Explaining the Father when that’s not helpful
But although 'Father' is the most beautiful description of a God who wants to be so much more than we can imagine, we also know that for many people, the idea of ‘Father’ God can be unhelpful. If your own father – or mother - has been abusive, absent or just not great this may affect the way you respond when you think about God.
If you think this may be something that affects your child, there are things you can do to help them understand all that God is and wants to be for them. It may be something they voice, or it may be something they’re not aware of but which you have noticed.
Don’t ditch the idea of God as Father
God’s fatherhood is only one aspect of who he is: we know that there are dozens of titles for him in the Bible. But it is a core part of who he is, and is one of the best descriptions for how he wants to relate to us. The very beginning of the Bible records how he created the world and people, and shows clearly that he doesn’t just create and step back (for example, Genesis 2). God starts off intimately involved with and affected by us, just like a parent raising a child. In the Trinity, there is Father, Son and Spirit (Matthew 28:19). There are both beautiful and challenging pictures of God as Father in the Old Testament (see for example God’s fatherly discipline in Jeremiah 3 and his fatherly compassion in Jeremiah 31). And ‘Father’ is the way Jesus talks about God. He calls God ‘Father’ over 160 times in the gospels, once using the familiar ‘Abba’ or ‘daddy’ (Mark 14:6) and talks to the disciples about ‘your’ heavenly Father (for example Matthew 6:32 and Luke 11:13). He teaches the disciples to pray to ‘our Father’ (Matthew 6:9). The image of adoption, which we see in John 1:12-13, is picked up and expanded on by Paul and the other New Testament writers (eg Galatians 4:4-8) to explain how God is our Father too. So do use this way of talking about God, even if it’s hard.
Look through the right lens
It’s a bit like looking through the wrong end of a telescope: what you’re trying to look at seems tiny and far away and difficult to make out. If you are stuck with a damaged idea of what fathers are, you might look at God the Father through that lens, and find it difficult to imagine that he is different. In her book ‘The Lord’s Prayer Unplugged’ , Lucy Moore has a really helpful exercise to help children explore the idea of God as a parent in which you ask children to add ideas of what they think a perfect parent might do, think or say around a life-sized outline of a person. When this is complete, you can then explain that when any earthly parent is at their very very best, they are just a little bit like God, the perfect parent. Talking about God as the perfect parent may help children separate their experiences of their father from their understanding of who God is. Exploring the idea of adoption may also give them a helpful perspective on how God can be a different sort of Father.
Help them understand fatherhood for themselves
When I worked at primary school, we sometimes had pupils whose experiences at the hands of their own parents had left them traumatised or hurting. Every spring we incubated duck and chicken eggs and then raised the tiny hatchlings in a brooder. And very often, it was hurting children who were drawn to the chicks, carefully checking their water and food and handling them with great tenderness and love. Helping children understand the love a parent feels can help them understand how God feels about them, even if their own experience of parenthood hasn’t been the best. Keeping a pet or helping to look after a baby may give you opportunities to talk to your child about the joys of fatherhood as well as the responsibilities, and how as humans we will never be perfect, but God is different and He can be a perfect Father.
Using the five key tools
- It may be helpful to create windows for your child into both your experience of parenting and of how God has been a Father to you: for example, by sharing stories of being a parent, including when you’ve got it wrong, stories about your experiences of being parented, and stories about times you’ve realised God has been a Father. If appropriate, these might include stories of adoption - being adopted and what that was like, or becoming an adoptive parent. Depending on their age, you could also create windows into the reality and challenge of parenting by allowing them to help you make decisions or giving them responsibility for a pet or a younger sibling for a while. Debriefing these experiences later may give you an opportunity to talk about how all parents fail from time to time – except for Father God.
- Using the framing tool as you read the Bible together may help your child as you explore stories of people whose childhood was blighted by poor or absent parents: wonder together what it was like for them, what happened and where God was in the story and what he was doing. For example, Ishmael (Genesis 16, 17, 25:1-18), the young slave girl who worked for Naaman’s wife (2 Kings 5), Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37), Hosea’s children (Hosea 1, 3), Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19-34, 27, 28),and Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2:11). You can also use the framing tool with stories that help us understand what sort parent God is: for example, the prodigal son (Luke 15), God helping baby Israel to walk (Hosea 11), and God coaching Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4:17). And we have a couple of articles elsewhere on the website (here and here) about Bible fathers that might be helpful for you generally as you reflect on your own journey of parenting.
- If your child is aware that their experience of their own father is affecting the way they see God, you might want to help them to chat and catch with him about that. Encourage them to be open with God, not worrying about telling them how they feel about the situation or him. If your child struggles to do this, you might want to help them using the prayer ministry with children tool.
- If you detect a particular wrong view of God that your child holds (for example, I can’t trust God because my dad let me down, or I don’t want to talk about things I’ve done wrong with God in case he’s angry), the unwinding tool will help you to rebalance their understanding of God.
If your child’s connection with God has been affected by their experience of an earthly parent, it can be distressing, particularly if you feel that you share some of the responsibility for that. But do be encouraged. Simply by being aware that this has happened puts you in a strong place to help your child see God well. You are the expert in your child and God has positioned you to be able to help them and he will help you discover the next step that they need.