“Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is wrong with us? That’s a nice, big question to start off the day. It’s also a question with a list of potential answers that would need a whole series of books to answer in a manner that is even remotely adequate. Still, there are perhaps a few things we could point to as particularly acute problems whose effects can be traced to a fairly wide swath of our culture’s current list of troubles. One of these is a lack of committed, involved fathers. Fatherlessness is a terrible blight on our society. It lies at the root of just nearly every social malady sociologists measure. With all of the language and illustrations of God using fatherhood as their starting point we find in the Scriptures, our culture’s lack of fathers also makes passages like this one harder for many folks to understand and appreciate than perhaps they should be. Let’s dig in a bit this morning and see if we can make some sense of what the author of Hebrews is saying here.
To an extent greater than we often give credit, an individual’s experience with their earthly father has an enormous impact on their ability to embrace God as their heavenly Father. We see father language for God used all over the Scriptures. Even when the language is not being used directly, we still see Him interacting with us like a father would with His children. But if your only experiences with fathers have been negative in some way, the moment you hear that father language being used with God, you’re going to tune out and be turned off by it. Why would you want to enter into a relationship that will remind you of all that pain you went through in your past? Working to characterize God as a good father in contrast to even the best earthly fathers can help with this roadblock, but only with gentleness and patience over time.
The truth is that there are many ways an earthly father can sour our understanding of a heavenly one. They can be abusive, absent, inattentive, angry, unloving, or excessively demanding, working out their own issues with their fathers (and mothers too) through their children. Another way earthly fathers can short circuit a person’s process of connecting with God is in the realm of discipline. Fathers who discipline unjustly, inconsistently, or vengefully can leave us with a very negative taste in our mouths when it comes to God’s discipline.
This potential relational snag looms large over what the author of Hebrews has to say here. This doublet of verses finds us deep into his argument about how we should understand hard times in our lives that are not the result of our own sinfulness. He has called us to persevere with our eyes fixed on Jesus, and to look at those various hard times as God’s efforts to train (i.e., discipline) us in the direction of becoming more fully who He designed us to be.
Having established that God’s discipline comes as a result of His love for us, He gives us something more concrete to understand here by drawing an illustration to human fathers. “We had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them.” And later, “For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them…”
Can we just state the obvious here? Those two statements rest on some very big assumptions that may or may not be true in a given person’s life. And if they aren’t true, the author’s entire argument risks falling completely to pieces. The hard reality is that some folks had fathers discipline them in ways that were wildly unjust, and they lost any respect they might have had for them because of it. Some fathers discipline based not on what seems good, but rather on what is convenient in a given moment. How do we reconcile this?
The author of Hebrews here is imagining, not necessarily a perfect father, but at least one who is genuinely trying to get it right and honor God in the process. Just because you have or had a dad who didn’t get it right most of the time, or even who was a complete screw up, doesn’t have any bearing on God’s character. It doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not God is the good, good Father Chris Tomlin sings about. Fathers who are the exception to the rule of God’s character don’t negate the rule. They prove it.
At the same time, though, folks who have had a terrible experience with their earthly father are still going to struggle with the idea of God’s being a Father. That lens is going to remain stubbornly in place for them…perhaps for you. So again, what do we do? A couple of things. First, we lean into God’s character. God is good. He is just. He is loving and kind and gentle and humble and holy and righteous in all His ways. He is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. He will not let evil go unaddressed (even our own evil), but always leans hard in the direction of restoration and reconciliation. His is committed to what is right and will pursue that even when it isn’t convenient or comfortable for us. But His pursuit of what is right doesn’t come at our expense. He invites us to be a part of it with Him. This means leaving behind what is wrong, something He helps us both understand and do if we’ll let Him. We make sure and highlight those characteristics even over and above any language of fatherhood.
Once we’ve done that, depending on the severity of the brokenness of someone’s relationship with an earthly father, we lean into the contrast between their father and God as Father. When we talk about God’s being a Father, His fatherhood cannot be divorced from His larger character. In fact, it flows out of it. You may have had a terrible father, but God is a good father. He is absolutely committed to you, and He always has your best interests at heart. His pursuit of those in and through you may not always feel good in a given moment, but that’s a result of your brokenness, not His. The end, though, will always exalt His glory and increase your joy. He is the perfect Father we have always desired and that we desperately need. He wants to be your heavenly Father who will neither leave nor forsake you. I hope you’ll accept Him.