Fatherhood is a massively important theme of the Scriptures. Many of the biblical stories themselves take place within the complex dynamic of the father-child relationship: Abraham and Isaac, Eli and his sons, David and Solomon, and so forth. Still more, it is not without incredible significance that early on in the biblical record, the relationship between God and his people is spelled out in terms of the father-son relationship: “I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son” (Jer 31:9). And of course in the New Testament, this theme is writ large – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” declares Paul (Eph 1:3), later adding that “There is One God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). God’s Fatherhood is bedrock. We live in a Fatherhood-soaked universe.
But what in the world IS fatherhood? Too often our notion of fatherhood falls prey to cultural stereotypes, and what we’re left with are caricatures at best: the authoritarian dictator on the one hand; the spineless, valueless companionable adult friend on the other. Neither do justice to the what fatherhood really is all about.
I confess that I’m not sure I understood it until just recently. And that’s part of the pain and passion of fatherhood – that’s its so prone to being misunderstood. When I was growing up, I often couldn’t make sense of my own dad; how he could at times be so extraordinarily fun and self-sacrificing, and at other times downright severe. Where does that come from?
I vividly remember my first real father-son moment with my oldest son, Ethan. After the insanity of a prolonged labor-and-delivery, Mandi and I were finally alone, together, with our new baby. Exhausted as she was, Mandi fell asleep, and so I decided to pick up Ethan and enjoy a moment alone with my boy. I started walking around the room with him, talking to him about all the things that were most important to me… and would soon become important to him. I told him about his parents (and our undiminished awesomeness), about his extended family (they’re nuts but really lovable), and then finally about the Lord – how he was loved beyond compare and one day would come to know and understand that. And as I started talking to him about that, I could feel a surge of emotion rushing up… and I started to cry – weep, actually. It was a feeling of ABSOLUTE ACHE FOR HIS GOOD.
And it hit me like a semi-truck. The first of many times it would do so. As Ethan got older (and eventually we had another son – Gabe), I watched that emotion flower in my soul in all its beautiful complexity. Sometimes it would issue in deep tenderness as I pulled my boys close to my chest and hugged them. Other times it would show itself in a sort of zealous severity as we dealt with behavior issues. Always it was the ache for good.
When Ethan was nearly 3 and Gabe nearly 2, we gave birth to our youngest – Isabella. A friend of ours watched the boys during the night we were in the hospital. When the next day rolled around, I left mommy and Bella there and went to go be with the boys – to get them back into their routine. So I went home, made some dinner for the three of us, bathed them, and got them ready for bed. And then the bedtime routine began.
And there again, that old emotion that first made itself known in the hospital with Ethan 3 years earlier started rushing on me. As we sang our bedtime songs and prayed our prayers, I could feel a veritable torrent of ache rising up in me, and I knew at any minute I was about to start sobbing. It was one of the strongest emotions I’ve ever felt. I held it together long enough to kiss them goodnight, turn off the light, and close the door.
The moment I exited their room, I hit the deck, buried my face in my hands, and started crying. I mean like throat-aching, stomach-heaving, head-pounding weeping… THAT kind of crying. And so I crawled into the bedroom, knelt by our bed, and started praying for them… that in all this transition, they’d be okay. That we wouldn’t neglect them or fail to attend to their needs and their development as we tried to take care of a new baby. I loved them too much and wanted DESPERATELY to make sure we did right by them.
The next day we brought the girls home from the hospital. That evening I sat at my computer and wrote up a short email to my parents telling them that all was well, etc. In it I included the story about the night before. I hit send and went to bed.
When the morning rolled around, I checked my inbox and saw that my dad had written back to me. His response went like this, and I will never forget it:
Now you know.
I’ve come to see since that part of the pathos of fatherhood is that it so often goes misunderstood. The tenderness and severity come from the same root – an absolute ache for your children’s good. The same love that drives a good father to sweep his kids up in his arms and shower them with kisses is also the love that will make them go bananas over some behavioral issue that may, at least from the child’s perspective, seem downright trivial. But fathers, good fathers, if their heart and minds are sound and they’re living up to their calling, cannot do otherwise. Dad-love drives them.
I think this is why the New Testament so often refers to God as “Our Father.” Not “President of the Cosmos” or “Intergalactic CEO” or “Czar of the Universe”, but “Dad” – with all that that image entails. And what other image could capture it as well – the complex interplay between deep tenderness and unrelenting severity? As Paul says, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God.” In our culture we’re constantly prone to playing these against each other, as if one cannot be both kind and stern at the same time. And so we’re left with barren caricatures – the harsh, distant, cold, aloof taskmaster of a father, the checked-out idiot, the deadbeat, the foolish slob, or the companionable adult friend.
But none of those do justice to the full meaning of the word “Father.” God is better than that. He aches for our good. And that ache is absolute. This is why he is worthy of love and worship. Not some authoritarian dictator. Neither an indifferent gaseous vapor. You can’t love and worship a dictator or a vapor. Still less can you flourish under it.
But “Dad-love” – you can flourish under that canopy. And so it is that the Spirit grafts us into the Son so that as sons and daughters we can come to know and love the perfect Fatherhood of God, and his absolute determination to do us good.
We love you Father…
And now you know : )
Grace and peace to you.