Forming Faith Blog

God, Parent, Metaphor (November 10, 2019)

A mother hugging her toddler child. God is like a loving parent to us.
Israel: The Northern Kingdom

For the last couple of weeks, we have had a look at the northern kingdom of Israel. First, the united kingdom of Israel split under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, with Jeroboam leading ten northern tribes away taking the name Israel with him. His first order of business was to replace the Jerusalem temple with two shrines with golden calves for the people to worship, all to protect his own power. The kings who came after Jeroboam in the north were no better than he was, and Ahab (the king in last week’s passage) was even worse. Due to the people’s worship of the false god Baal, God sent a famine and then proceeded to show up the prophets of Baal in a contest. This week, we are sticking with the northern kingdom in the Book of Hosea.

God’s Lovingkindness

For the next three weeks, our Narrative Lectionary resources focus on a theme common throughout Scripture, namely that we sin, but God doesn’t give up on us. Our sin, God’s faithfulness, specifically. This is an expression of grace and unconditional love (a partial definition of the Hebrew word hesed).

God and Metaphors

An important point for me when I look at Scripture is that God is ultimately unknowable. Augustine said, “si comprehendis non est Deus” which can be translated as “if you understand/grasp [it/him], [it/he] is not God.” I don’t think God is unknowable, but that God is so much more than us, that we cannot fully grasp God’s reality. Our language can describe the God revealed to us in Scripture, but that language is always limited.

Basically, we can only speak of God through metaphors. God is not a rock, but this image gives us a glimpse at God’s steadfastness. Similarly (and more controversially), I believe that God is not a father, but the image communicates so much about God’s relationship with us. God is also like a mother, an image used many times in Scripture; an image that communicates God’s nurturing relationship with us. It is dangerous if we limit God to one metaphor because we lose something in our understanding of God. Now, off my soapbox.

God as a Loving Parent

Hosea 11 gives us a beautiful metaphor: God as a loving parent to a rebellious Israel. In addition to describing Israel as a “son,” Hosea uses actions to describe this. The text does not limit the metaphor to either father or mother, instead, it describes activities that any loving parent could do for their children. The unconditional love and nurture that parents should give their children is an image of great comfort to many. Fortunately, I have wonderful parents through which I can see this image and I try to parent my kids with unconditional love myself. Knowing my and my parents’ shortcomings, I can still extrapolate what a perfect parent is like, and attribute that to God. So, the metaphor communicates well to me.

Not-Loving Parents

Not every person grows up with loving parents, some experiencing different levels and variations of abuse and neglect. Parents can do horrible things to their children or fail to give them what they need. In terms of metaphors for God, people who have experienced this might not find the image of God as a parent (father or mother) to be helpful. It can be harmful instead. This is clearly not a reason to drop the metaphor of God as a parent, but it is something we should keep in mind when we use this metaphor in our preaching and teaching.

As a Parent

The imagery used in Hosea 11:1-4 communicates something different if you are reading it in terms of being a parent or being a child. As a parent, I can look back on when I held my children as infants to my check and taught them to walk. I can see my mistakes and my intentions. And, as a parent of strong-willed children, I can definitely relate to the statement that “the more I called them, the more they went away from me.” (Hosea 11:2a).

As a Child

When looked at from the perspective of a child (though not necessarily Israel), you might see this a little differently. If you have been fortunate in your upbringing, you will be able to connect God’s love and nurture for Israel with your parents’ imperfect love and care for you. Depending on how you acted to your parents, you might even relate to Israel’s rebelliousness, perhaps with a little guilt.

Tough Love

Although the metaphor of a loving parent does not continue throughout the passage (or not directly), it can still give us a little insight. We have often been taught that there is a tension between God’s mercy and wrath, grace and justice. When I think of God as a parent, that tension is lessened.

I see that setting rules (law, commandments) is not opposed to God’s love, but an example of it. I set limits for my kids because I want them to be safe and to grow up into just and loving adults. I set and enforce consequences because otherwise the limits or rules mean nothing. And, while I get angry at my kids for various bad reasons (include my own selfishness), I can be angry with them when they treat each other (or just others) poorly and that is an extension of my love. My children are being harmed, both the victim and the aggressor.

Consequences

One “method” of discipline is to allow your child to experience (limited) natural consequences for their bad decisions. This is a method God often seems to use. The attacks and eventual exile by Assyria, and later Babylonia, can be traced through entirely natural consequences. One way to see this is that God doesn’t cause these things to happen, God only stops preventing them from happening. Instead of mitigating the consequences and protecting the people, God metaphorically steps back and let events unfold as they will.

Free Resource

In summary, God’s relationship with Israel, and with us, can be described using the metaphor of a loving parent, including allowing them to experience the consequences for their bad behavior. Our free activity this week focuses on the image of God as a nurturer. In “A Mother’s Love,” participants are encouraged to reflect on what are traditionally maternal characteristics of God’s love. As noted in the download, this is not intended to reinforce traditional parenting roles but to counter the prevalent view that God is only like a father (and male). Parents of any gender can take on the role of nurturer as well as that of disciplinarian.

This activity was created for our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) curriculum but can easily be adapted to many different age groups and settings. As with the vast majority of our products, Living the Word: Kids can be purchased for the whole year or by season, with the winter quarter beginning the first Sunday of Advent.   

Faith Formation Strategy: Expanded Family

Engaged and active parents who share their faith with their children are clearly critical to their children’s faith formation. However, caring relationships with non-parent adults within their congregation are also very important. One way to facilitate these relationships is to provide opportunities for children, youth, and adults to spend time together outside of the children’s or youth’s primary family. For those children who are not yet ready to leave their parents, this can mean adding another caring adult to the group, regardless of what that group is doing.  

Boldly go in God’s grace!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence