God is a Good Father
by Nick Steffen, LMHC
The book of Jeremiah presents to us the voice of a grieving prophet having lived through a transition from the relatively stable nation of Israel under King Josiah through its utter destruction. We can hear the echoes of the despairing and bereft within his text, but he also provides us with a voice that we so often need in life: the voice of a good parent.
Jeremiah 30-31, the so-called Book of Consolation, speaks to an alienated people, living out the insecurity of a refugee life, hopes lost in foreign lands and weighed down under the rule of foreign gods. How could people whose home has been taken away find home again? Baruch writes of a divine command to the people that they call out to the Lord and follows it up immediately with God’s response:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.Jeremiah 31:8–11 (1993 NRSV)
While we Christians commonly think of God as Father (due to either Trinitarian language or in his relationship to Israel as described in Deuteronomy 32), we may not as often consider what this means. Within even this short declaration, we find God presented to us as a good parent, one ready to see their needs, soothe them, and keep them safe.
God sees his people, even when they don’t recognize themselves.
For a people living in a foreign land, they are often objectified, caricatured, rejected but rarely truly seen. But when God cares for his people, they will be under his watch and shepherding care. Even when they find themselves stuck in “the farthest parts of the earth” or living among those relegated to the margins of acceptable society like “the blind and the lame”, he will see them.
God cares for his people, even when they’re alone.
Not only does he see their complaint, but he responds, so that even when weeping, he will lead them back to safety “with consolations” to walk “by brooks of water” where they can rest and recuperate. As when a child calls out for their parent, he responds.
God keeps his people safe, even when lost in the wilderness.
The paths he leads his people on are not rough, but easy. They will not stumble or get lost, but can trust the ground they walk on.
Babies need parents. They remind us of this with every cry. Like other mammals, humans rely on other humans to help them grow and develop into mature adults. One of the terms that counselors use to describe this relationship between children and their caregivers is “attachment”. This term refers to the pattern that emerges as children become overwhelmed and a parental figure steps in to care for them. Even when parents provide the essentials for survival (e.g. shelter, food, water, etc), babies need to feel their parents’ presence.
Of course, babies don’t learn to trust their parents through text, but experience. Repetition matters. This is not merely due to stubbornness or character. It’s a reflection of how our brains form over time. As Dr. Dan Siegel comments, “where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” When parents notice their children’s needs and respond to them, the children’s minds are practicing turning their own attention to recognize the places where they’re hurting and, as they receive care from their parents and are soothed, sense the faithfulness and safety of a good parent. As frustrating as these rough places can seem, these practices are not merely momentary obstacles that we can bypass and soon ignore, but the very place where children mature and grow until the roughened path seems smooth, the heavy burden lightens, and we can walk forward trusting the path, precisely because God has been faithful.
Through repetition, this learned practice teaches the child several principles that will be important for their futures: they can in fact be calmed, others can be trusted to help, and (with enough practice) they even can care for and calm themselves. This pattern shapes our children’s neural networks and relationships for the future.
Of course, some of us lack secure attachment figures. Some parents don’t present an image of God to us, but one of alienation, contempt, and shame. But even when we feel most lost and alone, we can still make sense of our attachment through secure relationships: ones that see us, care for us, and welcome us in to safe places. Attachment researcher Dan Siegel has summarized children’s secure attachment needs as feeling safe, soothed, and seen. While he may be referring specifically to children, all people need these, as seen in Jeremiah’s passage above. When Israel is lost, God sees them, he reaches out to care for them, and keeps them safe. He recognizes God as a good parent, something that each and every one of us can embody and relay to others.
Let’s all endeavor to be a little more like God: to embody communities that are willing to provide security, not only for our children, but for each other as well.