After celebrating Father’s Day last weekend, I found myself thinking about a popular metaphor we use to talk about God: our Heavenly Father.
Metaphor gives us relatable ways to talk about God, but often we assume a metaphorical way of speaking about God is literally true—like God is a father—and we forget anything we can say about God will always be partial and incomplete. The contemporary Western Church almost always talks about God in masculine terms, often just saying “The Father” or “He”, and honestly I wish we would stop.
I’m not saying talking about “God the Father” is wrong. Talking about God as a loving, caring father effectively explains spiritual principles and some of the major ways we relate to God and God to us—which is why “Father God” is entrenched in our language and thinking. It’s a deep and rich way of thinking about who God is. However, I am saying talking about God only as our Father is problematic, because God is so many other things too. Only calling God “Father” excludes all the other rich metaphors we have for understanding God—an exclusion contrary to the nature of our God who gives the widest of welcomes.
The danger in exclusively calling God “Father” lies in the way it lulls us into thinking we have God figured out.The second we think we have God figured out, I guarantee we’ve missed the point, because God’s expansive nature will always evade our limited human understanding. If we think we have God figured out, more likely than not we have created God in our own image.
Words will always fall short, but still we use words knowing they’re an imperfect tool, and we do our best to get at an idea of who God is, even though we know God is not really like anything we know. As a result, the Bible is full of metaphors to explain certain aspects of God’s nature or relationship to humanity.
When we use “Father” as the default, the one and only, we leave out so much.
For one thing, there are other relational metaphors: God is described like a father, yes, but also like a mother, a friend, even a lover. We have neglected the beautiful feminine and maternal imagery for God. Moses, for example, says to the Israelites, “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18, ESV). The prophet Isaiah communicates these words from God to Israel: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15, NIV), and “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13, NIV). Several other times God is described as a mother bird sheltering her young, gathering them under her wings, nurturing and protecting them (Deut 32:11, Ruth 2:12, Ps 17:8, Matt 23:37).
There are also occupational metaphors used to explain how and why God acts: God is like a king who rules fairly; a judge who longs for justice; a farmer who carefully sows, prunes, and harvests a crop; a shepherd who protects a flock; a potter who molds the clay; a woman who diligently and patiently bakes bread. God is like elements of nature, guiding the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night; and God is like objects, our Rock, Fortress, Shield. God is even equated with abstract concepts: Love, Peace, Light.
But with all these metaphors, we forget God is both like and unlike whatever human terms we use. God is not really a literal rock, and God is Love in a way that transcends any human expression of love. God is not really a human being (Jesus was, but that’s not what I mean). God reminds the prophet Hosea, “I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you” (Hosea 11:9, NIV). God is Spirit—not a man or a woman either (so I try to avoid any gendered language when talking about God). God is GOD, beyond all of our human categories. The self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14, NIV)—a name without any human markers, emphasizing the only thing truly like God is GOD.
I promise I don’t want us to stop calling God “Father”—but I am hoping we could open our language (and maybe then our minds and hearts) to a wider, deeper understanding of our God who is called “I AM.”
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