The Fatherhood of God

The image of fatherhood has taken a beating in recent years, with an increasing divorce rate, a focus on the absent father, and stories of abuse and neglect receiving wide publicity in the media. Recent developments in the law related to infertility treatments has posed the question of whether a father is needed at all. In the light of these developments there are those who suggest that the notion of the fatherhood of God is redundant: a counter-productive expression of the character of God which associates Him with rather negative images in the minds of a significant proportion of the population.

But is such a response merely throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Clearly there are certain presuppositions that can no longer be held when seeking to share the christian faith with others. People's ability to perceive is affected by their own prior experiences.  For many years I kept a healthy distance from dogs - the byproduct of an encounter with a harmless-looking bassett hound, a set of teeth, and a little finger. Assurances that the dog was harmless did little to quell my fears. In a similar way, people whose experience of their father was negative are apt to baulk with christians talk of God as being a heavenly father.

When trust is broken down, it needs to be rebuilt. A broken image is no different. People's ability to recognise the fatherhood of God as a positive image falls into this category. And how is this trust rebuilt? Through the people of God! As we not only bear witness to the gracious and compassionate nature of God, and back it up with the way in which we respond, people begin to see God in a new light. For just as we gain a picture of earthly fathers through their children, so we paint a picture of God by the way in which we live.

But we also need to remember that the fatherhood of God is but one of a number of images the Bible uses to give us insight into the character of God, each appropriate to different settings: the images of God as shepherd, as king, as a mother hen, and as a light, for example, are different ways of gaining access to the character of God.

We make a mistake when we associate Father's Day too closely with the notion of God as Father. There is indeed much to celebrate about God as Father, but for many people such a thought is a cause for much grief.

September 3, 2000
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