March 13, 2011

Our Father

By some amazing act of God’s mercy and grace, I grew up with something far too few today have and which I am still enjoying.  This is something we hear much about in the news today, but which few people seem to be doing very much about addressing.  It is something that, a growing block of cultural voices in our country to the contrary, every child needs whether male or female.  Without this, kids can still grow to lead healthy, normal, productive lives that fully honor God, but unless they find this need met in another source, there will always be something missing.  What I’m talking about is a relationship with a father.  I had and still have an incredible one.  Several years ago my church youth group went to our version of Impact and one of the exercises they taught that year was a new way to pray.  Specifically, during the Bible study time they taught us the Centering Prayer.  In the Centering Prayer the idea is to gently brush away stray thoughts so that our mind can be clear in order to spend time simply listening for God.  As a part of this, a helpful strategy is to focus all of your mind’s attention on a single word or phrase that, for you, is a meaningful description of God.  When the counselor gave us these instructions, my word came to mind instantly: Father.  Because of the blessing and grace of God in my relationship with my earthly father, I have always had a really easy time thinking of Him as a Father.  This has proven really helpful in my own spiritual journey because the Bible consistently uses the language of fatherhood to refer to God.  God uses this imagery for Himself.  Jesus calls God Father and encourages us to do so.  This image of God is all over the Bible.

And yet, I recognize quickly that there are many, many folks in this world who do not have a positive relationship with their father.  An acquaintance in college was sexually abused by her father and it took her a long time to embrace the Christian faith because of her revulsion at the language of fatherhood.  For folks in this vein, the word “father” can conjure up all kinds of painful memories and to see this language used so consistently of God in Scripture results in their projecting a lot of these images onto Him.  People whose father’s were not loving or were unduly harsh disciplinarians or were uninvolved or even absent or anything else along these lines often view God through such lenses.  As a result, many people think God is harsh and unloving.  They think of Him as wrathful and mean and live in constant, if quiet, fear of what He might do to them if they stray too far outside the lines He has drawn in the sand.  They live in perpetual fear of not being good enough for God because their earthly fathers made them feel inadequate in some way.  This can and does lead to a lot of resentment and acting out to make a point.  There are people who think God spends His time thinking up ways to get us; to makes our lives miserable so that we have to rely on Him.  In other words, they have images and thoughts about God that are not truly descriptive of Him.  They are informed by the person’s set of life experiences which carries a lot of weight today, but they are wrong.  And wrong thoughts about God will leave us in a place of being unable to relate with Him as we should.  To put this another way, these folks have areas where their theology is bad and so they have a relationship with God that is jilted and distant, if they have a relationship with Him at all.  Now, there is no way we are going to solve any major psychological issues this morning, but this is a place where having good theology can make a world of difference.  When we understand properly who God is as revealed to us in Scripture, this can go a long way towards starting down the road of resolution on some of these issues.

With all of this in mind, the next stop on our journey to understand more deeply exactly what are some of the things we should be believing as Christians is Patrology: the doctrine of God the Father.  Now, orthodox Christianity teaches that God exists as a Trinity and it might be helpful for some of you to spend time explaining what this means, but for our current purposes, taking each member of the Trinity in turn will be more helpful.  We are going to begin this morning with the doctrine (which is a shorter way to say “a set of accepted beliefs”) of God the Father and deal with God the Son and God the Spirit in the subsequent two weeks.  The reason we’ll start with God the Father is that in our formulation of the Trinity, His name comes first.  Also, of the three members of the Trinity He was revealed to us first.  It is only natural that we begin with Him.  Well, in order to develop an adequate theology of God the Father, I want to look with you this morning at just two questions: what is God like and why does this matter.  And my hope in this is that for at least some of you, we will redeem the language of fatherhood so that you may come to know more fully the loving Father we serve.  Indeed, our God is the perfect, loving Father.  Let’s see why.

