In 2008, the Michael Gungor Band released a song titled “God Is Not a White Man.” No doubt, the title of the song creates a negative knee-jerk response for many people who take it as a political statement, especially in light of today’s polarized landscape. However, the song rightly challenges some of the popular caricatures of God that don’t fit biblical descriptions, such as God being a bearded old man, sitting on a cloud and playing the harp all day.
Trying to comprehend divinity is a challenge. One of the words used to describe God throughout the Bible is holy. While we tend to use that term to refer to moral goodness, the word really describes something “set apart” or “other.” How do you grasp something whose nature is other than what is normal for finite human beings?
To assist in revealing God, the Bible presents myriad metaphors to help us understand who He is. If you remember your English classes, the role of a metaphor is to use a familiar image to stand in for another that is unfamiliar. For example, if I say, “Lucy is a peach,” people know to associate her with something sweet, even if they have never met her.
Scripture employs everything from warriors (Exodus 15:3) and lions (Revelation 5:5) to mother hens (Matthew 23:37) to help readers grasp God’s character. One metaphor that is used frequently is that of a father.
God the Father
In Exodus, we find God’s people enslaved by Pharaoh, living under the burden of their masters’ whips for hundreds of years. God hears their cries and sets about delivering them. He asks Moses to confront Pharaoh and request that he release Israel. After the wicked Egyptian leader refuses several times, God tells Moses, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn” ’ ” (Exodus 4:22, 23, NKJV).
Tragically, Pharaoh forces God’s hand, and God delivers His “son” through the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. This account is the first in which we see God likening Himself to a parent, but the metaphor of a father grows as Scripture unfolds. As this father language is used, we also receive a picture of the kind of father God is.
Christian thinkers have discussed the challenge of father imagery in today’s societies. For many people, their associations with fathers include abandonment, abuse, and fear. For them, thinking of God as a father is the worst possible metaphor. This is why it is important for us, including those who are fathers, to look at the biblical text to see what characteristics the Creator has in mind when this metaphor is used.
In Deuteronomy 1:31, Moses is reminding the Israelites of who God is and how He released them from Egyptian bondage. Moses says, “There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”
The imagery reminds me of picking up my kids and carrying them to bed after a long car trip or carrying them to the house after they have fallen and scraped their knees. The idea is that we go through moments where we are too tired to continue, and our Father takes over and sustains us. It’s a powerful encouragement in a world where selfishness often deprives people of the resources and love they need.
The book of Proverbs contains wisdom sayings to help readers navigate the general principles that tend to make life work the best. Several passages in this book use the father metaphor. One says,
My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in (Proverbs 3:11, 12).
Discipline is a term that has been used to justify some terrible abuses. But genuine discipline means helpful correction. For example, when my daughter chooses to take her sister’s things without asking, she loses privileges. We punish her, not because we enjoy taking things away but because she needs to learn that her selfish actions will have increasingly severe consequences as she gets older. We want her to have a happy life and not wind up in jail for theft, so we discipline her.
God uses similar methods of discipline, often convicting us through Scripture and prayer as we reflect on our actions and motives. Many times I’ve had to make painful apologies when I realized that what I had done wasn’t right. It was uncomfortable, but it made things easier in the long run. Our Father wants us to live in a way that brings life, not death.
Jesus and the Father
One of the boldest declarations made by Jesus in the Gospels occurs in John 14:9. Philip, one of Christ’s disciples, asks Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus replies, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
This is a startling revelation because it demonstrates that Jesus is One with God. Christ’s declaration provoked the ire of the religious leaders who believed Him to be blaspheming. But all who believe are able to understand that whatever traits we see in Jesus are characteristics of the Father. Healings, compassionate words, and challenges to those in power are some elements of Christ’s earthly ministry recorded in the Gospels.
Then there are Jesus’ stories featuring fathers. Arguably, the most notable is found in Luke 15. The parable features a boy who asks for his inheritance early (essentially implying that he wants his father to die) and takes off to make his way in the world. Sadly, he loses his way and ends up living with pigs (not metaphorical).
Eventually, the son decides to return home. He hopes he will be able to get a menial job on his father’s estate. He’s under no delusion that he will be accepted back after his shameful treatment of his father. He just needs food and a place to stay.
As he journeys home, the Bible records the son going over his plan. Speaking to himself, the son says, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (verses 18, 19). How would the fathers that you know react to seeing a child like this come home after living a wild life and losing it all?
Scripture gives a picture of a father that defies our expectations: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (verse 20). Even when the son tries to explain that he has sinned and is unworthy to be considered the father’s child, the father orders the best food and clothing to be brought out to welcome his child back home.
The father declares, “ ‘This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (verse 24). When the elder brother, who did not make a mess of his life, protests against the lavish treatment of his returned brother, the father rebukes him and says again: “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (verse 32).
This story reveals a father full of grace, goodness, and generosity—the kind of father all children long to have. Far from an angry ogre that seeks to punish his kids for the slightest infraction, the Bible presents a picture of a safe Father to whom we can always return for help, no matter what messes we make.
a Father that doesn’t provoke
One of the ways I annoy my children is by singing. I am not a good singer, so whenever there was a fight in the backseat of the van or too much whining, I would sing nonsense songs off-key. They hated it. It worked as a deterrent for years and would usually restore peace to the delicate ecosystem of dinner tables and road trips.
However, sometimes I would sing just to tease them. They’d roll their eyes and whine for me to stop, so I baited them into Bible study. I informed them that there is a verse in the Bible that specifically warns fathers not to exasperate their children. I said if they could find the verse and show me, I would cease my annoying singing.
They didn’t believe me at first, but I assured them it was true. So they began to search. After weeks of futile study, they gave up. The same week that they surrendered, while we sat in church together, a colleague of mine preached from the text I had told them about. Maybe my heavenly Father is sending me a reminder, I thought as my kids grinned at me.
The verse is found in Ephesians. The writer is reminding the church of the fifth commandment, which says to honor our parents. Knowing how some parents abuse their power, the writer quickly follows up with an admonition for those tempted to extract honor by abusive means. He writes, “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, NKJV).
God doesn’t arbitrarily make things difficult for us. He brings trying experiences into our lives and instruction through His Word to help us grow. As a matter of fact, the Bible records how “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” ( John 3:16). Knowing that the Son and the Father are One, this verse shows that our heavenly Father also sacrificed Himself for us.
Whatever our experiences with our earthly fathers have been—good or bad—the Bible gives us a picture of a heavenly Father that cares so deeply for us that He sacrificed Himself in order to have us in His family. Pondering this truth can strengthen our faith when we feel discouraged or left out.
Seth Pierce is a professor at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska.