Jesus said that “eternal life is this: knowing God.” At the heart of our faith is the idea that God is relational, can be known and wants to relate to us. He is a community of persons, a Trinity, three in one. 

Knowing this God is not only the pursuit of our lives but the bedrock of our justice work. What begins in divine relationship flows out naturally in streams of love, mercy and justice. Jeremiah once said: ‘“to do what is right and defend the rights of the oppressed – is that not what it means to know me”, says the Lord?’. Knowing God and practicing his justice, these are two sides of the same coin.

So as we begin a new year and a new term, we’re going to root our pursuit of justice in ‘the knowledge of the Holy’: Father, Son and Spirit. And we begin with the Father.


It’s probably the most famous story in the Bible, but the best ones were made to be told again and again. Preached in a dusty marketplace to a crowd of saints and sinners, the parable of the prodigal son is a story about grace and wonder, and about how we react to these things. It’s also a masterclass in three characteristics of God the Father: creator, giver, restorer.

Theologically, the subject of ‘God the Father’ is quite literally limitless, and it’s hard to find an entry point. But we could do worse than Jesus’ simple story about a father and his sons. That said, even if the story is simple, the subject matter is far from it. Parenthood is complex. Many of us have had profoundly painful experiences of our earthly mothers and fathers, and it’s impossible to write this piece without recognising that. As Floyd McClung puts it in The Father Heart of God, we cannot help but ‘view God through the grid of our own experiences… they deeply affect our ability to relate to him’. There’s truth in that. Even the best of human parents leave us lacking and longing for more than they ever could give us, and none of us come to this topic neutrally.

But as and when it’s right, the discovery of the parental compassion of God can be one of the most revolutionary experiences in our lives. Slowly, surely, step by step, the Holy Spirit is able to rewire the fabric of our minds and hearts and demonstrate to us what it meant that Jesus called God “Father.” As we walk that road, it becomes a source not only of inner healing, but of restoration in the world around us.

Creator

“There was a man who had two sons…”

Luke 15:11

Fatherhood begins with creation. As John Piper puts it, everything in the universe is a vast ‘overflow the of life and joy’ that exist in the Trinity, bursting forth from God into the empty space around, continually replenishing it with colour and existence. God makes.

One of God’s primary languages for describing the relationship he has with human beings, both individually and collectively, is as a parent. At times he is compared to a father (e.g. Lk 16, Eph 3:15, 2 Cor 1:3-4), at other times a mother (e.g. Mt 23:37, Isa 49:15, Isa 66:13, Isa 46:3), but either way the point is about parenthood (e.g. Hos 11:1-4) – he has made us and has formed us. “You created my innermost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13). This is why it is completely appropriate for Jesus’ parable to begin with a parent who has two sons.

What might this have to teach us about the nature of God? And about the thing we call ‘justice’? More than we can credibly cover here. But one quick reflection.

Firstly, it makes a radical claim about the inalienable equality and dignity of human beings. Speaking to the Athenian Acropolis in Acts 17, Paul quotes a Greek poet and affirms their claim that we are all children of a creator god: “we are all his offspring” (17:28). We are all in his image. In our cultural moment, this is thankfully not a radical or surprising thing to say. But it’s one thing to know something, and another to organise our lives and politics around it.

I remember the moment I decided to believe that the 850 million people who are living malnourished in the world today are images of God and that God is their father. When I say “believe”, I mean believe. There is an intellectual recognition of truth that requires little or nothing of our hearts and lives, and there is then the kind of costly heart knowledge that God wants for us. It comes only through committed prayer and submission to the will and words of Jesus. I wrestled through this idea for a while in prayer, aware of the implications it would have for my life if I really, actually started to believe that every human being is an image-bearer of God, vast and significant. It was like a tug of war inside of me, but I came out knowing it true. The Holy Spirit pulled me through. Now the idea is to live like it’s true.

What if we organised our lives, cultures, societies and politics around the idea that we are all ‘the offspring of God’? Our everyday practices, prayers and purchases around the conviction that we really are all equal?

Giver

“So he divided his property between them…”

Luke 15:!2

In his story, Jesus makes it very clear that the father allows the son to go. The younger son comes to the father, asking for his share of the inheritance to go and make a life elsewhere. He wants his independence. Though an offensive, perhaps even destabilising request, the father responds not with rage but with liberty. He lets him go.

This is like the way God engages with us all. He will not resist our independence or our choices. Rather than domineering and running the show on his agenda, God permits the risk of agency. This is because he is a loving Father. He is invested in people and in relationships. This means the licence to ask, to stay, to go, to return. Floyd McClung:

“The Father loved his son enough to let him leave home. He had spent so long preparing his son for adulthood. In the Jewish tradition this meant many hours of teaching him the laws of God. [And yet], though he knew what kind of misfortune could befall his younger son, … he wisely allowed him to go, without protest or pressure…

More than outward obedience, … the father was creating the possibility for true relationship through his willingness to allow the son his freedom. Though inwardly he grieved over his son, he did not try to force a relationship with him… His heart would follow his son, but he must wait for him to come back home.

