OUR FATHER, Part 1: A distant God? Knowing God as my Father
When Ann and I moved to London to take up our first pastorate, the Christian organisation we worked with rented a small two-bedroom flat for us in an alley that was invariably used as a toilet by people coming out of the local pub. Yet it was very much the home that our heavenly Father had provided for us. Eighteen months later a local Christian from another fellowship visited our church on two consecutive Sundays. He approached the organisation supporting us, and offered them his house at £50,000 below market value. We moved into that house ten months later. The years rolled by, and the Christian charity supporting the ministry needed to sell the house to pay for new offices. Amazingly another group of both Christian and non-Christian businessmen then purchased the house with the intention of keeping it for five years, then selling for a profit. During that time we stayed in the house on a low rent; our heavenly Father was still providing a home for us. Five years quickly passed and our rented house was due to be sold yet again. At that time I remember praying, “Lord if you still want us in London, do the unheard of and have another group buy this property with us in it and please drop the rent.” God graciously answered this prayer, and yet another Christian group purchased the house with us still in it – and dropped the rent. As I look back over those interesting and sometimes difficult years, I continue to marvel at how God supported us with a home, and I am reminded, yet again, of His love. On many occasions we found life to be difficult, and did not always get the answers we expected, yet we always knew that He was there, and that we could turn to Him at all times, as our heavenly Father.
When we open the pages of God’s word we find scripture speaking of God as a father. He is a “father to the fatherless” and “a defender of widows” (Ps 68:5) and the person who sets the lonely in families and leads forth prisoners with singing (Ps 68:6). He is a father who seeks to draw near and yet is also the father of heavenly lights (James 1:17) who is Lord of heaven and earth (Mt 11:25). He is the all-powerful One yet is also depicted as the one who runs to greet the prodigal son and the merchant who sells all in order to make us His very own. When we look at Jesus feeding the crowd and weeping over Jerusalem we see what our heavenly Father is really like because Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
There have been many times when I have heard well-intentioned Christians talk to non-Christians and tell them that they need to repent of their sin as if sin were the beginning of the story of their life. Yet this is not true. The beginning of their story and ours is not sin. Instead, it is a story that is found in the heart of God in whose image we were created. Sin is what has happened to us, but being made in the image of God is all about who we really are and we have a father, a heavenly father.
The Bible is a letter of invitation to us to get to know God as our heavenly Father and its story is written across the history of His world. In it we see the amazing depth of God’s love and the also suffering He is willing to go through in order to give us the opportunity to come home.
In Jesus, the incarnate Son of God we are called to know God as ‘Abba Father’ (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) with ‘Abba’ speaking of the intimacy we see between Jesus and His heavenly Father. Yet do we really see God this way? Do we really see Him as a compassionate loving Father whose son went through a horrific and painful death in our place so that we could come home? Do we really see our heavenly Father as scripture reveals Him or have we projected some of our experiences of our earthly father onto God? Do we see him as someone who has never been there for us, or as someone who does not care or whom we can never please in any way? Is God just a distant being whom we don’t really know?
John Donne was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London during the Great Plague that killed over 40,000 people. He was also one time Chief secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal and had a brother who was executed for harbouring a priest. Donne often wrestled with the issues that he faced but continually came back to the point where he would express his trust in God, seeing this as the ‘fear of the Lord.’ The fear of the Lord is not about being scared of God but about awe: seeing God as He reveals Himself. Despite all that he faced Donne recognised that whilst he could not always understand what was going on, he could always lean upon his heavenly Father who had overall control of all things. He is the One who spoke a world into existence and knows every hair on our head. But do we really want to know Him?
A God who seems distant?
In all areas of society, whether in the boardroom or in the school, there are many who feel small and insignificant as life rushes on by so fast that they just don’t seem able to grab hold of it. Perhaps you have felt this way: as if you were just a cog in a machine, or someone who is invisible. Perhaps you have felt like someone who is on the outside of the house, so to speak, looking through the window at others who appear to be doing so well. Perhaps you have made life-choices that have turned out wrong and are now reaping the harvest; thinking that you have totally blown away your life and that there is no way back.
All too often we find ourselves in situations that make us feel small and end up feeling very much on our own and as if God is a long way off. But God sees us and wants to be known and it is His presence that attracted so many people to Jesus in first century Israel.
