One of the most important things Jesus reveals to us about God is his Fatherhood. So as we celebrate the fathers in our lives this weekend, let’s also take a moment to contemplate our heavenly Father. Each of us is hardwired to long for fatherhood. No matter how good or bad our own experience with our fathers has been, we can all relate to that longing, can’t we? We want to experience what a father is meant to pass on to us. And, I think I can speak for the men when I say that we want to learn to pass those things on to others, too; to be good fathers. I have yet to meet a guy who’s aim in life is to be a crappy father. Even in the most broken of situations, we really want to get this right.
Unfortunately, we often get stuck because we don’t really know what fatherhood should look like. In the media, you don’t see many honest, smart, caring, hardworking fathers. Rather we find, on the one hand, the bumbling, stupid, lazy, bigoted buffoons like Homer Simpson; and on the other hand, strong distant dads like Walter White, who might not always be very kind to their children themselves, but will make anyone else who hurts them pay. This leaves the real, day-to-day work of being a dad looking neither funny nor strong in comparison.
The fact is, our ability to participate in the gift and the joy of fatherhood has been corroded by sin. We want to have the love, provision, and protection that a father can bring, but we don’t want to deal with the authority or the expectations that come with having a father. Or, we want the fun parts of becoming fathers (like, having a woman in our lives and making babies), but we don’t want the extended responsibilities that fatherhood brings. Our image and experience of what fatherhood is has been warped and distorted.
So it’s interesting to me that one of the biggest things Jesus reveals to us is the fatherhood of God. New Testament scholars tell us that in the entire history of ancient Judaism, there is no example of anyone looking up to the sky and saying to God, “my Father,” until Jesus came along. But Jesus does it often. He even teaches his disciples to pray by saying, “Our Father in heaven…” He uses close, intimate language to talk to God: he calls him “Abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of “daddy.” This was completely radical and unprecedented at the time. In fact, it was so outrageous that the gospel of John says that the Jews of Jesus’ day tried to stone him for claiming that God was his Father (John 5.18). But Jesus doesn’t ever back off on this. Christianity isn’t about trying to find our way to God. It’s about God, as Father, revealing himself to us through Jesus.
This is what that longing for fatherhood is all about. We are made for this father relationship with God. But, and this is a big one, we don’t get that relationship automatically. Not everyone is God’s child in this sense. In John 1:12-13, we hear that to have God as Father, we must be “born of God.” And in Romans 8:14-16, Paul makes it clear that it is through the power of God’s Spirit that we can call him “Father.” Not everyone in the world can call God their “Abba,” their Daddy. You have to become God’s child through being recreated in Jesus. We are God’s children, not by nature, but by miracle. And even though it’s not automatically given to us, every single human is invited into this miracle if they receive and believe Jesus.
So, if we want to begin to experience Fatherhood the way God intends, we have to accept his invitation. In our churches, we have to receive what God our Father has for us as a people, and we have to encourage and support the fathers among us to model that kind of fatherhood to their children. That is why the Apostle Paul often spends time in his letters coaching the churches on household matters, like how to be a good father and raise godly children. Paul wants to promote harmony and healthy relationships in the churches he’s writing to, but he also wants them (and us) to get a better grip on God’s character. Take a look at Paul’s advice to fathers in his letter to the Ephesian church:
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
“Do not exasperate your children.” Let’s talk about what Paul is and isn’t saying here. First, he doesn’t mean that as fathers we should never make our children angry. In any normal, loving, human relationship, if you are not a complete coward, you will make the other person angry sometimes. What Paul is actually talking about is far more difficult. He’s saying not to create a settled anger, a permanent state of resentment and frustration in our children. To me, this is a little frightening, because it reminds me that it is very possible to raise children with a settled angry, resentful disposition by the choices I make as their father.
In my own life, I’ve found that being a father is kind of a balancing act to bring up my children well without creating the exasperation Paul is talking about. And if I’m honest, I know I lose my balance often. We all do. We all stumble and falter as fathers. Not only that, but our fathers all stumbled and faltered, too, so our model of what a father should be is off-balance to start with. Fortunately, God, our perfect Father, shows us what balanced fatherhood looks like so that we have a model to follow—one that won’t lead to the settled resentment Paul is talking about.
