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Sarah Lindsay

Fathers Day and the Fatherhood of God

God the Father and Angel
Guercino (Giovan Francesco Barbieri), God the Father and Angel, 1620 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Father’s Day rarely carries the emotional weight of Mother’s Day. The whole tone of the holiday is different, lighter: fathers get ties and grilling utensils, not hand-drawn cards and crafts make with handprints. Father’s Day cards are likely to be jokey, or at least less sentimental than Mother’s Day cards. Breakfast in bed, with the family curled up together, is for mothers; backyard grilling is for fathers.

In recent years, I have seen a upwelling of sensitivity around the emotional landmines of Mother’s Day. People write articles and Facebook posts reminding others to be sensitive to those who want to be mothers but aren’t, who have difficult relationships with their own mothers or children, who have lost mothers or children.

I saw one such Facebook post about fathers this weekend.

This situation shouldn’t be surprising. Modern American culture still doesn’t have much room for men’s emotions, particularly the emotions around tenderness and nurturing that we associate with mothers. It seems to me that there has been some cultural improvement in this direction, but our societal notions of masculinity still have little room for men’s emotions beyond anger.

To be clear, I know many men with tender hearts, men who are nurturing fathers who freely show their emotional selves to their children and to others. But cultural ideas about masculinity make it difficult for many men, for many fathers, to express their full emotional selves.

These notions about manhood damage men, pushing them to repress and deny the full range of human emotions. But these ideas about masculinity can also interfere with our conception of God, especially God the Father.

When we think of God the Father through the lens of our cultural definition of manhood, and even fatherhood, it becomes easy to imagine God as distant, unavailable, even angry and easily provoked. But when we do this, we risk missing the tender and nurturing care integral to God’s fatherhood.1

Perhaps my favorite image of God as nurturing father comes from the book of Hosea. God says to Hosea, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them” (Hos. 11:3-4, NIV).

These images of God helping a toddler walk and feeding a young child remind us that God’s fatherly love is full of tenderness and patience. God nurtures by feeding a toddler, helping that toddler walk — doing for the child what they cannot do for themselves. And I love that image of God lifting a child to his cheek: this shows a moment of care and connection, a moment when that child feels safe, secure, and the center of a father’s undivided attention.

This image of God as father shows a father who is present, patient, encouraging, tender — not distant. In the context of Hosea, God is angry and disappointed at how far his children have strayed. But even in that anger God reminds his people that he has loved them and still loves them, that he still wants to nurture them if they will allow themselves to be nurtured.

God frequently uses parenthood as a metaphor for God’s love and care for us, and so our own conceptions of fatherhood and motherhood matter for our ideas about God. Let us remember that God shows us tenderness and nurturing care, and let us free men from cultural ideas of masculinity so that they can fully embrace and show their ability to be tender nurturers.

  1. I can’t help but wonder if this idea of fatherhood as distant is responsible for the incredibly problematic idea of God punishing his son instead of us. This idea fits with cultural conceptions of masculinity and fatherhood, but misses the reality of the Trinity: God isn’t punishing Jesus; rather, God is taking on God’s own pain and disappointment in order to restore the relationship between God and humanity.