By: Katie Mathes
As I was reading the Bible many weeks ago, and examining the Scripture passages in Greek (the most reliable language of the New Testament), I came across an interesting tidbit of information. The word in Greek for an earthly father is pater, and the word for God the Father is Pater. This is the same word, we simply capitalize the “p” when referring to God. Now, this means two things when placed in the context of the family. The first is that the role of the parent is defined in God, and the second is that our first and most simple link to God, the eternal parent, is through our earthly parents.
Parenthood is defined by God in God
In our modern society, we often fall prey to this idea that the world is defined by how we perceive it; it is subjective to experience. Because of this, it is easy to slip into the thinking that God is “Father” because he resembles an earthly parent. In fact, the opposite is true. Human men are called fathers because they are given a similar role to that of God the Father. In other words, the first definition defines God as he relates to humanity, and the latter definition defines humanity in its relation to God.
Now, because we are defined in God, we can also deduce, based on His actions, what He has in mind for an earthly father. We can discern the characteristics of a good father in light of the words and actions of the eternal God revealed in Scripture.
In the Bible, God first of all reveals himself as love personified. He then takes serious, dramatic action to show his people his mercy, his kindness, his tenderness, his faithfulness, and so on. For an example, we can look to Israel in the Old Testament. It seems like every other chapter of the book of Exodus, for example, is about Israel turning away from God, and then God drawing them back. This occurs time and again and serves to reveal God’s complete faithfulness to, and love for, his chosen people.
But, God is also just. He serves right and appropriate justice in light of the crime, and yet still employs mercy to draw his children back to himself, and has the wisdom to know which of the extremes he should use in every situation. So, justice is the counterpoint of mercy, and the link between them is wisdom.
And so, in God, we find the ideal parent. We also find the example that is to be replicated by human parents. This is a lofty assignment, of course, and one that we are incapable of completing on our own. In order to mold ourselves into the image of the divine parent, we must call upon the guidance and strength of our Father daily. We must also come to know God the Father intimately, and draw from His love in order to cultivate love in our own families.
The Basic Link to God is the Human Father
Because God has given us the great gift of parenthood, he has also given us a great responsibility. We are called to reflect his own traits, and so we are called to reflect his very image, much like as Christians we are called to reflect Christ. Parents are also called, as outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to instruct their children in the ways of God and His Church, and to preserve their dignity as Children of God.
But, what happens when these parent-child relationships are, at best, tense and, at worst, downright toxic?
In speaking to my peers at Rockhurst University, I have found that many of them struggle in their relationship with that first divine person of the most Holy Trinity. When asked why, they all give the same answer: a strained relationship with at least one parent, usually the father. This avoidance of the love and tenderness of the Heavenly Father, is a direct manifestation of a broken parent-child relationship.
In these cases, it is even more important that we come to our Heavenly Father, and so much more challenging! He is the only One who can reveal to us what true parental love is and heal the wounds caused by our human, flawed parents. With healing comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness comes a way forward.
Human parenthood is a reflection of Divine Parenthood. In the words of the Catechism “the divine fatherhood is the source of the human fatherhood” (2214). This unique link between man and God means 1) that the true model of parenthood is God, and 2) that our most direct link to God is through our parents. My hope is that by sharing this little revelation of Pater vs. pater, I can encourage all parents to continue to reflect the image of God to their children.
To dive more deeply into God’s plan for the family and fatherhood, I encourage you to crack open your Catechism where there are entire sections dedicated to this rich topic!