What we mean when we say that God is our Father (and why that is important)


Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Sons

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” — A.W. Tozer

I love this quote from A.W. Tozer, and believe it is spot on. There are many important things about us, but how we think about God is at the top of the list. Nothing will shape your daily life more than this.

There are many important attributes that define God’s character, but in this post I would like to reflect on the Biblical teaching that God is a Father. In the human form, this is the primary way that Jesus referred to God. Jesus prayed to God as Father, and taught his disciples to do the same.

One of the immediate difficulties that any of us face when we consider God as Father is that we are looking at this truth the broken prism of our own human experience. There is the occasional exception, where someone actually has a rich view of this aspect of God as a result of their own positive experience, and if this is your story I am genuinely happy for you. But unfortunately, too many have suffered through an experience of absence,  neglect, abuse, or some other form of a father wound. As such, it can be very challenging to positively reflect on the Biblical portrayal as God as Father. I want to acknowledge that challenge, and recognize the complexity it brings to engaging with this truth. It could also be said that what we most badly need is to view our earthly experience through the prism of the heavenly Father, instead of the reverse

The passage of Scripture that most explicitly (and I would suggest, most beautifully) portrays the wonder of God as Father is found in the parable of the prodigal sons. This passage, found in Luke chapter 15, has long been one of my favorites. While I don’t believe that the words of Jesus trump the rest of the Bible, I do pay lots of attention whenever he describes something in intimate detail. And that is certainly what Jesus does here – it is a powerful depiction of how he views the nature of God’s fatherhood.

I have been thinking about this passage a lot lately, and I believe that if we were able to genuinely hear what Jesus says about God, it would transform our lives. There are 5 characteristic about God as Father developed by Jesus, and each is profound in its own way. Here they are, in the order that they come in the text:

(1.) God is a heartbroken Father

This is the heaviest of the five, but its the first one we see in the parable, and important to notice. Jesus tells the parable as the Father having two sons, and each break his heart in a different way.

The younger son does it first, and in far more dramatic fashion. In Luke 15.12 it says, “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’” This was the equivalent of the son saying, “I wish you were dead.” It requires little imagination to see the expression of the Father’s face when he heard this.

And that wasn’t the extent of the heartache. When the younger son headed out for a “distant country,” he was literally taking his life into his hands. The terrain was excessively dangerous, and each leg of the journey came with unique risks. We get a picture of a Father waiting and wondering if his son was alive on a daily basis.

The older son also breaks the heart of the Father. While it is not as explicit as his sibling, it is still excessive: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15.28-31)

The older brother first dishonors the Father, by angrily protesting the party that he should have been co-hosting for his brother. His refusal to come in would have been a public shaming of his Father, and in a shame and honor culture this would have been felt deeply.

The older brother exasperates the situation by addressing him in an extremely disrespectful manner (“Look!”) It was customary to address a family superior in a respectful way, and he should have started the sentence with “Father…” (even the younger brother followed this protocol). He then disowns the Father by saying, “when this son of yours…” This was a public betrayal – he has chosen the opposite side of his loving Father, and he has done it in front of the entire community.

So this story opens by showing a Father who has been wounded by both of his children. We often think of God as being punitive, but when Jesus talks about the Father like qualities of God, we see that the only punishment that is doled is from the children to the Father.

(2.) God the Father allows His adult children to act like adults

As a limited human being, I know what I would be capable of if someone injured me deeply and publicly, as this Father’s sons do to him. But we see nothing vindictive from this heart broken Father. In fact, when both sons show him up, there is a whole lot of what we don’t see:

God the Father does nothing to stop either son from rebelling.

God does not protest, intervene, or demand anything.

God does not shame them or condemn them.

God does not attempt to control or manipulate them in even the slightest way.

This is profound to me. God the Father knows that rebelling is in their worst interests, and that they will bring great harm to themselves by doing so. And yet even still, God allows them to make their own choices. God is at home, waiting to receive them in love. God gives them the space to make their own choice, at their own timing.

(3.) God the Father is expectant

Though the Father gives both of his sons space to rebel, that doesn’t mean he ever stops thinking about them. One of the most beautiful images of this parable comes in V20: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him…”

I picture a heart-broken Father looking out on the horizon every day, hoping that this might be the day that his young prodigal finally returns home. It doesn’t ultimately matter that the son rejected the Father, or that he told the Father he wished he was dead. The Father just wants him home.

And when the day finally arrives, God the Father is expectantly and joyfully waiting, and he leaps out of his seat to meet him.

