I stood in the hospital room, gazing on my wife and newborn son. Soft morning light filtered through the curtains onto their sleeping faces. Catherine had labored hard with Isaac, our first son, and was catching up on some much-needed sleep. Their faces shared the same exhausted-yet-peaceful expression as they slumbered. Remember this, I thought. Remember this moment. This is the moment that your journey of fatherhood begins.
On some level I had always wanted to be a father, but I hadn’t planned for it. The older I got, the more intimidating fatherhood seemed. After I got married I started to realize 1) how selfish I actually was and 2) how much work it actually takes to make a decent life in this world. I felt like I could barely take care of myself and my wife. How could I take care of a child too?
Then we found out we were pregnant and everything changed. Every decision we made from that point forward had to account for how it would affect the new life under our care. I realized that I had to step up and actually be a responsible adult. I had to do adult things like put dishes away and show up on time and go to the dentist.
As I adjusted to my new role as a father I discovered something I hadn’t considered before. I had heard that a person’s relationship with his father will shape his relationship with God. But as I considered my own experience as a father, I realized that my fatherhood was also shaping my relationship with God. The ways that God is described as a father in the Bible now make more sense to me, because now I understand first-hand how a father feels and acts toward his children.
Fatherhood has helped me experience God as my Father in three ways:
- Being a father has helped me understand God’s unconditional love because I give it
Before our first son was born, I had a nagging worry: will I be able to love this boy like God calls me to? Will I give him the emotional engagement and encouragement that I would want for myself? Before having kids, my greatest love for any person was for my wife. I didn’t think I could love anyone with the devotion I had for her.
But the instant I first held my son, I stopped worrying. As I looked at his scrunched-up face, I felt like my heart had grown, like it had expanded to envelop both him and my wife in unconditional love. I was reminded of the phrase from Psalm 119:32: ”I will run in the path of your commandments when you have enlarged my heart!” Because God has expanded my heart, I can love my son as God has called me to do.
As he has grown, Isaac has thrown tantrums, disobeyed me, tested my patience, pushed his boundaries, even insulted me (granted, his insults at age 3 are limited to calling me a fur ball). No matter what he has said or done, I always forgive him and serve him. I change his diapers while he’s complaining. I hold him while he has a tantrum. I prepare his food while he whines about not wanting dinner.
Isaac hasn’t done anything special to earn my love. I don’t keep a balance sheet of how many times he’s obeyed me or disobeyed me. Neither does God do this with his children; 1 John 3:1 states, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” Before becoming a dad, I had a conceptual grasp of God’s love. Now I have an experiential grasp.
- Being a father has helped me understand why God disciplines those he loves
My oldest son disobeys me almost every day. Each night it’s a struggle to get him to brush his teeth. He’ll drag out the process, resist the toothbrush, fuss and cry, try anything to avoid the inevitable. I’ve had to literally hold his head still with my elbow while jamming the brush (gently!) in his mouth. It’s hard for both of us, but I do it anyway. I know that if he doesn’t brush his teeth and start that habit now, he will suffer the consequences in the future.
That’s just brushing his teeth! We’ve had numerous bouts of disobedience and discipline with him. My wife and I discipline him when he does things we have told him not to do, doesn’t do things we have told him to do, or blatantly disrespects us or someone else. The methods we use vary according to the transgression, but our motive is always the same: help Isaac understand the importance of obeying God.
Why does obedience to parents correlate to obeying God? Think about it: who is more God-like in a child’s life than his parents? They provide for his needs, protect him from harm, choose where he lives, comfort him when he is upset, and establish laws in his home. If a child cannot respect and obey his earthly parents who he can see, how will he learn to obey a heavenly Father he cannot see? As stated in Hebrews 12:7 and 11, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?…For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, once observed that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” If I didn’t care about my son’s wellbeing, would I go through this trouble of disciplining him? Of course not. If I didn’t love my son, I wouldn’t care about his teeth decaying or his room approaching entropy. I’d say, “Well, that’s his choice. He’ll suffer the consequences.” But I do love him. So I discipline him with hope he will learn that godly obedience leads to peace and joy.
- Being a father has helped me experience God’s unmerited delight in His children
I love watching my boys. I love seeing them explore and experiment with their world. I love hearing their reactions to what they find. Our eldest son spouts off stream-of-consciousness narratives of his every activity, often making Catherine and me struggle to hold back our laughter. Our youngest is only six months, but he bubbles, coos, exclaims, and laughs at the objects he wraps his fingers (or gums) around. Few things bring me as much joy as simply observing my sons.
Knowing how I feel when I watch my sons has taken a load off my shoulders I didn’t know was there. Even though I knew about God’s eternal love and undeserved grace in my head, my heart still feared disappointing Him. There was still a part of me that felt the need to earn his favor.
But the Bible tells us that God delights in His children. He takes joy in watching us, being with us, shaping us. Psalm 149:4 says, “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.” If I am filled with delight and joy in my children, how much more must God delight in me! It’s such a relief to think of God as a joyful father who is happy with His children.
I firmly believe that God orders events and circumstances in our lives for the purpose of drawing us closer to Him and sanctifying us. As we go through life, He will reveal more of Himself to us so that we can truly love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. For me, fatherhood has thrown open a treasure trove of experiencing God as my Father. As I reflect on how I feel and act toward my boys, He is giving me a glimpse into how He loves me.