Chapter 1: Who is He?
My toddler doesn’t trust me. I realize that most experts wouldn’t recommend opening a book about fatherhood with honesty like this, but here we are. A few days ago I brought my two-year-old son, Isaac, grocery shopping. For most people it’s a boring destination, but kids don’t get out much so my son was obnoxiously excited about the trip. Once he heard that he’d be coming with me, Isaac just kept chanting “store, store, store” over and over as I put his shoes and coat on. He scooted down the stairs and headed to the front door, his chanting growing in volume with each step. Lifting my son off the ground we headed to the car, both of us preparing our hearts for the produce aisles that awaited us.
Isaac’s mood took a drastic turn once I opened the car door and he realized he’d be sitting once again in his dreaded car seat. He went into full body resistance mode, arching his back and turning sideways to thwart my buckling efforts. I wondered for a minute if maybe he had realized how boring grocery shopping actually is, or if he had possibly paid attention to the first reading at mass the week before and realized the terrifying biblical precedent for beloved sons named Isaac taking trips with their dad. (It didn’t help that I was humming “Be Not Afraid” after placing several logs on the boy’s back as we walked to the car). Recognizing that my son just hated being strapped in the car seat, I joined his chorus of “store, store, store” until he finally let me buckle him in. Once I started the engine, Isaac was totally content and remained so for the rest of the trip.
It turns out my son just wanted to go to the grocery store, and he saw the car seat as an obstacle rather than the means by which he’d get where he wanted to go. Why wouldn’t he just trust me? Had I ever promised an exciting trip to the store and instead brought him for vaccination shots, veggie burgers, or some other equally terrible experience? I kept trying to explain to him that the car seat was the only way he’d get to the store, but naturally he was too young to understand the process and too focused on his frustration to even hear what I was saying. I’m hopeful that at some point, my son will start considering my track record and give me the benefit of the doubt when I promise to bring him somewhere he wants to go.
This has been my life for the past six years since becoming a father; time and time again I keep seeing reminders of the many ways I’ve second-guessed, suspected, misunderstood, and forgotten how relentlessly loved I am by God the Father. Though I grew up Catholic and would’ve wagered everything I had if I ever ended up on Jeopardy with Jesus as the final category, I recognize in my life the massive difference between what I intellectually believe and how I respond when life gets tough. As a youth minister and retreat speaker, I had told plenty of people about the love of God, yet there was a part of me convinced that God the Father was a distant figure in my story watching my every move like a police officer with a radar gun.
Throughout my life I have been told that God loves me, but to me it often seemed more likely that loving us, for Him, was like a job He had signed up for a long time ago. I thought of the parents I knew who were committed to jobs they didn’t really enjoy, and I figured the Father’s love was probably something like this. I was convinced that He kept loving us, me specifically, simply because He wasn’t a quitter. I thought that His faithfulness was merely a testament to His perseverance and had nothing to do with any personal affection toward me.
I also fell prey to the notion that I had to earn God’s love. Growing up I always did well in school, and for the most part I stayed out of trouble. In time I began to believe that my worth depended on my performance. Whether in my report card, my batting average, my free throw percentage, or simply from other people’s reactions to my recycled attempts to be funny, I was convinced that I had to get everything right to be worthy of love.
Another lie that I came to believe was that God’s will for my life was a series of tests in which my response would determine whether or not happiness was still possible for me. I know that actions do have consequences and we naturally experience the effects of the decisions that we, and others, make. But for several years, I agonized over every little decision, scared that the wrong choice would send me down a path in which I would always have to settle for less than peace and less than the happiness I desired. When I went through difficult periods or stretches of not feeling content in my job or my singleness, I would revisit so many past decisions wondering which one was the one to blame for my current situation.
Despite growing up with parents who loved me well and taught me through their words and their lives about God’s love, I still struggled to believe that the all-powerful God who holds creation in existence would care about the details of my relatively insignificant life. As a teenager I had a few experiences in prayer that convinced me that Jesus loved me, and my family’s involvement in a charismatic community led me to desire and pursue a relationship with the Holy Spirit. Yet God the Father remained a distant character in my story who I feared.
Apparently I’m not the only person who has misunderstood God. As humans, we were created out of the overflowing, eternally creative love of the Trinity. God the Father loves the Son perfectly, the Son loves the Father perfectly, and this eternal love is the person of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is the perfection of generosity, the perfection of existing and living in relationship with another. God lacks nothing, yet in an act of sheer generosity we are created and invited to share in His life. In the Garden of Eden, Adam woke up in a paradise full of color, light, plants, and animals whose existence all pointed to the staggering generosity of God. Everywhere he looked, Adam couldn’t help but be reminded of God’s provision and His attention to detail. Made in God’s own image and likeness, Adam recognized his desire for love and communion. And so God’s generosity continued as He gave Eve to Adam, and Adam to Eve.
God had given Adam and Eve everything they could possibly want, due solely to His goodness and through no efforts of their own, and His only caveat was that they not eat the fruit of one tree in a garden full of other available menu options. Ignoring everything else He had given them, including each other, they fell for the serpent’s lie and begin to view God with suspicion. Just one page earlier in Genesis, Adam had been overwhelmed by God’s goodness when creation crescendoed with Eve’s arrival. All it took was a five minute conversation with a talking snake for Adam to start viewing God as the jealous withholder who lived to prevent Adam’s happiness. From the moment of Adam and Eve’s sin until today, we’ve struggled to see God as a loving Father. Pope Saint John Paul II saw this as no coincidence, believing that the enemy’s aim in original sin was directed specifically at our understanding of God’s fatherhood. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II writes: Original sin attempts, then, to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship. (228)
Reading it in Scripture, the lie seems so obvious and Adam and Eve’s decision to sin seems so irrational. But in all honesty, I’m not that different from Adam. I’ve spent much of my life suspecting God, convinced that He stood in between me and true freedom. When good things happened in my life, they seemed like random occurrences, and when things didn’t go my way, I figured that God’s justice had finally caught up to me. Throughout the Old Testament, God the Father continued to fight for His children, battling their enemies and their stubbornness, relentless in His desire to bring them back to the loving relationship with Him that sin had severed.
Thanks to a strong Irish Catholic sense of guilt (thanks, mom) and an illustrated children’s Bible replete with images of New Testament folks getting hugs from Jesus while those poor people in the Old Testament scrambled to avoid divinely guided fireballs and lightning bolts, for so long in my mind Jesus was the friendly son of an angry Father. I had a friend growing up whose father always seemed grumpy, so it was common knowledge among our friends that you never wanted to be playing at that friend’s house when his dad came home from work at the end of the day. If you happened to be there when the dad arrived, you knew he’d be in a bad mood and you’d probably have to help the friend clean up every area that wasn’t meeting his dad’s impossibly high standards. I assumed that my friend and his dad were kind of like Jesus and God the Father: the kid was really nice and friendly, but he had to warn us about his angry dad who was never happy to see us. It turns out that even my heresies are unoriginal; this particular error is called Marcionism and it was condemned by the Church when it first appeared in the second century. Marcionists believed that Jesus was God, but that the god found in the Old Testament was a less important, angrier deity whose rules and covenants were all made obsolete by Christ.
This false dichotomy between Jesus and God the Father is contrary to everything Jesus said and did on earth. When Jesus’ disciples begged Him to show them the Father, He replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:10). Jesus explained that every deed He performed and every word He uttered came from God the Father. Jesus, the Eternal Son, is the full revelation of the Father’s love; He is the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Because the Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity never act or exist outside of relationship from one another, we can say with certainty that the Father and the Holy Spirit share the depth of love and compassion for humanity that we see manifest in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
The love and mercy of God is always greater than we could imagine. It would be amazing enough that Jesus reveal to us His intimacy with God the Father, but we are given the incomparable gift of being invited to share in His Sonship. One final insight is found in Jesus’ priestly prayer to the Father in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel. This text comes from the night before Jesus dies, between the last supper and the arrest at Gethsemane. Unlike most references to Jesus praying in the Gospels, in this instance we are given the words He uses in communicating with His Father. Jesus begs the Father “that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (John 17: 23, italics mine). Read that again, then underline it 10 times, highlight it, and memorize it. The love that God the Father has for us is something akin to the perfect, eternal, indescribable, unfathomable, so-real-it’s-the-Holy-Spirit love that the Father has for Jesus. We are loved by the Father like Jesus is loved by the Father. This is unbelievable, and this divine adoption that we receive in baptism is truly a gift beyond words.
