I was talking to a classroom of teenagers last week about having parents for part of an explanation of the eternal nature of God. There was a young girl sat on the front row who jerked suddenly, and then glared at me through genuine tears for the next twenty minutes.
The ‘Good Father’ Myth
Parents are not always there and when they are, they are not always good. We cannot simply assume that young people have any real concept of a loving family. This myth has followed our evangelism for quite a long time now, that everyone has some concept of what a ‘good father’ is. It has permeated every part of our worship and still forms the cornerstone of much of our teaching.
The degradation of society, however, just doesn’t back this myth up. 42% of UK marriages end in divorce, almost half of those affect children under the age of 16, and the vast majority of child abuse happens within the family unit. Not everyone knows what a ‘good father’ looks like.
God is Father and He has a true, good Father’s heart towards us. We cannot assume, however, that everyone will understand exactly what that means. The Father metaphor in lots of cases can conjure images of imperfection, brokenness or even neglect and abuse – in some cases it simply leaves confusion or absence. In other scenarios, like what happened in my classroom, it can invoke real, deep pain and propagate ill will towards God.
Incredibly, fatherhood then becomes an obstacle, a stumbling block to a young person falling in love with God.
So what should we do?
How do we respond to this and redeem the image of Fatherhood? Here are two gentle suggestions:
First, rather than talking simply about ‘fatherhood’, we should make sure that we share which specific traits we are talking about: Warmth, protection, compassion, strength, solidity, and leadership. You can actually talk faithfully about the Fatherhood of God by sharing what it means specifically, and you don’t necessarily need to use the word ‘Father’ each and every time.
Second, develop a philosophy that makes God the original form or ideal of what Father means. God is the highest reality of Father, which means He sets the tone for what it really is. Don’t say ‘God loves you like a Father,’ instead say ‘God is the ultimate Father, and He loves you.’ This gentle change of orientation stops us making God in the image of our own broken fathers and creates a new category that He fully inhabits.
A new language for an old truth
My good friend Mark and his wife just had a baby and she is a little knock out! She won’t fall asleep, however, unless she is in physical contact with one of her parents. Mark spends hours sat with this little life sleeping soundly on his belly. Her parents are her safe place, a secure and protected zone of absolutely love and compassion. That’s what good fatherhood does!
We need to speak to this culture about the truth of God as a Father – a truth that breaks chains and dismantles spirals of self-destruction. Our language needs to be basic and specific, and should show a real awareness of the problems many young people have with fatherhood as a concept.
In the way we teach, and the songs we sing we need to reach beyond just the word ‘Father’ and capture the reality behind it.
It is, after all, more important to communicate the real truth than to use the ‘correct’ words.