Image of a Father (Heavenly) / Father (Earthly)
by Dr. John Yates
On the verge of Good Friday, I would like to read two stories about a father handing his child over to a shocking death of loneliness and abandonment, the first is very ancient and familiar; the second is one from our times.
Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, v45“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. v46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” v47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” v48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. v49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”v50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” (Matt 27:45-50)
In those bewildering last moments before she hit that deep and dark water, she would have known in her suffocating fear that she had been betrayed and discarded by her Daddy.
He who should have been her defender; her champion. The one man who should have taken a hit for her.” When Freeman was sentenced to 32 years last week, he showed no remorse in court, but launched into an angry attack on his ex-wife’s family.
Arthur Freeman was so shamed by his ex-wife and family that he was blinded by his rage to the meaning of fatherhood and became totally oblivious to the needs and pains of others. Of course, many in Australia today think of the Christian portrayal of God in this way. This comparison is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Whilst around half of the Australian population still describe themselves as “Christian”, most live as if there is not God.
I was in a prayer meeting today where some of the men were praying to God as “Daddy”, which of course was Darvey Freeman’s way of talking to her dad. If the Father of Jesus is really a good daddy to us, why is there so much neglect amongst the people of God of the ways he has taught us to access his divine life. Why little or irregular reading of the Bible, struggles with prayer, minimal commitment to alleviating poverty, obliviousness to the plight of millions of persecuted believers around the world. All these are merely surface symptoms of a condition of the human heart.
The Bible has many disturbing texts (which is why we don’t read it), here is one I find particularly troublesome. “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.” (Ps 50:21). As we can be silent concerning evil acts, we think God is like us and not too bothered either. This is the foundational sin of making God in our own image, the story of which begins in the Garden of Eden.
The Glory of God and the Shame of Man
In their closeness to the earth, the first humans were conscious of being formed from the dust of the ground and of having received the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). In the middle of the beauty of Eden was a tree whose purpose was to remind Adam and Eve of their absolute dependence on God (Gen 2:9; 3:3). The possibility of death was held before their eyes by the clear command, ““the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”””(Gen 2:17). Prohibitions like this can be read in two ways, as a threat of punitive action to intimidate us into good behaviour, or as an opportunity to confirm and elevate our status as God’s beloved children.
Satan seduced Eve by deceiving her into believing that the threat of divine punishment was merely the stand over tactics of a bully. “v4 “You will not surely die. v5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”” (Gen 3:4-5). Satan suggests to Eve that by her own self action she can create a new kind of image of God in her own likeness and imagining (Gen 3:6) beyond the reach of her original Creator. Whoever chooses to know good and evil for themselves enters into a realm of self-conscious immortality. This temptation was the epitome of self-glorification and it has always proven overwhelming.
This whole scenario could have gone in a totally different direction motivated by a different wisdom and a different desire. Scripture teaches with great soberness, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov 9:10). God did not expect Adam and Eve to fear being thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, something much deeper was at stake in his warning about death. In the fifth commandment we read, ““Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land…” (Ex 20:12).
Honouring parents is a principle without exception because they are the ones who gave you life.
Adam and Eve were not called to fear the loss of the pleasures of the Garden, but the loss of the pleasure of drawing their life from God. Those who lack godly always commit the following sin. A pained God speaks to a rebellious Israel, ““A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honour? And if I am a master, where is my fear?” (Mal 1:6). From the beginning, human beings have refused to honour God (Rom 1:21. Cf. John 8:44). This is a sin of infinite proportions. Made in the image of God as his sons (Luke 3:38), when Adam and Eve (who symbolise all of us) wanted the inheritance of creation without the fellowship of the Creator they committed the crime of decide (Ex 20:5 Deut 32:43; Rom 1:30), they wanted God dead.
In dishonouring God Adam and Eve were startled to find that something terrible had happened to them, they had lost what the Bible calls “the weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17 cf. Rom 3:23).
