Can we call God, "Father"?

By Jerry Truex

This month our congregation is focusing on memorizing or reviewing the Lord’s Prayer, which is also known among Catholics as the “Our Father” (Matt 6:9-13). (See the article on the Lord's Prayer).

Can we address God as “Father”?

Jesus begins the Lord’s Prayer by inviting us to address God as “Father” (Gk. pater). A few verses before the Lord's Prayer, Jesus provides an important perspective on his understanding of the term, "Father":

Matt 5:44-45. “I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’” (NRSV).

This is not a finger-shaking, self-seeking, wrath-dealing father. Rather, Jesus teaches us that the Father loves enemies, seeking impartially to nurture all people irrespective of their attitudes about God. God is the Source and Sustainer all.

In another passage, Jesus talks about prayer and says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13; RSV).

Notice that the “good gifts” that the Father gives is the Holy Spirit. That is, the gift is God himself. God offers himself to us in prayer.

Is God also “Mother?

However, it is not enough to think of God as Father. The Bible also compares God’s love with the love of a mother: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isa 66:13; NRSV). God’s compassion (Heb. racham) is also expressed in terms of a mother’s womb (Heb. rechem): “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15; NRSV). God’s care for people is as intimate and interconnected as a mother to a fetus. No masculine imagery expresses that closeness!

Nevertheless, God is never called “mother” in the Bible. Mother is an image, not a title for God. Of course, God is neither male nor female, but Creator of male and female.

So why does the Bible prefer “Father” for God? Scholars speculate that when the Bible was written, the mother-deities of surrounding nations painted a picture of God that was opposed to the biblical image. Mother-deities blurred the distinction between Creator and creature. People were viewed as emanations of deities, an implied pantheism. In contrast, by referring to God as Father, the biblical writers stressed God’s otherness and power, while denying the divinity of human beings, especially rulers.

Should we use formulaic prayers?

Just before the Lord’s Prayer is introduced in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns about false forms of prayer, including pretentious prayer and the mindless recitation of formulas (Matt 6:5-7). Prayer must be personal. It arises from our own hearts, from our needs, our hopes, our suffering. It is silent inward communion with God punctuated by words, images, and thoughts.

But personal prayer is not enough. We need prayers that express the human encounter with God as experienced by the Church as a whole. In this way, formulaic prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, put our narrow interests in the context of God’s boarder purposes. For this reason, the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t simply begin with “Father,” but “Our Father,” the first person plural. In this way, “we” come to God together, as brothers and sisters, as children of one God.

Jerry Truex is the Pastor of the Mennonite Church of the Servant; instructor of Biblical Studies at AMBS-Great Plains.