By Greg Forster: part eight of a series.
The title of this post pulled me up short when I wrote it. I was just following the format for all the titles in this series: Just Imagine, God a Farmer! Just Imagine: God a Doctor! But this one’s different.
“Just Imagine: God a Father!”
It’s amazing. Just imagine it! God . . . a father.
It’s difficult for us to mentally capture the fatherhood of God as an image of a worker. But that is what it is. Thinking of parenthood as God-honored work transforms not only our view of parenthood but our view of all of life. And if God is a parent, and parenthood is work, that transforms our view of God and the cosmos – to its core.
In Martin Luther’s famous sermon on marriage, there is a passage (somewhat well known, but not as well known as it ought to be in the faith and work movement) about what a beautiful and glorious thing it is for a man to change a dirty diaper:
Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.
Now, just imagine it: God, a father.
One of the main distinguishing features of modern society is the sharp differentiation of the family from other types of social institutions. This is what lies behind our persistent tendency to think of everything other than the home, the original place of work, as “work.” Work is what we do in business and government and maybe schools and volunteer organizations, but it’s not work if it’s at home. (Indeed, things have gotten to the point where we no longer even recognize the family as a “social” institution, hoping in our folly that people can all decide for themselves what is or is not a “family” and the other structures of society will be unaffected by this.)
In biblical times, there were no clear lines between family and other social structures. The nation was seen as a big extended family; that’s why we call Israel “Israel” and not, say, “the Hebrews.” What we call “business” was done in households – but “households” included much more than just the family who owned the house, and could be quite large. Some of these households were the ancient equivalent of multinational corporations.
There are good historical reasons for the differentiation of institutions. For one thing, this has not been simply a differentiation of family from other institutions but of all types of institutions from one another. Church, business, government, schools, art, family, etc. all recognize one another’s boundaries now. That general differentiation is necessary for freedom and justice. For another thing, it’s true that family did once provide the master metaphor for all social organization, so the differentiation of institutions has in some ways affected the family most – but to that extent, it was also especially needed, because giving patenral authority to government, business or artistic leadership is especially dangerous.
Nonetheless, one of the deepest challenges we face is family vocation, viewing our work in the home as work to which we are called.
And if family is work to which we have a vocation, the image of God as a father should turn our whole mental cosmos inside-out.
I don’t think that I am at all alone in thinking of the fatherhood of God almost exclusively in terms of his fatherhood of Jesus, being the Father of the Son. But the fatherhood of God is associated with the design and character of all he has made:
But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
God is the father of his people:
Do you thus repay the Lord,
you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
who made you and established you?
And he is the father of the whole world:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
Notice that for Paul, what sharply differentiates the Christian conception of the divine from pagan conceptions is not only the sole lordship of Jesus over all but also the sole fatherhood of God over all.
That’s a lot of dirty diapers.
I hesitate to ask what this insight about fatherhood as work implies about the connection between the life of God in the Trinity – the relation of the Father and Son – and the fatherly work of the creation of the world. I doubt we can know much. But that seems to be where this clearly leads.
Is there work in the inner life of the Trinity? Perhaps we can’t know. But everything in the outward operation of the Trinity (God’s creation and redemption of the world, and all his relations with it) has to come out of the inner life of the Trinity. There must be something going on in there that leads God to work as a father when creating the world through his two hands, Jesus and the Spirit.
Just imagine: God, a father.