“Our Father” – that is the picture we have been taught about God.
It’s an image that makes us think of support and protection. And where is all of that, when someone we love has been done away with?
It’s worth meditating, though, on how ‘father’ actually appears to us as we go through the process of growing up.
When we are very young, parents are our universal providers, who can do no wrong. In the earliest days of our spiritual lives, we look at God like that—and get mad just as two year olds do, when Father says ‘No’ to what we ask for.
As we grow up into childhood, Father becomes the one who teaches us the difference between right and wrong, the way we ought to live. He becomes the Lawgiver and Enforcer. That, too, is a way in which many people see God. In such a case, we expect that, if we keep the rules, we will get the rewards. Only ‘bad people’ who break the rules should get into trouble. There’s a lot of that thinking in the Old Testament.
As we pass from childhood into adolescence, our attitudes change. We challenge what we have been taught, to experiment with life for ourselves. We may try smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, or crime, to experiment with the ‘highs’ that these give us. It’s a dangerous period of life. ‘Father’, with all his cautions and restrictions, seems utterly out of touch with the fast paced world we want to live in. And at that time, often enough he looks more like a policeman—someone we don’t want to see when we’re sailing too close to the wind, but yet whom we welcome to bail us out when we’re in really deep trouble. There’s a lot of that attitude to God in the immature, materialistic world we live in, often in people old enough to know a great deal better.
But there is a fourth state—the stage of adulthood and parenthood. That is when we have to take on the responsibility of being a parent to others—to provide for them, teach and discipline them, help them with their sometimes dangerous steps towards independence, and ultimately, let loose the apron strings and allow them to live their lives in the way they choose.
When disaster strikes us, our views of God as Provider, Lawgiver or Policeman are all going to disappoint us. God has failed to Provide. His laws have been broken and innocent people have suffered unjustly. A load of guilt may have landed on us, because we (or our friends) think that God the Policeman would not be so hard on us if we hadn’t been doing something wrong.
Our own tragedy will be unresolved until we go one step further—to find God as the suffering Father.
Several times in my career, I have had a strange sight in my law office. Shamefaced Father comes in with his teenaged child in trouble with the law—shoplifting, perhaps, or drunken driving—and asking me to do what I can, at his expense, to fix things. Father has done no wrong, but the child is in trouble, and out of a sense of love and responsibility, father is doing his part to bear the shame and pay the cost of his child’s errors.
I doubt if many parents at that stage think of themselves as reflecting the nature of the Divine, but that is indeed what is going on.
There are a number of places in the Old Testament where this concept of God as Benefactor, Lawgiver or Policeman is challenged—most notably in the book of Job and the later chapters of Isaiah. But it is in the New Testament teachings of Jesus that the idea of the suffering Father is developed to the full. Jesus portrays a God who “sends his rain on the just and the unjust” and is “kind to the unthankful and the evil”. We have pictures of rich men who are robbed by unfaithful stewards and yet forgive them; of employers who pay the same wage to those who deserve it and those who do not; of a son who comes home after wasting half the family fortune, and is received by his father with celebration and joy.
It is in this last story that we see the other side of the coin. A God of infinite love, who is equally kind to saints and criminals alike, inspires jealousy among all those who think that God owes them something extra because they have kept His laws. The elder brother was not happy with his sibling’s return, and all the joy it caused. He is the prototype of all those ‘religious’ types who insist that their particular formula, and not God’s loving nature, is their key to entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet “there is more joy in the Kingdom of Heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety nine just persons who need no repentance.” “My ways are not your ways,” says the Lord!
In my own case, there was one occasion where I was shocked to the core of my being, at finding within myself a depth of hatred for a God who gave no respect at all to all the good things that I and my daughter Catherine had done in his name over the years, and who granted absolution to this criminal who had taken her life. I would have nailed Jesus to the cross once again, if it had not been done already.
Like Job, it seems so unfair, first to lose a child, then to be forced to acknowledge that God is entitled to do what He wills, and to confess that, though He may love us, He owes us nothing, no matter what happens to us or those we love.
Strangely enough, though, that is what infinite love is like—and it can be our privilege, being people who have suffered a very severe loss, to understand what ‘following Jesus’ really means—and costs—and how close to His own wounded body our own sufferings can bring us.