If someone’s relationship with their human parents is negative or non-existent, could the idea of God as Father become unappealing? As someone who’s always enjoyed healthy relationships with my still-married parents, I know that I’m fortunate. But the more people I meet, the more this seems as rare as it is fortunate. Countless factors cause people to experience parental relationships that range from tricky to traumatic. For those whose understanding of parenthood comes from an absent father or a neglectful mother, it’s perhaps harder to process the fatherhood of God as something fundamentally good.
So, are we best off doing away with the term altogether? Perhaps majoring on other descriptors (Creator, Lord, loving, merciful etc.) would provide enough of a vocabulary to understand God and how he relates to us? It has been argued that in ministering to the fatherless, this is the most beneficial approach. Yet if we’re committed to the reality that, in his word, God has revealed himself precisely as he wishes to, this path falls short. We cannot treat the concept of God as Father as a potential stumbling block, nor can we consider the name ‘Father’ to be replaceable or unnecessary in revealing God’s character. Instead, we must unpack how to rightly grasp the fatherhood of God, that it might become a salve for enduring wounds.
Anyone’s understanding of God as Father must come from the revelation God offers of himself. Our temptation as creatures with visible, physical concepts of parenthood is to project these onto God’s fatherhood. Yet accepting this human-driven view of God is a subtle idolatry. It decides what the Father is like by human standards, when we should grasp what God is like through what he reveals about himself in the Bible. After all, God hasn’t left us guessing at what his fatherhood is like, able only to draw analogies from human fatherhood. Rather, the Father has revealed himself fully in the Son.
Within himself, the Son is “the image of the invisible God”, in whom God was pleased to have his fullness dwell (Col 1:15-19), and within their relationship, he reveals the Father’s will. Furthermore, in the Gospels Jesus speaks of his and the Father’s missions as being one and the same. He reveals this throughout John 14, and especially when he says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6). In response to Phillip saying, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us”, Jesus goes on to describe the complete oneness between himself and the Father. He is in the Father, just as the Father is in him (v. 10). Jesus’ words and his works come from the Father (vv. 10-11). He chooses to act so that the Father will be glorified through him (v. 13). Jesus shows that he is the one who reveals the Father to us fully.
There’s no doubt that we can see God the Father through his Son. But what exactly does the Son reveal about the Father, and how does that speak into our lives, especially the lives of those who have prickly parental relationships?
For one thing, the Son’s character mirrors the Father to us, with their relationship shining a spotlight on God’s fatherhood as loving and relational, and not distant but near. Jesus reveals the Father’s will to draw near to and to save sinful, rebellious people like you and me. Like the prodigal son, we’ve failed our heavenly Father and walked away from him. But like the prodigal son’s father, God delights to restore us into his family, which he always planned to do by forgiving us through the death of his Son. That he would go to such great lengths to bring his children home shows the extent of both how lost we were, and how great his love for us is.
And on top of this, as we see the love and unity between God the Father and his Son, we get an insight into this status we have as adopted children. Romans 8 explains that believers are made co-heirs with Christ (v. 17). So every family privilege and blessing that belongs to Christ now will be shared with us. Just as Jesus can call out “Abba, Father”, so can we (v. 15). Just as Jesus lives forever with the Father, so will we (vv. 19-25). In all of this, we become full members of God’s family. The Father loves us like he loves his faithful, firstborn Son and gives us full status in the family of God. How profound is this truth for the abandoned daughter or the neglected son? Adoption leaves no believer abandoned, since God is a father longing to adopt all kinds of people into his family by forgiving and reconciling them to himself.
Wounds from family abandonment, abuse or loss may hinder a person’s ability to relate to God as Father, and these wounds are deep and not cast off lightly. So as we speak the gospel into the lives of people who carry such burdens, we must do so with patient empathy. Yet as we bear with one another, we persist in pointing our brothers and sisters towards the goodness of God the Father, and we highlight the need to understand him through what he’s revealed, not a projection of a human standard.
Though God’s revelation of himself as Father offers healing to the wounded, completion of this healing is only guaranteed in the new creation. In his first letter, John signals this future hope, writing, “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Here, we’re assured that our current adoption secures future Christ-likeness. Though past hurts might cause some to struggle daily in relating to God as Father, if nothing else there is assurance that one day, believers will live in perfect relationship with their heavenly Father.