When Louise and I held our four children for the very first time as new born babies, I remember so well the feeling of a deep rush of overwhelming love, a bursting pride in their perfect tiny forms, and a profound, humbling sense of wonder at the miracle in my arms.
And I remember thinking, “If I feel like this, how much love must God as a Father feel about the world, and about me?”
One of the unique things about Christian faith, in comparison with all other religions and philosophies, is that Christianity invites us into a personal relationship with God. When you put your whole trust in Jesus Christ and His saving power you become ‘born again’ spiritually, and as an analogy, this is like what happened to all of us when we were born as babies: We emerged blinking and breathing in a whole new reality, and then we began to discover our identities as we grew up and learned how to make our way in the world. When we are born again spiritually and become Christians, as we grow we begin to discover that God is our Heavenly Father and our identity is as His children.
How do we know what our Heavenly Father is like?
If you think about the life of Jesus and what we discover about Him in the gospels in the bible, we find that Jesus, the Son of God, became a human being to reveal to us the true nature and character of God.
At the end of the traditional carol service reading from John’s gospel, we read: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son who is from the Father’s heart who has come to make Him known” (John 1:18). When Jesus taught, and performed miraculous signs, and constantly confounded earthly wisdom – and when He died and rose from the dead – He was revealing to the world the true heart and identity of God. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and this simply means, ‘none of us can see God because He is invisible, but if you observe me (Jesus), what I do and who I am – this is what God the Father is like’.
Jesus showed us a true likeness of what God as Father is like – and when Jesus died and was resurrected He opened the way for every human being to come to know God just as He did, in a personal and close way as a Father in Heaven.
What does this mean, and what difference does this make?
Most of us are aware that our personalities are primarily shaped by our background and upbringing, for good or ill. When we bring a word like ‘Father’ into our vocabulary about God, immediately and subconsciously we relate that to our own childhood experiences of our human fathers, again, for good or ill. When any of us innately think of God, I am not sure that as British people, we naturally and automatically think of God as extravagantly loving, richly merciful, full of joy and laughter, who simply desires to be with us in all things!
Yet in the most powerful portrayal of God as Father that Jesus gives, this is what we discover: In Luke’s gospel, chapter 15, Jesus tells of a Father with two sons. The younger son was a ‘thrill seeker’, who turned his back on the family home, demanded his share of inheritance and left in search of ‘wild living’. The elder son was a ‘do-gooder’ who stayed faithfully at home, working hard on the family business in his father’s fields. The younger son squandered everything, finally coming to his senses when he found himself with nothing. He decided to return home and to beg his father to allow him to live as one of his servants. As he neared the family home, his father ran to him, smothering his son’s apologies with a gracious forgiving embrace, instantly restoring his relationship and sonship, and then threw the biggest party in celebration! The elder ‘do-gooder’ however was outraged at the father’s forgiveness and when he heard the party kicking off, refused to come in from the fields. He became bitter towards his father accusing him that ‘all those years slaving away’ had been unrewarded and unrecognised. The father pleads with his elder son to return, gently affirming his constant love through the years and desire to simply be close with his son. Jesus’ story ends and we are left wondering how the elder son got to the place that he felt he had to earn his father’s love through slavish hard work…
The power of the story Jesus tells is found in how the identity and nature of God as Father is revealed: Our Heavenly Father is full of love and light and able to forgive instantly the grossest rebellion (younger son). Our Heavenly Father is joyful and peaceable and desires to know us simply as ourselves and to be with us in every moment of our lives. Hard work cannot earn His love and acceptance (elder son) because we already have His love and acceptance – what He wants is to connect with our hearts.
For me personally, I have had to learn how to rethink how I relate to God as Father; and as I have discovered Him more deeply, I have been changed. In the parts of my heart where I seek satisfaction from earthly things, I have been finding deeper healing and peace by being with my Heavenly Father. My eyes are being opened to the wondrous depths of His kindness, mercy and rich, extravagant love for me that is releasing the parts of me that feel unworthy of Him and try to earn His approval through hard and faithful work.
In the churches, we are discovering what it really means to pray: “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
As I have discovered more fully our Heavenly Father, I feel like I have come home.
James di Castiglione is Rector of the Parish of Chanctonbury, serving the villages of Ashington, Washington and Wiston. He is married to Lou and they live in Ashington with their four children.