Shortly after she prayed the sinner’s prayer as a child, my sister required an ultrasound of her heart. As she watched the hospital technician perform his work, she began to realize that the ultrasound enabled this fellow to see inside her. She promptly asked my mother, “Will he see Jesus?”

I have always enjoyed that story, but I fear many of us think of our relationship with God solely in terms of who dwells in our heart. We haven’t matured. We could refer to our continual dependence on God’s grace, our union with Christ, or our life in the Spirit, yet content ourselves with less. Our understanding of the divine-human relationship is often monochromatic when it’s meant to be technicolor. And perhaps one reason is we lack a robust understanding of what it means to call God “Father.”

In Scripture, fatherhood evokes two key concepts: affection and authority. Some theologians, however, think referring to the Almighty as a Father favors men over—or even oppresses—women. Others voice difficulties with calling God Father because their earthly fathers were immoral or absent. How, then, can a Father God be good or beautiful?

One step forward in beginning to grasp the goodness of a divine Father is to study what fathers were like in the Roman Empire, a key context in which the New Testament writers lived. It is there that we can see how “our Father who art in heaven” is not meant to belittle women or confuse orphans, but relate to us as a loving parent who bids his children to come home.

Fathers of Rome

The failure of Roman fathers to achieve the first ideal of fatherhood—affection—is seen time and again in history. Fathers spent very little ...

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