Fathers don’t exactly have the best reputation these days. The days of “Father Knows Best” have given way to a world of Homer Simpsons—and that’s if we see families on TV at all. Men are often portrayed as bumbling accessories, necessary for the relationship but redeemable only through a woman’s gentle insistence.
I don’t mean to say that there’s some sort of “war on men” out there. After all, men are still seen as being in a position of greater power, socially speaking. But the lines between masculinity and femininity have blurred—so much so that both men and women are expected to occupy both ends of the gender spectrum. That’s why you might see a young man with a flannel shirt, a big ferocious beard—but he’s wearing skinny jeans and eating a kale salad.
So in some ways, I suspect that being distinctively “masculine” carries some cultural baggage. For some, labeling God as “Father” might seem culturally repressive, maybe even a little sexist. Some modern denominations have even taken to praying to “Mother-Father” God as a way to be more gender-inclusive.
What does the Bible say? Is God really a man?
DOES GOD HAVE A BODY?
Several clues help us. First, we acknowledge that the Bible never really confirms that God the Father has a body at all—let alone a “male” body. Again, let’s be clear: God the Son became a man when He arrived on earth as Jesus, and He remains a man in His resurrected body today. But God the Father? Jesus hints that the Father has no body, He is only “Spirit:”
24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)
This helps explain why John opens His gospel by saying that “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), meaning that Jesus is the first and only direct encounter we can ever have with God.
But wait. If you’ve grown up in Church you can probably remember lots of examples of people in the Old Testament seeing God in one form or another. Moses catches a glimpse of God’s back as He passed by the mouth of the cave (Exodus 33:18-34:9). Isaiah saw the throne of God, whose robe filled the temple (Isaiah 6:1). Didn’t these men see God?
Some would actually say that in these examples, these men were actually seeing Jesus before Jesus officially came to earth. Personally, I’m not that confident. I think we should see these examples as ways that God chose to reveal Himself to these people for a specific purpose. I mean, God also appeared in a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch—but I don’t know anybody who wants to argue that God is any of those things.
The Old Testament may even affirm that God has no form:
You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully (Deuteronomy 4:15)
Elsewhere we’re told that “God is not human that He should lie” (Numbers 23:19), and if we look at the whole scope of the Bible, I think we find a God who is so utterly different from us that God the Father does not share a physical form.
GOD’S FEMININE SIDE
The second clue comes from the fact that occasionally, the Bible uses feminine imagery to describe God. This is actually consistent with the idea that both men and women are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26); this seems to indicate that God has feminine characteristics. For example, we read:
As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 63:13)
And in the New Testament we hear similarly “motherly” language:
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
Later in Luke Jesus likens God to a housemaid searching for a lost coin. Feminine imagery is rarely applied to God, but it is there, it is part of God’s word, and it is therefore good and beautiful and true.
REVEALED AS FATHER
Still, there’s a distinction to be made between being described as “motherly” and being described as a mother. In the above examples, the authors are saying “God is like a mother,” and never “God is a mother.”
Furthermore, the dominant imagery we have of God is that of a Father. He reveals Himself in distinctively masculine terms. And so while we acknowledge that God is not like us, we should also treat Him the way that He has chosen to reveal Himself—as man, as Father, as King.
In the novel Fight Club, the author describes a pair of young men who—having not grown up with the best fathers, turn to violence and aggression as the truest expression of their masculinity. “Our fathers were our models for God,” one man says to the other. “Our fathers abandoned us. What does this tell you about God?”
I suspect for many the idea of “God the Father” seems challenging because your earthly father left much to be desired. But what if instead of using earthly fathers as the standard by which we judge our heavenly Father, we looked to God’s character as the standard for today’s male leadership? Maybe then we could truly see God as our truest and best Father, the One who knows us, loves us, and the One who welcomes us home.