We all have a father, and regardless of whether he was present or absent, affectionate or distant, tender or tough or worse, he has shaped us far more than we often realize. In painful cases, more than we want.
Our earthly fathers not only shape who we are — how we think, and feel, and behave, and love — but they also inevitably alter, for better or for worse, how we think, feel, behave, and love toward God. The fatherhood of God may sound like a tangled and confusing blessing for those who have not had a good father. Even for those, like me, who have had a wonderful father, our relationship to him is worlds apart from the one we have in heaven.
Among the persons of the Trinity, we tend to focus on the distinctiveness of the Son and Spirit, but what a wonder that God was never only God, but also always Father. Michael Reeves writes,
The fact that Jesus is “the Son” really says it all. Being a Son means he has a Father. . . . That is who God has revealed himself to be: not first and foremost Creator or Ruler, but Father. . . . He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father. That is who he is. He creates as a Father and he rules as a Father. (Delighting in the Trinity, 21–23)
“If God has given you a love for his Son, he has set his love on you as a Father.”
Before there were fathers, there was the Father (Ephesians 3:14–15). And if you will have him, through faith in his Son, then like the Son, you too have a truly good Father — more loving than any good father, more powerful than any ruler or authority, more generous than money can measure, who counsels and exhorts us with all wisdom, listens to our prayers with all patience, and sacrifices, at infinite cost to himself, for our good.
Many of us simply have no idea how to have a Father in heaven. We know to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven. . . .” but we still pray (and feel) as if he’s galaxies away. We know God is sovereign, righteous, all-wise, just, and even merciful, but we struggle to believe he could be that personal — like a father would be to his own child. Some of us are uncomfortable in prayer not because we haven’t learned enough about prayer, but because we’ve never learned what it means to truly be a child of God.
We are not, however, alone as children of God. Jesus is not merely Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, but he is also Son. All the way down. All he does and says, he does and says as the Son of God — teaching us what it means to be loved by God the Father.
The Happy Father
Whatever you may suspect about the heart of God toward you — because of bad experiences with your father, because of lingering shame about your past sins, because of your own failures as a father, because of your fears about the future — the God of heaven is an affectionate Father. He is happy and loving. As soon as Jesus begins revealing who is he, the Father roars with joy from the clouds,
This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17)
And then he repeats himself on the mountain (Matthew 17:5). The Father did not tire expressing his deep and abiding delight in this Son — even though he had loved him long before he formed the earth. Jesus prays, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
“Understanding the fatherhood of God begins with learning to be truly, extravagantly, tenaciously loved — by God.”
We might think, Well, of course the Father would love Jesus, because he’s Jesus. But if you believe in Jesus, you are now in Jesus — not figuratively or hypothetically, but genuinely. If you are in Christ, God sees you in Christ. While the clouds may be silent for now, the cross shouts all the more loudly. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). If God has given you a love for his Son, he has set his love on you as a Father. Jesus says, “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27).
Understanding the fatherhood of God begins with learning to be truly, extravagantly, tenaciously loved — by God.
The Generous Father
It’s no wonder we often struggle to feel that loved by the Father, because he loves us like we have never been loved before. We may have faint categories of his fatherly love, but the intensity and extent of his love overwhelms whatever we might imagine. For instance, our Father is lavishly generous. Jesus tells us, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2), not just a few — because our God loves to save, and bless, and give.
Jesus reminds us of one great picture of the Father’s generosity, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:31). When the manna fell, Moses said to the people, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat’” (Exodus 16:15–16). Not as much as you need, but as much as you can eat. This Father is not cheap or stingy, but showers his children with good. And he’s not just generous with his own: “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
“No father can be truly good without giving direction to his children and requiring obedience.”
Jesus went on to say of the manna, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). Not just barely enough for the day, but as much as you can eat. Those who hunger for the Bread of life, for more and more of the Son, shall never go hungry, but “they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6) — because your God is a generous, providing Father.
The Exhorting Father
No father can be truly good without giving direction to his children and requiring obedience. Children who are allowed to do whatever they want, no matter the consequences, are not loved. They are despised by their fathers. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24).
