God is Father.
What does that mean?
Here’s what it doesn’t mean:
We have, as a human reality, such a thing as fatherhood. Because we can’t really conceptualize God, we use human metaphors to define him. God as “father,” then, is a human construct that is helpful to partially understand God.
That’s not so.
Nothing against metaphors. Christ used lots of metaphors, and they really do help. At one point, He refers to Himself as the “door.” Elsewhere, to a hen gathering chicks under her wings. These metaphors help us understand aspects of the Son of God. But we know that Jesus wasn’t actually a slab of wood with a latch, and we know He wasn’t actually a chicken.
On the other hand, Jesus Christ actually is the Son. And his Father actually is the Father.
I have a son. I’m a father.
I’d like to be a good father.
I have good examples of fatherhood against which to compare my own fatherhood. My own father is a good example, and so is my father-in-law. So are my grandfathers. My priest is a good father to his flock, and my bishop is a good father to his Church.
All of these examples of fatherhood I recognize as good because they, too, are images of the prototype. That prototype is God, who is Father.
The closer I draw to God, the better I experience His paternal love, and the more I know how to be father to my son.
In the Psalms and in the Prophets, I read of Israel straying from her creator and suffering for it. I read of God’s simple longing for His people to return, so that He may heal and feed them.
And I see my toddler, when he rejects good food and tries to eat cigarette butts from the ground in the neighborhood park. He cries when I take bad things away, when I speak sternly in warning against danger. Like the children of Israel, he thinks I’m being mean. He thinks I’m harsh, judgmental, and arbitrary. His distress makes my heart ache.
“Oh, child,” I want to say, paraphrasing the Psalmist, “if only you would let me, I would give you good things to eat. You would want for nothing. I would feed you with honey from the rock, and with the finest of wheat I would satisfy you. Only trust me, only obey me, only have faith, and I will provide your every need.”
And now I know something about true fatherhood, something true about God. I know that a father does not demand his children’s obedience as some kind of arbitrary condition on which his love depends. Obedience leads to faith, and faith allows us to fully experience the love of a father as the joyful providence that it is. Lack of trust brings us, like my son who would eat cigarettes, to experience fatherly love as rules against which we scream and rebel, as reprimands that we imagine harsh.
Some fathers are harsh. Many are downright abusive. A child might have a broken understanding of God because she’s been hurt by her own father or father figures. To her, the idea of God as father could be terrifying.
But bad fatherhood does not reveal the prototype of real fatherhood. The true, gentle, and compassionate love of God demonstrates fatherhood as it actually is. Those who have been hurt by abusive fathers- by false images of fatherhood- can find comfort and refuge in the healing arms of the true Father.
And fathers like me, who wish only good for our children, have a clear example to follow.
Because God is Father.
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