Imagine what it may have been like for a struggling Jewish man or woman at the time of Christ. There you are in the middle of your community, yet under the domination of the Roman Empire. You struggle with everyday life and this is made all the harder in that you think your fellow-Jews seem to be doing so well and this makes you feel even more isolated. As you walk past the temple one day you hear the eloquent prayers of some of the Pharisees (Mat 6:5) and instead of uplifting you they make you feel useless because you just cannot seem to make contact with God. It is as if He is too far away at a time when everything else seems to be crowding in on your life. But then you see Jesus and through His words and action come to see that God is not interested in eloquent words or a stack of good works. He’s not interested in performance or outward ritual at all. As you listen to Him and see the miracles He performs you realise something for the first time in your life: God really cares for you
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-19.
“Former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter is a prime example of marketplace reconciliation. After having held the most powerful office on earth, he now travels around the world building homes for poor people as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. However, he does not do it by just raising money, something he could easily and comfortably do given his high visibility and credibility. Instead, he builds houses alongside the future occupants, who are all extremely poor. In the process he becomes intimately acquainted with them and they get to know him, thus breaking down the wall between the rich and the poor. It is such a refreshing picture to see Jimmy Carter express the love of God this way.”
Ed Silvoso in, Anointed for Business, p99
God is like a Father who continually wants to gain the attention of His children. He is like a real father should be, and wants to share His life with His children. He does not want to be known superficially, and does not want to be seen as so far off that everything else in our lives – our fears, worries and anxieties, to name but a few, just crowd Him out in our thinking.
God cares for you
“An adulterous woman was thrown at Jesus’ feet. She knew the punishment for her sin was public stoning. The fact that she was caught in the very act only heightened the shame and intensified her fear of a painful death. Her accusers stood with confidence because the law of God supported their position. They held the stones that would soon take her life, while she waited for them to display the outrage for her complete disregard of God’s standard of holiness. Then the Master began to write in the sand.
We don’t know what he wrote. All we know is that the atmosphere created by the writings of the “grace giver” completely disarmed her accusers. They fled as the grace of God drove away the judgments of men as quickly as light displaces darkness. Grace is that superior.
No one needed to tell her to put her faith in Christ. The atmosphere of grace made faith in Jesus the most logical response.”
D. Silk in, ‘Culture of Honour, p 19.
God cares for us and He wants to be known and experienced as a Father. He is the One who flung stars into space, wove the spider’s web and who places the lonely in families. He is in the ultimate restoration business and in Psalm 68 we read of Him bearing the burdens of His people…
“Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds — his name is the Lord — and rejoice before him. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.”
The Year of Jubilee
In Israel the year of Jubilee (every 50th year) proclaimed liberty throughout the land (Lev 25:10). Those who had run up debts and gone into slavery were released from debt and set free, and any land that had been lost due to debt was returned to them. Just think about how it must have felt to get everything your family had lost restored to you. Think about what it must have been like to start out again: this is what the year of Jubilee allowed you to do.
In the year of Jubilee, put in place by a heavenly father, we are reminded yet again that God is very interested in all people and does not want a society built at the expense of those who may have run into difficulty or hardship. He is interested in all His people and that includes you and me – no matter what we have done; but do we really know this? Our Father is a father who cares, who forgives and who reconciles us to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. Through Christ we are reconciled to God (Col 1:22) with a love that chooses to keep no record of wrong (Ps 103:12, 1 Cor 13:5).
“Gordon Brownville, a preacher friend now gone on to be with the Lord, used to tell the story of how as a boy, he had been involved in taking, without permission, a neighbour’s car, only to have the car stolen one time when left unattended. The neighbour insisted on having him arrested. The boy’s father, who was on a business trip when he heard of it, hurried home and bailed his son out of jail, paid the neighbour more than double to cost of the car and offered his forgiveness to a boy already overcome with guilt and shame. When Gordon told the story, he always added that the most important thing to him was that his father never mentioned the episode again.”
T. Campolo in, ‘Stories that Feed your Soul’ p 26
The right and the wrong way about knowing God
Imagine sitting in a classroom where everyone was being taught how an orchestra sounded. There were no instruments in the room and no sounds were played. Instead you were given a written description of each instrument and a list of words that sought to convey the sound each produced. In a way this illustrates knowing in an abstract western way: knowing but not really knowing. Now contrast this with the idea of knowing in the Bible. Knowing in the biblical way of knowing is more like sitting right in the middle of the orchestra as it plays a piece of music: It is seen, heard, felt and experienced. God does not just want us to know Him intellectually; God wants us to know Him personally and experience His goodness.
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."
In Psalm 46:10 the word ‘know’ is from the root ‘yaada’ and means to know relationally and experientially. Knowing is ‘the door of the eye’ in that you really see and understand through experiencing what you know. This same root for ‘know’ (yaada) is also found in Genesis 4:1 where we read, “Adam lay (knew) with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.”
