God as father

Why is the biblical God typically (not exclusively) described in masculine terms?

So far I’ve had two friends cite this as one of their main complaints against the Christian God: “he” is too paternal. Too male. In an era when, thankfully, women are finally able to challenge the structures of male domination which have caused inestimable suffering, and when, unfortunately, the subsequent attempt to purge our culture of “patriarchy” has led to a unilateral rejection of masculinity even in its virtuous forms, this is not surprising. I have asked myself the same questions: is there a reason that God wants us to call him father and not mother? Since he is spiritual, not bodily (John 4:24), why does he use gendered terms at all? Why not something more philosophical or mystical such as “pure being” or “the One”? Something less tainted by the kind of emotional baggage that human male authority figures tend to create?

In fact, from the beginning, the biblical God has used a brilliant, non-gendered ontological self-descriptor: “I am,” which is the root of the Hebrew word Yahweh/Jehovah, the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This teaches us that God cannot be fully described by human language and that (his) self-existence far transcends the limited categories of sex and gender.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

All our ideas about God are limited by our “epistemic humility,” our inability to grasp anything beyond our familiar world of matter, space, and time. Anything we know of the divine is nothing more than a fraction of an infinite whole. That much has always been clear.

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand? Job 26:14

With that said, here are four ideas as to why the Bible generally presents God as a masculine, paternal figure.

1) The Bible anthropomorphizes God as a gift to us, making him more comprehensible than he would otherwise be.

The question “why use gendered terms at all?” points to a larger question regarding the Bible’s tendency to use anthropomorphizing terms to describe God, and worldly terms to describe otherworldly phenomena. Think also of how often Jesus spoke in parables, or short stories, rather than theological treatises. The Bible is mostly made up of stories and poems which were first composed orally and only later codified in written text. This reflects a fact about our world: most humans in most times and places have been illiterate, oral learners. As a species we tend to absorb information better and faster through storytelling than through argumentation. What’s easier to remember: a two-hour movie or a two-hour powerpoint presentation?

Human languages divide the world into categories which God doesn’t fit into, but which God nonetheless adopts in order to give us a foothold into understanding who he is. Language is limited, but without it we wouldn’t be able to say anything at all about God. One could object to this and say that, therefore, we shouldn’t even try and should be content to be agnostic. But if God has actually given us a set of images and terms and has told us to latch onto them, while recognizing their inherent limitations, then that is an incredible gift. There is a risk that we will take it all too literally and think that heaven is really made out of gold or that God is really male. But at least gold and fathers are things we can imagine, while heaven and divinity are not.

Especially considering that the vast majority of human learning is picture-oriented, the anthropomorphizing terms that the Bible uses to describe God are an expression of grace, proving that our Creator wants us to know him.

2) Many people lack father figures (more so than mother figures).

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the biological reasons behind this, and for people who have been around long enough, it’s a simple reality. It’s easier for fathers than for mothers to abandon their children, and so more of them do. That means many more people lacking a loving, protecting, paternal voice, which is universally desired – at least, I can think of no exceptions. The Bible has always called out “the fatherless” as a special group for whom God is concerned. Thus, God as father fills this gap when he tells us to call him abba, the term used at home with dad because you’re safe under his domain and you know that he loves you.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15

*The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture (note from the NIV).

3) The fatherhood of God redefines human fatherhood.

Most human societies have placed little emphasis on the father’s role in child-rearing. The phenomenon of the stay-at-home dad is extremely modern, again because of biological reasons and the realities of pre-industrialized life. By calling God “father,” the Bible combines the traditional archetype of the distant authority figure who rules by domestic decree with the idea of an intimately involved parent who loves his children ardently. That is, God is “other” from us in his divinity and moral purity in a way analogous to the traditional concept of the distant patriarch. Yet he is compassionate and loving towards us in a way that challenges that traditional concept.

Thus the Bible subverts our assumptions about patriarchal gender roles by teaching fathers to love their children gently and to care for them intimately, in the same way that God loves and cares for us. Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son, who as an aged man runs to meet his rebellious son and kisses him before he has a chance to say anything. That father, representing God, refuses to be treated as a master or employer. Instead he insists on being affectionate and “prodigally” kind to his undeserving child.

And you saw how the LORD [Yahweh] your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Deuteronomy 1:31

And my personal favorite verse comparing human and divine fatherhood, in that subtle, piercing tone so typical of Jesus:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

4) The Bible doesn’t only use masculine, paternal imagery to talk about God.

There’s lots of potential for reflection here, but for now I’ll just list a few examples of the times that the Bible speaks about God as a mother/woman.

[David:] But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2

[God:] Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15

[God:] As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13

[Jesus speaking, right before the story of the prodigal son:] Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. Luke 15:8-10

God is not a man. We have to remember that. In his mercy he has revealed himself to us in certain ways so that we can start to know him even now. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of working through all of this, emotional baggage and all, and gradually learning what it means when we pray, “our father…”

 

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F.E.A.R.

Faithless
Expectation of
Armies and
Rain
…when the general loves you and you’ve got an umbrella.

Getting
Ready to
Eat your
Emptiness for
Dinner
…when your father is a billionaire and your mom’s making steak.

Languishing
Under
Slavery to self and
Tyranny over persons
…when there’s fresh air outside and we’re all in one family.

Painstakingly
Rationalizing your
Inoperative
Disease-infested
Ego
…when the organ isn’t necessary and the surgeon is in.

