by Fr. Rufus Pereira
GOD is called by various names and is given varied attributes in the Bible. To us his children however his most significant name is 'God our Father', and his most cherished attribute is 'God is Love'. Why? The logic is unmistakable in the astonishing parallelism and the more amazing polarity between our earthly fathers and our heavenly Father. "As bad as you are," Jesus told the fathers of his day, "you still know how to give good things to your children. But how much even more ready is your heavenly Father to give good things to people who ask Him!" (Mt. 7:11).
He made me ...
If we owe our birth to our earthly fathers, and that too only for our bodies, how much more do we owe God for creating our whole person, and creating it into his own image and likeness, i.e., to be like himself, something good and beautiful (Gen. 1:1.2,26,27). An image, however perfect, is distinct from and inferior to the object, and still so much like it that it can often be mistaken for the original. A doting father will say with pride that his newborn son looks every bit like him and the fond mother will add that he is the perfect image of his father. When the psalmist questions God, "Why do you care about us humans? Why are you concerned about us weaklings?" he himself gives the answer, "You made us a little lower than yourself, and you have crowned us with glory and honor" (Ps 8:4,5). Paul also insists, "We have only one God, and He is the Father. He created everything and we live for Him" (1 Cor. 8:6).
... and I belong to Him
A child is likewise proud of his father for no other reason than that he is his Dad. Even when he himself will later on become a father and famous, he will still respect his father and refer to him lovingly as Dad. I was keeping an eye on a friend's little granddaughter of four years as she was playing with the neighbor's boy in the garden. As little boys often do, he began bragging about his father. Then out of the blue he asked her about her father. For a second she was nonplussed, since her parents were separated and she was living alone with her mother. Suddenly she pointed at me and blurted out, "That's my Dad!" With how much more boldness and pride could the psalmist proclaim, "The Lord is our God; He created us, and we belong to him; we are his people, the sheep he takes care of in his own pasture" (Ps. 95:7; 100:3).
He loves me ...
Though there is an infinite difference between us, a 'generation gap' as it were, the transcendent God invites me into a personal relationship with Him. For He is not an impersonal divine energy or force to be 'tapped' from around myself, or to be 'discovered' deep within myself, but a divine person who loves me. "Think how much the Father loves us," John contemplates with awe. "He loves us so much that he lets us be called his children, - as we truly are"; while "the people of this world ... don't know who we are." Then he bursts out with his amazing discovery, "God is Love!" (Jn. 3:1; 4:8,16). Paul on his part assures us, "God our Father loves us. He is kind and has given us eternal comfort and a wonderful hope" (2 Thes. 2:16). God our Father himself specifies this personal relationship thus, "I will live with you and walk among you - I will be your God, and you will be my people;" and again, "I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters" (Lev. 26:12; 2 Cor. 6:16,18).
... and I am loved by Him
It is an unbelievable privilege to relate to God, as a person having one's own free will, instead of seeking to become immersed in some universal divinity and thus lose one's identity which God our Father respects. Parents are too aware that their children are all different 'persons', and that even their smallest child has a 'will of his own', which the fond Dad will playfully accept and boast about to his friends. "You say that God is your Father, but God doesn't have favorites!" admonishes Peter (1 Peter 1:17). Instead, as Paul puts it succinctly, "There is one God who is the Father of all people. God is indeed above all others, but he works by using all of us, and he lives in all of us" (Eph. 4:6). For he has created each one of us in a unique way, and loves each one of us as being the only person in the world for Him to love - and so in a way each one of us is God's favorite child.
He cares for me ...
When I asked each youth during inner healing counseling, "What has hurt you the most in your life?" every second youth told me bluntly, "My father does not care for me." Peter however assures us, "God cares for you, so turn all your cares and worries over to Him" (1 Pet 5:7). Our heavenly Father does not want us to worry about our life, about what to eat and what to wear. He knows what we need before we ask - and will take care of all our needs. Only people who don't know God are always worrying about such things. If He takes such care of birds and flowers, aren't we worth more than them? If our earthly fathers, as bad as they are, still know how to give good things to their children, how much more will our heavenly Father be ready to give good things to people who ask, for every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father. But he wants us to put his work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be ours as well. (Mt. 6:8,22-32;7:11; Luke 12:22-31; Ph. 4:19; James 1:17). For the Father has never stopped working and doing good - even on the Sabbath (John 5:17), and he always answers our prayers, not in the way we want but always in the way he knows we need.
... and will never forget me
During an Inner Healing Retreat for youth in Goa, a teenager from a low social background, that was marred by poverty, alcoholism and violence, came for counseling. Her father had deserted the family when she was just three years old. To make ends meet, her mother took a job as a domestic in Kuwait, leaving her daughter in the care of the old respected couple in Panjim for whom she had been working as a maid. Five years later the mother returned to Goa for a month, and the girl, now eight years old, was longing to see her, - but she waited in vain. For the mother went back to Kuwait after her holiday -without visiting her daughter. When I prayed over the girl, all her pent-up sadness and bitterness of years gushed out in torrents of loud cries and tears (cfr Heb. 5:7). In stark contrast our Father God guarantees us, "Could a mother forget a child who nurses at her breast? Could she fail to love an infant who came from her own body? But even if a mother could forget, I will never forget you. In fact I have written your name on my hand but, that apart, you are always in my thoughts" (Is. 49:5-16).
He forgives me ...
The Father is a merciful God," states Paul, "who always gives us comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3). Jesus himself pleaded, "Don't be cruel to any of these little ones! The Father in heaven does not want any of these little ones to be lost (Mt. 18:10,14). Already in the Old Testament, God expressed himself thus, "My feelings for you are much too strong. I am God and not man - I won't lose my temper and I won't stay angry" (Hos. 1:8,9). "I have broken all the ten commandments," a penitent will often confess to me, "Will God ever forgive me? I am worse than Mary Magdalene." What is God's answer? "I, the Lord, invite you to come and talk it over. Your sins are scarlet red but they will be whiter than snow or wool" (Is. 1:18). And even more plainly, "I will forgive your sins and forget the evil you have done." (Jer. 31:34). God did not write off David when he committed the double sin of adultery and of murder. He not only forgave him but he also confirmed his promise that he would still be the forefather of the Messiah. Obviously, one may be led to conclude, King David received better treatment at the hands of the sinless God in heaven than President Clinton at the hands of his sinful fellow men on earth.
... and wants me to forgive others
After teaching us how to pray, Jesus expands, curiously, only on the sixth petition. "If you forgive others for the wrongs they do to you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive He you your sins (Mt 6:14,15); and, worse still, as the master dealt with the unforgiving servant, "that is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don't forgive all your brothers with all your heart" (Mt 18:35). Again, at least out of gratitude to God, we must be compassionate to others, just as our Father is compassionate to us (Luke 6:36). But the most significant reason to forgive is that forgiving others makes us like our Father God. "You have heard people say, 'Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.' But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for everyone who is cruel and mistreats you. Be good to everyone who hates you and ask God to bless anyone who curses you. Don't act like those who only love their friends but you must always act like your Father in heaven, who makes the sun rise on and sends rain for both good and bad people and is good even to people who are unthankful and cruel. Then you will be true children of God in heaven (Mt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36).
He corrects me ...
"Consider yourself fortunate if God chooses to correct you" Eliphaz advises Job (Job 5:17); and Proverbs admonishes, "My child, don't turn away or become bitter when the Lord corrects you. The Lord corrects everyone he loves, just as parents correct their favorite child" (Prov. 3:11,12). On the contrary a young lady told me during counseling, "I hate my mother, for she never corrected me, but allowed me to do whatever I wanted. I thought then that she was a wonderful mother. How I wish she had been stricter with me. Then I wouldn't have landed in this mess." The Hebrews letter therefore writes very persuasively, "When the Lord punishes you, don't make light of it, and when he corrects you, don't be discouraged. The Lord corrects the people he loves and disciplines those he calls his own ... This is how God treats his children. Don't all parents correct their children? God corrects all of his children, and if he doesn't correct you, then you don't really belong to him. Our earthly father corrects us and we still respect them. Isn't it even better to be given true life by letting our spiritual Father correct us? Our human father corrects us for a short time, and they do it as they think best. But God corrects us for our own good, because he wants us to be holy, as he is ... though at the time it is always painful... (Heb. 12:5-11).
... and tests me
God our Father also wants us to trust in him blindly and not to give up when our faith is being tested (James 1:12). A young lady attending my retreat told me that she was gang raped on her way home from her parish Christmas midnight Mass. She confronted me with sorrow and anger, "How could God have let this happen to me - I have been very good and religious all my life - and that too soon after Mass and at Christmas night." "Don't be afraid of anyone!" Jesus encouraged his disciples who were likewise tormented. "Don't be afraid of people. They can kill you but they cannot harm your soul. So don't be afraid!" (Mt. 10:26-31 ). During his own agony Jesus was still able to address God as Father, in fact as Daddy (Abba), the only time the Aramaic word occurs in the Gospel, "Abba, Father, if it is possible, don't let this happen to me. Father, you can do anything. Don't make me suffer by having me drink from this cup. But do what you want and not what I want" (Mark 14:36; Mt. 26:39; Luke 22:42).