God does not seek to be known only in an intellectual way, as one would do, for example, David Cameron, the Prime Minister. God wants to be known as one would know a close relative or friend, and it is this knowing (experiencing) that enables a strong relationship to develop.
In church we have often used a simple illustration to show how the presence of a person can make a strong difference, even if we are preoccupied with other things in our lives; it goes like this…
Imagine someone that you do not know very well walking up to you and pressing their nose on yours; how would you feel about this? If we were honest we would begin to feel a little uncomfortable. Now imagine that you had received an unexpected bill for £20,000 that very morning, and were thinking of how to pay it, right up until your nose was encountered by someone else’s. With this encounter all thoughts of the bill would go out of our head, as you are drawn out of yourself to focus on what this person was doing in pushing their nose against yours.
This simple illustration shows how we can be pulled away from our self-preoccupation in seconds. How much more then can the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit help us change, if we are prepared to let the barriers down? Perhaps, in doing so, it really is possible that the mountains of difficulty begin to fall way, and the valleys of despair get raised up, as we begin to experience the power and freedom that He brings.
God really wants us to know Him relationally and experientially. He wants to fulfil the role of a Father in our lives.
I don’t feel close to God…
As already mentioned, one of the problems we may have in relating to God as a father can come from imposing our experiences of an earthly father onto God and thinking He is no different. For example if my earthly father was never around for me then I can think God is not really there for me. Then again, if I felt I could never really please my earthly father then I may have problems when it comes to thinking that I can do anything right for God. In fact I may feel such a failure that I avoid Him altogether.
Taking an earthly concept and experience and applying it to God can also happen when we think about the love of God. In our lives we may have had those who professed to love us then let us down badly, or had parents whom we know are supposed to love us, take no notice of us at all. We then apply this understanding of love to God and think that we can’t really trust those words that say He loves us. Yet the Bible does not say ‘love is God’, as if we are to start with our definition of love and then apply it to Him. The Bible says, “God is love” We are not to apply our definition of love to God, but allow God to define what love is. After all, God invented language in the first place and has the right to define what each word should really mean. In 1 John we find John clearly stating that “God is love” and then going on to point out that our heavenly father’s love is a sacrificial love.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son.” 1 John 4:9-10
When we look at how easily Israel redefined God’s revelation of Himself and how some religious people in Jesus day made the same mistake we begin to realise how easy it is for us to get things wrong as well. We must be careful ‘not to impose our ideas or experiences of fatherhood on God which then make it feel that God is distant, does not really care and is not to be trusted..
An intellectual understanding of God is no match for powerful emotions
There have been many occasions when I’ve heard well-meaning Christians tell a struggling friend to try harder and, “Trust in God because He really loves you.” Personally I think this can sometimes be a little like telling someone who is totally washed out to run another mile. Perhaps they have been trying as hard as they possibly could, but have the wrong picture of God in the first place? Apart from this, knowing a few choice Bible verses does not necessarily mean we know God and we can fool ourselves if we think that being able to quote a few verses is enough to get us through life. We have very strong thought patterns that are empowered by emotions and are not necessarily going to be shifted by being able to quote a few verses!
For example, and as already said, we may intellectually know that God is love, yet powerful emotions concerning an absent father in the family home prevent us from really seeing and experiencing God as loving. What we need to be doing is acknowledging this and asking our Father to help us get rid of wrong pictures and ideas concerning what He is like. If we don’t do this then we may well learn twenty verses about God’s love, but be totally devoid of the Spirit’s power and presence.
Have we ever stopped and asked ourselves the question, “How do we really see God?” Do we see and engage with God as He is, or are we caught up with only half a picture and then fill in the gaps with our own experiences from the past? Have we every really stopped and asked the Holy Spirit to show us if there is any lack of trust or resentment in our lives through not seeing God the right way? Whether we like it or not, our ability to build pictures in our minds is very powerful. For example, many a person has said, “I didn’t imagine your home would be like this,” on seeing a distant relatives home for the first time. In reality they had absolutely nothing to go on, yet built a picture none-the-less. Have we done this with God; are we sure we see Him as He is?
The pictures ‘painted’ from past experiences combined with powerful emotions can appear very life-like and real, whilst doctrinal statements on a page don’t always grab our attention. If this is not properly addressed we can go through decades of knowing about God intellectually, yet never really knowing in the biblical sense (experienced through engaging). We can then end up beginning to resent those who speak of their experiences with God, and end up saying such things as, “I’ve no time for this touchy-feely sort of belief.” The reality is that we have a relationship with a set of words more than we do with the person who ordained them to be written.
