Repeatedly, the Bible speaks of God as “Father,” and while we sometimes think of this as a New Testament distinction, we find this language in the Old Testament as well — God is the Father of Israel (Hosea 11:1), the father of the Messiah (Psalm 89:26), and the father of the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). Nevertheless, in today’s culture, many have grown up either without fathers or in contexts where their fathers model behavior that is abusive, neglectful, or otherwise self-centered. And in cases like this, the Biblical analogy of “Father” is often one with which people struggle and sometimes even recoil. In light of this reality, how are we to tackle this very Biblical notion of God being our Father.
To begin with, the one thing that we must never do is to abandon the Scriptural analogies. Many in mainline denominations prefer to speak of God as a “faithful parent,” as a “friend for the fatherless,” or even as a mother-figure given that oftentimes people’s maternal relationships have been more loving (though this is certainly not always the case). The big problem with this model is that it presumes the dysfunction of someone’s experience as normative and then rewrites the Biblical norm in light of the dysfunction.
Instead of throwing out the Biblical analogy, we ought to embrace it recognizing that God is the Father who sets the perfect ideal — an ideal that even the best of our earthly fathers never fully live up to and of which they commonly fall short. The reality is that no matter how dysfunctional our earthly fathers are and even if they are absent from much of our lives as was my own biological father, children crave time with their dad. We can try and substitute a variety of things for a father’s influence, but as noble and healthy as those things may be, they never quite reach the bar because God designed families to be constructed in a certain way — namely with both a mother and a father raising their children together and instructing those children in the Christian faith which they model.
And do understand, fathers can be absent without actually abandoning the family completely. How many fathers work so many hours that they never seem to be present in the home? How many fathers neglect time with their children because there is always one more thing to do? How many fathers flee to their workplace to avoid problems in the home with which they should be involved in discovering a solution. How many fathers abdicate their role of spiritual head of the family to their wives? And how many fathers are begetting children without first entering into a lifetime covenant with the woman who will mother their children?
Rather than to do as the mainline churches do, the better solution is to embrace the Biblical analogy as the idea and to set the bar for our men, expecting them to rise to the call and be the kind of Father that God models for them. And then, to recognize that even though our human fathers often fall short — and we do — our heavenly Father never does and we can celebrate that because we all need strong fathers in our lives.