When trying to get a handle on who someone is, many folks today will talk about what the person does.  In this, there are several professions that carry with them a number of assumed traits.  For example, when I tell someone that I am a Baptist preacher they assume a number of different things about me.  Some if these are fair and accurate, some of them are not.  But, they’re assumed all the same.  If I were to tell you that so and so was a fireman, you would imagine someone who might be a little rough around the edges, but who is unflinchingly brave in the face of danger and cares deeply for people.  But when talking about God the Father, the first member of the Trinity, to try and describe Him according to what He does isn’t very helpful.  We might say, “Well, He’s the creator of the world.”  Okay, but what is He like?  “Well, He sustains all life on earth (and in the rest of the universe should there be more).”  Okay, but what is He like?  “Well, He’s God.”  You see that this isn’t really going anywhere.  While there may have been in past generations, there are not very many generally accepted characteristics associated with the job title “Creator of the Universe.”  So what we need to do in our attempt to come to a fuller understanding of God is to jump over His occupation straight to His characteristics.  In doing so, we need to establish a couple of different categories.  Because God is God and we are not, He has some characteristics that we do not share.  These are the characteristics which help define Him as God.  These are sometimes called God’s incommunicable characteristics.  At the same time, however, He has a number of traits in which we can share, but which we do not always share because of our sin-brokenness.  These are often called His communicable characteristics (like a disease, but a good one).  Examining these is helpful because while He may be the perfect, loving Father, again, there are a lot of different ideas of what this looks like.  We need to use the Word to see what these are and what they mean for us.

Let’s start this attempt at God-defining, then, with His incommunicable characteristics.  What is it that makes God, God?  Well, the first group of characteristics here is sometimes collectively called God’s “omnis.”  This is because they all begin with the prefix “omni.”  God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnisapient, and omnibenevolent.  So, what do these mean?  Well, omniscient means that God knows everything.  It comes from two Latin words meaning, literally, all knowledge.  God possesses all the knowledge there is.  If something is knowable, God knows it and He knows it completely.  We see this affirmed when God describes Himself as the one whose knowledge is perfect in Job 37:16.  We see it implied when the psalmist describes God’s incredibly deep knowledge of us in Psalm 139:1-6.  John said plainly in 1 John 3:20 that God knows everything.  Omnipresent means that God is present everywhere at the same time.  He is present with every local body of Christ worshiping Him this morning around the world.  When the psalmist asks, again in Psalm 139:7-10, where he can flee from God’s presence, the assumed answer is: nowhere.  We might be able to get from place to place quickly, but we can’t be in two places at the same time.  God is also omnipotent.  This means He is all powerful.  He can do anything that can be done.  He cannot do anything logically absurd like make a boulder He can’t lift or a square circle, but anything within the realm of logical possibility—including things we describe as miraculous—He can do. When Gabriel brought the news to Mary that she was to be with child soon He affirmed this trait.  He told her very clearly that with God all things are possible.  Those are fairly familiar to us, but the last two omnis are pretty important as well.  Sapience is another word for wisdom so omnisapient means that God is possessed of all wisdom.  He is the source of wisdom.  We see this proclaimed throughout Scripture when God is described in various places as giving wisdom to people.  You can’t give something unless you have it.  Also, in Job 12:13 God is described as the one to whom belongs wisdom and power.  Finally here, omnibenevolent means that God is all good.  He alone is purely good in the universe. We see this affirmed throughout the book of Psalms.  Over and over again we are told to give thanks to the Lord for He is good.

The omnis pretty well capture God’s divine character, but there are three more traits that fit in this category and are worthy of mention here.  God is the perfect blend of transcendence and immanence.  Transcendent means that God is totally different than we are.  He is high above us, so high that we could not reach Him if we tried.  God is the Holy Other.  I was thinking about this the other day and something occurred to me.  I have heard people before make an argument that there must be life somewhere else in the universe with this line of reasoning: The universe is really big.  If there weren’t anything else out there it would be an awful waste of space.  Yet this view is completely human-centric.  As far as God is concerned the universe is tiny.  Size is meaningless to God.  Remember, He is omnipresent.  He is simultaneously at the furthest reaches of the universe and closer than your next breath.  The universe, as big as it is, is no waste of space.  It is a testament to God’s transcendent glory.  At the same time, however, God is immanent. This speaks of His nearness.  We serve the God who has number the hairs on our head.  We serve the God who dwells with His people.  We see this in Isaiah 57:15 when the prophet writes: “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place [all of that speaks to God’s transcendence], and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite [this part speaks of His immanence].”

