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God as Father: A Stumbling Block to the Fatherless

‘See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we would be called children of God; and we are … Beloved, now we are children of God.’

- 1 John 3:1-2 -


I do not know my father, or even if he is alive or dead. He beat and abused my mother for twelve years until we broke into our own home, packed a few bags, and drove away, never to return. So you can see why ‘Father’ was a loaded term for me when, as an adult, I investigated the God of the Bible. Every time I read this dreaded word - ‘Father’ - it rekindled feelings of fear and abandonment.


Case in point, when Jesus describes our heavenly Father’s love, He asks: “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he?” (Matt. 7:9-10). When I read that, I thought: ‘Oh yeah? Well, Jesus never met my old man!’ Even worse, the Bible had the nerve to command me to honor my dear old dad (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:2). But as the evidence for Christianity became overwhelming, I realized God had to shatter this stumbling block if I was ever to grow in my new faith.


 

The Old Testament is full of men who beget someone who then begets someone else. Genealogies trace father after father, some more famous than others. While God is occasionally called ‘Father’ in the Old Testament, the title is generally used to differentiate the Creator from His fallen creation. For instance, when God vows to restore Israel after its adulterous idolatry, He says: ‘How I would set you among My sons and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of the nations! You shall call Me, “My Father,” and not turn away from following Me’ (Jer. 3:19). Likewise, Malachi condemns Judah’s wicked priests by asking them: “Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?” (2:10).



But in the New Testament, while God remains high and holy, Jesus readily (and positively) identifies God as Father over 150 times. He stuns His fellow Jews by teaching that God the Father hates sin but loves the world enough to make a way of escape and restoration through His Son. How tragic, then, that, for me, the word ‘Father’ would often arouse memories of abuse and neglect. How very wrong that a beautiful facet of God’s character — that He is no cold, remote ruler, but a warm, welcoming ‘Abba’ — could be tainted by the sins of our human fathers. Hear how Tim Keller expresses what ought to be the wonder of God as Father: “The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 a.m. for a glass of water is a child. We have that kind of access.”


While the connection I now have with God the Father is nothing like the far-off and frightening association I had with my earthly father, shouldn’t that make God’s choice to be my true Father all the more marvelous? I remember when it hit me that the architect of the Alps and the designer of dandelions chose to be my Father before time itself. I suddenly knew that I would never feel alone again, and I never have! After only ever fearing my own dad, Jesus had unveiled to me a holy Father who delights in going above and beyond for His redeemed children. So whenever we dwell on the infinite fatherliness of God, our thoughts must start with His extravagant love.


When Jesus tells His disciples not to worry, because God the Father is good and loving, He says something truly astounding: “Do not fear, little flock, for your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Not only does the Father’s love cause Him to eternally redeem us, but He is ‘well pleased’ (delighted) to do so! I was flabbergasted the first time I noticed this little detail, and Charles Wesley’s lyrics immediately rang in my ears: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued?” We, who hated God until He saved us, must stand amazed that our Father is ‘well pleased’ to do anything for us, let alone pay the high cost (His Sons life!) of our union with Him in this life and the next.



The Father’s eternal love is the fountainhead of His redemptive plan. As the apostle writes, out of love ‘the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world’ (1 John 4:14). Without the Father sending His only Son to die, no sin could ever be forgiven, and the Father’s holiness would obliterate us before we ever entered heaven. How powerful a force is our Father’s forgiveness! And how, you ask, do we acquire it? Simply this: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). Yes, Christ’s sacrifice is so superior to every butchered and burned animal of the old covenant that all we need do is confess our wrongdoing. But it all begins with the Father’s compassionate initiation to rescue the lost.


Jesus illustrates the Father’s scandalous forgiveness when the prodigal son repents and returns home: ‘…while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). Jesus tells this parable to Pharisees and scribes who are already grumbling that He welcomes sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2). This was truly startling in their honor-shame culture. But never one to shy away from truth, Christ shocks His critics by emphasizing the Father’s desire to forgive and restore all who truly repent. It would be one thing if the prodigal son grovels in filth at his father’s feet, but to the legalists’ horror, Jesus has the father debase himself by hoisting his robes and running to the sinner. What a scandal!



The father’s pursuit of his sinful son, and the party that follows, show another facet of God as Father – namely, His loving care for us. Jesus teaches this so often that it ends up all over His followers’ writings. For instance, Matthew carefully records Christ saying: “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (6:26). Peter puts this even more plainly when he says: ‘Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you’ (1 Pet. 5:6-7). Many of us never know this gracious Father-child dynamic with our own dads. Yet the gospel offends many as it offers this grace in spades. By humbling ourselves before the Maker of heaven and earth (as is only right) and regaining the reverent gaze we lost in the garden, we are reborn as obedient children who then fall under our loving Father’s care and protection.


The gospel draws us fatherless children into right relationship with our true Father so we can learn that ‘every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow’ (James 1:17). It is glorious that our greatest need (salvation) is provided by God. But we must remember not all God’s gifts will feel celebratory at the time. Some gifts come as painful trials by which the Father shapes us into His Son’s perfect image. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews says: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He flogs every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5-6). This may sound cruel, but like all good fathers, God guides us toward glory even if it stings for a time.


James uses a play on words by calling God ‘the Father of lights.’ Like our Sun, God is our light source, and just as our Sun can never be in shadow, even when the shadow of sorrows covers us, the Father remains light. If we turn from Him, we only go deeper into darkness. So hiding from God to escape trials is like hiding from the Sun to escape the night. The ultimate test that many Christians will face is confidence in their salvation. So, Peter says it is beneficial to endure trials ‘so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet. 7). We may not always welcome it, but when our testing is rewarded with confidence, we will truly know God as our source of all goodness.



Hold fast to the reality that the only holy and righteous God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present, not only allows but encourages us to call Him ‘Father.’ Let your mind be boggled that the Father who foreknew us ‘also predestined [us] to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that [Christ] would be the firstborn among many brothers’ (Rom. 8:29). What a privilege is ours! What inspiration it gives to those of us who grew up fatherless and have now become fathers ourselves. As well as looking to godly men, I can now look to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to learn how to raise my own children. Thanks to my heavenly Father, I now strive to initiate every interaction out of love, to lavishly forgive my children, and to guide and chastise them for their ultimate good.



All Scripture quotations are from the Legacy Standard Bible

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