THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 76
The Fatherhood of God
Jesus talked frequently of his father – so often, in fact, that it is clear that it was a basic belief that underlay his whole approach to life throughout his ministry. From childhood, when he said he must be about his father’s business, until the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asked his father to take the cup away from him if it were possible, the belief and trust in his father were evident.
Naturally, therefore, the concept of God as father has identified Christianity all down the ages. The Fatherhood of God has been a rock on which the edifice of Christianity has been built and on which it has survived these two thousand years.
The verse that sticks in everyone’s memory is when Jesus calls God ‘Abba – Father’. ‘Abba’ is the equivalent today to the child’s ‘Daddy’. The intimacy of that hits us and rouses echoes from our own childhood and our own fathers.
I once read somewhere – I forget where – that some theologians contest the idea that ‘Abba’ is equivalent to ‘Daddy’. But then there are always some who disagree and as far as I can discover most experts think rendering the word in this way is correct.
However, it is as well to note here that not everyone is as moved or as enamoured of the idea of God being our father as might be supposed. In fact the concept can be a real stumbling block to some. There are good fathers and bad fathers, and if you happen to suffer the disadvantages of a bad one – say one who is an alcoholic or abuses you or is addicted to gambling or is a womaniser or fails the family in some other way – then for you the connotations of the word ’father’ might be anything but good.
In fact, it has been recorded that for some people the blockage to becoming a Christian is this very idea of God being our father. Some people find the concept so difficult that they cannot accommodate Christianity, because it is a religion that seems to require God to be a father. Their image of fatherhood is too damaged to allow them to participate. Be that as it may, for the vast majority of us the idea of God being our father is a help and not a hindrance.
Most of us have memories of our father being there for us at the earliest stages of our life. Our memories are happy ones and this enjoyment of the fatherhood of God is reflected in our hymns where it is often used to evoke feelings of assurance from someone, bigger and wiser than us, guiding us through life’s difficult patches. Such hymns bring back memories of our Dad teaching us how to ride a bike, or when he taught us as we went out fishing together, or perhaps when he showed us the joys of stamp collecting or whatever. His interest and wisdom were there for us and we can easily link up to the feelings of love and affection they evoked in us.
This carries over into our spiritual life. We come to a crisis point where we are not managing our lives as well as we would like and we realize that we need divine help and then perhaps we are ready to ask Jesus into our lives as Lord. When we do that, turning from our old ways and learning from him, we embrace the fatherhood of God. If Jesus called God ‘Abba – Father’ then so can we – and immediately for almost all of us the warm feelings of love of our earthly father becomes associated and linked with our heavenly father. No longer is God a forbidding figure, but rather a source of love and support.
To turn to our heavenly father becomes our help in time of trouble. We can picture him leading us through the storm, guiding us when in doubt, encouraging us when we are despondent, giving us strength to go on. The ways in which he helps us tackle life are endless – as broad as humanity itself.
For many of us our experience of the fatherhood of God rests there. It is enormously helpful and comforting to know that God our father is supportive and loving, as our own fathers were as we grew up. It encourages us to overcome our fears and to gain confidence. There is nothing mistaken or wrong in our experience of God – but it doesn’t move beyond that view of and dependence on a God who is similar to our childhood father. There are, however, deeper depths to be plumbed if we will venture ahead!
When we recognize that there are further stages of life - the child becomes a rebellious teenager, then a young adult, then a mature adult and, finally, an old adult and that in each of these phases the son or daughter’s relationship with their father changes, then we can progress in our understanding of God’s fatherhood. We move beyond the childhood stage where Daddy encourages our first steps and helps us gain confidence.
Just as we never forget the tender love of our earthly father in our early years, so we never lose the sense of God caring for us as a father looks after his child – but as we pass through each successive phase of growth we go deeper into God. In a real sense each new phase includes all we have learned in previous phases, but our experience broadens and deepens. So lets look at these further stages in the child/father relationship.
The next stage on from childhood is the teenage phase. What characterises this period? Fathers might say ‘rebellion’ and it often seems so from their viewpoint! From the point of view of the teenager, however, it is a whole new world where he has suddenly grown fiercely independent. He wants to be his own boss and he has his own ideas (usually the opposite of those of this parents who ‘don’t understand’), and he has a thrusting burgeoning sexuality, forcing him to develop as a person whether he wants to or not. He avidly seeks new experiences, new friends, new places, new ideas – truly ‘off with the old and on with the new’!