There is always a risk in giving people freedom, but without that freedom there is no heart relationship… This kind of freedom can be violated if we do not give other people the same freedom God gives us. For us to try to force conformity, belief, or obedience by pressure, threats, rules, withdrawing friendship, making demands or anything else, is to destroy the very heart of Christianity. It is to destroy the grace of God…”

Before we say anything else, there is a lot to reflect on in our own walk with God. Is our picture of God consistent with this truth? Are we this aware of his love for us, that he loves us enough to let us go? 

But it also has a lot to teach us about the way we practice justice. And it’s connected with what it means that we are his image.

In their seminal work, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert challenge the toxicity of much Christian ‘justice culture’. For Corbett and Fikkert, we often begin on the wrong footing when it comes to social justice, framing the world in terms of helped and helper, with the helper often at the centre. Churches and charities easily end up framing quote unquote “the poor” as powerless, voiceless and empty, while framing ourselves as powerful, significant and ‘just’ – the rescuers. 

But the fact that God is Father implies that we are like him – all of us. If God is creative, so are we. If God holds responsibility and power, so do we. We are not just mirrors of God, but co-rulers. In Genesis, he gives humans the role of stewarding the earth, and in Jesus he promises a brand new world where we ‘reign with him’ (Rev 5:10). We are co-creators with Christ, and this includes those of us oppressed, marginalised and excluded by systems of poverty, injustice and inequality. In fact, Jesus seems to say that the Kingdom actually belongs to this kind of person.

The people often called “the poor” are actually God’s image.This doesn’t just mean that they matter. It means they are made for power, choice and authority

When we cut our attempts to practice justice away from this understanding, we rapidly turn people into numbers or projects. We use people as a vessel for our good deeds, ‘spiritual growth’ or emotional satisfaction, rather than as fellow members of God’s family. The antidote is to approach everything from the lens of image, and to love with the same heart attitude of God – one that looks to release people into liberty, not to use them for ourselves.

God’s vision of a just society has a lot to do with power and agency. It is not enough for people to simply have what they need, or to avoid suffering. This is good, but God’s justice runs deeper. If we provide enough money or food or shelter for someone to basically survive, but in the process deprive them of their freedom, dignity, power or sense of agency, we have not practiced justice. This kind of critique can be applied right across the political spectrum, whether its traditional approaches to ‘economic development’ that measure life expectancy, income and educational standards but don’t ask whether we got there via political oppression, or state-heavy models of welfare that turn people into numbers on a bureaucratic register, shifting them around benefits and housing systems in an ‘efficient’ way that meets their ‘basic needs’ while failing to listen to them and understand what they are truly saying. This is not God’s kind of justice. 

“Nothing about us without is for us.”

God the Father gives not just stuff but freedom. He liberates us into agency, because we are his image. The deeper the grasp we can get on this, the more we will be able to practice justice in the way of Jesus.

Restorer

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.”

Luke 15:11

In his opening to The Return of the Prodigal Son, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen tells the story of a trip he once made to St Petersburg to Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. The painting captures the moment that the prodigal, head shaved and dressed in rags, returns home to kneel at the father’s feet – it’s also the moment the father stoops down to touch and embrace him. Onlookers watch from the sides, not least the darkened, barely discernible figure of the elder son gazing from the shadows at the back of the room, an inscrutable expression on his face. Stretching 5 metres square, the canvas occupies a place of honour in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the old possessions of the Tsars.

Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nouwen quite literally had a days-long encounter with that painting. He wrote an entire book about it. An aging academic, dissatisfied with life and looking for something more, he returned to the same spot in the museum every single day for a week to gaze for hours at the painting, considering every detail until he had drunk it all in. He went home changed, and it shaped the course of his life. Writing later about this encounter, Nouwen said the painting gave:

“… everything I desired at that moment. I was, indeed, the son; exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.”  

The image of the son’s return home got to work on Nouwen. It birthed a restoration in him that in turn led to restoration in others. The painting was part of his journey from the power and prestige of academic posts at Harvard and Yale into his integration into the L’Arche Daybreak community for people living with profound developmental disabilities. Nouwen’s encounter with radical compassion in the face of God helped him commit the rest of his life to loving people who were profoundly marginalised and often excluded, and to receiving their love in return.

The principle here is important. It is sometimes in receiving God’s embrace and compassion that we learn to live with embrace and compassion in a torn, confusing and fragmented world. It is not the only way to learn to love, of course, but it is the most powerful. There is something about the relentless, extravagant, yet gentle quality of this love that teaches, trains and energises like nothing else can. It restores our souls.

The Embracing God

Charles Spurgeon, the revivalist-stroke-abolitionist who suffered periods of depression and anxiety throughout his adult life, once wrote this about God:

“Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound! In musing on the Father, there is a calm for every grief and in the influence of the Holy Spirit there is a soothe for every sore. Would you lose your sorrows? Would you drown your cares? Then go plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea—be lost in his immensity. And you shall come forth as from a deep rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul, so calm the swelling billows of grief and sorrow—so speak peace to the winds of trial—as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.”

If that was the bedrock of Charles Spurgeon’s life, we could do worse than to make it ours as well. It starts with an encounter with the Father heart of God.