June 20, 1993
THE PERFECT FATHER
“Our Father in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9)
In the film “Dead Poets Society,” a 17-year-old boy named Neal loves poetry and drama, and he wants to develop his talents as an actor. His teacher encourages him in this, and Neal gives a wonderful performance in the school play. When the play is over, however, Neal’s father demands that he forget about acting and pursue a career that’s more practical and profitable. The father tries squeezing his son into a mold, and he crushes him in the process. Neal is so confused and devastated that he goes home and shoots himself with his father’s gun.
It’s not easy to grow up with a father who doesn’t understand you, and it’s not always easy for us fathers to know how to handle our children, either. We’d like to believe that father knows best, but that’s not always the case. Fathers are so important for their children, and yet so imperfect. Indeed, some fathers aren’t merely imperfect; they’re entirely absent. More and more children have no contact with their fathers; many don’t even know who their father is.
And so when I see how many fathers are insensitive or abusive, and how many abandon their children altogether, I’m grateful for my own dad. I can’t take him for granted. It’s a great privilege to know the love and strength and wisdom and security of a good father.
For many of you listening to me, though, thinking about your father doesn’t arouse much gratitude. It stirs up feelings of confusion and pain and resentment. You think of what could have been and what should have been, and the more you think about it, the more it hurts. You don’t celebrate Father’s Day; you hate it.
Your relationship with your father has a profound effect on you. It can help you or hinder you in many different areas of your life, and one of the most important is prayer. Jesus taught us that when we pray, we should speak to God as “Our Father in heaven.” For some of us, it’s comforting to think of God as our Father. But if your father’s been cruel and abusive, addressing God as a father may be frightening. And if you never really knew your father at all, such a prayer may seem hollow.
If focus on our human fathers, we’ll have a hard time knowing what the heavenly Father is like. Instead of beginning with human fatherhood and projecting our impressions of our fathers onto God, we need to begin with God. We need to start by discovering the sort of Father that God is. Whatever the faults of human fathers, we can still come to know and love our Father in heaven. When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to the perfect Father.
The perfect Father knows you inside and out. He understands you. He knows your personality, your abilities, your goals, and your desires. He’s not out to squelch your uniqueness or force you into a mold where you don’t belong. He isn’t like the father in “Dead Poets Society” who drove his son to suicide. In the Bible, God says, “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). In another place, he says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to the one who made you, who understands you completely, who doesn’t want you to be embittered and exasperated and discouraged, who encourages you to blossom into the person he intended.
The perfect Father accepts you with all your limitations. Some fathers set unrealistic expectations for their children, and the children never quite measure up. These fathers may expect children to get top marks in school when they just don’t have the academic ability to do it. Or they expect a child to become a star athlete when he doesn’t have much athletic talent. Well, our heavenly father expects his children to be all that they can, but he’s also realistic. The Bible says in Psalm 103, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to someone who knows your weakness and frailty, who has realistic compassion for his children.
The perfect Father listens when you speak to him. Good fathers listen to their kids, but even the best of fathers are sometimes too busy: they’re working or fixing the car, golfing, watching TV, or whatever. A child can feel squeezed out if the dad is too busy or too tired to listen. God, however, is always ready to listen. He’s never too busy to hear what’s on your heart. He loves it when his children want to talk to him. He’s not too busy running the nations or controlling the stars to listen to his children. The Bible says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).
When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to someone who is never too busy for you, who’s always ready and willing to listen.
The Bible tells us much more about the perfect Father, things that can revolutionize your relationship with God, and realities that can transform your life.
Great is thy faithfulness! God provides everything his children need. He’s the perfect father. We’ve already seen how the perfect father is understanding and realistic and eager to listen to his children. In addition to this, though, he’s also firm with his children, and he’s not afraid to discipline them.
One of the quickest ways to ruin a child is lack of discipline. Give a child whatever he wants, let him do whatever he pleases, and he won’t amount to much. A child without discipline is a child without hope. The Bible tells parents, “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death” (Proverbs 19:18). Without discipline, a child can become useless to others, and he may even destroy himself. No good father will just stand by and watch that happen.
Maybe you’ve heard about the Spur Posse, a group of boys from a middle-class Los Angeles suburb who had a contest with each other to see who could have sex with the most girls. The boy who started the group claimed he had scored with 63 different girls. And how did his father respond? “Nothing my boy did was anything any red-blooded American boy wouldn’t do at his age.” The mother of another boy said, “Those girls are trash.” And what about her son? “What can you do? It’s a testosterone thing.”