When Jesus’ disciples asked Him how to pray, He provided both the words and the Holy Spirit that alone can give life to our words (CCC 2766). In the words of the Our Father, the prayer taught by Jesus Himself, we are privileged to call by name the God whose holiness and glory should leave us shuddering in fear. For thousands of years, the name of God was so revered that it wasn’t considered reverent enough to even be written down. Yet we get to call Him “Father” and through Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, we share in Jesus’ inheritance as God’s children.
The boldness required in daring to call God “Abba” or “Father” can only come from the Holy Spirit. In baptism we are mystically inserted into the paschal mystery, and through no merit of our own, we are made sons and daughters in the Son. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul reminds followers of Christ that we have been made heirs of the Father. Despite our sin, despite our continued temptation to fall back into old ways, our adoption through baptism means that we are no longer slaves or orphans (Galatians 4:5-7). Jesus invites us to pray boldly, not as beggars asking strangers for spare change, but as children begging their father for what they know he desires to give them. Throughout the Gospels we see the lost and broken running to Jesus, while the leaders and those with well-manicured reputations keep Him at arm’s length. This invitation to relate to God as children to their father is difficult for adults with egos to protect. At the same time, those with nothing left to lose are aware of their need and unhesitating in their cries for mercy. Jesus praises His Father for revealing the Kingdom’s mysteries to the childlike, those souls humble enough to acknowledge their smallness and bold enough to expect God to answer their prayers.
Far from serving as a foil character to His angry dad, Jesus constantly revealed through His teaching and public ministry the Father’s compassionate heart for us, His wayward children. In Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) follows immediately after parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin. For me, reading and praying with this parable puts to rest my previously held suspicions about God the Father. As the parable begins, it seems like Jesus might be simply providing a warning to those who would squander their blessings. The story opens with a father who has two sons, the younger of which asks for an early payout of his inheritance. The nerve of this kid; he essentially tells his dad, “I know I’ll get some money when you die, but I can’t wait that long. Let’s just pretend that you’re dead now. You give me the money and I’ll leave town.” This lack of respect for his father would be offensive today, but it would’ve been unthinkable and unforgivable in a society where fathers were the rulers of their families and where caring for your parents was an essential civic virtue. Soon after setting off, the son blows through the inheritance “on a life of dissipation.”
It’s not as if he made a few poor choices in investments or his business idea just never took off; he spent the money on bad stuff and it was gone pretty quickly. Having already irreparably separated himself from his family and exhausting his financial resources, things went from terrible to terribler (you might as well just stop reading now if you’re one of those people who prefers “worse” to “terribler”) when a famine broke out and he needed to eat. He was hired as a pig caregiver, but it’s important to know that this story took place well before our enlightened age of doggy daycares, pet psychologists, and cats being pushed around in strollers. At this time in human history, animals were treated like animals. Not only are pigs hygienically dirty, they were also ritually unclean and Jews were forbidden to have any interactions with unclean animals. It wasn’t just a problem that this young man was tending the swine; he was hoping to eat from the feeding troughs. Even this didn’t work out for him. He was still starving and had run out of options.
In his desperation, the son who had done everything wrong simply remembers how well his father treated the family’s employees. Realizing that his reinstatement in the family is impossible because of what he had done, the son begins mentally rehearsing his return home and wondering if his heartfelt apology might lead to his employment in the family’s household. So he begins the long journey home. The son had done nothing to earn forgiveness, he had done nothing to prove his contrition, and we are given no indication that his return was motivated by anything other than hunger and desperation.
