Half a dozen children were in the house, some my own, some the neighbors’. I also had a salesman visiting. As I talked with him about insurance, some of the children stopped by to see what we were doing. I introduced them. Finally, curious, the salesman asked, “Are these all your children?”

I had to smile. Clearly there is a huge difference between the children who belong to me and those who merely visit. But no stranger could tell the difference just by looking. Neighbor children are in our home often enough to treat it like their own. They act as if they belong, and we treat them as if they belong.

If the salesman had watched and listened long enough, though, the children would have given themselves away. They would have shown to whom they belonged by the way they addressed me. The neighbor children call me Tim. My children call me Dad. The difference grows more obvious whenever someone is hurt. My children, when they skin a knee or lose a fight, come to me crying, “Daddy!” The neighbor children go off to their parents.

There are other ways to establish paternity: blood types, hospital records. But the simplest and most eloquent testimony comes from the children themselves. They have been told their entire lives that they belong to us. We have shown them that we love them. They respond, “Daddy! Mommy!”

That is what the apostle Paul had in mind, I believe, when he wrote to the Romans, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15–16). This response is a fundamental sign of our identity in God’s family.

“Abba, Help!”

When Christians doubt their relationship to God they can ask themselves: To whom do I turn in moments of fear or trouble? To whom do I call, like a little child, “Daddy!”?

Christians often look, instead, to less helpful tests. For instance, since fruitfulness should follow from a genuine Christian life, believers try to calculate just how fruitful their lives are. That seems reasonable. Genuine children of God should show the fruit of his Spirit: love and joy, for example.

The trouble with making a test of fruitfulness is that when we feel heartsick and discouraged, we always seem to fail the test. It is in such times of discouragement that this double testimony of God’s Spirit and our spirit stands out most clearly. When my children are in pain or unhappy, they demonstrate that they belong to me by calling out, “Daddy!” They may even be angry with me; they may act as though I were the source of their misery. But they treat me (well or badly) as the key to their situation; they don’t treat the neighbors’ parents that way.

In the same way, when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” it is a testimony of our spirits born of the long testimony of God’s Spirit to us. Life may be painful; our Father may even seem unfair; he may not help us the way we want him to; but fundamentally we know to whom we belong, and that is why we turn to him and call him by that very personal name: “Father.” We know he is the key to our lives.

Helpless Yet Hopeful

To apply this, we need to be clear what Father means. I know a woman who gets religion every time she’s worried. When she had cancer, she really prayed. She went to church. Other times, nobody would mistake her for a Christian.

So what does it mean that she calls on God when she’s in trouble? Is this the testimony of the Spirit that she is fundamentally a believer? Must we believe that soldiers who pray only in trenches and runners who pray only at the starting line necessarily belong to God? Of course not.

My friend does call on God, and she may even use the word Father when she does, but to the best of my knowledge her cry is not that of a child looking to a parent. Rather, she’s bargaining. She’s offering God a deal: I’ll be good if you’ll help. This is not the authentic cry of a child for a Father.

If my son skins his knee and comes running, he doesn’t say, “Dad, I’ll be very, very good this week, and I’m sorry for all I’ve done; now will you put a Band-Aid on my knee?” He doesn’t think such complicated thoughts. He merely comes to me, in pain, in need, expecting that I will provide. He is blind to the odds of whether I will do him any good. His act is impulsive. He can’t help it. He knows that I love him; that is why he calls on me for help.

People can call on God like a high potentate, buttering him up to get what they want: “Oh most merciful and wonderful God, who knows all hearts, listen to my prayer.” There may be nothing wrong with that kind of appeal, but it is not a testimony to a father-child relationship.

People can also demand God’s help, as though he were morally compelled to come to their aid. I have heard people pray like this, reminding God of his promises the way you remind an employee of his job description. Perhaps this, too, is acceptable prayer—some of the psalms seem to do it—but it is not the cry of a child in pain to his Father.

The cry of a child is helpless, yet hopeful; it is unhedged and unmanipulating; its urgency reflects a history of love such as only a parent can offer.

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Believers call to God this way. We do not have to urge them to do it; they do it regardless. They begin their regular prayers with the word Father, and when in trouble, when discouraged, when in pain, they reflexively turn to God. They don’t strategize how to get him to do what they want him to do; they just turn to him. God’s Spirit has taught them to do this, through the outpouring of his love. The fact that they have learned the lesson—that they have felt the love, and cry for more—is most eloquent testimony that they are, indeed, related to God himself.

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