As a young adult, I dreamed about all the things I would teach my children. I vaguely remember preparing so that I could answer their questions and tell them that thing would make them look at me with wonder and amazement. I thought, “all they have to say is ‘thanks dad, you’re the smartest dad ever!'” I’m sure I was a little disappointed at how little they actually asked me for advice. Mostly, they just watched what I did.
Even more surprising than their lack of need for my wisdom was their apparent ability to learn for themselves. I actually did teach them to think for themselves, but it’s a little humbling when they actually do it. It’s a steady march from there to independence and I heard myself thinking “It won’t be long before they don’t need me at all.” Of course, that is the goal but it still hurts a little.
The biggest surprise of parenthood came sometime after they graduated from high school. It was at an IHOP restaurant late at night when we orchestrated a get together of us and our young adult children. Sometime, early in the conversation, I realized “They are teaching me.” Not lecturing, not informing — I was actually learning from our conversation. “This is going to help me be a better man,” I thought.
As the years stroll by, I find myself reflecting on the journey of parenthood. Recently, I have gone through the most intense examination of my beliefs. Early in this journey, a writer named Skye Jethani inspired me to compare my relationship with God to my role as a parent. Isn’t God’s relationship with me supposed to be a lot like a Father and a child? Or is it also sometimes like a mother and a child? W. Paul Young also makes this same connection.
As I thought about this idea, some very strong thoughts and emotions came over me. God can be imagined as many things, but when I compare him to my experience as a parent, I have to come to some very strong conclusions.
God won’t turn His back on us. It’s a common belief among many Christians that God turns away from us when we sin. It was imagined that even Jesus experienced this on the cross when He absorbed our sins. The assumption is that the Father is so holy, that He cannot look at sin – so he separates or hides Himself from us.
As a father, I find this hard to accept. One of the primary reasons is because I promised my children I would never do that. I told each of them several times, “No matter what you do, I will never change how I feel about you.” When they did wrong things, it didn’t drive me away — it drew me closer. To turn our back on our children would be immature and childish. To disown our children would be detrimental to their well being and a selfish thing to do just because we might be disappointed.
In the creation story, God came looking for Adam – it wasn’t God that pulled away. The Story of the Prodigal draws the same conclusion – he never repented and the Father still came running.
God does not use us. When I was a young parent, I imagined all my children lightening my load by learning to work and doing their “chores.” All of my children are good workers, but they never did much work for me. It wasn’t a disrespectful thing, I think they just wanted to relax when they came home. They did their work at school, and later they had their own jobs. They didn’t want to be my slaves – they just wanted to be part of the family.
Denominational literature is packed with missional injunctions about being “used” by God. It’s a common theme, especially among evangelicals. The “here am I, send me” response gets hammered into the “used by God” mantra and we faintly hear “Onward Christian Soldiers” cuing up in the background as we march forward to do God’s work. The apostle Paul alludes to servants of God, but I still think the “used by God” sentiment is way out of line. Try suggesting that to an abuse victim. Seriously try to apply that to your kids. Try saying out loud “I want to use my children for my purposes.” No one likes to be used and I don’t think that’s the way God sees it.
I think Bob Goff did a pretty good job tying it together when he said, “
“I think a father’s job, when it’s done best, is to get down on both knees, lean over his children’s lives, and whisper, ‘Where do you want to go?’ Every day God invites us on the same kind of adventure. It’s not a trip where He sends us a rigid itinerary, He simply invites us. God asks what it is He’s made us to love, what it is that captures our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world He made. And then, leaning over us, He whispers, ‘Let’s go do THAT together.”
God also does not punish us forever. I have always believed in discipline. Two of my kids were easy to scare into submission with only a strong look. The other child was very stubborn and once destroyed her room because she was mad and often rebelled when I punished her. But, with all three, there was a point where I realized that discipline has it limits and what they often needed more was my understanding and compassion. They needed grace, mercy and compassion because they were more confused than they were confrontational. Sometimes they really needed me to listen.
The common Biblical interpretation goes beyond discipline. It implies that God can be pushed to the point of killing His children and destroying His creation. We say, “If you don’t straighten up, you will get a spanking or timeout.” But God’s method is worse than corporal punishment. If you push Him far enough, He may drown you in a flood or burn you up in fire or turn you into a pillar of salt. As bad as these things are, it gets much worse. If you die while still being rebellious — if you don’t repent (change your mind), then you could very well end up being eternally tortured in a fire that torments you but doesn’t let you expire.
If any of us could bear the thought of torturing our children for even a minute, we should probably have some serious counseling. I once tortured bugs and small animals – but, that was when I was child. When I became a man, I put away some of those childish things. And I never imagined, even on the worst days, tormenting my children – it’s demented. I still believe in God, but I no longer believe that he murders people or torments them forever in Hell. It just doesn’t make sense.
I probably did teach my children a few things; but most of what they learned from me, they probably learned more by example that lecture or discipline. Maybe the big lesson for us is to learn to delight in our offspring because, in reality, that is what God does with us. I can’t imagine a life without my children in it and I have to believe that is exactly how God see us and all of His creation.
I have a little more to say about this, but I’ll save it for another day.