“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” —1 John 3:1
An amazing aspect of our faith is contained in two simple words at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, words so familiar we intone them almost without thinking: “Our Father, which art in heaven.” The reality that we can talk to and experience, as a father, the One who spoke the worlds into being—now that is a thought radical enough to keep us awake at night if we let it. Perhaps it needs to keep us awake at night.
Too Good to Be True?
For many of us, the fatherhood of God can seem as remote as heaven itself. A recent conversation with a friend over coffee reminded me just how unattainable experiencing God as a father can feel.
“Look,” my friend said as she sloshed her latte in frustration. “My father left when I was four years old. I can see him, clear as day, getting into his car and driving off. Yeah, he paid some of my college expenses. And he calls on occasion—when he feels guilty enough to make contact. But having a f-a-t-h-e-r in my life? That’s something I only got a glimpse of by watching other dads with their daughters. Sometimes that sight tore me up.”
As faithful a Christian as my friend is, she sees God as she sees her earthly father: remote and unreachable. I listened, staring into my empty coffee cup as though surely I’d find words inscribed there that could make the reality clear: Your real Father wasn’t that man who drove off. Your real Father is better than you can even dare to let yourself hope.
Sometimes I think the chief strategy of the enemy is to take the worst pain of our lives and use it to slander the character of God-as-Father so that we wander through our days as spiritual orphans. Alone. Disenchanted.
This is a travesty when you consider what’s possible: the utter miracle of walking through life as the celebrated child of the living God.
Welcome to the Party
The theme of the father-heart of God is woven throughout Scripture. After the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, Moses told them, “You saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son” (Dt. 1:31). That motif of being on a journey in a strange land and being personally led or carried by God has sustained many a pilgrim soul through the ages.
Isaiah returns to this father-theme.
You are our Father, though Abraham does not know us ….; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer.
And again, we read these words,
O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
In these verses alone, we find two treasures about God as a father. He saves and redeems, and He shapes our lives—often in ways we might not have chosen. He alone knows what kind of pot He intends to pour His mercy into.
Our understanding of God-as-Father, however, would remain at an Old Testament distance had not the Father revealed so much of His heart in the coming and the sacrifice of His Son. Here is where the trinitarian nature of our faith comes into full play. Jesus came to put a face on God—to draw us into His very heart. And His heart, as Jesus made so clear, is the heart of a father.
I find it fascinating that the last words Christ’s disciples heard Him speak before He turned toward the cross were a personal appeal to His Father on behalf of His friends (all, including us, given to Him by the Father). Jesus prayed,
I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.
It seems that Christ’s fondest hope in going to the cross was that He might be able to usher us into this intimate sanctuary. He wanted to include us in the party—the very fellowship that the Son enjoys with His Father. Jesus longed for us to know His Father as our Father.
Orphaned by Life
For most of us, though, there is quite a gap between the truth we see revealed in Scripture and the “truth” we experience. I am convinced that we rarely feel the father-love of God for what it is until we reach a point in life where we start to see the limitations of human love—beginning with the man we first called Daddy.
As a very young Christian, I stumbled onto a verse in Psalm 27 that piqued my curiosity as much as it unnerved me. It spoke of something I could not then imagine: “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up” (Ps. 27:10, NASB).
I was my father’s first child—born a few years after he returned from the war in Europe. I was the living reminder that he got to come home. Forsaken? How could that ever happen to me?
As I moved out into life I slowly realized that every father (and mother) “forsakes.” He fails as every human fails—and, worst insult of all, he dies. God says that as we start to realize that our fathers cannot fully father us, we discover what He has been waiting all our lives to reveal: He will take us up. It is in those moments when life hands us a tiny shred of “orphanness”—of being on our own—that God the Father is especially present, longing for us to take our hands out of any human hands and grasp His.
Yet a natural question arises: How? How do we experience this fathering from God?
Questing for More
Unfortunately, there is more than a bit of mystery involved in this path. The words of Jesus as expressed in The Message describe what needs to happen.
Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. —Mt. 6:6
This part about abandoning role-playing is crucially important. We cannot discover what God is like until we begin to bring the real stuff to Him. That means the longings and fears and insecurities—even the heel-clicking joy—that most of us would call the mess of our lives. We bring where we are in the moment into the presence of God and let Him take hold of us there.
Perhaps an example would help. I spoke with a woman this week who mentors youth in her church. She leads short-term missions trips. Most people probably see her as a paragon of faithfulness. But she told me how numb she is toward God.
He seems a million miles away. A number of her close friends have recently had monumental losses—catastrophic illness, debilitating accidents—and she feels them all. The guy she hoped might be The One seems to have fallen in love with someone else. All she can see in any direction is loss. She’s lost her heart to pray about any of this. What good does prayer do?
I have been exactly where this woman is. Exactly. I knew to tread lightly. “Is it possible that you might be slightly angry with God? Disappointed, perhaps?” I asked. “Maybe even feeling a bit abandoned?” She nodded at every word.
“And so, what do you pray about when you pray?”
“Well, I don’t pray much. But when I do, I mostly ask God to change the situation. To help me hang in there. To give me grace—that kind of thing.”
“What keeps you from talking with God about the anger and disappointment and feelings of abandonment?”
The look on her face told me what she really believes about the nature of God— that He is more of an exacting schoolmaster than a true Father. That she must clean up the mess before she can talk to Him in real words and real feelings. But so much has happened that she can’t get cleaned up on her own. Numbness is all she can muster.
I often suggest to people, like my friend, who are longing to experience the Father that they simply allow themselves to be on a quest. Personally, I have found that the most helpful. When I could admit to myself that I’d been a Christian for years but I knew little, experientially, of the father-heart of God, I could almost hear Him say, “Finally!”
The Father’s Voice
Finally, I got what the Father knew all along—that I had Him confused with every other form of human love I’d ever known. I asked Him, quite simply, to show me what He was like, since I was clearly lost in a forest of my own making.
As you do the same, a slow unfolding usually begins. You start to peel the face of anyone you ever deeply longed would love you well off the face of God. You take back, bit by bit, the human stuff you have projected onto Him.
Most people begin by learning to recognize a harsh and negative voice in the back of their minds—and then, to distinguish and separate that from the true voice of the Father as described in the Scriptures.
We hear: No one will ever understand your struggle or your pain. They might try—but really, they just nod their heads and move on.
Yet the Bible says: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4).
We hear: They didn’t call you because—face it—you’re a loser. If you were more of this or less of that, then your life would look different.
The Bible says,
[God] has . . . called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.
—2 Tim. 1:9
We hear: You are truly alone—you just finally felt it for real when your wife shut you out.
Yet, God says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
As we learn the Father’s voice, His love begins to stand out in sharp relief from any other human love. We begin to move through the illusion that any human can love us unfailingly—and to claim our personal place of rest in the Father’s love.
Jesus was not speaking lightly when He said that for anyone to come to God he must come as a child comes. A child generally walks through the door of any relationship with the unvarnished truth. And so we bring the truth of where we actually are into the presence of a Father who is better than we can dream, and we allow His comfort, His encouragement—even His discipline—to touch us there.
The Lap of Love
Claiming our place as His true child is what our lives are about. An image God often brings to mind comes straight from my childhood. My father would sit me on his lap while my mother prepared dinner. He usually read me a story called “The Little Red Hen.” I can remember its pages with uncanny accuracy; I know exactly what the furniture in the room looked like. The novelty of sitting on the lap of my father has etched the scene in my memory. It was a five-year-old’s version of utter security.
As a much older “child,” I believe there is one inner statement that is meant to follow us through life and grow increasingly rich with meaning: I have a Father.
I have not been left orphaned in a hostile world to find my way home by whatever means I can. I have a Father. My future is secure, and even my present distress has meaning. I have a Father. There is someone to turn to when people let me down. I have a Father. There is a place on His lap, reserved for me—secured in the sacrifice of His Son.
–by Paula Rinehart
Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © March/April 2005, Issue 146, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com