journey post 25–Honest to God, part 3: the quandary of a good God and the image of a good father
NOTE: In these two posts (25 and 26), I try to explain that understanding the father heart of God is critical in understanding why there is evil in the world. This post paints a fuller picture of what I mean when I talk about the “father heart” of God.
April 20th was Easter. Christians around the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. I became a Christian in 1971 on the strength of knowing it really happened. The resurrection is the sine qua non of Christianity. (We will look at that soon.) If it didn’t happen, Christianity is a crock and we are its fools.
For some 35 years after I began following Jesus, there was a piece missing from my Christian life. Last post dramatized that fact by pointing to the day I cried out—honest at last with myself and God—and discovered that God delights in me. That day began a process that would bring me to find the missing part, a very big chunk: knowing God’s father heart. Knowing that heart would free me from a number of puzzles, including our question about how he can be good when he allows evil to fill his world.
Christians routinely call God “Father.” I did. But God’s father heart is not the same thing. Each of us lives out the well-spring in our hearts, and God does the same. That’s one reason Jesus put emphasis on the heart. Knowing God’s father heart shows us who he is, how he sees people, what are his desires and intentions. His father heart can be illustrated by thinking what we mean when we urge a man to be a “real father” to his children: be responsible for them, be there for them, be strong for them, protect them, provide, teach, nurture, discipline, guide, inspire, care for them—and love them unconditionally—all that. The God who invented parenthood and motherhood is himself all he intended fathers to be.
I was blinded from seeing this by be a couple things: first, my own deeply entrenched performance mindset, which lay behind my functional theology; and secondly, teaching about God I’d received over the years, some of which portrayed him demanding holiness in a way that he could never be satisfied with. Had you asked me, “Do you know God?” I would have responded, “Of course,” an assumption that Christians have: we equate knowing God with having eternal life, as Jesus said in John 17: “This is eternal life, that they may know you…” Questions about his goodness and love remained. “Delight” didn’t compute with “Judge.” Jesus saved me from the wrath of God—or was it from God himself?
The day I heard the word “delight” (from Proverbs 3), you could’ve knocked me over with a feather, I was so thrilled and full of joy. I also had questions, like: How did I miss this so long? I soon began a search like I did so many years before about the resurrection—only in those days we didn’t have Google.
Everything pointed to something I’d hardly thought about since Bible school: adoption by God. That meant looking at God as a father—but how could that be important? I didn’t realize then just how much my idea of God as a father was equated with my dad as a father. The truth would change my thinking.
Above: The slave of the General: Judah Ben-Hur with Quintus Arrius
Below: The adoption ceremony in Rome. (Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins)
Adoption was familiar to early Christians as a status of high privilege, honor, and responsibility as the heir. If you’ve seen “Ben Hur,” that’s what happened to Judah when made a son by the general whose slave he was. Paul used adoption to illustrate the relationship God intended to have with us. Adoption showed an almost hidden side of God, unfamiliar to many, especially to me: Paul spotlighted a passionately proud father who eagerly anticipated adopting male and female “sons.” And to these sons, God would give his Spirit—in part, to lead them to recognize the majestic, holy God as “Abba, Father.” Think of a young Caroline Kennedy running around the White House saying, “My daddy’s the President!”
This fuller picture of God as Father (as a father) didn’t change any of God’s “normal” attributes, e.g., sovereign ruler, majestic judge, etc. But it changed the perspective through which I viewed him: I am my Father’s son. It changed the idea of “knowing God” from a synonym for salvation to a relationship, a journey of discovery in which I am now getting to know an adoptive father who has been there for me all the time—even when I doubted him. The closer I got to him, the more I realized that this is not about me. There is no ground for presumption here. It is rather a reminder and teacher of grace.
About the same time I discovered adoption, I began immersing myself in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus. As I did, I began to see his heart, a bigger picture of his agenda, and what was important to him. What was important was his Father. Jesus reintroduced his disciples to God—as his Father, their Father.
The disciples had bad functional theology that assumed God—and his Messiah–was going to kick Roman butt and set up his kingdom on their time table and they would sit on his right and left. But Jesus taught them—as no one had—about who God is and what his real priorities are. He taught them the importance of the heart, of loving others, of humility, and being a servant. The disciples were denser donkeys than I, it seemed. He was teaching them: to know God, the purpose of eternal life. Jesus was patient while they struggled with faith, debated who was greatest, even denied and deserted him.
Jesus didn’t use the word “adoption,” but he taught and modeled what it meant to be a son to his Father. It was he who taught his disciples to address God as “Father.” He used the word “Abba,” an intimate familial term. This was new thought. He taught them what the Father is like—a strong, loving, and trustworthy father, a king who would restore justice and love. He called God “my Father and your Father.” His followers were family, loyal and submissive to the Father and one another, loving one another and those without. They learned (what a disciple does), and responded by loving and serving him as trust grew, abandoning their own agendas and self-focused will—even if it meant a cross.
God wants to be known and has made himself known. He gave us all a clue in our own conscience, in creation, by how he led Israel, by the Scriptures he entrusted to them, and finally, in Jesus. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
I’m seeking here to cast a different light on the very old question about how God can be good and allow evil. It cannot be answered by adding up all the evil and concluding thereby that a God who permits it must either be evil himself or powerless to stop it. No, we must first see what is actually in his heart and mind; and the closest I can bring you to seeing this—whether you’re a Christian or not—is by analogy to a good father heart. Jesus used that to teach about his Father, who is like a good father.
Parenthood has much to teach us about how God operates. It is part of how we are made in his image. The parent-child relationship has much to tell us about how God relates with people.
More on this in part 4, The terrible corollary to freedom: evil, real love, trust, and good.