Guest column: The good Father myth
I recently told a classroom of teenagers a story about a good father, and used it as a springboard to talk about the perfect love of God. There was a girl on the front row, however, who jerked suddenly and glared at me fiercely through tears for the rest of the session.
For years, I’ve told these stories about God as a loving Father, and I’ve assumed young people will just get what I mean. There’s a big problem with this, though. Parents are not always there, and when they are, they are not always good.
Over 42 per cent of marriages in the UK end in divorce, with almost half of these affecting children under the age of 16. The vast majority of child abuse happens within the family unit. Not everyone knows what a good father looks like. Some dads (and mums) are jerks, some are absent and some really don’t deserve the title. We cannot indiscriminately trust that young people have any real concept of what a loving father actually is.
The myth that everyone has some concept of what a good father is has followed our evangelism for quite a long time now. It has permeated every part of our worship, and it still forms the cornerstone of a lot of our teaching.
God is Father, and he has a truly good Father’s heart towards us. However, we cannot expect everyone to understand exactly what that means. The father metaphor, in many cases, conjures up images of imperfection, brokenness, or even neglect and abuse. In some cases, it quietly leaves confusion, or just a lonely feeling of absence. In other scenarios, as happened in my classroom, it can invoke deep pain and simply propagate entrenched ill will towards God. Incredibly, fatherhood can actually become an obstacle; a stumbling block to a young person falling in love with God.
Rather than talking simply about fatherhood, maybe we should make sure that we identify the specific traits we’re referring to. So let’s talk about warmth, protection, compassion, strength, solidity and leadership. Let’s describe fatherhood, not just state it. We can talk faithfully about the Fatherhood of God by sharing what it specifically means, without actually using the word ‘father’.
Perhaps develop a philosophy that makes God the original form or ideal version of what fatherhood means. God is the highest reality of Father, which means he gets to set the tone for what a father really should be. Instead of saying: “God loves you like a father,” maybe we could say: “God is the Father, and he loves you.” This subtle change of orientation stops us seeing God through the lens of our own broken fathers, and creates a new category that he fully inhabits.
“We have an amazing opportunity to restore, redeem and even reintroduce what a father could, and should, be to a world in desperate need of him”
My good friend Mark and his wife recently had a baby, and she is a little knockout. She’s cute, excitable and, at times, wonderfully loud. For a long time she wouldn’t fall asleep without being in physical contact with one of her parents. Mark spent hours sitting with this little life sleeping soundly on his belly. Her parents were her safe place. As a dad, Mark was a secure and protected zone of absolute love and compassion, and I know he always will be. That’s what good fatherhood is.
Where can our young people find that safe space? How can we draw reluctant young people into the arms of the Father when their own fatherhood relationships are damaged? As youth workers, I know we can’t replace parents, and we really shouldn’t try to. But could our churches, youth groups and drop-ins provide a place of safety and compassion that reflect the character of their Father in heaven? Let’s think intentionally about how we can introduce the Father to those who have little or broken reference for what fatherhood should be.
Fatherhood can be a beautiful thing, and with God it certainly always is. However, if we trip up on the first hurdle and can’t get past the word itself, we’ll never get to the heart of the issue. We need to speak to our young people about the truth of God as Father; a truth that breaks chains and dismantles spirals of self-destruction. Our language needs to be basic and specific. It should show a real awareness of the problems many young people have with fatherhood as a concept. It is, after all, more important to communicate the real truth than just to use the ‘correct’ words. In the way we talk to young people, we need to reach beyond the word ‘father’ and capture the reality behind it.
We have an amazing opportunity to restore, redeem and even reintroduce what a father could, and should, be to a world in desperate need of him. Let’s get on it!