The sense of immeasurable dignity that belongs to being in the eternal family of God had seemingly vanished forever. Knowing good and evil for themselves (Gen 3:22), they recognised they were fully responsible for destroying the honour with which God had created them, stripped of God’s glory they were filled with an undying sense of shame.Genesis 3:22 “the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil”. I take it this means that the human sense of responsibility is as absolute as God’s. This was intolerable and in self-consciousness of their newly discovered weakened state they immediately covered themselves with fig leaves and hid themselves from the presence of God (Gen 3:7-10).
We may be tempted to ask, if the human situation is as tragic as this, why don’t we all, starting with our first Fallen ancestors, flee to the presence of God. The answer to this is as simple as it is dreadful, if in your heart you have killed every aspect of trust in the goodness of your Creator, then you cannot believe in his compassion and forgiveness. Shame is not simply emptiness; it is in its deepest core self-generated Fatherlessness. Shame is one of the deepest and most indelible of all human emotions and controls the great mass of human behaviour, from fashion to Facebook.
Humans are constantly controlled by feelings of inferiority, feeling less than others in the realm of beauty, intelligence, wealth, social standing, sporting ability, personality, spirituality and so on.
(I used to hate it, and rather rudely refuse to play the game when I used to go to pastors conference and everybody would ask the question, “How big is your church?”)
The root problem generating all these destructive comparisons is not something called “low self-esteem” but an abiding and ineffaceable sense that we are less than we are meant to be in the image of God. The common idols and ambitions of life – the successful career, the flawless family, the glamorous partner, the powerful ministry… are all substitutes for the glory of God and an attempt to fill the gap between who we are and who we know we should be.
Human self-consciousness is filled with repeated attempts to achieve self-glorification which are doomed to fail because the honour we seek from men is not only inferior to the honour from the one true God but is highly conditional. We are not simply passively shamed however; the problem goes to another level.
The Angry Man
I was listening to the radio recently and a forensic psychiatrist who works in prisons was saying every violent person has a history of being dishonored /shamed from early life.
In conversation with a range of people, including addict and violent offenders, the stories they share about their early life situations are so terribly tragic that all you can say is, “If that sort of abuse had happened to me I would have taken the same road too.” But why are destructive human responses so predictable – why for example don’t we refuse to strike back?
This is not a psychological question, or even a moral question, but a theological question.
At this level, at the foundational level of our corrupted humanity we are directed back to the origin of human violence.
The famous story of the murder of Abel by Cain begins this way.
“v4 And the Lord received Abel and his offering with favour, v5 but Cain and his offering he did not receive. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. v6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? v7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”” (Gen 4:3ff.)
Cain felt rejected by God and envied God’s pleasure in his brother (Heb 11:4, 6).
Yet his own spirit was not acceptable to the LORD, for he showed no sign of understanding that he was created to enjoy drawing his life from God.
Feeling dishonoured by God and ignoring the caring divine warning about sin’s power (cf. Gen 2:17), Cain lost sight of everything but his own ego need for approval and spiraled out of control in a way that has become characteristic of the history of humanity. The story ends with an echo of the fate of Adam and Eve, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord” (Gen 4: 16 cf. Gen 3:24). This is still the condition of the mass of humanity, and until Jesus deals with our shame we can expect conflict in the world.
Having been in the Middle East recently it is very clear how the Muslim peoples of the world feel shamed by the Israeli possession of Palestine, people feel shamed about the condition of their own lives and degenerate into self-condemnation or turn their frustrations out on others. As I was walking in the street this morning an angry aboriginal youth on a bike went passed – there is a culture whose explosive crime rates mirror deep racial shame. Or, to put it in context with this talk, as another indigenous person said, “You see all these young men walking the streets of Belmont, not one of them has a father.”
The self-critical statements of Christians about their own lack of prayer, bible knowledge or spiritual growth shows a dislike of self which is on the same scale of self-loathing.
Arthur Phillip Freeman felt shamed by his wife and her family and in each case terrible violence broke out.
Where is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of all this? Hear the cry of the faithful concerning this disastrous state of affairs, “v15 Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.v16 For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.(Isa 63:15-16; Hos 13:14).
Just why does God our Father’s compassion seem to be held back from us?