The relationship between father and son probably deteriorates in this stage, due in part no doubt to both parties being in a new and untried situation with each other. The son’s ego wishes to rid itself of everyone else’s opinions, and especially those of his parents. Not all teenagers go wild, but it is certainly a period when the young person seeks new experiences, and often there is experimentation with drugs, relationships, sex, and work.
Maybe in the spiritual realm too, all of us have to go through some sort of similar experience on our way to maturity. We have to shrug off other people’s ideas and the beliefs, which we inherited and start to find out what we ourselves really believe. It seems some people never to go through this stage, and are content to stay with what they learned early on in their spiritual lives. Sometimes this phase takes place when they are older – a sort of delayed rebellion phase. Others become so alienated to church and religion (usually when the parents believe in those things) that they stay away from the idea of God for years or even decades. Adolescence is a tempestuous phase of life for most but it’s an essential phase on the path to maturity, both physically and spiritually. It can take us down some strange byroads, but better we quest than stay physically and spiritually immature.
By the time we have grown into a young adult we have usually recognized that our fathers are not invariably wrong! They do have some good ideas and we have warmed to them as people a little. There is however still a huge age gap: the ‘generation gap’. Often, however, there are just the beginnings of a genuine friendship – which is a new thing and quite different to the child/father relationship of previous years.
Fathers often help at this stage with money and useful advice – which is not always listened to fully! The young adult is still largely preoccupied with his own life, which is now opening out in exciting ways. Perhaps he gets married or enters into a settled partnership with someone. By now his sexuality is probably clear and he will have made decisions about that. Maybe he becomes a father – usually he is working hard to establish himself in his chosen work.
In spiritual terms, if he thinks about God at all in this phase, he is almost certain to revert to his childhood concepts of a loving, powerful father who cares for him, comforts him when he is hurt and who encourages him. We are only at the early stages of maturity so far.
Over the next few decades the young man grows into full adulthood. Now he is making his way in the world and probably has a partner and, possibly, children. The latter are a powerful factor in his growing up, both emotionally and spiritually because he has to assume the role of a father himself. Looking after young children and all that involves is a maturing experience!
His relationship with his own father, if it has progressed at all (in many cases it doesn’t!) will have deepened and broadened. He not only now realises emotionally how good it is to have his father as his friend, but he is also growing spiritually (whether or not he goes to church!) and so is thereby enabled to go deeper in all his relationships. He is still probably helped by the older man’s advice and experience – but the relationship, if it has matured, is much more a fellowship of equals who are linked by love. It is usually in this period that the earthly father reaches the end of his life, causing a sense of emptiness and loss.
Spiritually, his relationship with God has also deepened (emotionally) and broadened (in understanding). God is no longer seen as just the all-providing father, source of all blessing, but is more of a spiritual partner. At this stage, verses of St Paul come into their own (1 Cor 3.9) and God is seen as the inspiration for new ventures of faith. Our man is maturing into a fully responsible adult! There is only one more stage before death - old age. The transition into old age is not so much a matter of years but rather of attitude, development and health.
As we go into old age we begin to lose some of our faculties. No need to detail them – we are all familiar with the facts of aging. His father is now looked back on with affectionate memory. The way he managed the childhood and adolescence of his children is remembered. How he didn’t panic through the teenage years of his son. How he stood in the background while his son established his life, career and family. And then how he was available as a friend – an equal friend – in later years.
So, as old age advances, he too is able to remember in spiritual terms God’s goodness through his childhood and youth and into his early decades as a man. He remembers how God stood back when he wanted to pursue some course or other, and didn’t intrude in any way. But then how, when trouble or tragedy struck, God was waiting on the sidelines to help. The child/father relationship developed into two friends engaged in co-partnership in the later years. Available as a friend – a God who deigns to call us equals (co-equal with Christ).
Eventually, the man’s abilities will begin to fade – but even if his mind goes, who is to say that God ceases to support him as his friend and Saviour? This can be a time of great faith and certainty – a blessed time of peace after a stormy journey.
Just as, in human terms, we only slowly learn the value of our father and have to advance into the full meaning of fatherhood, so in spiritual terms too we slowly become mature enough to broaden and deepen our relationship with God our Father. It is a process of life.
Some people never seem to get beyond their childhood conception of God our Father, but that’s a fine place to be – something that stays with all of us all our lives. Maybe, however, we are meant to travel deeper into God and go on to be mature Christians who see the Fatherhood of God as a more profound relationship than that of a child to its father. Those who make it to this deeper understanding are fortunate indeed and have much to teach us all.