then he says to God, “Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (18:25).

While I am grateful that God allowed Abraham to express his concerns, I can’t help but wonder if Abraham’s reaction grieved Him? After all, God had just expressed His desire to share His heart with Abraham, commenting on how He trusted him to “keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” (vs. 17-19). How ironic that just a few verses later, Abraham seems to imply that he knows more about what is right than God does! No doubt, God understood that Abraham feared what might happen to his nephew, Lot, who lived in Sodom.  I think this may be one reason God answered his questions so patiently.

The amazing reality is that God did find Sodom and Gomorrah to be so sinful that the angels informed Lot that God was going to destroy “the place.” (19:12-13). Yet, His angels sought to spare anyone who was related to Lot, so much so, that they literally took his family members by the hand and led them out of the city (19:12-16)! God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah as Abraham had feared, but He rescued Lot’s family of four, which was something Abraham had not even dared to ask for! God’s ways are not like ours—They are deeply personal. He indeed answered the unexpressed prayer of Abraham’s heart.

Now I want to share something else that I found to be instructive. In Genesis 19:27 we read how Abraham got up the next morning and returned to the place where he talked with God earlier. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and all he saw was “dense smoke rising from the land!” At this point, there is no indication that Abraham knew that Lot and his family had been spared.  (Perhaps he never knew for sure—the scriptures don’t say.) Nevertheless, God was faithful in ways that weren’t immediately apparent to him. In a similar fashion, we may not always know the answer to our prayers either, yet we can grow to trust God’s character and goodness over time just as Abraham did.

Prayer is much more than a religious discipline—it is a holy privilege. Ultimately, it is an invitation to draw close to God and to discover His heart for us and others. He longs for us to know Him as a Father who always has our best interests in mind. I am reminded of a scripture that my spiritual mentor used to share with me years ago:

“Call to me, and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” (Jeremiah 33:3)

It strikes me now that God didn’t say, “Call to me, and I will give you what you want or what you think you need.” Instead He promises to reveal things that we have not considered before, things that flow from His great heart into our limited understanding. Earlier in Isaiah 49:13-16, He speaks of parenting us in news ways that our earthly parents may have been incapable of doing.

As you think about Father’s Day this weekend, how might knowing God as your Heavenly Father affect your celebration?

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