I was 25 years old before I could say the word “father” while praying. The word was foreign to me. It didn’t roll off my tongue the way it did for many of my Christian friends. It felt like a word from a foreign language. In one regard, it meant nothing. It was jibberish. But in another, it meant a world of things. Amid the cultural barriers, it still struck a nerve, because while it meant nothing, it meant everything.
It meant broken things.
How was I supposed to use a word that, for me, brought to mind everything a parent shouldn’t be when I was in conversation with a God whom I’d been told was everything my dad wasn’t? How was I supposed to call God by a name I hadn’t used for most of my life; a name that didn’t mean to me what I knew Scripture insisted God is?
For me to call God a father was like calling an apple an orange. They didn’t mix.
Sure, I knew God was a Father, but how was I sure he wasn’t like my father?
Fearing the Shadow
In the Bible, the family unit gives us a picture of how God relates to us, his children. We understand that God, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, welcomes us home to be with him through the sacrifice of Christ. He desires a relationship with his children. He cares for us. We know we’re able to understand the nature and character of love because God loved us first. In Christ’s prayer in John 17, we learn that God desires us to be with him, together as a family. In this regard, our earthly fathers give us a picture, a shadow, of what God the Father is truly like.
Dads want to be with their children. They want to spend time with them, to care for them, to love them. They want their children to know how much they would risk to protect them. Dads want children to know what they’d do if they lost them. This is what dads do.
So for a child of God, it should be pretty great that God is like a dad, right?
For the fatherless, this isn’t good news. We’re fearful of the shadow God has set in place. The result? We’re frightened by God the Father, because we’re terrified of our earthly fathers. How can we come to God without fear when we’re scared to go home when Dad is there? How can we understand God’s love and faithfulness when Dad left town because he loved someone or something more than us? How can God be a mighty fortress of protection when Dad hit instead of hugged? How can God be a firm foundation of trust and assurance when Dad built in us a mountain of disappointment and insecurity?
It’s devastating that the very thing God has given to reflect his love and mercy and faithfulness is the very thing keeping many from crawling into their heavenly Father’s lap.
It’s devastating that the very thing God has given to reflect his love and mercy and faithfulness is the very thing keeping many from crawling into their heavenly Father’s lap. I’m almost 31, and this is still a daily fight. It’s a fight to trust God thinks of me differently than my dad did. It’s a fight to not assume God enjoys disciplining me more than blessing me. It’s a fight not to think God is mad at me more often than he delights in me.
Some days it feels hopelessly exhausting.
Hopeful Way Forward
What changed it all for me was a recalibration. It took a reorientation for me to move forward in trusting the Lord and calling him Father. What do I mean? Instead of looking at my dad and then back at God, I learned to look at God first. I realized if God wasn’t my first source of fatherhood, I was always going to be off-balance. If I didn’t start with God, then he would always be the replica rather than the original.
Instead of looking at my dad and then back at God, I learned to look at God first. . . . If I didn’t start with God, then he would always be the replica rather than the original.
This recalibration took turning to Scripture to fill my mind with the true nature of God instead of turning to the empty shadow first. Through his gracious Word, he showed me he delights to lavish mercy. He doesn’t stay angry. He takes my wrongs and faults and covers them in his Son. Since his grace and mercy are new each day, I don’t have to wake up tiptoeing around in his presence. I can run to him, freely and confidently. Moreover, he doesn’t hang my shortcomings over my head; he treats me with constant grace. Through Christ, he has made a way for me to know and enjoy him. He can be found. He isn’t hiding. He didn’t leave. In fact, he came looking for me to rescue me from brokenness. He hasn’t given up on me.
In the Son, I see the Father isn’t hiding. On a cross, he proved he came for me. On a cross, he proved that—unlike any shadow we’ve seen—he alone always keeps his promises and always makes good on his commitments.
Harbor Awaits You
So push into Scripture. Don’t run away. I’ve found my heavenly Father is truly unlike any dad I’ve ever known. He isn’t mad. He isn’t coming home waiting to punish me. He’s waiting to shower me with mercy and grace.
This doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s been a scary journey. But God’s glorious fatherhood should be, and can be, the great lighthouse that draws us in from dark storms and raging seas. It brings us in from rushing waters.
So step to the helm. Make the move. Turn the ship and go full-throttle toward the shore. Let the fatherhood of God be the beacon that draws you safely into the harbor, not the waves that keep you lost at sea.
Go home. Trust me. It’s safe.
Editors’ note: If you’ve experienced the pain of parental divorce, are going through it now, or know someone who is/has, Jonathan’s new book, Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves (Rainer Publishing, 2016), is for you.