The behavior of these boys is bad, but the reaction of their parents is even worse. They don’t hold the boys or themselves responsible. They have no moral standard. There’s no discipline. No wonder these boys behave like animals. Thanks to the parents’ lack of discipline and concern, these boys have no respect for women in general and no idea how wonderful it is to love one woman in particular.
A good father doesn’t spoil his children. He doesn’t make excuses for their bad behavior. He doesn’t shrug and say, “Well, that’s just the way they are.” No, he works to help them become something better. He tries to shape and discipline them. He lays down some clear expectations and rules, and he’s willing to enforce those rules. Obedience results in encouragement and praise. Disobedience is greeted with unpleasant consequences.
Discipline shows that a father cares. Giving children whatever they want and letting them do whatever they please may be the easy thing to do, but it’s not the loving thing to do. The Bible says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24).
Our Father in heaven loves us, and so he also disciplines us. The Bible says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11-12). God cares for his children too much not to discipline them. God has given us his rules, his commandments, and expectations, in the Bible, and he expects us to listen to what he says. He tells us about true worship, honesty, sexual purity, generosity, and much more. If we don’t listen, the consequences are often painful.
The perfect father’s discipline is aimed at our growth and our good. He doesn’t lose his temper and flare up at us because he’s had a bad day at work. He doesn’t stagger home drunk and irrational. He’s not moody or inconsistent. No, when God disciplines us, it’s because he wants us to take him seriously, and he seeks what’s best for his children.
Even when God isn’t punishing us for a specific sin, we may experience hardship, and this too can be a form of discipline: not a punishment, but a way of testing and strengthening our character. Sometimes discipline just means saying no to a request. God cares for us too much to give us whatever we want. He doesn’t say “Yes” to every prayer. He doesn’t give in every time we throw a tantrum. He doesn’t give in whenever we gripe that he’s not answering our prayers the way we want. He refuses to spoil us, and that in itself is a kind of discipline to prevent us from being spoiled and self-centered.
Another aspect of the Lord’s discipline comes in the form of painful or frustrating circumstances that aren’t a punishment for anything in particular but are his way of forcing us out of our comfort zone into new territory and greater maturity. If a father shields his child from every challenge and difficulty and frustration, the child will never grow up. As the perfect father, God wants us to grow up. That’s one reason he sometimes puts us through things we’d rather avoid.
But whether it’s to punish us, or to challenge us to grow stronger, God’s discipline is always for the good of his children. In Hebrews 12 the Bible says,
We have all had human fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
God isn’t a grandfather with a tendency to spoil us. He doesn’t always offer us the easy way out, and he doesn’t always say “Yes” to our prayers. When you pray, you’re not talking to an indulgent grandfather, and you’re not talking to a clerk who’s eager to please the customer. You’re talking to the perfect Father. When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to someone who is firm and who disciplines you for your own good.
Another fact about the perfect Father: he’s the perfect example, and that’s extremely important. Good parents provide a model for their children, and unfortunately, bad parents also provide a pattern for theirs. Children of alcoholics suffer because of their parent’s addiction, and yet they often become alcoholics themselves, rather than staying away from the stuff. Children who were abused by parents suffer terribly, and yet they often become abusive themselves. Instead of avoiding their parents’ mistakes, children often imitate them.
That’s one more reason why it’s so important to know the perfect Father. Without God, you’re likely to repeat your parents’ mistakes and pass them along to your own children. Maybe your family wouldn’t be labeled “dysfunctional,” but it’s still a fact that even the best parents have many faults and sins and prejudices. It’s hard for you to know any better unless you have a perfect example.
Once God becomes your Father through Jesus Christ, you have a new example to imitate. You’re no longer a slave to whatever patterns you grew up with. You realize that lust and greed and drunkenness and hatred and prejudice aren’t normal–they’re sick and sinful. You find out that your heavenly Father loves even his enemies, and that he expects you to do the same. As Jesus himself put it, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So when you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to the supreme example of perfection and love.
Now, everything I’ve said so far wouldn’t do you or me any good apart from another great truth: the perfect Father longs for his runaway children to return to him, and he welcomes them when they do.
Perhaps Jesus’ most famous story is the one about a father who had two sons. The younger son was reckless and irresponsible. He wanted his inheritance from his father, and the father reluctantly gave it to him. Immediately, the son traveled as far from home as he could get, and he proceeded to squander everything on wild living. Eventually, though, his money ran out, and just then, hard times hit the country where he was living. The young man found himself working for a local hog farmer, and he got so hungry he was tempted to eat what the pigs were eating.
