By intention He relates to people as Father,
thereby forever declaring His goodwill toward them.
When I was 23 two words changed my relationship with God. They were, simply, “Describe God,” spoken in the middle of a conversation between me and the Chair of the Bible and Theology Department at Western Seminary. I was planning to begin seminary in the fall and I was in process of getting some classes waived. The process involved the Chair, Gerry Breshears, asking me whatever he wanted about any of the topics I was hoping to have waived. It was terrifying.
Describe God. That seemed easy enough. I talked about God’s omnipotence (how he is all-powerful), his omniscience (how he is all-knowing), his omnipresence (how he is present everywhere). I talked about his goodness and his holiness. I talked for a while; it was a pretty good answer.
Gerry simply replied, “Look up Exodus 34:6-8.”
So I did. It reads, “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (NIV)
Gerry pointed out that this is the first time God describes himself in the Bible. Earlier in the Bible we learn about who he is by how the author describes him and what he does, but when he has the opportunity to describe himself he doesn’t talk about his power, presence, knowledge, or holiness. He talks about himself in relational terms. God is gracious and compassionate, patient, full of love and faithfulness.
That was very different than how I described God. I wasn’t wrong but my answer still somehow missed the mark. I had described God in distant academic terms; God described himself in relational terms.
We went on to talk about other biblical and theological themes but this particular conversation stuck with me and I mulled it over for weeks.
My mulling led me to realize was that I had a very deistic view of God. Deism is the understanding that God exists and is the source of all that exists but that once he got things up and running he kind of stepped back and let the world run itself. It’s the understanding that, while he may step in every now and then to perform a miracle of give direction, he’s not actively involved in the day to day running of the universe.
I also came to realize that this was similar to how I would describe my relationship with my dad. He was an active part in creating our family but then he kind of stepped back and let us run ourselves. He was physically present but emotionally distant and largely uninvolved. And it hit me, in this and a million other ways, my view of God had been dramatically shaped by my experiences with my dad.
I’d bet the same is true for you. Your view of God, the things you most deeply believe about who he is and how he interacts with you, are (is?) probably strikingly similar to your believes about who your dad is and how he interacted with you.
If your dad adored you, encouraged you, guided you, and prepared you well for life you probably have a pretty benevolent view of God. If your dad was angry, sulky, or abusive, you probably live in the shadow of God’s anger and disappointment.
The more I explored the more I realized that even though I could say that God is love, I acted like God was indifference. I acted like He was emotionally distant, occasionally stepping in to fix something that was broken (or mess something up) but that he was generally uninterested and a bit agitated. I believed that God’s love was practical, not passionate. That he might never delight in me but I could at least strive to achieve so he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. I tried to make him proud of me but mostly I just tried to stay out of his way when he was angry. And I believed this and lived like this because I had an unexamined view of who God was based on my experiences with my dad.
That conversation with Gerry began the process of intense evaluation of what I believed about God at a deep, practical level in light of what he revealed about himself though his word and through his interaction with me.
The Wesleyan Church states that God intentionally relates to us as Father, thereby declaring his goodwill toward us. Jesus is working from the same underlying thesis when talking about prayer in Matthew 7: 9-11, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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 good gifts to those who ask him!”
Through his rhetorical questions he’s pointing what should be obvious, in the same way that dad’s take care of their kids’ needs, God, our heavenly father, will provided for us because a dad loves his child. Of course, it’s not obvious for all of us. Because some of us have fathers who would give us bread but others had fathers who would give us stone or ignore us completely. Some had fathers who responded to our needs others had fathers who neglected, rejected, or abused us. Not all of us had dads who laid the groundwork for a healthy understanding of who God is. Some of them, in fact, wrecked that for us.
But, here’s the thing, our dads don’t determine who God is. They may affect how we see him but they don’t affect who he actually is. So we have the opportunity to examine our understanding of who God is in light of how our dad’s shaped that understanding and then to evaluate and change it with truth. Our dads may have let us down but our heavenly father is good. Our dads may have rejected or ignored us but our heavenly father loves us and passionately pursues us. And, of course, our dads might have shown us who God is and set us up to see him for who he really is.
God chooses to relate to us as father because, at their best, fathers love their children, care for them, provide for them, guide them, and protect them. At their best, father’s delight in their children and work for their good.
There are a few dicey theological points I feel like I should address here:
- God is not male. God is spirit, he does not have a body, and is not gendered (Jesus has a body and he is gendered). Men and women are equally made in his image. God displays both traditionally masculine or feminine characteristics (the fruit of the spirit, for example, tend to be exalted as feminine characteristics but are deeply rooted in God’s nature).
- God is not a man nor is he a woman yet the Bible primarily, though not exclusively, uses masculine imagery to relate to the world. If we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, we accept that this is God’s intention, not just a hold-over from oppressive patriarchal society.
- God chooses to relate to us, primarily, as father. There are times when he uses feminine imagery and metaphors (God is the original mama bear and is also described as human mother, a mother hen, and a woman looking for a lost coin) but he primarily uses the masculine imagery. I don’t have a firm grasp on why he chose to relate to us primarily as father rather than mother so I’m not going to offer any reasons here. Have fun googling though…you’ll find a lot of interesting ideas.
How Does God Relate to You as Your Father?
What kind of father do you think God is? How much is he like your earthly dad? I’d encourage you, if you haven’t thought about this already, to take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your dad and how he made you feel growing up. Then take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your relationship with God. As you do this, ask God to reveal to you what you most deeply believe (not just what you know the right thing to say is) and what the implications of your beliefs are on your relationship with him and in your life. See how the two line up, see where they’re different. Ask God to show you more of who he is, to cement the things that are true and to reshape the things that are untrue.
Spend some time meditating (thinking about) Scripture that talks about (or shows) God as father. You might go to http://www.biblegateway.com or http://www.biblehub.com and search for words like “father.” Or maybe read through the book of John and take notes about Jesus’s relationship with his Father. He is, after all, our best model of what it means to live a full human life, who better to learn from regarding how we can interact with our Father? Listen to some of your favorite songs that talk about God as Father.
If you’re a parent, get down on your knees and pray. Because this particularly responsibility, the one where we shape our children’s initial understanding of God, is based on how we act toward them NOT based on what we say or try to teach them. This is a HUGE responsibility. HUGE. And terrifying. And it highlights the importance of experiencing God as Father before we can display his character as parents. We probably won’t get it 100% right but, with his help and by his grace, we can parent them as God is parenting us with love, grace, compassion, truth, faithfulness, gentleness, etc.
Here are some songs…(you knew the first one was coming, didn’t you?)
Disclaimer: To some extent, I don’t really know what my dad was like (none of us really know what our dad’s are like…or any other person for that matter). All I “know” is how I’ve interpreted my experiences with him. I believe he was dealt a rotten hand in life and did the best he could with what he had. I believe he was full of contradictions: tenderhearted but often angry, living in poverty but incredibly generous, brilliant with little formal education. I believe he’s now in heaven, dancing with Jesus. I’m happy he’s now experiencing life to the fullest.