“Father” is one of the images given to help us better understand the nature of God. It is a complicated image. Our biological father’s personality and behavior give us our first glimpse into an important aspect of God. Dad provides good things for us, but also most often says “Don’t” and “No.”
And we don’t like this side of dad. Theologian Michael Horton explains,
We began as children asking, “Why?” every time Mom or Dad gave us a command. “But I don’t want to”, we whined. Eventually we are supposed to grow out of that whining stage, but our generation is given, it seems, to prolonging the juvenile form of authority.[i]
Sometimes whining leads to rebellion and this can lead some fathers to anger and even, in some rare cases, violence.
And then comes Father’s Day?
An unfortunate image of God the Father may develop: a strict, angry rule giver who nonetheless expects love and respect on a regular basis.
No wonder this Father in Heaven is unappealing to many.
I was reminded of how complicated the fatherhood of God is as I was rereading J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and came across his distinction between God the creator and God the father:
Ordinarily the lofty term “Father” is used to describe a relationship of a far more intimate kind, the relationship in which God stands to the company of the redeemed…[T]he teaching about the fatherhood of God concerns only those who have been brought into the household of faith. The entrance to the household of faith requires one to abandon one’s own headship, one’s own will, and accept the lordship of God, the will of the Father.
Faced with a father’s unappealing rules and limitations, many children decline the father-child relationship and opt for a distant biological relationship with the male sire. In addition, dysfunctional families usually focus parental alienation on the father. Many of these same children reject a close personal relationship with God their Heavenly Father for the same reasons; they may think of God as at best their Creator, and at worst, non-existent. Dysfunctional societies usually seek to alienate its members from their Heavenly Father, while celebrating an assortment of idols.
When I was a young boy, I bristled at my dad’s rules. I silently whined until I was old enough to get away to college. I agreed to attend church and formal religious instruction, all the while absorbing the cultural messages alienating me from God. For most of my adulthood, my father and I enjoyed a cordial and pleasant relationship which studiously avoided most important topics. Away from my earthly father, I rejected my heavenly Father.
When in full adulthood, I miraculously came to understand God as my heavenly father and accept his offer of a Father and Son relationship. I equally miraculously developed my son relationship with my dad! As N.T. Wright observes, “when the holy spirit comes to dwell in a person’s heart, the first sign is that they recognize God as father.”[ii]
PreviouslyI had seen God as an issuer of impossible commands, a counter of innumerable sins, all the while demanding my love.
But now God revealed His true nature as One who offered me directions to get to Him, which if followed, would have the byproduct of making me just like His favorite son.
The directions He provided were of the best route to travel through my life.
God revealed Himself as a loving Father who wants to hold me in his arms. He knew the best route to get to His arms and if I followed the route He provided (what I had previously seen as His commandments and rules) I would get there safely and, along the way, even be transformed into a better person. When I would deliberately or accidentally take a different route, I found myself lost, and in an unpleasant place. When I veered off the best route to my Father, I found He was not angry, but rather sad and worried for my wellbeing.
I recalled often asking my dad how to get to certain places in our hometown. Either I didn’t understand my father’s directions or else thought I knew better routes, because I don’t recall ever following one of his routes to any local eatery, sports arena, or movie theater. Later when he asked if I found the place in question, I would not tell him that I didn’t use his directions and that I got lost several times. I just said “yes”.
Fathers want us to get to the places that are good for us. Their directions are given in the sincere belief they are the best means to get there.
But while human fathers can err. Our heavenly Father can’t.
And both kinds of fathers see love in our attempts to follow their directions. In fact God the Father prefers that we show love in that very way:
If you love me, you will obey what I command.
Jesus, in John 14:15.
But what happened to make me see God differently? What made me come to love and cherish this God who hurled impossible commands my way, tallied my innumerable sins, and demanded my love and devotion?
I discovered his defining characteristic, his very essence – love.
God’s fatherhood has an irremovable adjective attached to it –loving.
So loving, that He punished his firstborn, namesake, beloved son instead of me for all my years of trespasses, sins, and “missing the mark”!
“God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son to earth with the same human life that others use for sin. By sending his Son to be an offering to pay for sin, God used a human life to destroy sin.”
St. Paul, Romans 8:4
And He made me an offer: accept Jesus as your substitute and we’ll call it even!
St Paul explains: “So now, those who are in Christ Jesus are not judged guilty. Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit that brings life made me free from the law that brings sin and death.” Romans 8: 1-2
In addition, God told me that He’ll be focused on my motives more than on my results. Even though I fall down, stumble, miss the exit, or mishear Him, my Father sees only my heart making a loving effort.
I see God’s directions in the fifth commandment not as a fearful obligation to my parents, but as a joyous opportunity to try to delight my earthly father. It affords me the opportunity to echo my love for my Heavenly Father here, on earth, in His earthly image, my dad:
That I show honor, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother and to all who are set in authority over me; that I submit myself with respectful obedience to all their careful instruction and discipline; and that I also bear patiently their failures, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.
“Bear patiently [his] failures”. As I would have my failures born by others.
As an adult, I put aside a juvenile preoccupation with “rights”, and came to understand my responsibility as both child and father: To forgive as I hope to be forgiven.
Forgiveness is Our Father’s Supreme Command because it is His essence as our loving Father.
The Age to Come broke into the Present Evil Age as my forgiving Father offered his only Son to take the rap for my shortcomings.
We yearn to get to our Father because He loved us first. His love was the first Father’s Day gift, whether I realized it at the time or not
I yearn to see my dad again. His love echoed my Father’s love into my life, whether I appreciated it at the time or not.
Celebrate our Father’s great gift of forgiveness and love,
By passing it on.
[i] Horton, Michael S. The Law of Perfect Freedom. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1993.
[ii] Wright, Thomas. Paul for Everyone. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster john Know, 2004.