The audience listening as Jesus told this parable would’ve likely expected an ending full of justice, an implicit warning for those who waste what they’ve been given. The son who squandered the inheritance had no one to blame but himself for his decisions. He disrespected his father, he spent all his money chasing after sin, and to top it off, he worked with pigs. No two-sentence apology could possibly make up for all the ways that the son transgressed the moral law, ritual purity laws, and the respect owed to his father. Jesus confounded the audience with the father’s reaction: While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ (Luke 15: 20-24)
This story that initially appears to be a cautionary tale about disrespect and hedonism completely changes course in the father’s response. Though the prodigal son was solely responsible for the distance between himself and his father, the father makes up the distance by sprinting to his son. The father had every right to be full of harsh words, or even to be emotionally detached from his son who disowned him, and yet he is full of love and compassion for his son. Before any apology is offered, the father embraces the son and kisses him. The son’s apology, which he intended to use as a segue into his application for a servant’s position in the household, is quickly interrupted by the father’s orders to entirely restore the son’s place within the family. The son deserves nothing but locked doors and disgust, instead he receives a feast, a robe, and a ring because his father’s compassion is incomparable.
We see the heart of God the Father through the father of the prodigal son. The dad had every reason to literally and figuratively shut the door on his son. The fact that the father saw his son while he was still in the distance means that the father must’ve been looking for his son and waiting each day for his return. In a household with plenty of resources and servants, the father should never have to run. Yet he sprints to embrace his son. The Father’s heart beats for us, and He never gives up on us. He doesn’t demand perfect motives in our coming to Him; He welcomes us home whether we are returning to Him out of love, or out of desperation and a lack of options. Finally, He doesn’t restore us with conditions or on a trial basis. Before the son could offer any reason to be trusted, the father once again opens to him all the doors of the house and all the privileges of being an heir. This is a love beyond all reason; we are forgiven and restored anew like it’s the first time, no matter how many times we’ve run away from home.
God the Father isn’t moody, He’s not bitter, He’s not holding onto grudges. He’s patient, kind, and He’s everything else we read about love in the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Though we squandered our inheritance on sin and run far in chasing after our fleeting desires, the Father never gave up on us. While we could never adequately apologize or begin to repair the relationship we have broken, God the Father runs to us and embraces our wounded humanity as heaven kissed earth in the person of Jesus Christ. The perfect God took on our frail flesh, uniting Himself to our woundedness and making our suffering His own. The Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, inspires us with the courage to come to our senses and begin our way back to the Father.
Lest anyone take all this talk of God’s tenderness as somehow minimizing sin, I believe that a sober understanding of sin’s gravity and consequences leads us to further appreciate the Father’s love for us. Jesus’ preaching and His life proclaimed an urgency to our repentance, because of the fact that the eternal destination of our souls is in the balance and God truly respects our freedom to accept or reject His love. As a loving Father, God’s heart must break even more than ours at the possibility of a person rejecting the gift of eternal life. I believe that a healthy concern is good when we recognize the significance of sin and the consequences of our choices, but I’m also convinced that we are less likely to fall for the empty promises offered by temptation to sin when we know how deeply loved we are by a Father who desires to provide for our every need.
Because the Trinity is never divided or separated, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always present and always at work together. The love between the Divine Persons is so complete and perfect that although they remain distinct, they are never apart from each other. If it sounds easy to understand, then I must be poorly communicating this incredible mystery. The Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith, and while we can always grow in our knowledge and understanding of mysteries, we can never plumb the depths or fully grasp every nuance of this reality.
With that said, I’ll be speaking primarily of God the Father throughout the book. For many people, the Holy Spirit is difficult to conceptualize. How could a pure Spirit be a divine person? Every human knows what a father and a son are, so we can at least have some mental picture of God the Father and Jesus, but much well-intentioned Catholic art simply offers us images of birds and little flames when it’s time to picture the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the “forgotten” Person of the Trinity, but I believe that our current cultural situation has now shifted our amnesia to the person of God the Father.