For many people, referring to God as “father” carries connotations that are difficult, if not impossible to overlook. Perhaps “father” was someone who was constantly critical, someone for whom your work was never good enough. You would never measure up no matter how hard you tried.
Maybe “father” was the person who disciplined when you did something wrong. And maybe that discipline was harsh or even abusive. Maybe “father” was someone you had to hide from so you wouldn’t have to hide the bruises he gave you from your friends.
It might be that “father” was drunk, loud, and mean. You didn’t dare bring your friends home because you never knew what sort of mood he would be in. He might be overly friendly to your female friends, or overly aggressive with you male friends. Either way, when your friends left you would feel ashamed.
Maybe “father” was a step-father who made it clear he didn’t want you around. You came as a package deal with the woman he married but you were only barely tolerable. Maybe you even suffered sexual abuse at his hands.
These are not minor issues. They not only leave permanent scars but they hamper identifying with the God who comes to his people as Father.
Perhaps one way to begin to retrieve a proper notion of God as Father is via the Aramaic word “abba.” This little word carries with it the idea of deep intimacy and love. I was reminded of this in a sermon a week ago. The pastor said that “abba” is usually left untranslated because no English word really captures the full meaning of this richly significant concept. While sometimes it is considered the equivalent of “daddy,” the word a young child might use, that does not sum up the full meaning.
The pastor told this story. He told of a young couple whose son was born prematurely. He was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit at a nearby hospital and carefully tended to by the staff. But the father and grandfather also stopped by frequently, bending over the isolet, touching his little hands, stroking his little body as if to encourage him to continue to live and to flourish. The pastor telling this story later revealed that he was the grandfather of this little one who was now a teenager.
I could relate to this story. Our second child, a son, was also born prematurely. My husband also regularly went to the neonatal intensive care unit, bent over the isolet, talked to our son, rubbing his back and holding his tiny hand, encouraging him to continue to live and flourish. When I was able, I went too. I know the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with wishing you could give your very own life and breath to that little baby; the feeling of willing him to live.
The pastor said that God is a father like that. He bends down to us, tenderly watches over us, willing us to live, offering us life through his own Son, the sort of life we were intended to have. A life of flourishing in his presence. Perhaps a picture like this can offer those whose human fathers have fallen far short of God’s intention, a glimpse of who God is, our ultimate Abba.