What’s the best way to address God?
That’s not an easy question, even for a preacher. But a three-year-old girl gave me an answer so simple and practical that I laughed out loud when I grasped the truth of what she said.
The Bible Gives Many Names for God
Of course, the little girl didn’t know that the Bible is so full of names for God that theologians never tire of writing books to explain them. In the Old Testament there’s his personal name, Yahweh. The more generic name of Elohim is also frequently used. Then there are names like the Lord, Lord God, Lord of Hosts. Other, more descriptive names include Jehovah-jireh (“God who provides”), Baal Perazim (“Lord of the breakthrough”) and El Roi (“God who sees me”).
In the New Testament, Jesus is called Son of God, Son of Man, Lord, Christ, Lord Christ, the Good Shepherd. The list is as long as it is evocative of all the ways that he meets our deepest needs.
Even the Holy Spirit is known by different names. “The Holy Spirit” is the main one. But in other places he’s called “the Spirit of Life” and in a few places just “the Spirit.”
God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit has so many names through the Scriptures that it’s easy to lose track. In fact, as you read the Bible you get the impression that whatever circumstances God’s people are facing at any given time clue them in to the name best suited for the moment.
For example, when Moses is struggling to find God’s will for himself and his Jewish people in Exodus 3, God instructs him to address him by his personal name “Yahweh.” The reason is that only the covenant relationship that name implies can give Moses the courage necessary to face the challenges of leadership. Later, when in Romans 8 the apostle Paul describes the difference between a life motivated by the flesh and a life motivated by the Holy Spirit as the difference between death and life, he calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Life.”
God as Our “Daddy”
But there’s another name for God that’s different from the rest. A name that’s less dramatic but more tender, less awe-inspiring but closer to where we really live. That’s the name I learned from the little girl I mentioned at the first–it’s the name, “Daddy.”
I know that sounds odd to some people to call God “Daddy,” but it’s one translation of ‘”Abba,” a name for God that’s used three times in the Bible. The first is in Mark 14:36 as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified. In an agony of fear (verse 33 says he was “greatly distressed and troubled”), he prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
The second time the word is used is in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
The third time is Galatians 4:6, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!”
Many people believe that “Abba” is an informal title that a Jewish child would have given to their father inside the home that reflects the intimacy and informality of a family setting. And when you look at all three of those verses together, you can see how the word portrays an aspect of God’s nature that expands the image of God as a distant figure on a throne by showing him also as a caring dad.
In the first verse, when Jesus faces the most extreme crisis of his earthly life, he doesn’t call out to his Father; he needs his “Abba.” In the other two cases, the apostle Paul uses “Abba” to describe the close, family connection that exists between the believer and the Lord because of the spiritual adoption that the Holy Spirit makes possible through his work in our lives. “Daddy” is the best word that describes those settings.
Of course, not everyone sees it this way. According to Justin Taylor,
Abba was not a childish term of the nursery comparable to “Daddy.” It was a polite and serious term, yet also colloquial and familiar, regularly used by adult sons and daughters when addressing their father. Ideas of simplicity, intimacy, security and affection attach to this household word of childlike trust and obedience. So to bring out the sense of warm and trusting intimacy that belongs to the word, we could appropriately paraphrase it as “dear father.” If Paul had wanted to convey the sense of “Daddy,” he could have used a Greek word he undoubtedly would have known – papas or pappas that means “papa” or “daddy,” a child’s word for “father.”
A Child’s Way of Speaking
But academics like Justin Taylor may be missing an underlying principle of language.
“Abba” comes from the Aramaic word for father, “Ab”—that’s fairly clear. But the interesting thing is how the word went through linguistic changes to end up as “Ab-ba.” I’m sure there are scholars who can track the development of the word in ancient manuscripts down through the centuries and demonstrate how “Ab” morphed into “Abba.” But a more realistic understanding is how language works with children.
Children have a way of adding syllables—usually consisting of vowels—to words they like. For example, a child may say “jello-y” to describe the characteristic way Jell-o wiggles when you shake the dish it’s in. Instead of saying, “dog” a child prefers “doggy.” It’s the way their minds work.
That’s where the three-year-old girl I mentioned at the top of this article comes into the story. She’s actually my granddaughter, and the evolution of her name for me demonstrates the principle we’re talking about. When my wife and I first started having grandchildren, there was a good bit of debate over what they should call us. Our daughter finally settled the issue by deciding the best name for Pam would be “Grandma” and I would be “Pops.” I loved the name because it’s easy to remember, fun to say and even young children just learning to talk can easily pronounce it.
“Pops” worked pretty well through the first three granddaughters but when number four arrived on the scene, things changed. She started out calling me, “Pops” but that didn’t last long. Within a few months of her learning to talk, “Pops” became “Pops-y.” Like I said earlier, that’s the natural way these things work. But why stop at “Pops-y” when you can take it to the next level? So my granddaughter followed her instincts and came up with my new name, “Pops-y-poo.” Now, every time she or the other grandchildren use the name, all of them break out into gales of laughter. I know that there are adults in the room that think the name is disrespectful and that grandchildren shouldn’t call their grandfather by such a name. But as far as I’m concerned, the word captures perfectly the playfulness, intimacy and sheer joy my grandchildren feel with me when we’re together. I laugh and give them a hug every time they call me by that name.
When it comes to “Abba,” the same principle may apply. A child in ancient Israel might take the formal word for father, “Ab” and, over a short period of time in a playful, intimate way, call their father not Ab but Ab-ba. Not as a sign of disrespect but as a sign of intimacy and comfort. I can imagine how that might happen. A Jewish man comes in from working the field all day and as he sits down to the evening meal with his family, his wife puts his little boy on his lap and the boy looks up and at first says, “Ab.” And the father gravely nods his head. But then the son smiles at him, reaches up a small hand and tugs on his beard and when his father looks down at him, the boy without thinking says, “Ab-ba.” And his father laughs and holds him close and says, “Yes! I’d rather be your Abba than your Ab any day! Because that’s how much I love you.”
That’s why I believe “Abba” in the three Bible passages above is best rendered as “Daddy.” Not Father. Not Dear Father. Not Dad. But Daddy–close and tender, intimate and real. In a previous post I talk about the how important the role of father or Daddy is in the work of the pastor.
My daughter gave me a gift years ago of a collage of pictures of she and I together through the years. It’s one of my most prized possessions. In each of the individual pictures she and I have the same posture—her head leaning against mine and both of us with broad smiles. There are pictures of her as a child, a teenager, a college student; and even as a young wife and mother. But despite all the changes of her personal appearance (and mine) down through the years, the title at the bottom of the frame says it all: “Daddy’s Girl.” No other word but “Daddy” describes the reality behind those pictures. I should add that the granddaughter who calls me “Pops-y-poo” belongs to my daughter. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my daughter didn’t come up with the name to begin with then coax her daughter into using it.
So what’s the best way to address God? The answer depends on what circumstance you’re going through and what need is most pressing in your life. But for me, the default name of God will always be, “Abba,” or “Daddy.” Because that’s the name that most closely meets my deepest need.
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