Does this match how you view God? It sure doesn’t match my scariest thoughts. It’s a big enough stretch to imagine God forgiving me, but expectantly waiting. Wow…

(4.) God the Father is protective

Commentators note that when each of the sons sins against the Father, it was more than just a breach of individual relationship – it was a breach with the entire community. This is most obvious with the case of the younger son. When he cashed out on his father’s inheritance he dealt a death blow to the community as well. They were all dependent on his physical strength, his ability to generate income, and his ability to participate in the life of the community. That was all gone when he headed off to distant lands.

Therefore, when the younger son decided to return, he had more than just the Father to contend with. In fact, my guess is that his Father was the lesser of his concerns. He was going to have to step back into an angry mob who was ready to dish condemnation and judgment, and that would have been the really scary part.

That’s also what makes this verse so incredible: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (v20)

When the younger prodigal prepared to descend down the walk of shame, he would have been ready for the onslaught of the community. That was going to be part of the lashes he deserved – in the same way he had dishonored them, they would now dishonor him.

But then the unexpected happens – the Father sprints out and beats the crowd to his son. And when he threw his arms around his son, he was doing something more than showing affection – he was protecting his son from the community. As the patriarch of the village, he was choosing to grant forgiveness and reconciliation upon the same son who had cursed death upon his Father. And when he had the servants bring the best robe to place upon the son, he communicated an unmistakable message to the community: “My son has been reconciled to me, and therefore he has been reconciled to you as well. There is to be no further punishment.”

The question that jumps out to me is Why? Why would the Father go out of his way to protect a son that had created his own mess? Wouldn’t this have been an opportune time to let some good old fashioned karma have its way? Maybe some hot-blooded condemnation from the community is exactly what this prodigal needed.

I believe the answer to this question can be none other than grace. When the Father looked into the eyes of his son, he saw a young man who had been ravished by the consequences of his own sin. He was weak and disoriented. The last thing he needed was additional shame and condemnation.

So the Father steps in and does the unthinkable. He takes the entire cost of the son’s mistakes onto himself. He steps in as an intermediary between the perpetrator and the community, and creates peace where it didn’t seem peace was possible.

(5.) God the Father loves extravagantly

Jesus goes over the top in describing the layers of love that the Father bestows upon the children.

First, we see that the Father ran.  Aristotle wrote, “Great men never run. Men run to them.” Yet here is a noble, Middle Eastern father making a fool of himself as he sprints to see his long lost son.

Second, we see incredible physical affection. Not only does the Father hug him, but he kisses him. The Greek word points to an abundance of kissing… easily translatable as “kissed again and again” or “kissed tenderly.”

Third, we see the Father break out a robe (full restoration as a son), a ring (the family name) and a fattened calf (the most expensive delicacy).

And then to the older son, the Father says, “‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (v31) This is a statement of absolute extravagance as well. The Father is reminding his son that every dimension of his being – his time, his emotion, his wealth, his possessions – it is all at the son’s disposal.

It is here that the word “prodigal” makes most sense. According to the dictionary, prodigal is defined as “recklessly spendthrift.” When it comes to love and affection, the Father is indeed prodigal.

—-

I believe that an encounter with these attributes of God as Father can transform our hearts, minds, and lives. The grace and love of God cannot be fully comprehended, and yet even the parts we can see are enough to change everything.

As I was reflecting on this passage I was also reading something from Bryan Stevenson, a leader for whom I have tremendous respect (he is the author of Just Mercy, founder of The Equal Justice Initiative (eji.org), and a public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned). He tells a story of his grandmother that brought this passage home for me.

Stevenson’s grandmother was a very influential and formative factor in his development – she was strong and tough and powerful, and every morning she would give him these giant hugs where she would squeeze him so tightly he could barely breathe. Then she would see him an hour later and say, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?”

When he was younger he would make the mistake of saying, “no,” and she would proceed to give him another gigantic bear hug. By the time he was 10 he changed what he would say after the big morning hug. She would say, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” and he would reply, “Momma, I always feel you hugging me.”

That is the prevailing image that stands out from Luke 15. God the Father is not looking to scare us into submission. God the Father does not punish or condemn or shame. Instead, God the Father is at home, always waiting, always ready to receive us back home.

God the Father wants us to answer the way same way Bryan Stevenson would answer his grandmother: “Father, I always feel you hugging me.” Only when the love of God means more to us than our selfish ambitions will we truly become transformed people. And only the unconditional, extravagant love of God can truly take us on that journey.

@danielhill1336 on Twitter

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