Somewhat related to His transcendence, God is infinite.  He is without limits.  He has no beginning.  He has no ending.  Time and space are meaningless for Him because He is the foundation of both.  We can see this in the first phrase of the Bible: In the beginning God.  When He tells Moses His name, the name is Yahweh: I AM.  In Revelation He is called the Alpha and the Omega.  He is the God who IS.  The last thing to mention here is that God is constant.  The more theological word for this is that God is immutable, unchangeable.  In Malachi 3:6 God declares that He does not change.  Hebrews 13:8 declares Jesus to be the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Now, this is often taken to mean that God is unaffected by what happens to His people.  Reading much of the Bible at all reveals this is obviously not the case.  Instead, God’s constancy refers to His character.  His character never changes.  His ultimate plans never waver.  How He goes about accomplishing those has and does change depending on a number of things including our response to those plans (for instance, if God wants to accomplish something through me, but I refuse, He will use someone else—we see this in Mordecai’s words to Esther in 4:14), but His overarching trajectory for human history has never moved.

Clearly we serve a glorious God.  He is great beyond anything we can really get our minds around.  Our God is the perfect, loving Father.  Yet, we must acknowledge something here.  Saying that our God is the perfect, loving Father after describing His divine characteristics makes Him seem a hollow, aloof, distant father—perhaps has some of you had.  This isn’t the kind of father, however, most of us want.  This is why we can’t stop at God’s incommunicable characteristics.  We have to go on to His communicable ones.  Just as God has characteristics in which we cannot share, He has several in which we can.  If God’s divine traits help define Him as God, these traits define Him as a God worth serving.  There are a number of these, but three in particular are primary.  God is holy, just, and loving.  From these three characteristics, all of God’s other personal traits (like mercy and grace and wrath) can be derived.  Let me unpack these quickly and then we’ll talk about why this matters.  God’s holiness carries two different senses.  It speaks to His moral perfection, but also His otherness.  Throughout the Bible God defines some places as holy.  He tells Moses on Mt. Horeb that he is standing on holy ground and to take off his sandals.  Places cannot be moral perfect because they are not moral agents.  Instead, this aspect of holiness refers to something that is different and set apart from what surrounds it.  God’s holiness embodies both of these aspects.  God is also just.  This means He does what is right.  He does what is right without respect to the station of the persons involved.  When He passes judgments He does so with regard only to the facts involved.  None will escape judgment.  In this He is righteous which means He is rightly related to Himself and to others.  His calls for us to follow Him in His justice come often in Scripture.  Now, if God were only holy and just, this world would be a terrifying place.  Thankfully, we serve a God who is loving.  In fact, He is the embodiment of love as John reminds us in 1 John 4:16.  As you should all know by now, this means that He is committed to seeing us become complete in His image.

Now, God certainly has a number of other characteristics in which we can share by virtue of sharing in His image.  He is intelligent, personal, creative, relational, jealous, merciful, faithful, self-controlled, and the list goes on.  But, I believe the characteristics we have talked about so far are the most fundamental.   The more important question at this point is why this matters.  So we serve a God with these characteristics, how does this make Him the perfect, loving Father?  Why should it matter to us whether or not God is immutable or omnipresent or a perfect balance of transcendent and immanent?  If God is the perfect, loving Father, what does this actually look like given all of these other characteristics?  Well, let’s take a look at this.

From the sum of all of God’s divine characteristics we can conclude a few things.  First, we serve a God who is worth worshiping.  Let me be honest with you: If I am going to worship someone or something, this person or thing had better be pretty incredible.  I don’t want to serve a God who is only a little better or smarter or stronger or anything else than me.  People like the ancients Greeks largely worshiped their gods and goddesses not out of real devotion, but out of fear of what might happen if they didn’t.  This required a huge network of stories of the terrible things the gods did to people who didn’t esteem them properly.  Those gods were no more moral than the mortals they created, they were just more powerful.  They had limitations just as we did, they were simply immortal and had god-like powers which were hardly distinguishable from magic powers.  Our God, on the other hand, is infinitely beyond us in every way and therefore worthy of our worship.

Let’s think about these a bit deeper.  If our God is omniscient, He has the knowledge necessary for any situation we face.  And if He is omnisapient, He has the wisdom to always make the right decision.  We can trust His guidance because if He is all-knowing and all-wise, the path He sets out for us will be the best one for us to walk without exception.  At times this is frustrating, to be sure, because the path He sets out may not be the one we want to walk.  I couldn’t begin to count the number of times my dad suggested I do something that I really didn’t want to do but when, once I did, I saw that it really was the better of the multiple options before me.  Shifting to God’s omnipresence, God is available for worship at all times and in all places.  We are sometimes guilty of limiting God to a single location.  While we might never verbally affirm this, our behavior sometimes indicates a belief that God can really only be worshiped in the sanctuary.  The ancient Israelites were guilty of believing that God could only be worshiped in the temple.  This becomes hard to square with the command in Scripture to rejoice (that is, worship) always.  How can we worship God at all times if He can only really be worshiped in a certain place?  The answer?  We look to God’s character. He is present everywhere and so He can be worshiped everywhere.  There are no places which are somehow closer to Him than others.  He is equally present in all of them.  Let me explain it like this: My dad worked a lot when I was growing up (he still does), but he always made it a point to come to mine and my sister’s various events.  It didn’t matter where or when the event was, he was there.  Our God is the perfect, loving Father.