God’s Compassion for the Weak
I was speaking recently with a man who came to talk about the repeated struggles he had in getting along with church leaders. At one point he spoke appealingly, “I come from a position of weakness, I have no strength.” He was referring to the fact that he has a long history of mental illness, including extensive periods of hospitalisation, lives on a pension and has never had a position of authority in a congregation.
When I said to him, “You are an angry man, whenever you get angry with other people you do not come across from a position of but as though you had a position of strength, that’s how people experience anger”. Suddenly he paused, and wanted to pray.
Our strength, whether of emotion, intellect, resource, gifting or anything else puts us outside the experience of the compassionate healing power of God. Our Lord cannot identify with the powerful but only with the weak.
That God honours those who are weak with his compassionate presence is deeply embedded in scripture.
The Old Testament proclaims the fatherly compassion of God as transparently as the New, v9“He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. v10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. v11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; v12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. v13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.v14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:9-14).
God’s compassion is supremely powerful because when strength identifies with our weakness he honours us in a way that removes shame. Jesus honoured the people of the land by living and ministering in their midst. It was in the authority of the Father’s compassion that Christ fed the hungry, healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead and preached good news to the poor – all of which were radically weak and needy persons (Matt 9:35-36; Matt 14:13-21; Matt 15:32-39; Mark 9:22-27; Luke 7:13-14).
If we are not actually experiencing Jesus’ compassion like those in the Gospel stories we must have placed ourselves outside the community of their acknowledged weakness. Shockingly, this would place us in the company of the religiously strong of Christ’s day, the scribes and Pharisees Two of Jesus’ most famous parables were told against this group. One is the story of a Samaritan who, unlike the priest and Levite in the tale, “had compassion” (Luke 10:33) on a “half dead” man.
The highlight of what we call the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” describes how when the repentant rebel “was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20). The older brother, who represents the religious authorities in Israel, remains outside the experience of the father’s heart because he refuses to forgive his brother from the heart (Matt 18:34-35). There is nothing quite so personally dis-empowering that seeking and giving forgiveness.
Jesus taught on this matter with supreme clarity, “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”” (Mark 11:25).
If God honours us in our shame by forgiving us, we ought to honour God by doing likewise for others. Those who are too strong to acknowledge their need to forgive simply will not experience forgiveness from God. The circle of forgiveness always invites the Lord’s compassionate presence. As recently as yesterday, I had to warn a believer that that the first principle of wisdom in the fear of the Lord is to forgive others.
If we don’t we get this it must be because we think that God himself is a reluctant forgiver or even less sensitive to human need than we are. Of course no “Christian” will freely admit this.
The problem that most of us still have is that we seem to rarely be able to get in touch with the compassionate beating heart of Jesus because we are still too strong. To get to the root of matter bluntly, we do not believe that God understands our condition because we do not understand his condition. Martin Luther once said, “The cross is the test of everything.” (Crux probat omnia), only the cross can show us the divine condition.
Anger and Shame in the Cross
As Jesus approaches the cross through the Garden of Gethsemane, he is overcome by an all consuming fear, ““v34 My soul is very sorrowful, even to death….v35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. v36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”” (Mark 14:34, 36).
To quote Luther again, “No man ever feared like this man.” Have you ever been afraid? Once upon a time I lived every day in a fear so pervasive I could not walk down a public street, and I clearly remember being possessed by a dread that was physically paralysing. Fear can be that powerful and it can make you feel irreducibly weak.
Jesus’ fear however was wholly unlike that of Adam, Adam sinned and feared the punishment of a God who was to him a stranger. Jesus never sinned (Heb 4:15) and feared the loss of intimacy with his Father. It is Jesus knowledge of God as his Father that makes his experience of the cross so paradoxical, he knew exactly what it meant for “the cup” that was set before him to be the cup of the divine anger.
As a sinless man Jesus was a shameless man (John 8:49) who never once felt a gap of inferiority between who he was and who God had created him to be. All of this was about to change.
