My religion is summed up in the first two words of the Lord's Prayer.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
If truth be told, I learned about fathers more from being one than from having one. Perhaps this is always the case. My father was a good man and loved us in his own way. But he traveled a lot on business when I was growing up in the 1950s. And like many fathers of that era, he left most of the child-rearing to my mother. He entered the picture only when heavy artillery was required, which was often enough. Consequently, my early memories of him are usually associated with punishments. My father had a temper and would come after us with a belt when we were bad. Such treatment is frowned upon now but was no worse than the rough justice meted out to most of my friends by their fathers.
My own early experience of being a father was filled with equal parts of terror and wonder at these amazing little creatures who were at once so helpless and so demanding. No one can prepare you for how closely connected you feel. You would do anything for them. Their joy is your joy, and when they hurt you are in pain. My kids were a lot better behaved than my siblings and I ever were, perhaps because we did not think of them as being bad, even when they acted up. I suspect that most kids fit their crimes to your punishments, and ours were mostly pretty mild. Yet I also had a temper, and I regret now some of my outbursts when my kids were small.
When we pray to "our Father," we are praying a metaphor whose meaning is inevitably colored by our own earthly experience of having a father or of being a father. One can see radically different depictions of God the Father even in Scripture. There is both the Father who is powerful and protective and the bloodthirsty tyrant we seemingly need protection from ourselves. Which is it?
In a sermon on the fatherhood of God, the 19th-century English preacher C. H. Spurgeon denied that the Lord's Prayer was ever intended for general use. "In the lips of the ungodly man it is entirely out of place," he thundered, believing it to be both presumptuous and blasphemous for sinners to address God as "our Father." And yet how else is such a one to address God? Do our ties to our earthly father cease because we are bad? If so, we would all be fatherless.
Jesus offended many of his listeners by addressing his Father in a manner that seemed overly familiar to them. It presumed a level of intimacy with God they obviously did not feel themselves. Even as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, knowing that he would soon be taken away and killed, Jesus addressed his prayers to "Abba," which is translated as "Father" but is used more in the sense of "Daddy" or "Papa." Clearly, this was a God whom he trusted with his life, even as he was about to lose it.
God is the Father that many of us never had and that is beyond any sense of the father we could ever hope to be ourselves. Yet when I seek to understand God in this way, I find it more helpful to draw on my own experience as a father. As much as I loved my own father, it was not until I was a father myself that I truly understood what it is to love sacrificially. When I see God depicted as some sort of cosmic disciplinarian, I get no sense of the intimate connection that Jesus obviously felt. It is indeed a wise man who knows his own Father.
C. H. Spurgeon, "The Fatherhood of God"