He teaches me ...
God the Father speaks to his children through creation, the law and the prophets. When He made the Israelites go hungry in the desert, he was teaching them that people need more than food to live - they need every word that the Lord has spoken (Deut. 8:2,3). And therefore He declared, "I will write my laws on their hearts and minds. ... No longer will they have to teach one another to obey me.... all of them will obey me" (Jer. 31:33-34). Thus Simon Peter didn't discover his insight of Jesus on his own. It was shown to him by the Father in heaven (Mt. 16:17). For the Father has hid all this from wise and educated people and showed it to ordinary people (Mt:11:25; Luke 10:21). Again the Lord does not impose things on us but invites us to come and talk it over (Is 1:18). Finally the Father teaches only what is necessary. When the apostles asked Jesus when the destruction of the temple would take place, he replied, "No one knows the day or hour. The angels in heaven don't know, and the Son himself doesn't know. Only the Father knows" (Mt. 24:36; Mark 13:32). When they asked again, "Lord, are you now going to give Israel its own king?" Jesus said to them, "You don't need to know the time of those events that only the Father controls (Acts 1:6,7).
... and encourages me
At the clergy retreat I was preaching in Trichur diocese in 1979, a priest made a prayer, during adoration, which made all the 120 priests to laugh raucously. That made me uneasy, wondering how the Bishop who was reputed to be rigid and traditional would take it. Then immediately another priest made a prayer, "God, my Father, I thank you that for the first time in my life I have laughed in church. For I have now realized that, if there is any place in the world where I should be most at ease and cheerful, it should be in my Father's house, in my Daddy's home." Instead how many have told me that what they missed most in their childhood was a hug of encouragement. "Daddy never hugged me." But there were others who spoke of their fathers as someone whom they could trust and depend upon, "Daddy was always for me". I am always amazed by the attitude of parents who stand by their drug addict sons. How much more will God our Father stand by us. From his personal experience Paul could say with absolute assurance, "We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. ... If God is on our side, can anyone be against us? (Rom 8: 28,31). Our heavenly Father is a God of never failing encouragement. "Forget what happened long ago! Don't think about the past," he seems to be always telling us, "See! I am doing something new. There it is! Do you see it?" (Is 43:18,19).
He wants me to be perfect ...
A Carmelite friend who was studying for his doctorate in Scripture at the Biblical Institute in Rome told me that his thesis, on which he had been already working for the last two years, was on just one verse of the Bible, "Be therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). Seeing the look of astonishment on my face, he explained to me that this verse was for him the summary of the whole Good News. For it could be translated as, "You must always act as your Father in heaven," and it meant that this and this only is the secret and source of man's happiness. We know how fathers have great plans for their children. How much more does God our Father have a great plan for each one of us, his children? "I will bless you with a future filled with hope - a future of success not of suffering" (Jer. 29:11). I have often seen things I wished for come to naught. But when I surrendered my desires and dreams to the Lord, and prayed, "Father God, may your will be done in your way and in your time," things would come up and come my way suddenly and unexpectedly that were beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. Our Father seems to be always having something marvelous up his sleeves, "My thoughts and my ways are not like yours ... they are higher than yours" (Is. 55:8,9).
... and wants to feel proud of me
Whenever I showed my excellent primary school exams results to my father, obviously expecting a pat on my back, he would instead pick out the only subject in which I obtained just 99 out of 100, instead of the full marks, and would hand me back my certificate without any praise and with the wry remark, 'Do better next time.' At first this would really hurt me, till I came to know that he would later take and show my certificate proudly to all his friends, this time to my embarrassment Again whenever I used to see a seriously handicapped child, I would find it difficult to believe that God loves it too, and much more difficult to accept how the Father God could be proud of 'the work of his own hands'. I would say to myself, "Then why did and how could He make the child that way?" till I saw the tremendous love that the unfortunate parents had for their spastic child and the pride and joy they had in their helpless offspring. This was always a moving experience for me making me realize how infinitely more God their Father must be loving them and being proud of them. Even in such a case the words of Jesus are true, "Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven" (Mt. 5:16).
The title then of 'Father' is so distinctive of God, that Jesus is reluctant to give it to those men who don't deserve this sublime name. "Don't call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven" (Mt 23:9). Physical or spiritual fathers are therefore challenged by the standard set by the heavenly Father and their love must be both a sign and a channel of the Father's love to those under their care.
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Led by the Spirit reproduced with permission from Charisindia. Copyright © 2004-2005 Fr. Rufus Pereira. All rights reserved. Images copyright Anne Geddes