Darcey Freeman, the child of a shamed and anger filled father fell a lonely 58 metres to her death as a child condemned “to endure a most hellish nightmare”, but when“ “Jesus cried with a loud voice, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?””, the Son of a Holy Father fell all the way into the utter eternal aloneness of hell itself .
In such a hell Jesus feels, not simply that he does not know God, but far more severely, that he is not known by God (1 Cor 8:3 Gal 4:9 cf. Gen 22:12). Loneliness is a terrible experience, but it was an essential one for Jesus to share in order to redeem the world in all of its shame and weakness.
Christ’s suffering is however no passive thing. When, ““Jesus cried with a loud voice, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) he was reversing the whole history of humanity’s relationship with the Creator-Father. The psalmist says, “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” (Ps 90:11). No sinful flesh has ever laid to heart the intensity of God’s wrath against evil so as to fear him with a reverence that is his due.
No one, until Jesus, has ever taken the loss of God’s Fatherly presence with full seriousness or felt acutely enough the loss of pleasure in drawing life from God. This is how we have dishonoured him and fallen away from his glory, and how in Christ all is recovered. In the midst of his experience of totalised human weakness, struggle and death at an extremity exceeding all others, Jesus offered up something to God that humanity from Adam on had never offered and that the Father had always longed for, “reverent submission/godly fear”(Heb 5:7). He honoured God as his Father by perfect submissive obedience.
It could not be that he cross was the end, it marks a new beginning, ““v15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. v16 For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would grow faint before me, and the breath of life that I made.”” (Isa 57:15-16)
It could not be that the Holy One could overlook the contrite and lowly spirit of his Son, he has restored his spirit and he has revived his heart. In the transformation of the dust of Christ’s earthly body into the glorified resurrection body at the right hand of God, and in filling the breath of his human life with the Holy Spirit, all judgment has been taken away. In Christ there is no longer any cause for shame, and heaven is open to all who would come to him in weakness to receive his Father’s resurrection power.
The Fruit of Shamelessness
Jesus weeping in Gethsemane and crying out in prayer upon the cross redefines the meaning of strength and weakness and restores to us godly shamelessness.
Jesus left us a parable about persistent prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, at the centre of this story is a friend who lacking bread comes to a neighbour at midnight for supplies, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of is shamelessness he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Luke 11:8).
To share in what looks like shameful weakness to outsiders, such as pleading with God for the supply of his Spirit, is actually a sharing in the weakness of Christ from the cross and the key to manifesting the compassionate healing power of God. With the shameless anything is possible with God.
Paul could say, “v8 We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; v9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; v10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor 6:8-10).
George Whitfield was perhaps the greatest English speaking preacher of all time who drew up to 20,000 people at a time at his open air meetings.
There were many acts of violence against him, and at least once attempt on his life. An outstanding characteristic of his preaching was that every time he spoke he wept. Whitefield had reached a point in his life where he knew that unless Christ shared visible demonstrations of crucified brokenness no “strong” person’s life would be weakened by his compassion.
Once he was approached after his meeting was finished by a chastened looking young man who said, “I came here with rocks in my pocket to break your head, but your tears broke my heart.”
In conclusion, what do the stories of Jesus and his Father and Darcey Freeman and her father have in common. Reading the newspaper accounts and blogs of this innocent little girl’s death many people unashamedly and compassionately identified with the tragedy and freely spoke of their tears.
I wonder how many will weep this coming Good Friday when they hear the story of the crucifixion of the Son of God afresh.
Arthur Freeman murdered his daughter because he had lost the pleasure of giving her life and giving into her life so that his heart was filled with anger.
God the Creator-Father has never lost the pleasure of giving us all life and always wants to give us more, forever.
What then about the anger or wrath of this Father?
It has been wisely said, “For us, anger brings pain, but for God anger is pain.”
Good Friday is a time to weep tears, not for Jesus who has been raised from the dead, but for those whose lives show they have still to receive the revelation that the broken and tormented body of Christ is the visible compassion of the Father, and the sign of the removal of all our shame.
The revelation that the God of Jesus is no “Angry Father” is yet to fall upon us.