For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8.14-15)
Not long ago I caught an hour or so of Irreconcilable Differences, a comedy about a young girl who “divorces” her parents after their careers take off and leave her in the dust. I’d not seen it since it opened in 1984 as a star vehicle for the irrepressibly precocious Drew Barrymore, who’d charmed the world as Gertie, the little sister in E.T. I was chagrined by how little of it I retained. More than anything, it’s a scathing satire of movie stardom with the daughter’s lawsuit functioning as a magnifier of Hollywood vanity. I’d forgot the story had any connection to the film industry whatsoever. And I’d wager a large portion of those who’ve not seen it in years would be no less surprised.
We recall Irreconcilable Differences as “the movie about the kid who takes her parents to court,” because the movie arrived when topics like upper/middle-class child abuse, latch-key kids, cyclical family dysfunction, and regressive therapy techniques to elicit suppressed memories of childhood rape and torment were coming to the fore. In LA, where I lived at the time, the nightly news led with the McMartin investigation of a local pre-school staff accused of molesting 360 toddlers. (The charges were dismissed.) Dozens of similar reports flared up coast-to-coast. Untold thousands from reputedly “nice homes” and “decent neighborhoods” broke decades of silence to describe inhuman brutality they endured as children. Irreconcilable Differences, silly as it was, struck a very raw, very real nerve.
Child abuse and atrocious parenting are nothing new. Indeed, family dysfunction and violence are recurrent problems in biblical narratives. Openly discussing, dealing with, and trying to prevent these calamities are, however, new. Only in the past 30 years have we started to address the fact that heinous crimes against children cut across every social class and category. Only recently have we begun to digest how many of us battle specters of physical, psychological, and spiritual havoc unleashed by abusive parents and parental figures. It's inconceivable that this scourge should be so widespread. And it's hard to cope with how little we can do prevent it, as it's typically discovered after the fact.
Opening a text like today’s reading from Romans, where God’s mercy and acceptance are equated with those of a father, my heart breaks. How can those of us who’ve never known a parent’s love and kindness possibly embrace God as our Parent? How can those of us longing to help child abuse victims find healing and restoration in God’s unconditional love convey it without diminishing the justified rage and distrust they harbor? And yet the unparalleled love and acceptance Paul describes in Romans 8.12-17 is, in many ways, the answer to restoring confidence and self-worth child abusers steal from their victims. How do we overcome these seemingly irreconcilable differences so that the truth of God’s love reaches our hearts and strengthens our faith to reach for God’s love?
In verses 14-15, Paul writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” The subject at hand is a Spirit-led life versus a carnal one. On a very subtle level, Paul appeals the Romans’ cosmopolitan sensibilities by framing faith as a lifestyle. Those who don’t believe act and think this way. Since you believe, you behave and think another way. But that premise only goes so far, because lifestyle inequities exist within the Roman faith community. It’s comprised of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and citizens and slaves—in other words, people who share little in common outside their faith in Christ. Once he’s made his point that believers and non-believers don’t approach life in the same manner, Paul switches gears to discuss faith as a family dynamic. He says, “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship,” a legal phrase indicating the adopted child receives full right of inheritance equal to that of a natural-born heir. No one is a slave or stepchild. No one is excluded from the privileges granted by the riches of God’s love, grace, and acceptance.
The adoption metaphor ups the ante from conscious lifestyle to irrefutable right to belong. It’s not adaptive behavior, but total inclusion. “And by him [the Spirit] we cry, Abba, Father,” Paul adds, using cultural shorthand to emphasize his point. Then, like now, “father” is the legal term for a male parent whose primary responsibility is to provide food, clothing, and shelter for his natural and adopted offspring. Also like now, the term doesn’t intrinsically suggest anything about the nature of the parent-child relationship. It can be used affectionately, but affection isn’t assumed. Furthermore, in light of Rome’s fiercely patriarchal society, law endows the father with total authority to do with his children as he pleases. They’re his property. He can sell them into slavery. He can treat them like slaves. He can disown them if they disobey him. He can disinherit them if they displease him.
In contrast, “abba” has no legal implications. It’s an Aramaic word for “father” that’s gained cross-cultural popularity as an affectionate term. It is to the Romans what “dad” and “papa” are to us—an elective form of address that denotes mutual love, trust, and respect between parent and child. The difference between “abba” and “father” is the difference between covenant and contract. “Abba” suggests loving promise; “father” suggests legal obligation. Thus, Paul underscores his adoption metaphor for God’s unconditional acceptance by reassuring us God is both Papa and Parent. God honors both covenant and contract. God promises and provides. God offers and complies. As God’s children, adopted by choice and guaranteed full rights of inheritance, our faith in God’s love, grace, and acceptance cannot be shaken. It’s our divinely granted privilege to call our God, “Abba, Father.”
The Papa Principle sets God apart from every mortal parent, from best to worst, by perfectly balancing parenthood’s emotional and practical requirements. All human parents fail in one area or another in one way or another at one time or another. Parents who love too much tend to overlook their obligations to correct their children and teach them self-discipline. Parents who are overly concerned about their obligations tend to withhold love and break promises. Then, saddest of all, there are parents who fail entirely, giving love their child needs to others (often themselves) and ignoring their parental duties to provide and protect the child. How we grieve for children forced to grow up in loveless, lawless homes. And we grieve all the more when their childhood of abject sorrow urges them to distrust God’s covenant of love and contract of provision. Healing and recovery they seek abides in Abba, God, Who can’t be compared to any mortal parent because no mortal parent could possibly compare to God.
God loves you. God has adopted you by choice, entitling you to full rights as God’s child. As a voluntarily loving Papa, God honors the promise to be everything you desire in a caring and faithful parent. As a legally obligated Parent, God complies with the expectation to provide for and protect your wellbeing. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God,” Paul writes. If struggles resulting from parental violence and abuse have thwarted your trust in God’s unconditional love and acceptance, I pray you’ll hear the Spirit’s call to follow Its lead. You are God’s child waiting to happen.
Abba, God, love us, hold us, and lift us from lifelong sorrow and suffering wrought at the hands of heartless abusers. God, our Parent, provide for us, protect us, and assure us of our inheritance as Your full and rightful heirs. Amen.
The most loving, faithful parent cannot be compared to God, because no parent could possibly equal the unconditional love and faithfulness of Abba,God.