The fatherhood of God (part 1)

Mercifully, when my father died in 2011, he didn’t suffer long. It began with a fall in the bathroom, which broke a hip that had already been repaired once. From what we were told, the surgeons had to hold the fractured leg together with wire and screws. But it seemed to work, and Dad went to a convalescent hospital to regain his strength and mobility.

Nobody knew, however, that his colon had stopped functioning, a complication of the anesthesia from his hip surgery. After a few days, it burst, resulting in a massive internal infection. He was transferred immediately to a local ICU, where doctors tried fight the infection with antibiotics.

But his nearly 94-year-old body couldn’t handle the strain. They put him in a drugged sleep to ease the suffering. And within roughly two weeks of the time he fell, the family gathered around his hospital bed to say goodbye.

As deaths go, Dad’s was relatively peaceful. I think he would have wanted it that way.

And as one life ends, others continue. I wish I could tell you that I missed him terribly when he was gone, that I mourned the loss of a guide, a teacher, a mentor, a friend — a father, in the best sense of the word. But he had never been these things to me or to my sister. As a man of his time and culture, he saw his role as being the breadwinner and little else. This he did faithfully; some of Mom’s friends, despite her complaints, thought she was lucky to have him.

Parenting? That was Mom’s job, alone. He was largely uninvolved in my life. On the one hand, I don’t remember him ever disciplining me. But on the other hand, I never went to him for comfort or advice.

That’s one reason, I believe, that my heart has a hard time embracing what my mind supposedly knows: that God is our loving heavenly Father.

. . .

The gospel of John portrays Jesus as having a deeply intimate relationship with his Father. In Luke 11:1-4, when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus teaches them to call God their Father as well. The prayer, which we know as the Lord’s Prayer, also stands at the center of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew.

But the fatherhood of God was not a new idea. The theme is by no means dominant in the Old Testament, but it is there. Sometimes, the fatherhood of God is merely implied, as when Israel is called God’s son (e.g., Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1, cited in Matt 2:15). But the prophets also address God directly as father, as in Isaiah’s laments (Isa 63:16; 64:8).

The fatherhood of God is linked to his role as creator (Deut 32:6; Mal 2:10). He is the father not only of Israel, but of the Davidic line (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:26). Through the prophet Malachi, God reminds the people that as their father, he is due honor and respect (Mal 1:6), while through the prophet Jeremiah he scolds the people for treating wooden idols as their father instead (Jer 2:27).

More tenderly, in the Psalms, God is called the “father of orphans and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5, NRSV). This echoes numerous statements in the Psalms that portray God as the champion of the poor and needy, the oppressed and marginalized. And in Psalm 103, we read, “As a father has compassion for his children,┬áso the LORD has compassion for those who fear him” (vs. 13).

God, the compassionate Father.

I suspect that many of you reading this understand the words but have difficulty relating to them. We have had no living examples of fatherly love and compassion. Don’t get me wrong: my dad was what many considered to be a “good” man, a responsible citizen. He wasn’t mean or given to private vices, just passive and uninvolved, someone with whom I never felt I had a real relationship.

I know people who grew up with verbally or physically abusive fathers; unless they’ve had others in their lives who were more positive role models, it’s harder for them to associate the word “loving” with “father.” Me? It’s just harder to believe God cares.

But this is the truth we are given. I can touch the fringes of it. I know how much I love my own kids and want to be there for them; I try to imagine that God cares for me the same way, a thousand-fold and more. And sometimes, fleetingly, I know it, know it deep in my bones. There is hope in that; there is promise.

I just have to believe that my Father hasn’t run out of patience with me just yet.