The one year anniversary marking the commencement of my sibiling-in-Christ relationship with Rev. Matthew van Maastricht approaches quickly. We met at the annual meeting of General Synod, our denomination’s highest assembly, last summer. He called himself “the bearded wonder”, and quipped that the moniker is easier to pronounce than his last name. It didn’t take long for me to warm to his quick wit, snarky sense of humor, brilliant theological mind, and deeply searching soul. Matthew prepares us well for this Sunday, which is Father’s Day. After reading his post, we may both celebrate human fatherhood and think theologically about the fatherhood of God.
The Fatherhood of God and the Reflection of God’s image
by Rev. Matthew van Maastricht
I’ve always been bothered by the concept of the fatherhood of God. I understand that, in several locations, the Bible refers to God as “Father.” In the doxology we sing, “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” When we baptize, we do so “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we begin, “Our Father…,” and when my family prayed at the dinner table, our prayers almost always were addressed, “Heavenly Father.”
I’ve always been concerned about the image of God as father, because if God is a father, then God is masculine. I grew up in a subculture where “masculine” meant a lot of things. It meant that one does not show emotion (at least “weak” emotions such as sadness or hurt) or show weakness. It meant that one does not show fear. Masculine meant playing football and wrestling. I, on the other hand, seemed to lack any real trait of masculinity. I’ve always had strong emotions and I continue to feel things very deeply. I have great fears of a host of things, and I could never get into football or wrestling, I preferred music and drama.
I was uncomfortable with God being masculine, and I was uncomfortable with the “father” language. My own discomfort with the “father” language for God arose primarily with my own discomfort with my experience of my subculture’s social construction of masculinity. This “father” language pushed me to picture God as a man (usually with a big white beard), and I projected all of these masculine traits onto God: austere, never feeling sadness, pain, or hurt, and relatively dispassionate. Consequently, I often had difficulty even understanding God’s capacity for love, since love was, at least in part, a feeling.
When I thought of God as father, this was the type of image that came to mind: “‘I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come. I looked, but there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me; so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me. I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth'” (Isaiah 63:3-6, NRSV).
It was in seminary that I encountered passages that provided a fuller and more complete perspective on and image of God. In Isaiah 49:15, God compares and contrasts Godself to a mother nursing a child; in Isaiah 66:13; we see God compare Godself to a mother comforting her child; in several places in the Psalms (i.e. Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 61:4), we see God as a mother bird sheltering her young, keeping them in the protection or in the shadow of God’s wings; in Matthew 23 we read this: “‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…'” (v. 37, NRSV). In Genesis 3, after expressing disappointment with Adam and Eve and pronouncing curses on them, God makes clothes for them before he sends them out of paradise. This is but a small sampling of the passages in which we are invited to view God not as a disciplinarian but as a nurturer, a comforter who is soft and tender.
These descriptions of God are very nurturing, very caring, very passionate. The language is still protective, but it is warmly and intimately protective, lacking the image of brute strength. While it is true that scripture never refers to God as “mother,” we must sill be clear that God (the Father), exhibits traits that our culture often defines as maternal or feminine.
Finally it struck me: perhaps I am uncomfortable with the father language of God because I have been projecting my imperfect and broken cultural definition of masculinity onto God, whereas perhaps I should have seen it the opposite way and understand fatherhood (and even masculinity) through the model of God’s revealed interaction with God’s people over millennia. Perhaps we have created a false dichotomy when we see fathers and mothers as distinctly different in their roles and their interactions (based upon their sex). Perhaps there is no hard and fast rule that says that fathers need to be strong, austere people who never show fear, weakness, or sadness. Perhaps mothers are not the only ones who are to be nurturing and caring. Perhaps there is not a particular role for fathers and a particular role for mothers in child-rearing. After all, it is important for us to remember that we are created in God’s image, and that God is not created in our image.
For me, when viewed in this way, the fatherhood of God becomes far less troubling, and I think, more honest and biblical (the problem, however, is when we simply use the term “father” and allow others to fill in their cultural projections). The idea that a father can be very tender and nurturing is far better than the worldly masculine image of God that we sometimes like to talk about and emphasize.
It is important to note that mothers, by nature, have a special attachment to a child, after all, a mother carries and births their child. Mothers often feed infants in their first months and years from their bodies. However, this does not mean that because children and mothers have a special and unique bond, fathers are then exempted from forming a close and nurturing bond with their children. Additionally, this does not mean that mothers are to be the nurturers and fathers are to be something else.
Both males and females were created in God’s image, and it stands to reason that both males and females would both be equal reflectors of God’s image and nature. Fathers reflect God’s image not only when/if they are functioning as a protector, disciplinarian, or model of strength, but also when they are tender, nurturing, loving, and caring. Similarly mothers reflect God’s image not only when they birth children, not only when/if they are gentle and tender, but also when they discipline, protect, exhibit strength, and provide (in part or in full) for the family. If both males and females reflect God’s image, this will naturally lead to a mutual submission, mutual respect, and a striving for equality: this is a way that fathers reflect God’s image.
As we approach Father’s Day, we approach a day of mixed blessing. Those who had good fathers can give thanks for them, while those who had harmful or hurtful fathers often struggle with trying to forgive them. My hope and prayer for this Father’s Day is that those who are fathers, and those of us who are not, or not yet, fathers would take the image of God’s fatherhood to heart, and learn that fathers were not created necessarily to be dispassionate and austere, not necessarily protectors and disciplinarians, but fathers were also created to be nurturing, tender, loving, caring, gentle, and other traits which are culturally seen as traditionally feminine or maternal.
Matthew van Maastricht lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he pastors a small inner-city (mission) church. He loves the city, Reformed theology, and looking for signs of the coming kingdom of God. He blogs at thealreadynotyet.com.