God Is Not My Father

Midway through Sunday worship, I realized my sermon didn’t fit with Father’s Day. I had a Father’s Day prayer to use during the pastoral prayer, but it felt perfunctory to read the words. Truth is, Father’s Day just isn’t on my radar. I am a fifty-year-old man who has never been a father, and my own father died over thirty years ago. It makes me smile to think of the good man who was my father, but that was a long time ago. Fathers and fathering are remote to my daily life now.

The idea of God as Father is remote to my life too. Jesus taught me to call God Father. God as Father is woven into Christian theology and liturgy. But the notion itself does not touch my heart. Neither does God as Mother, the alternative people put forth. Any parental image for God does little for my faith. It feels like I am missing something important here, but this is where I am. God is not my Father.

Frances Irene Taber said of the early Quakers, “They saw that all they did must flow directly from what they experienced as true, and that if it did not, both the knowing and the doing became false.” It is not that I am the center of things, and theology must arrange itself to make me happy, but theology has to speak to my condition, and God as Father (or Mother) does not accord with what I experience as true. Laying stress on it has come to feel false.

By contrast, I love using images for God taken from my daily practice of walking. God as the ground that my feet walk on. God as the air that fills my lungs with life. God as the trees that shelter me in their strong, silent presence. These are images for God that speak to my experience now. I am not a pantheist, or a panentheist. The creation is not the Creator. But the creation points my eyes to the Creator and gives me pictures and names to use in relating to the Creator.

I will continue to call God Father in my public faith as pastor, but in my private faith as a person on pilgrimage toward God, I have learned to see God in other ways.

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8 Responses to God Is Not My Father

  1. mike says:

    REALLY GOOD post ,Chris. I feel much the same as what your describing here. Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this topic articulated in christian circles before,and thats really sad. This would be such a helpful Sunday discussion (sermon) to all those in the pews who feel the same way but are afraid to admit it. I appreciate the demonstration of courage and honesty it took to write this post.

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks. The post didn’t mention that a name for God (such as Father) is in a different category than an image for God (such as a tree). But they are connected to each other.

  3. Douglasah says:

    As a childless old guy myself, I think the biggest problem with referring to God in terms of human relationships is that by their nature our relationships are flawed – because WE are in them. We are human and therefore broken-imperfect. We have imperfections both as children and our parents did as well. We both bring a lot of “stuff” to the table that doesn’t necessarily exemplify a God-us relationship.
    I would like to think that perhaps it’s one of those limited-language things, and that the words Jesus used simply don’t translate into English very well.
    Perhaps you’re on to something with God-as-tree Chris. I always liked the story of the GIVING TREE. Does it matter what kind of tree? To make it classier, what is the word for tree in Hebrew?
    By the way, what would the Hebrew word(s) be for “Makes me smile”? It might sound better if we could use Hebrew words to describe our relationship to God as something like a relationship with “Father-God-Tree-that-Makes-Me-Smile”….

  4. Chris says:

    I think etz is Hebrew for tree. Not sure about ‘make me smile.’

    In Psalm 121 when it says God is the shade, it is calling God a sheltering tree.

  5. Bob Hunt says:

    I love and embrace the name and image of God as Father for precisely the same reason you say it doesn’t “touch your heart.” I am a fifty-two year old man whose father passed away when I was ten years old and, although I am now a father of three girls, they started coming around only in my thirties, long after the Christian understanding of God as Father became so important to me. That I have a Father in God in some way comforted me and strengthened me in my youth because I had lost my earthly father so early in life. We moved around a lot, too (we lived the American version of poverty – food stamps, public housing, etc…). Because of that, the Church herself and the image of heaven as “home” became very important to me.

    I think even those who don’t have a father have a sense of what a father ought to be: provider, protector, teacher, comforter. Just as, though our human relationships are never perfect, we have an idea of what love means, what commitment means, and can in some small way understand or make sense of God as loving relationship in Trinity.

    But God as Father isn’t simply an image of God we embrace or discard. It’s also a truth God has revealed about Himself. He is our Creator and Sustainer. We are His adopted children in Christ. Father does more than image our relationship with God; it defines our relationship with God in Christ.

  6. Chris says:

    Thank you for your comment, Bob. Your words have made me smile. Calvin said somewhere that a Christian is one who has God for their Father and the church for Mother. (I think he was quoting a church father.) It sounds like that is your experience.

    I realized after writing this post that the image of a tree, sheltering me in its strong, silent presence is a fatherly image. In spite of myself I snuck in a father image for God. My own father was a strong, silent, sheltering presence. He died when I was 18, and I felt lost after that for years.

    Doubting and questioning things, I think, are ways we push against things to see how strong they are. To see if they hold up. I am probably not finished with God as Father, but at this stage in my pilgrimage, God as Friend is more accessible and nourishing to my spirit. Friendship with God is a rich way of understanding how we can relate to God.

    I believe in the Trinity. I lean toward the names Lover, Beloved, and Bond of Love for the three persons in the triune life of God. Love speaks to everyone’s experience.

  7. Bob Hunt says:

    “One thousand questions does not constitute one real doubt.” Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman

    I like that we can ask questions. Like children who question their parents in order to know where the limits are, I think our Lord has great tolerance and even a measure of love, toward our questioning. How can we find the answer if we don’t ask the question?

    Does love speak to everyone’s experience? I don’t know. I’m a pediatric RN, and have seen so much neglect, so much abuse, even so much animosity directed toward children by those who ought to be loving them. Besides the obvious attack on the dignity of the human person, another reason such abuse is so grave an offense against God, I think, is because it distorts what ought to be our image of the loving Father that God is, and the Church as Mother and Teacher. One of the great responsibilities of all parents, not only Christian parents, is to image the love of God to our children. We’re never perfect in this, of course, but our lack of perfection doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to do what we can with what we have: a loving heart directed toward the desire to right by our children.

  8. Chris says:

    Newman also said faith is the reasoning of a religious mind. I have always liked that.

    Your words about the neglect of children make me very sad, especially after so much time with children last week at VBS. Perhaps I should have said the hunger for love speaks to everyone’s experience.

    Peace to you.

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