I am the father of two beautiful little girls (3.5 years and 17mo.). When my oldest girl was a baby we were visiting some friends who also had two young children. I remember the father waxing eloquent in Christian cliches about the love he has for his son and daughter was like the love of the Father. I remember my friend saying something like, “I’ve notice that I am so full of love for my son and it got me thinking that that is a lot like God’s love for us.” Understand, at the time I was in the middle of theological education, trying to get an M.Div. But somehow I didn’t really warm to the fact that my friend was using the quality of his own love as an example of God’s love.
But sure I get the point. It is only natural to speak of parental love as a picture of God’s love. Jesus calls God, “Abba,” the Aramaic term for ‘father’ or ‘my father.’ The church has formalized the language, calling God: Father. Understandably the reference point for understanding the language of ‘father’ is our own earthly dads. The problem is that when our dad’s are abusive, absent or otherwise assholes, we tend to import that image into our thoughts about God (the same goes if we change the language to include God as mother). Even if our dads are good dads, they never love us perfectly and make mistakes. My own dad is great, but there are things about him that are not like God. I strive to love my little girls as God would, but there will be ways in which I wound them by failure to love them properly.
So where does that leave us? Some theologians argue that we should abandon the language of God’s fatherhood (and motherhood). Other theologians argue that we should keep the traditional formulation of God as father, but take care to not cast God in the image of our biological father.
I am quite comfortable with father language, but I know people who aren’t for various reasons (patriarchy, abuse). I personally am moved by the image of God as a loving Father who protects and cares for his children. But I have come to see the love of God in them and wonder if the love of God is less like a parent’s love for a child than it is like the love of a child has for her parents.
Hear me out. In their book Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn assert, “the bottom line of healthy Christian Spirituality is God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us most” (11). While I think that this is underestimating God’s love when we consider that the Bible tells us that God is in fact, Love itself (cf. 1 John 4:8), looking to the person who loves us most is a good place to begin when looking for our metaphors for God’s love.
For me that my little girls (my wife too but in a different way). My girls think I am the best dad they can have (they will grow out of this, but let me live in their illusion for awhile). When they are scared or hurt, my presence with them makes them feel safe and comforted. Sometimes when I walk into the room, I get flashed smiles by both of them which would make your heart melt. My young one looks lovingly at me and chants, “Daddy, Daddy.” My older one loves when I read books or color with her. Both girls love when I lift them up over my head. Sure they will play with other people and love to do things with them, but they wouldn’t trade me for them. They are most secure and satisfied when my wife and I are home with them and they can spend time with us.
God loves me as much as little girls who haven’t seen the way their father will fail them. God wants to spend time with me and enjoys me as much as my little one. Does that sound sacrilegious? The image I have just shared is an image of God where he is the weak one, and I am the one with all the strength. I am the strong father, he is the weak little girl. Is this inappropriate? Is this not the way God comes to us at Christmas: A little child, weak and dependent on his mother’s milk. It is the God that comes in weakness, frailty and smallness whose coming we prepare for in the Advent season.
Therefore look and see in the eyes of a little child the coming of a king. When we learn to look and see children properly, we are not far from the kingdom of God.
Isaiah 11:1–9 (NRSV)
The Peaceful Kingdom
11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.