If I had to pick one of these alliterative names for God as my favorite, it would have to be Forgiving Father (Mark 11:25). It’s good for us to think about the different attributes of God and the varied aspects of our relationship to Him, because an overemphasis on any one of them (and a corresponding underemphasis on others) is not good. But “Father” encapsulates so many of those truths in a single word.
Father means that
- He is the source of our life
- He is in authority over us
- He love us
- He helps and teaches us
- He corrects us when necessary
- He has a continuing relationship with us
- He is personally interested in each one of us
I did not have a close relationship with my own father. I liked going hiking with him, or doing other physical activities (biking, swimming, making things on his toolbench downstairs). But I don’t remember talking much. He didn’t talk a lot (unlike our mother, who was aggravated by this lack of communication), and neither did I, so conversations between us were generally limited to practical matters – how to do something or how to get somewhere.
I remember one time at the dinner table he commented on Communion at church, saying that he felt close to God then – I think he even said something about God speaking to Him through Communion. It was one of the rare times when I learned something about his inner life. But I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to say more about it.
He was a poor disciplinarian, generally exercising little control over our behavior, but occasionally erupting in unreasonable (and sometimes violent) rage over some childish willfulness. I quickly learned to avoid sparking such reactions, but my older sister wanted to stand up for what she considered right, and bore the brunt of his wrath while my mother and I cowered in a locked bedroom. After one such incident (after which he was as always filled with remorse), he hung a noose in the basement. I would walk home from school in the afternoon wondering whether he might have decided to use it, and asking myself how I would feel about that.
If we had had a close relationship, perhaps I could have told him how it bothered me, but I had never opened up my feelings to him, and nothing happened to encourage me to start. I don’t remember even wishing I could; it simply was outside the realm of possibility. I took life as it came, and coped with it as best I could, and the idea of being able to act to change things came to me only with great difficulty, and then mostly in very minor matters (such as how to earn a little extra money).
I don’t remember how I felt about the idea of God being my Father. I had been taught to pray to Him as Father since my earliest childhood, but prayers were just words to say. I had no concept of God being a person to have a relationship with, just an impersonal force (as my mother believed). When I became a Christian as a teenager, I learned to pray because that was what good Christians did, but I did it out of a desire to do what was right, not any feeling of closeness to God.
While other people in Wednesday evening prayer meetings began their prayers, “Loving and gracious heavenly Father,” I merely prefaced mine with “Dear God.” I don’t remember thinking of my human father as the reason for this reluctance; I just had no sense of a personal relationship with God, though I hoped I did have one since I had asked Jesus to be my Savior. When, on rare occasions, I voiced my doubts on this matter to an older Christian, I was reminded that fact came first, then faith, and eventually the feelings would follow.
About the only time I felt some sense of closeness to God was when I would confess a sin that I had been struggling with (usually related to overeating). There would be a rush of relief in feeling clean again and being given another chance. (Though as I repeated the cycle over and over again I began to think it wasn’t really doing anything.) I felt genuinely bad about doing wrong, and grateful for being forgiven. But it’s not much of a relationship when the only time you feel close to someone is after hurting them.
One day I had a dream, which I remembered more vividly than most. It had much of the usual illogic of dreams, but I was convinced that some of its symbolism must have a direct bearing on my relationship to God. I was at some kind of carnival, which included a puzzle-game that involved being locked in a room that you had to get out of before time ran out or you would die. I got out, though I don’t remember exactly how, and then felt horror at the thought of people paying to take a chance on ending their lives that way. It seemed an excellent metaphor for human sin.
Then somehow I found myself on a path to a house, away from the carnival. There were other people also headed there, though not all that many compared to those who stayed on the fairgrounds. Inside the house, there was some beautiful but fragile object – a vase perhaps – that I accidentally brushed against, and it fell and shattered into pieces. I felt awful, and wanted to apologize and somehow make it up to the owner if I could, but I also dreaded that confrontation. Then I suddenly found myself in front of the host and hostess.
I remember being embraced by the woman, who seemed very much like the wonderful loving mother or grandmother in many stories I had read. I knew I was forgiven. I don’t remember being embrased by the man, or even if I actually saw him clearly, but I knew I was forgiven. And I knew that what I wanted more than anything was to please him and be in a right relationship with him. I woke up convinced that I had been dreaming about God. I also had a mental “image” – no visual image but very strong emotional content – of that relationship with God.
I’ve read arguments that it’s hard for people who did not have a good relationship with their fathers to relate to God as Father. And I’ve read counter-arguments, that even those with bad fathers know what a good father would be like, so they can be all the more grateful to have such a good Father in heaven. Since for the most part, I’ve encountered the former position among theological liberals (who want to offer alternate metaphors for God, such as Mother), and the latter among theological conservatives, I have tended to accept the latter view. After all, I have no trouble conceiving of God as the perfect Father.
However, it’s hard to relate personally to a mental concept. And two-way communication between God and me seems about as rare as it was between my father and me. I get His how-to instructions, via the Bible. And I enjoy walking, or biking (somehow swimming lost its appeal as I grew up), thinking of Him as my companion. I think I have a reasonably good idea of what He wants me to do, and I do want to please Him. But it would be nice to have the close relationship that some of my friends appear to have with their human fathers, and many Christians seem to have with the Heavenly Father.
I am glad that at least He forgives me for my sins that keep me from having a better relationship with him (usually sins of omission, not commission).