That’s when the son came to his senses. He said to himself, “Back home, even my father’s hired hands have more than they can eat, and here I am starving to death. Why am I being so stupid? I’ll go back to my father and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I know I’m not worthy to be called your son, but please, take me on as a hired man.” So he got up and went to his father.
“But,” says Jesus, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him.” The son launched into his speech about sinning and not being worthy, but the father interrupted him and called for a fresh new suit of clothes for his son and a huge party celebrating his return.
The father didn’t hold a grudge; he didn’t complain about how much money his son had lost; he didn’t refuse his son’s apology or disown him. He didn’t say, “Yeah, you’re right, boy. You don’t deserve to be called my son.” No, the father had been eagerly watching for his lost son, and he ran out to him and hugged him. He was beside himself with joy. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Maybe God has given you the freedom to run away from him and do your own thing, and you’ve made a complete mess of it. The longer you live apart from the heavenly Father, the worse your situation becomes. Well, no matter how wrong you’ve been, or how far you’ve wandered, you can still go home. There’s a welcome waiting for you. God would have every right to turn you away, but he won’t. Once you return to him, he won’t keep dragging up the past. According to Psalm 103,
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.
When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to the one who loves you, who removes your sins, who welcomes you back from your foolishness and wandering.
God can do this only at a great cost to himself. In the story of the prodigal son, the son squanders an enormous amount of his father’s money before he ever returns. The father absorbs the entire loss, and not only that, but he also foots the bill for the party when his son returns. This boy costs him a lot, but he’s willing to pay it. Likewise, God has absorbed the terrible cost of all our sins through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. By our sin we’ve literally raised hell, but Christ has suffered that hell for us. Not only that but he’s paid our way for an eternal celebration party with our Father in the kingdom of God. So when you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to someone who has absorbed the loss incurred by your sin and who lavishes his riches on you even when you don’t deserve it.
The perfect Father is generous. We saw earlier that God doesn’t want to spoil us, that he disciplines us for our good, but that doesn’t mean he’s stingy. God is generous. He gives us a lot more than he gets. When I think about my own father, I’m glad he’s generous. He paid for my food, but he hasn’t sent me any bills for it. He paid for the roof over my head, but he still hasn’t charged me. He paid my tuition for many years at a fine Christian school, but he never kept track of how much I owe him. Along with my mom, my dad invested a great deal of time and energy and money into me. He didn’t do all this in the hope that someday I’d pay him back. He did it simply because he’s my father, and he loves me. All he wants in return is that I love him and become the kind of man God wants me to be.
Impressed as I am by my human father’s generosity, I’m even more amazed when I think about my Father in heaven. He’s supplied every breath I’ve ever taken, every bite I’ve ever eaten, every skill I’ve every developed, every game I’ve ever enjoyed; he’s got an eternal inheritance waiting for me, and why? Simply because he loves me. All he wants is that I love him in return and behave like his son.
Once again, Psalm 103 puts it perfectly:
Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (v. 1-5)
When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to someone who is amazingly generous.
And that brings us to back to Jesus’ story of the father and his two sons. When the prodigal son returned, his older brother was out in the field, and when he found out that his father was throwing a party, he was furious. In fact, he refused to go in and join the celebration. His father went out and pleaded with him, but the son answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this good-for-nothing son of yours squanders your property with prostitutes and then stumbles home, you have a big celebration!”
Oh, my son,” the father says. “You’re always with me. Everything I have is yours. A goat? A party with his friends? Wake up, son! What’s mine is yours! You can have a party any time you want. I’m not stopping you. You don’t have to slave away to earn my approval. I already love you. Stop acting like a slave. You’re not a slave. You’re my son. And for that matter, so is your brother. I love him in spite of all he’s done, and we had to celebrate his return to the family.
When you’re God’s son or daughter through Jesus Christ, you need to stop thinking and acting like a slave. When you do God’s will, don’t do it to earn points with a demanding boss. Do it to bring joy to your heavenly Father. After all, Jesus didn’t teach us to pray to our taskmaster in heaven; he taught us to pray to our Father in heaven. When you say, “Our Father in heaven,” you’re talking to someone who loves you, who wants you to enjoy everything that’s his. You’re talking to the perfect Father.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.