I have always liked a mystery. In my reading that has led me to enjoy Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Lord Peter Wimsey” novels and Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series. I blush to confess the vast number of hours I used to spend watching the various incarnations of Law and Order.
Love of mystery also shapes my theological interests. I often return to classic texts of the mystical tradition like The Cloud of Unknowing. And I choose to write and teach on theologians like John Calvin who can live with a bit of mystery, paradox, and tension.
Mystery is an indication that God is our creator and we are the creation — he will always be beyond our grasp, even though he has graciously, reliably revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Frankly theology that seems to have a lock on everything makes me a bit queasy.
That is what I have always seen in the second part of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: Jesus has us specify that the God we pray to as “Father” is also “in heaven.” I find a tension there with the first word describing God close at hand, and the second placing God out of reach. Praying “Our Father in heaven” takes on a little electrical charge of paradox: God is here, knowable; God is outside creation, inherently mysterious.
The Heidelberg Catechism takes this phrase in a different direction. Actually two. Two very good directions, both different from my own. O well.
Both are in Question 121. The first lesson we learn by praying to our Father “in heaven” is that
“These words teach us not to think of God’s heavenly majesty as something earthly”
This is a way of addressing a great mistake we often make in our thinking about God: We define the terms based on our own experience. At worst this can be outright idolatry. In milder terms it can be just mistaking something we can manage for the God who ultimately is beyond our grasp.
We hear “God is love” and we say “Well I know what love is all about.” God must be about what I know from being in love — maybe a really big version of that.
We hear “God is just” and we say “Sure, I know what justice is.” God must be about what I know as justice — maybe a really big version of that — whether what I know is a four year old’s sense of fairness or a litigator’s sense of due process.
God is more.
God’s way of showing love and justice is not only quantitatively different from our own. It is qualitatively different. Same with calling God “Father” and with all aspects of God’s majesty. God actually gets to define the terms. There is mystery there.
Heidelberg’s second explanation of why we pray to our Father “in Heaven” is that we are
“to expect everything needed for body and soul from God’s almighty power.”
That is an echo, an application, of what Heidelberg said much earlier on the topic of “providence” — the understanding that our God is in charge of everything in creation. As they explained the Apostles’ Creed line by line, Questions 26-28 were on providence. They also just happen to be the line of the Creed naming God “the Father almighty.”
For these writers, awareness of God as our adoptive Father always leads to comfort. There is comfort because it makes providence positive. Our lives are in the hands of someone who loves us. Noting that this Father is “in heaven” emphasizes that the God who adopts us is absolutely powerful enough to meet our needs — every need of body and soul.
What do you find yourself thinking when you pray this phrase of the Lord’s Prayer — when you pray to God “in heaven”?
What is something mysterious in life or faith that you really value?
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Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks Jim! I’m honored and grateful.
I find the analogy of Fatherhood in the Lord’s prayer to be a reassurance about the character of God. I love the truth in the statement that “God is more” than what is contained in the image of Fatherhood and human ideas of love and justice. I am also comforted when I remember that neither is he *less* than the metaphor suggests. Metaphors aren’t meant for precision. Whatever else the mystery of our relationship to God as Father may mean, it indicates to me that ours is a relationship of trust and not fear, intimacy in spite of distance.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Scott, thanks for joining the conversation here. I like your point — both “more” and “less” in different ways.
Joe Pruett says
Dr. Hansen, I too really like to connect with the phrase, “God is much more”, this to me applies to everything we can imagine. I’m often reminded of the quote a good friend of mine once said that it is so sad for those who dont believe in God, for to them “this world is the best they can ever hope to receive”, thankfully there is a much deeper and better place for us to live eternally than this sinful world!