And if God is all-powerful then He is absolutely able to make His plans come to pass—just like a good earthly father sees his vision for his family realized in spite of contrary circumstances.  Think about that one.  There are many folks—including a large number in the church—who present God’s plans as somehow frustrated by our sinfulness or the contrary choices.  Do you see how an adequate theology of God reveals this to be ridiculous?  If God is really all-powerful, how on earth are we going to frustrate or thwart or even alter His plans?  His plans for glory will go forward regardless of any attempts, natural or supernatural, to halt their progress.  The great hope that comes with having this point of our theology correct is that if we share in His kingdom, then we will be a part of these plans.  I can think of few things in this world of greater comfort than this.  No, this will not immediately relieve the pain of many of the trials we face in this world, but it gives us something to aim for which is larger than ourselves (an essential ingredient in getting beyond our simple faults and failures to live for something more).  We strive for this because the God we serve is omnibenevolent.  We often hear people wish our culture weren’t going down a moral toilet.  There is no clearer call to virtuosity than that we serve a God who is all-good.  He is the mark we’re aiming for.  Finally, coming back around to God’s omniscience, when we fail to live up to the standard of God’s goodness (which is often), a good theology reminds us of the futility of trying to hide from Him.  Like a good father, He’s there and He knows and He can help.  And when we understand who He is, we can enjoy this help.  Our God is the perfect, loving Father.  This is so not in spite of, but because of His divine characteristics.

This is not, however, the only way understanding God’s character makes a difference in our lives.  In Genesis, when God created people, the text says this: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  We are not going to spend time on this theological journey on the doctrine of humanity, but let me say now that perhaps the cornerstone issue of that area of doctrine is this verse.  We were created in God’s image.  This does not mean we physically look like God since He is a noncorporeal spirit.  Instead, this means we share in God’s communicable characteristics.  Have you ever had a moment of personal reflection where you felt like you were made for something more than you were currently achieving?  Have you ever sat back and thought, there’s got to be something more to me than the brokenness I keep dealing with on a daily basis?  My friends, let me assure you: there is.  And when we understand the nature and character of the God we serve, we can catch a glimpse of what this “something more” is.  We are created to share in God’s holiness, His justice, and His love.  We are created with incredible capacities for learning and creativity.  We are designed with a desire to work hard and to enjoy our work.  We are formed for relationships.  We are intended for glory.  We are to be sovereign over our domains.  We are to exercise our wills in concert with the will of God.  Yet if we do not understand the God we serve, we will not understand the character in which we share.  If we think Him less than He truly is, we will view ourselves as less than we were created to be.  If we believe God is capricious and vengeful, we will live our lives driven by a consuming need to achieve and acquire and advance ourselves to some always just out of reach level so that we keep Him happy.  If we believe God is unjust or unloving we who were designed for justice will seek it on our own which will consistently prove disastrous in the long run.  Neither will we love as we should or even have the capacity to do so.  Our God is the perfect, loving Father.  But if we do not understand Him to be so we will look to have that relationship filled in any way we can and most of those ways won’t be good.

But when we understand who it is we serve and we will be able to become fully who we were designed to be.  Look, my earthly father, whom just about all of you have met, is as good as they come as far as I’m concerned.  But he’s not perfect.  And, though I hate to even give this conscious thought, should our Lord tarry, someday he is going to be gone.  Yet my need for a father will not go with him.  It matters not what age it is at which we bury our fathers, we still need that relationship.  We need to be able to call out to “Daddy” for help and wisdom and advice and comfort and a listening ear and an encouraging word and anything else we might call on him for.  When our theology of God the Father is right and secure, we will always have this. We have a Father who will never leave nor forsake us.  We have a Father who loves and cares for us even when our earthly fathers drop the ball or aren’t around anymore.  As David—who was pretty terrible as far as fathers go, by the way—wisely wrote: “Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts: his name is the Lord: exult before Him!  Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”  Our God is the perfect, loving Father.  When we know who He is this is as clear as it could be.  I wonder, do you know Him?