When “Father” Is A Bad Thing

This afternoon, I was working on a study for the Essential Jesus class I’ve been teaching on Sunday mornings and in this particular lesson I wanted to highlight one of the major themes that Jesus taught was that God is a loving Father. Jesus often spoke of God as, Abba, which was an intimate, family word that a Hebrew child used of his or her dad and nowhere in the history of Israel had it been used by anyone of God.

Jesus said His relationship with God was like a son’s to a Father—and that we can approach God as a young child approaches a good daddy, with a full measure of trust, confidence, dependence, and love, which also means we can approach Him without pretense, worry, fear, shame, or having your act together.  Jesus said God’s not a impersonal force that must be feared and appeased, but rather, a personal, loving Father that  wants to love, protect, guide and share life with you. What an amazing difference and it dynamically changes out we relate, live with and pray to our Father. 

However, as I was thinking thinking through those implications, I also knew when I mention that God is a Father, to some that would hit them like a ton of bricks and not bring them joy but consternation. I found a short article by Michael Reeves in his fantastic book, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith and I wanted to share it with those of you who may have grown up in a home with a difficult father or know someone who struggles with the concept of God as a Father based upon their childhood experiences.


When “Father” Is A Bad Thing


Not everyone instinctively warms to the idea that God is Father. There are many for whom their own experiences of overbearing, indifferent or abusive fathers make their very guts squirm when they hear God spoken of as a Father. The twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault had very much that sort of issue. The bulk of his life’s work was about the evils of authority, and it seems to have all started with the first figure of authority in his life: his father. Fearful of having some namby-pamby for a son, Foucault Senior—who was a surgeon—did what he could to “toughen up” the little mite. That meant, for example, ghoulishly forcing him to witness an amputation. “The image, certainly, has all the ingredients of a recurrent nightmare: the sadistic father, the impotent child, the knife slicing into flesh, the body cut to the bone, the demand to acknowledge the sovereign power of the patriarch, and the inexpressible humiliation of the son, having his manliness put to the test.”[i]

For Foucault, paternal power had not been used to care, to nurture and to bless, and so for him the word father came to be associated with a host of dark images.

One’s heart goes out to children of such fathers, and those of us who are fathers ourselves know that we too are far from perfect. But God the Father is not called Father because he copies earthly fathers. He is not some pumped-up version of your dad. To transfer the failings of earthly fathers to him is, quite simply, a misstep.  Instead, things are the other way around: it is that all human fathers are supposed to reflect him—only where some do that well, others do a better job of reflecting the devil.

[i] James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 366



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