First, our Father balances truth and love. Paul speaks of training and instructing children in the Lord. The word “training” speaks of firmness, discipline, and boundaries, while “instruction” speaks of counseling, reasoning, dialoguing, and persuading. We need both. If we as fathers only enforce rules and don’t balance it with care and kindness, our children will end up feeling like dogs in obedience school instead of human beings. It teaches them that we won’t listen to them and don’t really care about them. Ultimately, our relationship with our children will be nothing more than a power struggle. But, on the other hand, if we spend all of our time trying to explain, negotiate with, and persuade our children without really enforcing the rules, we frustrate them just as much, because children do need boundaries. They need us to make decisions for them sometimes, because they are still children, not adults. They may also start to think that they have to understand before they obey, which they won’t always be able to do. They’ll conclude that if they don’t understand (or agree) completely, they don’t have to obey. This isn’t the way our heavenly Father works. He asks us to obey even when we can’t see why.
Next, our Father balances dependence and independence. Paul tells fathers to “bring up” their children. This implies growth. The whole point is to help our children eventually not need us—to move them toward independence, giving them enough freedom and trust to do things on their own, even if they fail. But this phrase also implies that it’s a gradual process. We bring our children up. We don’t push them out of the nest before they are ready. We don’t force them to be adults while they are still children. The balance is taking care of their needs while encouraging them to grow; letting them get out and try things, while at the same time backing them up and covering their bases when they fail; showing them how to grow less dependent on us and more dependent on Jesus.
Finally, our Father balances the life he offers us with the freedom he gives us to choose it. This is the balance of how we point our children toward Jesus. These days, many parents think it is virtuous to say they don’t want to impose their faith on their kids. They want their kids to find their own way without being influenced by their parents. Really? We would never settle for that on topics that are far less important. You wouldn’t say “I just want my children to find out for themselves that the burner on the stove is hot…” Or “I don’t want to influence their decisions about how to drive a car…” We have to tell our kids who God is, who he is to us personally, and who he has revealed himself to be in the scriptures, just like we have to tell them that stoves can burn them and that they need to follow traffic laws. On the other hand, we also should not try to force our kids into the relationship with God that we want them to have. At either extreme, kids get angry. If we try to force them to God, they’ll resist, and be angry when they see the hypocrisy or inconsistency in our lives. But if we refuse to point them in the right direction, they’ll become angry at us for not giving them any spiritual help or guidance. So we have to find the balance. We can (and should) pray with our kids. We can share our stories of where we’ve been and how we got to where we are with God. And we can model godly lives and healthy, vibrant relationships with Jesus to them.
That last part, having a close relationship with Jesus, is really the key to keeping our balance as fathers. Losing our balance is always a sign that something is out-of-balance in our relationship with Jesus. We under-discipline because we need approval and are trying to get it from our children. Because we need them to approve of us, we can’t bear their angry looks or tantrums. We over-discipline because we can’t stand for our children to fail, to be imperfect. We need perfection, and so we try to create it in them. We try to make our children too independent because we want to feel free. And we don’t let them be independent enough because we need to feel needed. But here’s the problem: your children cannot save you. Don’t make the mistake of making them your god. It will just destroy them. Our identity cannot come from our children. Our identity has to come from Jesus. Only he can save us from trying to get it elsewhere. He’s the one who give us the approval and freedom and love and value that we crave.
So here’s the takeaway. We all need and long for a Father. We need it for ourselves, and we need it for our children. If we want to know what having a Father is meant to be like, if we want to show fatherhood to our children the way they need to experience it, we have to go to Jesus. He’s the one who reveals God as Father to us, and he’s the one who makes a pathway for us to be God’s children. Don’t attempt to live on an empty, ritualistic experience of religion, or try to pass it on to your children. Instead, pass on a deep and transforming relationship with the living Christ. Only that will meet your deep desire for a father. Only that will give you the kind of experience you can talk about with your children without being a hypocrite.