D. A. Carson points out that if you really want to embarrass the average Christian, just ask them to tell you about their private prayer life. Many Christians can bluff it when it comes to Bible knowledge, church attendance, even sharing their faith. But ask about prayer, and you’re likely to get a shuffling of the feet and some awkward stares.

Most Christians struggle to make their prayer times meaningful. (I count myself among them.) We think it’s supposed to be a sweet, mystical communion with Jesus . . . but when we start to pray we inevitably find ourselves working on grocery lists in our head or reliving last night’s episode of Blacklist. At other times, if we’re honest, we just aren’t sure how much good prayer actually accomplishes.

So what is prayer supposed to look like? Why is it so hard for us? And—most importantly—how can we move from having to pray to loving to pray? The answer lies in two phrases of Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:5–10. In two short phrases, Jesus highlights two radical attributes of God’s character. If we were to grasp these two attributes, prayer would become as natural for us as breathing.

1. The Fatherhood of God

Jesus taught his disciples to begin their prayers, “Our Father.” We have a tendency to miss how revolutionary those two little words are. But the most astounding and unique of all Christian revelation is the revelation that God is our Father. Other religions presented God as the Creator, as the great ruler, as the all-powerful, or as the spirit that animates all living beings. Only Christianity presents him—from the very beginning—as Father.

From all eternity God has been a Father, because from eternity he has existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is, and always has been, a Father. That’s why the Apostle John says, “God is love.” Not, “God loves now that he has created,” but from the very beginning, he is love. Love only exists in relationship, so if God were to be in his very essence love, he must have eternally existed in relationship. This is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. God didn’t create humanity because he was looking for someone to love; he created us to share in the love that had existed between Father, Son, and Spirit from eternity. He created us as his children so that we might know the Father’s love.

So when we come to God in prayer, we aren’t coming to a tyrant we need to appease. We aren’t coming to a divine policeman in order to negotiate for mercy. If we are in Christ, Jesus says, then when we pray we are coming into the presence of a Father who cherishes us and who feels our every pain—deeper than we even feel it ourselves.

If you truly saw God as the loving Father he is, wouldn’t that change how you pray? If for just a moment you could truly grasp the lengths he went to redeem you, the brutal torture he endured on your behalf, the depth of compassion he has in his heart for you . . . then you would cry out with the hymn writer, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!”

I stand in awe of God our Creator. I bow in reverence before our almighty, holy, glorious Ruler and Judge. But nothing thrills my heart more than the privilege of calling our God Father.

2. The Sovereignty of God

At first blush, it might seem like God’s sovereignty prevents us from prayer more than it propels us toward it. After all, if God is sovereign, doesn’t that mean he already knows what he’s going to do? Why pray for God to change anything at all?

Because God has hardwired the universe to run on prayer.

It’s true that God “knows the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). But part of the mystery of God’s sovereignty is that he allows our prayers to be the means by which he achieves those ends. That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In prayer, we are supposed to discern what God in heaven wants, and then to ask for it.

An excellent picture of this is Moses in Exodus 32. After going up the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments, Moses comes down to find all of Israel dancing around drunk with their newly made golden idol. When God threatens to destroy Israel, Moses pleads with him, even asking God to repent from his plan. And this is the most astounding part: God does it. He listens to Moses’ prayer and chooses not to destroy them.

This can be a difficult story to understand, until we notice a crucial detail: God is the one who tells Moses to go down the mountain. God wanted Moses to see Israel’s faithlessness, so that Moses would pray—using some of God’s own promises—and prevent the coming disaster. God put Moses in a situation so that he would see the problem, perceive God’s anger, remember God’s promises, and petition God to change.

God does the same with us. He sovereignly places us in situations in order to claim his unchanging promises, so that we can change the destiny of situations. None of us has landed in our current circumstances by accident. We are where we are by God’s design, to call forth his promises and plead for his will on behalf of others. And where do we learn his will? His Word. The prayers most effective before the throne of God are the ones that begin in the Word of God. So don’t just read your way through Scripture; pray your way through it.

Because God is sovereign, his eternal purposes will always be accomplished. Because God is Father, he desires for us to join him in his plans. Our Father, may your kingdom come and your will be done—in our lives, in our families, in our city—just as it is in heaven.