People say strange things to a kid who's lost his dad. Well, they seemed strange to me. "You're the man of the house now," one aunt told me at my father's funeral, dabbing her eyes with bunched-up tissues. "You must take care of your mom and sister."
As a kid just finishing third grade, I wasn't sure what to make of this. I certainly didn't feel like a man. And I imagined that this honor wouldn't get much mileage in everyday life. One does not say to one's mother, "I won't be eating my vegetables this evening. I'm the man of the house now."
Another thing people said — once we started attending church — was that God would be my father. He was the "father of the fatherless," and the "protector of widows" (Psalm 68:5). Could any other truth be more appropriate for our family?
They meant well, I know, but I quickly recognized that the term father, as it applied to God, didn't have precisely the same meaning as the word used to describe a guy who lives with a mother and some children. Yes, God was the powerful Creator, the source of wisdom, truth and love — but He wasn't going to be there to help a kid with his history homework or to throw a football around. The Architect of snowflakes and solar systems wasn't known for taking 10-year-old boys out for breakfast to talk about what sex means.
A father was in a home — not on a throne.
The Son's invitation
It's true, of course, that God presents himself as a father. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes more than 150 references to God as a father. For the Jews of that time, this was a new way of addressing God. While Old Testament writers sometimes described God using qualities of earthly fathers (and mothers), Jesus referred to God using more informal, intimate language. He also invites us into this relationship, teaching us to address God as "our Father in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). It is only through Christ's work on the Cross that we are adopted into this family relationship (Ephesians 1:5).
Some people may have a difficult time relating to God as a father. Fatherhood is an idea that we're all very familiar with, and we may project our expectations or experiences of what a father should be, or has been, onto our heavenly Father. A boy who longs for a dad has a hard time seeing God as capable of filling that role. A girl who feels she has to succeed in sports and school to earn her father's approval may see her relationship with God in a similar way. For others, the word father may bring up memories of abuse or neglect. How tragic that such a beautiful facet of God's character — that He is not a distant, impersonal ruler, but a warm and welcoming papa — is often tainted by the weaknesses of human fathers!
As a dad, I don't want my presentation of fatherhood to hurt my kids' ability to see God as their heavenly Father. But it's perhaps more important that we help our children recognize the foundational truth here: that God, in all His power and glory, is best understood as a loving, intimate Father.
Glimpses of His character
As you read Scripture with your children, you'll see that Jesus often illustrates God's kingdom by using pictures that we are familiar with: seeds and soils, sheep and the Shepherd. For those who thirsted after truth, the parables of Jesus were profound, memorable windows into the nature of God. When Jesus calls God a father, we might think this is another metaphor: that God, while not being an actual human father, shares some similarities to earthly dads. But as Pastor Gene Veith writes, we should see God as the actual, literal father. "Earthly fathers have certain remote similarities to Him,” Veith says. "The essence of fatherhood is found in God, not in human beings."
My daughter Mikayla recently showed me some photos she'd taken. There were pictures of flowers and horses, along with a series of snapshots I can only describe as "sisters jumping down stairs." As I clicked through the photos, Mikayla talked about what those scenes had really looked like — how the flowers and horses had been more beautiful, the stair-jumping even goofier — if only she'd been able to get the focus, lighting and timing right. Hasn't every photographer, whatever their level of expertise, thought something similar?
I tell my kids that just as a photograph can never capture the full experience of something, the pictures we have available to understand God are limited by our inherent inability to recognize the depth of His glory and goodness. The image of an earthly father, as a way of understanding God, is a good picture — and it's made clearer the better dads do their jobs — but it is still just a partial glimpse at something much bigger.
God is the actual, literal Father. To help kids understand this, we can highlight the following five truths, which paint a profound (yet still incomplete!) picture of our heavenly Father:
He is the source of life. Fathers have an important part in contributing to the life of children. As you lead your kids, help them recognize how their heavenly Father is the source of all life. Visit zoos, aquariums and arboretums together, enjoying the vast spectrum of life that wouldn't exist without our Creator Father.
He lovingly corrects us. As the true Father, God's discipline and correction are always done out of love (Hebrews 12:3-11). Help your kids recognize the ways that God's Spirit corrects us in our everyday decisions and interactions with others, how we can feel Him prodding us toward decisions that reflect His love and truth, and how we feel convicted when we choose to disobey.
He provides for our needs. Show your kids all the ways God provides for our needs. Celebrate rainstorms and apple trees and lakes full of fish. How much joy the true Father must receive when we enjoy all the good gifts that He has provided through creation (Matthew 7:11).
He gives us His wisdom. We help our kids learn life skills and encourage them in their gifts and talents. But help them see that true wisdom comes from our heavenly Father. His inspired Word is the ultimate source of wisdom and truth (2 Timothy 3:16-17d).
He always welcomes us back. We forgive our children when they mess up, and we try to help them make better choices in the future. Help your kids recognize that this is just a glimpse of God's role in our lives. He is the ultimate model of forgiveness. We all mess up, but our true Father is constantly on watch for our return, running to us with joy when we turn back to His family (Luke 15:11-32).Vance Fry is a senior associate editor for Focus on the Family magazine.