Recently I watched a documentary called “Absent”, which is essentially about the effects that fathers have on their children’s development growing up, and the consequences of not having a father growing up. For men, the father’s role is crucial in establishing one’s identity, as we model our attitudes and behaviours after our fathers. And for a girl, a father’s love is essential in establishing her self worth. When a young man, in particular, has no fatherly influence, they struggle with questions of “What does it mean to be a man?” “How am I to treat women?” and “How am I supposed to handle power and authority?” And this can happen even when a father is physically present but is simply emotionally or socially distant. And even during a child's teenage years when they themselves push their fathers away, it is a father's persistence in having an interest in their child's life that demonstrates his love to the child, and gives a child that sense of worth that we all need. Unfortunately, of course, there are many bad fathers in this world who do grievous emotional damage to their children. No father is perfect... but there is One who is perfect, and it's a very carefully chosen metaphor the Bible uses when it refers to God as our Father. He is the One who loves us as no earthly father can. And where the role of a father is to help us establish our identities in life, so too does God, far more perfectly than any earthly father we have.
When I became a Christian and began to read and study my Bible, and as I began to learn more about God, everything that I learnt began to shape my life and how I related to people. One thing that changed in regards to my relationship with my children was that I began to realize, from what I learned in the Bible, that as a father I had a great deal to do with helping my children learn their own identities. And so, for example, I stopped telling my children “Don’t do this or that or else I'll punish you in some way!” Instead I would say, “Don’t do this or that because that’s not what we, in this family, are like.” In other words, I tried to teach them right behaviour not as some way to avoid undesirable consequences, but rather as part of their very identity. And I was delighted when, listening to a certain Bible teacher give a lecture, that he too had done the same with his children as a result of what he’d learnt from the Bible. You see, we as fathers are really only human examples of God the Father, and therefore quite flawed. What we’re doing as fathers is imitating what God the Father does. Our identities come from our fathers in part, but truly and ultimately we find our identities in God. “Why be good?” … Because we are God’s children. There is no better rationale for being good... we are to be good because of who we are. And who are we? We are God’s children. This is what the Bible teaches.
One of the key Bible verses which has changed and shaped my whole life is this...
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
This illustration of looking into the mirror, which is the Word of God, and seeing your true self there has had a tremendous impact on me. You see, God made us “in His image”, but we became corrupt. We tend to think of our identity as “Whoever we happen to be” or “Whoever we choose to be”. But actually, God made us to be righteous and perfect, and we are not who we truly are due to the corruption of sin. Perhaps we can understand it this way... how often have we watched a movie scene like this where a good a kind man is somehow drugged or mind-controlled or possessed, and as he bears down on his victim, perhaps his own wife, trying to strangle them, she is crying out “Stop! Please! This isn’t you! Please, try to remember who you are!” Of course, this character can’t remember at that moment... but what if that’s us? What if we aren’t who we’re supposed to be? In the Spiritual reality we live in, it’s not that we once were righteous and have forgotten; rather that God has intended for us to be righteous but we have always been corrupt. Nevertheless, God the Father aims to make His children as they ought to be – this is what the Bible teaches.
Just as children learn how they are supposed to behave from their fathers, so we are to learn from our Father who we are supposed to be in life. The message of the Bible is not “obey My commands or else” but “obey My commands because that's who you truly are.” We're not supposed to be righteous out of fear or compulsion. The only kind of righteousness that God loves is when we freely do good, from the heart. As He said in rebuke to the people of Israel, “this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Most people who consider themselves moral will say “That's just who I am.” In other words, their morality is part of their identity. This is good. I would also say the same of myself; that I do good because that's who I am... but I go further to say “And I am who I am because of what God has made me to be.”
In the documentary “Absent”, I was most touched to hear the response of a teenage girl when asked about her promiscuity, and whether having a father would have made a difference in her life. She said “It would've made all the difference... First off, when you have a Dad, someone to protect you, someone to want to meet every guy that you go out with and, you know, lay down the law. [To say] ‘You respect my daughter and you don't do this or you don't do that.’” It seems certain that what many promiscuous women needed was a father to tell them that they were worth “more than this”. Similarly, the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians not to commit sexual immorality saying “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” And rather than see this as God's way of saying “You'll behave yourself because I own you!”, as perhaps I might have once read this passage, I look at it as God saying “Behave yourself because this is how much I love you!” The price He paid was the life of Jesus Christ, God's own Son. This is how much He values us. And what God wants from us is simply that Father-child relationship. It upsets me when my children do wrong simply because that's not who they ought to be. And this is what God wants from us... for us to be as we ought to be. Don't say “Why can't God love me for who I am?” because the truth is that who you are is not your true self and is inferior to who you should be! It is far more loving of God for Him to want you to be your true self... to be the righteous and perfect Creation that He made in the beginning. And the very institution of marriage and fatherhood exists so that we can model for our children what God the "true Father" is like.
Did He not make [husband and wife] one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. (Malachi 2:15)