When ‘God the Father’ isn’t helpful
As people working with all sorts of children and young people, you will no doubt come across some who find the idea of God as Father challenging.
If a child or young person has a loving dad, they will probably find it easy to understand what sort of father God wants to be to them, but if a kid’s experience of their father is that they are absent, angry or abusive it may feel hard for them to see God the Father as someone they can or want to relate to. In this article, we are going to explore some ideas for how to help kids in general understand the concept of God as Father well, and then look at some things you could do if you are working with a child or young person who is struggling to relate to God the Father because of their own experiences.
It might be helpful when you are thinking about this to assume that most people have an imperfect experience of fatherhood / parenthood, not the other way round. Statistics on relationship breakdown alone will tell you that a large proportion of the children and young people you work with may have a damaged relationship with a parent; and let’s face it, all parents are imperfect and some even though they are in the family home, may be angry, abusive or unreliable at times. And even though we are talking about God the Father, if someone has a bad experience of a mother, that may well affect the way they see God too.
Help them understand ‘God the Father’ well
Although ‘the Father’ is only one of God’s titles, it is one that is used a lot. Even in the Old Testament, there are times when God is called Father and when he describes himself as ‘Father’ as well of lots of instances where he behaves like a father, being involved in people’s lives, caring for them, being affected by them, disciplining them and loving them. In the New Testament, God as Father becomes a key concept. Jesus calls God ‘father’ over 160 times, teaches the disciples to pray to ‘our Father’, and talks about how we are God’s children. These themes are picked up by Paul and the other New Testament writers for whom the image of adoption becomes an important way to help people understand how we become children of Father God.
- Even though it might be difficult, we need to talk about God as Father: not only because it is one of the main ways Jesus talks about God, but because for unchurched children and young people, their first introduction to God is probably saying ‘Our Father’ as part of the Lord’s Prayer in school.
- Be clear about the difference: It’s a bit like looking through the wrong end of a telescope: what you’re trying to look at seems tiny and far away and difficult to make out. If you are stuck with a damaged idea of what fathers are, you might look at God the Father through that lens, and find it difficult to imagine that he is different. So as you talk about God as Father, it can be helpful just to remind children that God is a perfect Father. You might say, for example: ‘We’re going to pray now to God the Father, who loves us perfectly and is always there’ or ‘When we talk about God as Father it might feel hard to imagine that he’s different from our own parents, that he’s the perfect parent. But that’s because all humans make mistakes, none of us are perfect however hard we try!’ For more on this, see Unwinding.
- Exploring the idea of adoption may also give them a helpful perspective on how God can be a different sort of Father.
- Share stories of times when you (or someone else) has experienced God as Father: what that’s like, what happened, how you knew he was your Father at that moment. There may be times when it’s appropriate to sensitively share stories of your (or others’) experiences of imperfect parenting, either as a child or as a parent.
- Play with the idea. In her book ‘The Lord’s Prayer Unplugged’, Lucy Moore has a really helpful exercise to help children explore the idea of God as a parent in which you ask children to add ideas of what they think a perfect parent might do, think or say around a life-sized outline of a person. When this is complete, you can then explain that when any earthly parent is at their very very best, they are just a little bit like God, the perfect parent. Talking about God as the perfect parent may help children separate their experiences of their father from their understanding of who God is.
Simple things like this help children build up a fuller picture of God as Father over time as well as introducing the idea that there will be a difference between their experiences of being parented and God.
Working with individual children or young people
In order to connect with God, a child or young person doesn’t just need to know it’s possible. They need to want to do it, and if their experience is that fathers or mothers are untrustworthy or abusive, or they don’t really know what a father is, they might be reluctant to connect or not realise that you could do. It is worth bearing in mind that children or young people may not realise that their view of God has been affected by their own experiences.
If you see that a child or young person is struggling with the idea of God as Father, you may want to spend time exploring their feelings and responses using some of the ideas in this article Explaining ‘Father’ when that’s not helpful.
Harnessing the power of the multigenerational church
We often talk about church as family, and at its best, church is so powerful in helping people feel loved and supported. For someone with no father, or with a poor experience of fatherhood, it can be a place where you see and experience different examples of parenting which may change your outlook. So it is worth considering how you can enable the kids you work with, particularly if they are unchurched, to build relationships with other people or become part of church. Particularly if you are working with a group that is quite self-contained, such as an after school club in a school, are there things you can do to encourage this?
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