F is for Father
We all carry an image of God in our head. It may be a kindly old man with a long white beard sitting above the clouds. Or it may be the picture of a vengeful king just waiting to catch us out and punish us for our wrong doing. Chances are, I suspect, that the image we carry is male - a man. The great weight of Jewish and Christian tradition supports the idea that God is, in some sense, male.
But the Almighty God, the Great Creator of the Universe is neither male nor female. God is God, not a human being writ large. C. S. Lewis once wrote that just because God is not a person (in a human sense) that does not mean that God is less than a person. God is something “Other”.
God is more marvellous and wonderful, complex and simple, than our frail human minds can fully grasp or understand. This is partly why the Jews never said the name of God. They understood that God was not something they could classify or control.
So how are we ever to talk, think, or even pray to and with God? We need something that our mind can begin with. The Old Testament is full of alternative titles for God other than his name, and as almost all rulers were male it is only natural that they talked of God generally in male terms (although interestingly when they talked of God’s wisdom they referred to it as female!). Generally these titles reflected the might, majesty and power of God.
When Jesus came and talked about God he used a different form of address, “Abba”, which can be translated as Father, but is better translated as Dad or Daddy. Opinion is divided about whether Jesus was the first to call God, Abba. But certainly Jesus’ use of this title implied a much more intimate relationship than had previously been understood by most Jewish people. The prayers of the Jews in home and synagogue never spoke of God with such intimacy. God was King and Founder of the nation, rather than the father of each and every person. When we call God “Our Father” we are claiming a share, in some way, in Christ’s close relationship with God. Saint Paul wrote,
When we cry, “Abba. Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. [Romans 8: 15-17]
God is not a vengeful cruel despot but a loving caring Dad. This is surely an amazing aspect of the Good News which Jesus came to bring.
Some people have problems with calling God Father. As I noted above, if we use only titles for God that are male it can lead us to think that God is a man. This can reinforce the idea that men are somehow superior to women because men are closer to what God is like. It can be used to keep women “in their place” in the home, in society, and in the Church. So we need to remember the limitations of the word. God is like a good father, he is not a father. We can also call God “mother”. Remember God’s wisdom is a “she”. In one of the Common Worship Eucharist Prayers it says of God, “as a mother tenderly gathers her children, you embraced a people as your own” [Prayer G].
Another problem with the title is that some people have terrible experiences of “Father”. So we must remember God is not like our own Father (however good or bad he may have been). But he is like the best and most loving and caring Father - beyond even what we can imagine.
Detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco
by Michelangelo Buonarroti