If the commandments of God make him seem less like a father, it’s because we have feeble models for fatherhood. Good fathers persevere in teaching their children to obey, and firmly exhort them to godliness. The apostle Paul writes, “You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). Like a good father with his children.
As perfect a Son as Jesus is, even he, as human, is not above his Father’s commands. He says of the cross, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. . . . This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17–18). Again, “The works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). The Father never disciplined the Son because of disobedience, but he still gave him work to do and charged him to do it.
The Listening Father
The Father not only gives us direction, but he also gives us his ear. The prayers of Jesus really are some of the most dramatic and beautiful pictures of what it means to be loved by the Father. As much as we might take prayer for granted, Jesus did not count an audience with God a thing to be neglected. This Son made sure he spent time alone, on his knees, with his Father (Mark 1:35; 6:46).
“Good fathers serve, bleed, and die to themselves in love, because they learned to lead at the foot of the cross.”
As he came to the cross, with all the tension, conflict, and agony of those hours, when everyone else had abandoned him, he knew someone would always listen. “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name’” (John 12:27–28). If we are children of God, our souls need not ever be troubled alone or in silence. We have a Father, and he is ever available, attentive, listening. He wants to listen to your troubles. He wants you to cast your cares on him, “because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Jesus knew that his Father would listen, and he did not take his heavenly ear lightly. In fact, Jesus is still praying to the Father, even while he sits at his right hand. And he intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25), specifically for “those who draw near to God through him,” for those who pray and trust that their Father will listen. Jesus taught us, even us, to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
The Sovereign Father
The Father who listens to our every prayer has all power and authority at his disposal. Through his Son, he rules over every inch of the universe, a cosmos he built with his words, down to the very intimate innerworkings of the human heart. As the Son did the work he was charged to do, announcing the kingdom and calling his sheep home, he took refuge in the awesome sovereignty of his Father:
- “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37).
- “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
- “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65).
- “My Father, who has given [my sheep] to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29–30).
None can resist our Father. None can overcome him. None can steal from him. The Father who promises to provide for all your needs, and carry all your burdens, and fight all of your battles, says to anyone who might think otherwise, “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9–10).
The Sacrificial Father
The most tragic fathers are those who prey upon those they are called to protect, provide for, and love. Instead of overflowing into the lives of others, a terrible father compromises to serve himself, and at great expense to someone else — his precious wife, his trusting children, his faithful friends and family. They follow him right into the flames of heartache — the kind that can flicker for generations.
“If we are children of God, our souls need not ever be troubled alone or in silence. We have a Father.”
But your Father in heaven will never use you, abuse you, or manipulate you. He is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). This Father did not sacrifice you to serve himself, but sacrificed his Son (who laid down his life), in order to make you an heir of infinite wealth and invincible happiness, an heir of all things (1 Corinthians 3:21). God the Father sent his Son to the cross so that we might have God (1 Peter 3:18).
Good fathers serve, bleed, and die to themselves in love, because they learned to lead at the foot of the cross. Because they have been fathered by their Father in heaven.
Last Person of the Trinity?
How quickly or subtly have we missed or forgotten the fatherhood of God? As we have waded into the Godhead, we have often spent far more time on the distinctions of the Son and the Holy Spirit, almost collapsing the Father in with the oneness of God. But the Father is Father, all the way down, and does everything he does as Father. Again, Michael Reeves writes,
That insight is like a stick of dynamite in all our thoughts about God. For if, before all things, God was eternally a Father, then this God is an inherently outgoing, life-giving God. . . . Just as a fountain, to be a fountain, must pour forth water, so the Father, to be Father, must give out life. That is who he is. That is his most fundamental identity. Thus love is not something the Father has, merely one of his many moods. Rather, he is love. He could not not love. If he did not love, he would not be Father. (Delighting in the Trinity, 24–26)
Let that stick of dynamite explode any small, weak, or impersonal ideas about God. Refuse to let your visions of God be of some detached ruler hiding behind the clouds. Bring God home as Father, because he has brought you home, through Christ, as his son (Galatians 3:26–28).