Many Christians typically follow the model of directing prayer to “our Father” but switch to the term “God” for conversation and theologizing. Why do we do this? Obviously, part of why we do so is because the Bible uses the term “God” as a personal reference to the triune God and over a thousand times in the New Testament for God the Father (as in John 1:1). By contrast, the Gospels present Jesus referring to God primarily by the family term of “my Father,” which he also commends to his disciples. Does it make a difference if we speak of the first person of the triune God as “God” or as “our Father?”
Additionally, Jesus uses “Abba” as the more familiar term of relationship as a son (or daughter). New Testament epistles show the more typically Christian practice of “God” for the Father alongside references to Jesus as the Lord. The closer term “Abba” also shows up in Romans 8 and Galatians 4 as naturally rising from the Christian in a nearness of relationship to God the Father, because of the triune works of the Son and the Spirit.
The analogy of God the Father for human fatherhood is both helpful and difficult for many people. The helpful aspect is if a person has the familiar experience of a human dad who has been reliable and generous to provide and care for children, often in collaboration with a mother. Fathers often take responsibility for bringing corrective consequences upon children. Fathers typically parent children with pressure and demands (as in the analogy of Hebrews 12) by contrast to the gentleness and nurture provided by mothers. Many men are wired and gifted with natural strength to function as fathers who provide for and protect their families. This human form of parental care can be a helpful template for children to experience God as a Father in similar ways of providential care by one who is great in power and love.
The difficult aspect of the analogy of God the Father for human fatherhood is that dads can be harsh, emotionally distant, unforgiving, fail to protect or provide and abuse children (and their mother). The natural revulsion from seeing God in such harsh ways is to be expected. Why has God the Father taken so much risk that we would be subjected to distorted models for his fatherhood to us as his children? By naming himself this way for us in the Bible, it would seem that the triune God embraces the many problems with his ways of presenting to us by analogies to our experiences that distort our perceptions and concepts.
The concept of father is capable of much human distortion. One shock to me as a new dad was to read Psalm 103:13, which tells of YHWH’s compassion for “those who fear him” by analogy with the compassion of a human father for his children. On one side, this was a surprise to be reminded that God is continually compassionate towards me, which I tend to forget. On the other side, I was admonished that compassionate is what I must be towards my children. Having not experienced frequent compassion from my parents, I did not naturally think of compassion from God towards me as a fatherly trait. I did not know that compassion towards my children is what I must live as their father. The analogy showed me that I needed God the Father to heal my concept of fatherhood in many aspects, both for myself as a dad and for my understanding of my Father in heaven.
As I teach about God in theology courses, I observe myself rarely speaking about God as “our Father” or “my Father” the way Jesus does in the Gospels. When I have experimented with this shift in language away from the more typical reference of “God,” I feel odd, partly because I’ve not heard many people speak this way in sermons, lecture, conversation, or writing. Have we made Jesus’ patterned way of thinking and speaking about his Father the odd thing when it should be the normal thing? If so, why is it so odd for us?
Obviously, the analogy to human fatherhood and the diseased features of human fathers make things difficult. Another reason may be that the term Father and the more personal references to my Father and our Father are so very personal that we feel uncomfortable. Do we not have the right to speak about God the way Jesus does? Are we afraid people will think we have a Messiah complex? By contrast to the personal nearness and relational thickness of my Father, the term God makes it easier to talk about God as an object, a being which is at some distance from us. Is that what we want—distance from our Father in Heaven? The term God is more distant, and in conversation with other Christians, the term allows us to remain at a distance from each other—something I did not see until I shifted to our father and sensed the implication of our nearness to each other because of marking our relationship as siblings to him.
All of this is to say that I notice a pattern in Christian discourse and conceptual grasp, starting with my own, that signals some possible problems of hiding from a loving Father in Heaven and being content to keep ourselves at some distance from him. Since he wants such nearness and close relational involvement with us that we see for Jesus in the Gospels, then would it not be good for us to respond to him accordingly?