Father’s fidelity to
Outlandishly show off his
Redemption and to
Gently display the
Irrationality of our
Vices
Even as we
Naive young fools
Expect to
Somehow
Settle a deal
…though the debt’s all been paid and our bank account is brimming.

“Abba! Father!”

I wrote the following several years ago and posted it as a “note” on Facebook.com Though I had nearly forgotten about writing this short reflection, the concept has remained precious to me for years. I republish it now in the hope that it will bless you in a similar way.


For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:15-17

I recently learned that “abba” in Aramaic means something close to “papa” or “daddy.” This has got me thinking.

You call your dad “father” when you go off to war, when you come home blushing, when you’re being punished, and when you’re being adult. You call him father as you march away, avoid his eyes, or ask for his help, when things are serious and grown up.

We call God “Father” when we pray, repent, beg, doubt, and suffer, when we are being tested or tempted, and when we are alone. We call him Father in his holiness and enormity, and in our own guilt and helplessness. We call him father with our heads bowed.

But he also invites us to approach him as intimates, as his children, quietly confidant in his powerful good work. He lets Paul – a very mature, Roman, Jewish, man – call him abba, papa, daddy. I haven’t even called my own dad “daddy” since I was a little kid, and he is much less intimidating than God.

“His compassions never fail, they are new every morning.”

God delights with a simple joy in his own creation. Like a child admiring his own handiwork, he has named every star; he wants new songs and shouts of joy. As father he is strong and mighty; as daddy he is gentle and tender. As father he humbles us and breaks our proud hearts; as daddy he lifts us up high, then rejoices with us in our still small triumphs. God the Father is our fortress in the battle. God the Daddy welcomes us back once the battle is won.

That God runs to me even as I wallow in my own doubt and trepidation, slaughters a fatted calf at a feast in my honor, puts his ring on my finger, and makes me alive again.

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:19-24

the jealous God

You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:14

“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” wrote Solomon, speaking of the human sin of covetousness, the “green-eyed monster” (Proverbs 27:4). Such is the jealousy that contributes to such a large percentage of murders each year – literally as well as in the sense of heart-level murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Jealousy-fueled hatred is ugly, obsessive, and alienating. And it is absurdly proud.

Yet, God tells Moses in Exodus 34 that his very name is “Jealous.” Throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible, God says the reason he hates idolatry is because he is a jealous God (e.g. Deut 4:23-24, Ezek 8:3-5, 1 Cor 10:21-22). God’s jealousy is worlds different from our self-obsessed covetousness. The jealousy of God is a holy zeal to establish and protect the love-relationship between himself and his people. It is analogous to the jealousy of a wife for the husband she loves, which adultery so deeply and penetratingly wounds. A marriage which adultery does not affect is a sham, and loveless.

The companion of God’s jealousy is not hatred, but love, a love that is righteous and relentless. If you read the Old Testament, you cannot help but notice that the biblical God is intensely concerned, and intimately involved, with the lives of the humans he has made. He cares; about our lives, our suffering, our actions (whether good or evil), and most fundamentally, how our hearts are related to himself. He sends plagues, he parts seas, he creates nations, he destroys nations, he decrees laws about what animals to eat and what clothes to wear, he rains down fire, he rescues the poor from their oppressors, he whispers in the storm, because he is a jealous God.

The fact that he knows, and passionately cares about, the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts is, on the one hand, terrifying. He knows as no one else does the darkest corners of my depravity. He sees how much I love to hate, how little I love to trust him, how little I thank him. He sees my excuses. He sees the ridiculous struggle I go through to carry out even the most insignificant acts of selflessness, the struggle to which all others are blind. He knows, and he cares, and he hates my sin with ferocity. The hatred I am learning to feel toward my sin pales in comparison to the reaction of his holy nature against it. He is a jealous God, jealous for his own glory, jealous for my worship. My spiritual adultery against my Creator is uglier than the wickedest affair, the most flagrant betrayal. (If you want to know what it’s like, see, for example, Ezekiel 16.)

God’s jealousy scares me, because I know how far short I fall. It also makes me cry, and sing, and hardly know what to do with myself, when I think of how he loves me. God is jealous for me. God is the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15, running out to me, embracing me, kissing me, hardly able to express his joy at having me home. He is the prostitute’s husband in Hosea 2, romancing me all over again, betrothing me to himself in tenderness, in love determined to win me back. He is, most of all, the man on the cross, dying in torment, declaring in paradoxical victory, “It is finished.” My sin, atoned; my debt, paid in full; my inheritance, secured forever.

He is a jealous God. He is jealous for his glory, tolerating no rivals, going to every length imaginable to protect the relationship between himself and his creation, avenging himself in justice when that relationship is violated. He is jealous for you, whoever you are, whatever you have done, for “he yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5 ESV). He wants you to be close to him, to experience his mercy, to be who you are and who you are meant to be by living in a right relationship to him by faith.

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

The counterpart of God’s jealousy in us is zeal: zeal for God’s glory, passion to show his love to other people. Paul had it – see above. Jesus never lived a moment without it – his disciples recognized the scripture “zeal for your house will consume me” as describing him perfectly (John 2:17). He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). If any of us understands God’s jealousy in any sense whatever, zeal for him simply becomes the appropriate response. Lukewarm people, lukewarm churches, respectable though they may be, are inadequate for a God like this one. He is too amazing, his gospel too good, to be an afterthought, or anything other than the goal and glory of our lives.