How strong a marriage do you think it would be if a husband or wife found a love-letter from their partner every few days, and could quote previous letters from memory, yet never actually spent time with the wife or husband? Our heavenly Father gives us more than words; he gives us Himself.
Our Father wants to hear from us
In his book, ‘Practicing his Presence’ Frank Laubach writes about his desire to think about God every hour and how, at times this impacted his life.
“This concentration upon God is strenuous, but everything else has ceased to be so. I think more clearly. I forget less frequently. Things which I did with a strain before, I now do easily and with no effort whatever. I worry about nothing, and lose no sleep. I walk on air a good part of the time. Even the mirror reveals a new light in my eyes and face. I no longer feel in a hurry about anything. Everything goes right. Each minute I meet calmly as though it were not important. Nothing can go wrong excepting one thing. That is that God may slip from my mind if I do not keep on my guard. If He is there, the universe is with me. My task is simple and clear.”
Frank Laubach in, Practicing his Presence, p 16
There have been many occasions during my time as a Pastor when I’ve heard hurting and struggling people say, “If God already knows all things – my ups and downs and all that I am going through then why do I have to tell Him?”
In answering this question there are at least three points that can be taken into consideration.
Firstly, most parents know that it helps a child to talk about what they are going through, even if they already know what their child is going through. God is a Father who wants us to talk to Him, knowing that as we do so our minds begin to be unlocked and we can begin to engage with the One who brings healing and wholeness. Think about it: If we eat food that does not agree with us, we may end up being sick. When we really speak out what is on our minds and hearts it can be like getting the poison out of our system by talking to someone who wants the very best for us. Then, as the Holy Spirit engages with a heart that confesses all things, the rubbish is pushed out and peace and security enters lives that were made for Him.
Secondly, we are told to cast all our anxiety on the Lord because as 1 Peter 5:7 says, “He cares for us.” The word ‘cast’ speaks of throwing something with all our might, yet ‘might’ does not necessarily mean using all our physical strength. After all, imagine how soul destroying it would be to be doing the very best you could and then have someone come and say, “You must try harder.” Casting our anxieties on the Lord is about being totally open and honest – it is about being willing to be vulnerable and saying it as it really is, knowing that our Father will help us and not turn away.
“But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.”
When we go through difficulty and hardship we often build walls around our lives to protect ourselves. Opening up our lives to our Father and humbling ourselves (1 Peter 5:6) breaks down those walls of self-protection and self-assertion that we have built. Peter says, “Humble yourselves – break the walls down – be willing to be vulnerable – be honest - you have a Father who cares for you.”
Thirdly, we need to remember something very important about prayer. Prayer is not just about talking to God and we should not to get into the business of presenting a speech in order to get things off our chest and make ourselves feel better. The purpose of speech is to inform, but prayer goes beyond this: prayer is about participating in the divine nature. Our heavenly Father loves us and wants us to fully participate in all that He has for us.
When we really begin to make time for our heavenly Father in the way He wants us to, we do not just speak to Him; we begin to really slow down and engage with Him. We make a conscious decision to spend time focusing on God and begin to be drawn out of ourselves, and our half-formed pictures of what we think is going on. Think of it this way: If you are a little down-hearted and then hear some music that you really like, you find that the music draws you out of yourself to focus on something else, and for a little while, lift your spirit. If music can do this, then how much more can our Father draw us out of ourselves, with all its preoccupations, to find our true fulfilment in Him? As this begins to happen, our centre of living shifts from self-consciousness to God consciousness, as our heavenly Father becomes our main point of focus.
Through the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, God is the root from which we grow, the hope that sustains us; the future that beckons us, and the life that uplifts us. Our Father wants to help us. He is the One who can reshape our thinking, redirect our emotions and strengthen our lives.
In his book, ‘The Pressure is Off’, Dr Crabb comments on a girl who had embraced destructive eating habits. The girl had written the following words on her web page:
“To me, my anorexia is everything, it’s my life and everything I want and need…yes, I need this. It has become such a big part of my life…but certainly not something I just decided I wanted…it gives me the control I need, it gives me the sense of achievement that I can’t get from anything else, it makes me feel happy when nothing else can.”
In writing about this young woman Dr Crabb said:
“When I worked with my first anorexic client years ago, what was I up against? Certainly I had to do battle with controlling parents, with my client’s deep resentment over being stripped of any sense of separate identity, and with her profound terror that she would disappear into the quicksand of a smothering world.
