Mother May I?
Religion & Liberty Online

Mother May I?

Bhutan - Flickr - babasteve (2)At last week’s Acton on Tap, I discussed the economic teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism, beginning with the divine origin of material blessings as expressed in Lord’s Day 50, which explores the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The catechism emphasizes God as “the only source of everything good,” echoing the classical Christian understanding of God as the fons omnium bonorum, a Latin phrase meaning the font or source of all good things. This formula appears in many places, notably in the work of John Calvin.

The conclusion from such an understanding is, as the catechism puts it, that we are “to give up our trust in creatures and trust in you [God] alone.” So even though the bread we normally consume each day is brought to us by the work of others, including farmers, millers, and bakers, we are to look beyond these secondary means to the origin of all good things, giving thanks to him.

In his guide to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Rev. Cornelis Vonk provides us with a powerful image connecting the divine origins and the human means by which our material blessings normally are provided. Vonk writes,

Someone might nonetheless ask, “How can we ask the Lord for bread when it is already prepared and ready on our table?”

We see the same thing when a child takes an apple from a bowl on the table, after first asking, “Mother, may I take an apple?” The child does this even though those apples were purchased for him. But Mother is the owner. In the same way, before we enjoy a finely furnished meal, we acknowledge our heavenly Father as the owner by saying, “Please.”

The Lord’s Prayer is a way of gratefully acknowledging that God has provided for our material needs, most often through the work of our neighbors, and asking in faithfulness that such provision continue.

It’s natural to take some of these kinds of teachings and apply them to everyday circumstances, as Vonk does so helpfully here. In my own case, I often encounter my children desiring things, even something as simple as their daily bread. But I have had to work to teach them, and still have to do so almost daily, to ask for things properly. Thus, when my son says, “I’m hungry,” usually I will not respond, or if I do I will acknowledge his statement like this, “Hi, Hungry, my name is Jordan. Nice to meet you.” The statement “I’m hungry” is not a question. It is not, in the formula of the Lord’s Prayer, a petition.

Of course my son means something like, “I’m hungry and I would like for you to feed me.” But he needs to be taught to ask for things properly, and in the same way our heavenly Father teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer to ask for things properly, out of the right motivations and in the right spirit.

Most of the time when my son wants something, I am only to happy to provide it. I begin with a disposition towards giving him good gifts. As Jesus teaches, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Holy Spirit, of course, is the best gift of all.

But sometimes my son expresses his wishes in a way that prevents me from fulfilling that desire. I have to wait for him to ask in the right way and out of the right motive before I can give him what he wants. And sometimes his rudeness prevents me from doing so at all. I often tell him that he has to enable me to provide for him by asking for things in the right way. “Help me help you,” I tell him. Otherwise, I run the risk of instilling bad manners, ungratefulness, and a sense of entitlement.

Likewise, God desires that “all these things will be given to you as well,” but has also taught us to desire them properly and in an ordinate way. First we must seek his kingdom and his righteousness. First we must ask for our daily bread and in so doing, as the catechism puts it, trust in God alone.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.