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A space to reflect on Christian theology, spirituality, and ministry within the Church of England

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

God the Father

I’ve been ordained for nearly two years now, and a Christian for a good twenty. One of the things that has been a constant in my spiritual life is an understanding of God as Father. It’s repeated through the New Testament more times than I can count, a direct result of Jesus’ astonishing direction that his disciples should call God “Abba”, an affectionate Aramaic term for a father – close to “Dad”. The Church has heeded Jesus’ direction. In prayer we regularly call on “our loving heavenly Father”, and “Father” language is seeded throughout our liturgy.

Personally this has directly influenced my mental image of God when I meditate, when I pray, when I study. It’s affected by my relationship with my own father, perhaps unsurprisingly. I’m lucky in that I come from a loving and encouraging background, and I love my father more than I’ve ever been able to adequately express, certainly to his face. But it means that when I pray, I have an image of an older man, someone looking down on me.

The thing is, I think I may have had things backward.

Disciple Fathers
It’s something we don’t often think about today, but in the first century, getting married young and having as many children as possible as quickly as possible was very much the norm. It was so normal that it didn’t merit comment. In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we hear about Peter’s mother-in-law, just in passing. We never hear a word about his wife, but we have to assume that if there was a mother-in-law there was a wife kicking about there somewhere. Equally, if there was a wife, the chances that there were no children are extremely remote. We never hear about them, but that’s not surprising, because they would have been so normal and expected as to be unworthy of further comment.

So now I think about it, doesn’t it seem that the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples were probably married? That they were probably fathers?

So when Jesus tells his followers to call God “Dad”, I wonder if he isn’t asking them so much to think about their relationships with their own fathers as their relationships with their children.

Reframing the Concept - Me the Mother
I’ve just had my first child. He’s 5 months old now. Those of you out there who have no children and no desire to have children, I’m sure you get bored of hearing this from people who have had children (biologically or by adoption, I think the emotion is the same), but having a child has changed my life. It is wonderful. It is one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me. Perhaps the most wonderful. I love my son with a powerful love that is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. When he looks at me, when he reaches out for me, when he stops crying because I hold him… It makes me tear up just thinking about it.

The point is, I know now how it feels to be a parent. And seeing the parent-child relationship from this angle, it’s a revelation. To think that the love I feel for my son is the same love God feels for me… Wow is that ever a revelation.

To those who are caught up in thinking about God as your father, and who are finding it difficult, perhaps because your relationship with your own parents isn’t all that great, try reframing that thought from this angle. Imagine how you might (or do) feel about your own children, and then put yourself in God’s place.

Now this might be second nature to you. This might be me talking about something totally blindingly obvious. But honestly, this was a genuine revelation to me. My prayers are already qualitatively changed. What does your mental image of God look like? Is the concept of the Father a useful or a troubling one for you?

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