Lately I’ve reflected on the way we use language to describe God. Naming God as “Father” is normal to me. I worship the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as spoken of in the creeds, texts, and liturgies of the Church.
At the same time, I recognize that God-proper, often referred to as “the Godhead,” transcends gender categories. Simply put (in the succinct words of Gungor): God is not a man […God is not a white man – good second lyric, not the point here :-)]. Yes, this God revealed the fullness of Divinity in the human being Jesus of Nazareth (a man), but the Godhead is non-human – or as the Bible says – God is spirit.
So, when I refer to the Godhead (God-proper), I tend to avoid [not completely] masculine personal pronouns such as “he,” “his,” or “him.” I do the same thing when I refer to the Holy Spirit as nowhere in the Bible is God’s Spirit called “he.” In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures use a feminine word for Spirit and the New Testament writers use a gender-neutral term. When it comes to Jesus, however, I use masculine language because in fact, the Son was/is a human male.
Calling God “Father” makes practical sense to all of us, for good or for ill; we all have a father of some sort. Not only so, many of us are literal fathers (or mothers), so our children easily derive their view of God from the way we interact with them throughout their developmental years. The interrelatedness of human fatherhood (and motherhood) with Divine Fatherhood invites us to love our children with God’s own Fatherly resources, while cautioning us to live as children of God so that we know how to replicate our experience with God the Father to our kids. When we live differently, we run the risk of bequeathing a God-narrative to our young ones that looks more like our failure to live as God’s children than like the beautiful Father that Jesus knew and loved.
Why We Call God “Father”
As you can already tell, language is complicated. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: all of our language falls short of the glory of God. Language is a medium for describing a reality that is bigger than one tongue can communicate. Therefore, humility matters when we discuss issues like this. So does nuance.
If God transcends gender, why does Jesus often call God his Father? And, why has this become the dominant image the Church has utilized to refer to God-proper throughout history? The answer to the first question has several dimensions – I’ll briefly mention one oft overlooked one.
Jesus represented and recapitulated the people/story of Israel within his own personhood and ministry. Jesus, as the faithful and true Israelite, repented on behalf of God’s people – took on the fullness of their failures on the cross – while also proclaiming to those with “ears to hear” that a fresh expression of Israel was being born in the midst of the old one. Jesus stood in as the new Moses (and Abraham) in a representative sense as their liberator from “spiritual” exile. In calling God “Father,” Jesus evokes the language of Exodus where Israel is called God’s “son.” Jesus is Israel and therefore Jesus calls God “Father” as he takes on the identity of the corporate “Son.” To call God “Father” is ultimately a metaphor for the type of relationship Jesus had with God, that Israel was invited into and ultimately rejected as a whole, during the first century.
The second question, about Father-language dominating throughout church history is also multilayered. I won’t belabor the point here [I wrote about it some, here], but the masculine drive has often asserted its power in societies (I’m not saying that being masculine is wrong, but that using such as a platform for power-grabbing and oppression is wrong) which likely colored the language that the Church gravitated toward and eventually canonized. We often attempt to make God in our image, rather than recognize that God’s image is the source of both male and female. This is more complex, but it seems one likely reason for the dominant use of God as Father.
Certainly, to call God “Father” is perfectly biblical and authentically Christian. The caution that I’d invite us all into is to remember that “Father” is a metaphor for a reality that transcends words and the categories of gender.
The Risky-Beauty of Father-Language
Evoking Father-language to speak of God presents risk. Many people who had painful childhoods – especially pertaining to their human fathers – often struggle to identify with Jesus’ dominant metaphor for God. This struggle is perfectly justifiable and we ought to honor those who endured childhood abuse. I say this as an observer, but also as a victim. When I was a kid, I spent the ages of 5-11 living in a pattern of fear. If I said the wrong thing or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (often, my own home), my Mom’s long-term boyfriend might smack me and beat the hell out of my Mom [side note: my Mom is doing awesome these days].
By God’s grace, I’ve encountered deep healing from the wounds of my past. Also by God’s goodness, I had an (unaware) earthly Dad who has done all he can to model God’s love to me. I never made the connection from my Mom’s former boyfriend to my view of God, mostly because I had a Dad and Grandpa who reflected Jesus in their nurture of me. But I mention the abuse to simply point out that I personally understand how someone could connect the dots in the following way: if my earthly father sucked, then my Heavenly Father probably does too (and yes, I’m being simplistic here). Because of the reality of brokenness that many families are forged in, Father-language is risky when speaking of God.
The question, then, is: should we throw out God-as-Father-language all together? In his book, The Good and Beautiful God – Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows, James Bryan Smith describes a woman who endured a terrible childhood. He offers the following commentary on her situation, now as an adult, struggling to relate to God:
The woman who could not pray to God as Father had a horrific childhood, marked by an abusive and distant father. When she projects her idea of a father onto God, she sees someone she could never love or trust. Telling her to just “get over it because Jesus called God Father and so must you” would be cruel. The better solution is to encourage her to let Jesus define what Father means and thereby come to know the God Jesus knows. In doing so, she might find healing (The Good and Beautiful God, 63).
The risk and beauty of Father-language is summed up in that quote. It’s risky to parent a child because if we suck at it, we may yield a narrative about God the Father that isn’t true. The beauty, however, of being a father (and mother) is that we are given the opportunity to shape authentic fatherhood around how Jesus defines and relates to his Abba. Smith also says:
Jesus’ Father is nearby, holy, powerful, caring, forgiving and our protector. These attributes provide strong images of who God is and what fatherhood means. And we now have a way to define the Father’s goodness. We also have a way to measure what true parenthood ought to be. A good parent, be it a father or mother, ought to possess these six characteristics… The God that Jesus reveals is not only a perfect reflection of what fatherhood ought to be but motherhood as well. Sometimes we think of fathers as strong and stern providers, and mothers as gentle and meek supporters. But in Jesus’ description of the Father we see a perfect balance of all of these characteristics. A good mother would be one who is near, whole, strong, giving, forgiving and protecting. In fact, a good person, male or female, single or married, with or without children, possesses these characteristics. Jesus is also a reflection of the Father, so when we see him we see God the Father. In Jesus we see a perfect balance of all of the characteristics of goodness. Jesus is indeed gentle, but he is also strong when needed (p. 61-63).
So, even though Jesus is technically the “Son,” he is also the full revelation of God and uniquely shows us who God is: present, holy, powerful, caring, forgiving, and protecting. If we want to know what God the Father is like, all we have to do is look at Jesus. Jesus is God and Jesus relates to God – a paradox that, in this instance, offers us some help for discerning true parenthood.
Parenting Like God
Those of us wishing to retain “Father” language for God should exude passion about parenting like this God. We parents are invited to learn how to be authentic parents from Christ’s relationship to and revelation of God the Father. None of us will be perfect in this sort of family journey. As a young dad, the inevitability of failure is daunting at times. Yet, the beauty overshadows the risk in that I have the opportunity, like all fathers (and mothers ), to point to a perfect Father when I’m imperfect, and to imitate my Father as I continue the lifelong journey of being parented by a loving and generous God. As a child experiencing the Divine adoration of a Heavenly Father, we can discover glimpses of how to parent in the manner of God.
Only when we utilize Jesus’s Father as our ultimate model of what authentic fatherhood is, and only when we point to this same perfect Father when we fail, will retaining the language of God-as-Father make sense. Therefore, may we who are fathers strive to be like the God Jesus related to and revealed. And may we point to this same Father when we fall short of God’s glorious fatherhood standard. Then, perhaps our children will come to understand the metaphor of “Father” as beneficial in their own spiritual self-discovery.