This season of Lent, I find myself wondering a lot about the God that Jesus knew. The God whose words fed Jesus in ways more sustaining than bread itself. The Father whose Presence revived Jesus with hope, comfort, and courage as he walked among the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, and the unbelieving. The Abba Father whose goodness Jesus never questioned, but always proclaimed with joy. ”There is only One who is good!” (Matthew 19:17).
I have a wonderful dad. In all my life, I have never wanted for any material thing. There has always been food on the table, clothes on my back, and a beautiful house to live in. My father’s generous provision for my family, in many ways, has helped me to understand and rejoice in the generous provision of God the Father.
I chose a different career path than my dad had hoped I would choose, and when I made the decision to go to seminary, I remember timidly bringing up the subject of tuition with my dad, who until then had paid for every dollar of my education. I wondered what his response would be. I knew he would more than happy to continue to finance my education if I chose to go to medical school, but….seminary? I’ll never forget his words.
Me: So….Pops, I’ve been looking at all the information about my school. I know that you aren’t exactly thrilled about me pursuing Christian ministry instead of medicine, so I would understand if you don’t want to help pay my tuition any more. Plus you’ve done more than enough in paying for my undergraduate degree! But I guess I just wanted to ask you what you were thinking. Because, you know. I have to make plans….look into loans, finding a job in the area, etc….[awkward trail off]…
Dad: Julie…..how many Julie’s do you think I have that are my daughter?
Me: [confused] What? Uh….just one, I guess. [NO IDEA where this is going].
Dad: Don’t you think if I have just one Julie to take care of, that I will always provide for her and take care of her?
Me: Oh. I guess so.
Dad: So….don’t worry about it.
It still warms my heart to think about that brief but profound conversation with my dad many years ago. (Some of you from different kinds of families might be wondering what the big deal was about this conversation, but this was the closest I think my dad has ever come to expressing what I would call “affection” for me. So back off, it was a big deal for me!)
However, that type of conversation was not typical in my family. My father had high expectations for his daughters, and a very strong opinion about exactly what was best for us. In reality, these expectations and opinions were his way of loving us. I want to emphasize this because I truly do not wish to speak ill of my dad or either one of my parents, for that matter. My dad had all of these hopes for us because he loves us. Unfortunately, what I often internalized was that I was a continual disappointment to him. Emotional intimacy was also not what I would call a high priority in my family. This is not said in judgment of my parents…it’s just a fact rooted in their personalities and the cultures in which they grew up. Words of affirmation, verbal encouragement, hugs, physical nearness….not my family’s strong suit.
To call God, “Father”, then, has always been a difficult thing for me. ”Father”–the One who provides for me. Yes, I understand that. ”Father”–the One who is higher than me and above me.
But doesn’t “Father” also mean, “the One who is constantly shaking his head at me?” ”Father–the One who is deeply disappointed that I can’t figure out a way to change who I am to make him happy”? ”Father–One who is above and outside of me, judging me, wagging his finger, sighing with discontent.”
We all do this, don’t we? We begin with our understanding of what father means and then project that onto God. And so where our earthly fathers were affectionate, present, generous….we see those things in God. But what about those of us with fathers who were absent? Abusive? Neglectful? Violent?
I’ve been counseled before that if calling God “Father” brings up too many negative images, that I can just call God something else.
And I’m not saying that that counsel doesn’t hold merit for some people, at least for a period of time.
But I can’t help but feel that that approach is giving up on something that I desperately need. Something that I need to be healed. Something that I need to be fully human. Something that I need to be fully me.
Karl Barth wrote, “It is…not that there is first of all human fatherhood and then a so-called divine fatherhood, but just the reverse; true and proper fatherhood resides in God, and from this fatherhood what we know as fatherhood among us men is derived.”
When Jesus calls God “Father,” we have to let him define what fatherhood means.
I have felt a calling this past year to do just this. I confess that I have allowed some false narratives to shape my relationship with God. I know I don’t fully know the Father the way Jesus knew him. I know this because if it had been me in that desert, hungering for bread in my stomach, I honestly don’t think I could say, “I do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of my Father God.” I would have taken those stones and shoved them in my mouth.
Actually, now that I really think about it, I might not have eaten them. I might have refrained physically. But in my heart, I would be sobbing, “Why God??? Why won’t you just let me eat? Are you truly good? Or are you just a monster demanding me to prove my love for you?” And that is what Satan really wanted. Not just for Jesus to eat the bread, but to eat it with doubt in his heart…questioning whether God was truly a good and beautiful Father.
And so I am allowing Jesus’ words about the Father to shape me and grab hold of my imagination. This is how Jesus prayed to His Father, and taught us to pray too:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
God is a Father who is above and beyond me, in heaven. But also a Father who is near me and all around me. For “heaven” in Jewish cosmology was not a place that was far away, but the very air they breathed…the atmosphere all around them. My Father is present and always with me. And He is holy, or pure. His heart is not one which can be corrupted…it is free from all evil. He is entirely good.
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Our Father is a King who rules over heaven and earth. He is strong and powerful.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Our God is a Father who provides.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
My Father is a forgiving father, who loves forgiveness so much that He longs for his children to know the joy of forgiving others as well.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the Evil One.
God is present and powerful, and with that presence and power, He protects us.
Jesus’ Father is nearby, present, holy, powerful, generous and caring, forgiving, and our protector.
Let us all come to know this all-good, perfect, and beautiful Father. This is my prayer.
(The reflection above on the Lord’s Prayer was, in part, taken from “The Good and Beautiful God” by James Bryan Smith).