Believe it or not: It is Biblical to Say “You” to God

Having been brought up always to pray to God with Thee’s and Thou’s, and being over thirty so I cannot easily change, I intend to continue to use Thee’s and Thou’s in my prayers.

There is something beautiful in these forms of address. They are a constant reminder that God is the Creator and we are the creatures. It is one way of expressing our humility. Instead of taking our shoes off because it is holy ground, we can acknowledge the God-man relationship by polite forms of address.

Too often we hear—even from so-called men of God, ministers—flippant prayers, such as, “Well, God, here we go again.” There is too much chumminess with God, lack of respect, too much pell-mell running over holy ground, where angels fear to tread.

There is little understanding of the very start of Jesus’ model prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” By adding the place of God’s residence (heaven) and by making the very first petition a request that God may be revered, Jesus is teaching us to express honor and respect in our prayers. Of course, Jesus does not mean to say that every prayer must inexorably follow a wooden pattern set forth in the model prayer. But by including these elements of adoration and by putting them right at the start of the prayer, he is instructing us to go to the Father with a certain amount of reverence, and not to go bounding flippantly into his presence.

There ought to be a sense of “Holy, holy, holy.” When a person realizes that in prayer he is in the presence of the holy God, he will have some sense of Isaiah’s awe, when having seen God, he said, “Holy, holy, holy…I am undone…I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:3–5).

Because the Old and New Testament saints had such a great feeling of God’s presence in prayer, we never read of them nonchalantly sitting during prayer, with their legs crossed perhaps, their minds wandering, their hearts yawning and their heads nodding. Rather, without exception, as the Biblical saints pray, they are flat on the ground, kneeling, or standing. They want their outward expression to conform to their inner sense of awe for the majesty of God.

Yet, on the other hand, a balance must be kept. God must not be so exalted that none dare to go to him. So in his exemplary prayer Jesus counteracts the exalted adoration by using the word Father. And this is the very first word in Creek, and not the second one, as it is in English, thus emphasizing its importance. Paul says that we may even use a more natural term than father, namely, abba. And abba is the term that small children used of their fathers, thus, not a lofty, awesome term, but a familiar one.

In this spirit of naturalness, Jesus uses exactly the same pronoun for God that he does for men. In speaking of God, Jesus says, “Hallowed be sou [this is the Greek] name; sou will be done; sou kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10–11).

And in this entire sixth chapter, Jesus uses this same Greek word meaning you and your (sou) for men. He instructs his followcrs, “When therefore you do alms, sound not a trumpet before sou [you)…Verily I say unto humin [the Greek word for plural you], they have received their reward. But when sou do alms, let not sou left hand know what sou right hand does that sou alms may he in secret; and sou Father who sees in secret shall recompense soi [the same Greek word for sou, only in a different form] ( Matt. 6:2–4). Throughout the entire chapter Jesus uses sou for men, just as in the Lord’s Prayer he uses sou for God.

The old translations, like the King James, American Standard Version and the Roman Catholic Confraternity, translate sou as thou, thee and thy in order to show that sou refers to one person; and they translate the Greek words humeis or humin (6:2), as ye or you in order to show that they arc plural. Thus in translating sou as Thy in the Lord’s Prayer, the old versions do not intend to give greater glory and reverence to God. They are simply using the singular form that they also used for men.

Therefore, it is not factual to argue that in addressing God, it is more Biblical to us Thee‘s and Thou‘s. Jesus used the pronouns that were commonly used of men.

If we had no human traditions, if we could start all over again, fresh, it would he perfectly Scriptural and desirable to address God as you. It is most unnatural to use “Thou lovedst” with three hard-to-pronounce consonants in succession. It is unnatural for a four-year old (and some forty-four year aids have never learned the correct English forms) to learn the strange vocabulary of “didst Thou” or “Thou comest” or “wouldst Thou work.” It ought not to be. He ought to stick to the simple everyday verb forms just as the Greek New Testament does.

So, if we could start from scratch, it would be better if we could avoid these unnatural, archaic forms. Yet, the fact is that a large percentage of Christians do use them and do love them. It speaks to them of reverence and honor for God.

Each Christian must decide what form he will use. If thou shouldst opt for the Thee‘s and Thou‘s, thou wilt have the disadvantage of unnaturalness (for a while) and lack of communication to the non-Christian. But thou dost have the advantage of conveying a greater respect for God.

If you choose for you, you will be contemporary and on solid Biblical ground.

In both cases, there should be a respect for the milieu in which you are praying. Are you praying alone, in the family, with friends, in an established church or at an evangelistic meeting? It would be unloving and unwise to barge into a congregation that strongly prefers to retain the endearing adoration forms of Thee and Thou, and to turn up your nose at these grand saints of God. And it would not do to look down your nose at those who out of love for novice Christians and simplicity choose to use the modern forms.

The ideal would be, avoiding the ostentatiousness of some modern ministers, to exhibit great reverence, awe and filial love. and then to use the natural expressions of you and your.

Dr. Edwin H. Palmer is executive secretary of the committee of Bible translation of the New York Bible Society.