But none of those things, as terrible and stubborn and painful as they were, lay at the root of this young girl’s troubles. She was blinded by the god of this world. She could not see the glory of God in the face of Christ. In her mind, there was nothing to live for but the control her anorexia provided, that was what I was up against……if something other than Christ is the reason for which we live, if we depend for our deepest joy on anything other than seeing Christ, if the Better Life of Blessing is nothing to us, then we’re living the Old Way. Then the pressure’s on. And we’re vulnerable to troubles of every description. But if we live the New Way, the pressure’s off. We may still experience a variety of trials, but our souls will be in line with the Immanuel Agenda – God will be our God and we will be His people. It’s time to feel the wind of Immanuel’s Spirit.”
Dr. L. Crabb in, ‘The Pressures off’ p 95-6
Sometimes it seems very simple to say to someone, “You have a heavenly Father who wants you to get to know Him”, yet sometimes this is just what they need to hear.
Seeing the Father
In John 14:9, Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” and in these words He points out to the disciples that everything He does is what the Father also does (John 5:19). Perhaps, due to what has gone on in our life, you think that God is too busy to take notice of you, is somewhat unreliable and whilst you understand that God hates sin, you think He certainly wouldn’t really come along to help you with things that you have done wrong. Yet look at Jesus: He reached out to all manner of people. The only ones He could not help were those who were entrenched in their own thinking. Yet God was willing to reach out to the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the thief on the cross, and be depicted in parables as an amazingly compassionate and loving father.
When Jesus spoke in parables He did so to help people enter into the story with the heart and mind – to really picture what was going on and to become involved in the learning process because learning often happens in a powerful way through pictures and stories. If we are not prepared to really engage with these pictures we are like a person travelling through beautiful countryside at 100 miles per hour. We are going so fast that we don’t really see the beauty around us. Then, when someone talks about how beautiful the scenery was, all we can relate the word ‘beautiful’ to is our own garden, for example, and we say, “Yes it wasn’t bad was it.”
We need to slow down, enter into the stories Jesus told and really think. If we really start to picture what is going on in the parables, under the guidance of our heavenly Father, then these powerful pictures of the truth will start to displace the emotionally-fuelled pictures of the past, break us free from the chains of yester-year and help us move in strength and power. When you spend more time helping people see who God is, than seeking to delve into their lives and change them, the light of God’s word under the power of the Spirit will set them free. Jesus said, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Jesus spoke these words to a group of Judeans who initially started to believe what He said. However, they added what he continued to say to their own ideas about God and ended up rejecting Him, so much so that they picked up stones to throw at Him (John 8:57). Whilst we may not go so far as to want to throw stones at God, we can run into serious trouble.
In the parables, we have ‘living’ pictures that really reveal the heartbeat of God, and, in a real sense, are much more than merely words on a page. Yet Jesus also said that there would be those who see but do not see and hear but do not hear (Matthew 13:13). Again, as we have already mentioned, this is because what Jesus said did not match the pictures that some religious people had formed of God, and so they rejected the truth. Many who rejected the Messiah did so, not because they wanted to reject God, but because Jesus did not fit into their ideas of what the Messiah should be like.
Jesus always invited people to experience the goodness of God through the way He lived, and encouraged marginalised suffering people to taste and see that the Lord is good. Because of our heavenly Father’s desire to reach others a marginalised leper knew that he was important to God, and a woman healed from an long-standing problem realised that God wanted to bless her. A Centurion soldier went home knowing that God loved both him and his servant, and a synagogue ruler could marvel as life flowed back into his child.
This is the sort of Father God is.
"I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."
2 Corinthians 6:17-18
Do you realise that our heavenly Father has never made fun of you, written you off, or regarded your lives as so trivial and insignificant that you are just not worth bothering about?
Each of us is important to God, no matter how unsuccessful, or how much of a failure we may feel, but do we really know this? Sometimes we seem to think we need to know about everything that is going on around our lives in order to move on, yet this isn’t true. The ‘everything’ we need is the knowledge (in the biblical way) of His nature and character, which is as necessary to our wellbeing as roots are to a tree. In knowing this we are able to experience the power of His presence in all that we do. This is the power that the early church often revealed and despite almost insurmountable odds it not only survived but overcame evil and breathed life into fragmented communities.
“Christianity promised life after death for its believers, but it offered life before death as well. Christians fed the poor with a daily meal. They clothed widows. They visited those in prison. They healed the sick and cast out demons. They were a counterculture right in the mix of the urban mass.”
N .Page in Kingdom of Fools, p 100
You have a heavenly Father who loves you; don’t let situations and circumstances cause you to lose sight of this. He is the ever-present One and you are very precious to Him.
Part one of four