It’s that time of the year again. The time when multitudes flock to Hallmark aisles and stand awkwardly among strangers as they are confronted with one of the most powerful, delicate, and potentially painful relationships known to humanity. That’s right—Father’s Day. The day set apart to celebrate fatherhood and honor those who, for better or worse, have the greatest impact upon society in general and their children in particular. What is it about the relationship with our dads (or lack thereof) that contributes greatly to shaping who we are and what we become? Why can one father enable a young woman to flourish in her femininity, while another promotes her downward spiral? Why does the presence of a father nurture a son’s masculinity, while his absence fosters a sense of insecurity and confusion? Could it be that earthly fathers possess such influence because of the way in which they point towards the heavenly Father?
God ordained fatherhood to reveal his own essential nature. This fundamental role was built into the family structure from the beginning to make visible the invisible God. God willed that earthly fathers would mirror him as the perfect heavenly Father and thus teach their children about his nature and attributes.
There is a powerful relationship between the knowledge of an earthly father and understanding of the heavenly Father. When a dad is merciful, patient, and loving towards his children they have a better chance of understanding the paternal nature of Yahweh when he reveals himself as “A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6). Conversely, if the only picture a child has of his father is an angry man who doesn’t like to be interrupted while watching golf (or who takes off altogether!), there’s a greater likelihood that child will struggle to see God as a loving, committed Father.
We see this correlation clearly in Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 7:9-11,
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Jesus reveals that the provision of an earthly father teaches us to trust in the provision of our heavenly Father and openly present our needs to him. He reasons from the lesser to the greater: if earthly fathers (who are fallen) have an innate impulse within to provide for their children how much more does the heavenly Father (who is perfect) desire to meet the needs of his children!
This passage resonates with me. My dad is single-handedly the most generous man I’ve ever met. There is not a stingy bone in his body! Though he’s a fallen man, he always provided for my needs. It never crossed my mind that he wouldn’t provide for me—I simply knew he would. Consequently, during my thirteen years as a Christian I’ve never doubted that God the Father would meet all of my needs. I’ve always approached his throne to openly present my requests believing that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17).
It’s not a coincidence that an attribute my earthly father excelled in is an attribute I’ve always understood about my heavenly Father. His generosity mirrored the Father’s generosity and taught me about the lavish nature of God’s heart. My perception of the Father was shaped by my experience with my dad. I’m not alone in this.All fathers (again, for better or worse) daily disciple their children and teach them, perhaps unconsciously, about the character of God.
Dads As Disciple-Makers
Because of the divinely appointed influence the role of “father” has in teaching others about God the Father, all dads are disciple-makers. If you are a father or acting as a father figure in someone’s life, you have a tremendous task before you.
1. Recognize This Responsibility.
Every day you are creating little disciples! Your words, actions, and emotions teach those around you about the nature of God and his heart towards them. You have the opportunity to cultivate an atmosphere in which children are drawn towards the heavenly Father. In the way you shepherd their little hearts through conversation, discipline, laughter, you are creating fertile soil for the reception of the gospel. You’re constantly painting a picture of a Father they will one day desire to know (or not know) and training their adolescent affections to long for a relationship with him. Daily you are doing the preparatory work that makes way for the gospel to be received when the time is ripe.
2. Accept the Reality.
You will fail at this task! Despite your best intentions, you cannot perfectly image God the Father. You are a broken man who needs Jesus as much as your children do. This doesn’t mean you don’t take seriously your responsibility as a father, but it does mean you do so with an informed understanding of the gospel. The gospel tells us that we all fail to image God, but Jesus came as the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) and perfectly revealed the nature of the Father (Heb. 1:3). He died in your place for all your failure, including your failure as a father, and rose to life for the forgiveness of your sins (1 Cor. 15:3-4). He ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit so you could have his indwelling presence helping you walk in covenant faithfulness (Ezek. 36:27). As a believer, you have God’s own Spirit within you empowering you to lead your children towards the heavenly Father.
3. Walk in Repentance.
Your children don’t need you to be perfect; they need you to repent! The danger of emphasizing your role as a father is that you could walk away thinking you need to be the capital “H” hero of your children’s lives. You can’t be the hero of their stories anymore than you can be the hero of your own story. This isn’t a legalistic pep rally urging you to be the “Superman/Superdad” figure in your household. What a false burden to bear! The exhortation is to cultivate an environment in your home that illuminates the true capital “H” Hero of the story—Jesus Christ. You do this by walking in continual repentance in front of your children. When you sin tell your children you messed up, ask for Jesus’ forgiveness in front of them, and point them towards the perfect Dad who will never fail them. As you repent openly and frequently you will create a safe place for your children to experience transparency and intimacy leading them towards the perfect Dad.
To All Fathers
Gospel-Centered Discipleship wants to wish all of the dads a very Happy Father’s Day! May you richly cherish the love of your heavenly Father even as you pour out that grace-infused love upon your children. Always remember, “Children are a heritage from the LORD” (Ps. 127:3) and “Blessed is the man who fills his quivers with them!” (Ps. 127:5). God has tasked you with a special role in your children’s lives only you can play. May you walk in this responsibility with much humility, joy, and reliance on the Spirit of God.
To my own dad, Lonnie Byers, Happy Father’s Day! I know our story wasn’t exactly “perfect” and it won’t ever end up on a Hallmark card, but that’s just as well. Ours is the story of repentance and redemption in a broken, fallen world that has provided ample opportunity to experience the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, more deeply together. That’s something Hallmark doesn’t know how to market. I wouldn’t change a thing! Even during hard times you always met my needs, thus preparing my heart to understand the lavish generosity of my heavenly Father when I came to know him. I am eternally grateful to you for how you mirrored the image of God the Father in this.
Thank you for all you’ve done Dad. Love, Whit
Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God’s Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving the local church. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.