Friday, September 4, 2009

God as Father

One of the most popular terms used to understand God is that of Father. There’s a good reason for this. Jesus himself taught us to pray to ‘Our Father’. And the bible makes it very clear that we are to think of God as a Father.

Perhaps another reason why we like the term so much is we understand it – or at least, we think we do. The idea of Jesus has a shepherd has lost a lot of its meaning. Jesus’ first listeners would have understood the term. For most of us here in the western world, not so much. Many of us have never met a shepherd, let alone formed a good understand of what a shepherd is. But we all have an idea about Father. We have fathers. We have met fathers. We think we know what Jesus meant when he asked us to call God ‘Father’.

But do we? Yes, we might have an understanding of Father. But do we understand it in the same way that Jesus used it.

The fact that we do have impressions about fathers and fatherhood can sometimes give us a false impression of God, rather than point us towards the truth.

Firstly, many people understand the term ‘father’ in a negative way. Unfortunately, not all of us have good fathers in our lives. Some of them can do awful things. Often our relationship with our father is something that has caused a lot of pain and trauma. And many father-child relationships become strained or damaged in some way. If this is our idea of father, then our idea of God can also be negative. We think of God in the same way we think of father. And often that means that idea of God is quite distorted.

Secondly, today’s world does not have the same respect for fathers as the people in Jesus’ day. Part of this is because we have lost respect for people in general. But I dare say that no one group of people has lost respect quite as much as our dads. They’re not really considered the head of the family anymore. We’re likely to laugh at them if they try to talk to us with the attitude that their word is law. Half the time, we don’t even listen to their advice. And I think this loss of respect has also affected our understanding of God.

There are many different understandings of ‘father’ and this is certainly not a comprehensive list. But I would like to show two ways that we now think of father, and how this might influence how we think of God.

First of all, for those who have a good relationship with their dad, the relationship can sometimes seem more like friendship than anything else. We take them to the pub. We tease them because they’ve put on weight. We feel free to be ourselves around them. We feel like the relationship is good simply because it doesn’t make demands on us. It is comfortable and easy and non-threatening. We treat them the same way we would treat anybody else. Our dads have become our mates.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with a father who acts like a friend. Although I do think fathers should get more respect than they currently do. But the main point I want to make here is that has become the way we treat God. He is no longer respected the way he once was. We approach him casually, as one would a friend. The relationship is comfortable and non-threatening. We can be ourselves. God has become our mate.

The second way our understanding of father may have affected the way we see God, is in the idea that our fathers are old-fashioned. There used to be a time when a person’s views were respected because they were older than us. Nowadays, the older a person is, the less we listen to what they have to say. We feel like we know more than them, simply because we’re younger. They’re behind the times. They don’t understand that views have moved on. In a world where progress means everything, and new is always better, why would we listen to people who are still caught in the views of 20 years ago?

This may not be how we see God, but it’s a pretty true reflection of how some people see the church. The church is old-fashioned. It won’t get with the times. It’s refuses to let go of the views of the past. It doesn’t understand the world anymore. And what can a 2000 year old Church have to say to today’s generation? New ways of thinking are seen as better, not in spite of, but actually because they are not as old.

Our views of fathers have certainly changed since Jesus’ day. And as our understanding of fatherhood continues to change, so our understanding of God will change, distorting our idea of what Jesus meant when he asked us to call God ‘Father’.

(Image details: Deus Pai (God the Father) - Raffaello Sanzio, Museo di Capodimonte, Nápoles. Image is in the public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.)

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