When I was invited to write something on the fatherhood of God for Father’s Day, the honor and privilege blew me away. It made my chest puff like a frigate bird—I texted no less than a half-dozen friends. But just before that, quite the opposite emotion took flight, which I expressed to a friend via email: “I don’t think I can do this; I’m thinking about declining. . . . I don’t have anything clever to say.”
The frigate bird was a front. I’m really a prairie chicken—no less a puffed-up fowl, but chicken through and through—fearful of how you will score my performance in this piece.
And by now you’re wondering whether you’ve got anything else better to read.
You probably do.
But I’ll go on anyway, because as I prayed about what to write, I felt God telling me: “Tell them to stop keeping score, and surrender with all of their sinfulness to me, because I don’t play that game; I’m a Father who sees only my child redeemed in my Son.” So here we are.
Those of you who resonate with what I’ve said know we’re on to something here—it’s what lies beneath all the fear and score-keeping. If you were paying attention, you got a whiff of it. My testimony is a confession of how I live as if an orphan, racing like a pheasant under fire, back and forth between self-pity and self-promotion. So, if you find something helpful here, I’ll be glad. But, really, it’s me who needs to enjoy God’s fatherhood again.
Paul says in Romans, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (8:14 ESV). At first glance, it seems like what Paul means is that God’s sons reflect his character, attitudes, and actions. No doubt that’s true. Yet our God-reflecting actions aren’t Paul’s main point, nor is it the crux of being led by the Spirit. Note what Paul says next: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (8:15 ESV). This launches us on an altogether different trajectory.
Our Spirit-filled walk doesn’t make us sons, the Holy Spirit does. And “sonship” is the root of freedom. This freedom is spelled out to Peter in Matthew 17:25–26: “‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?’ And when he said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free’” (ESV).
Don’t miss that Jesus pronounced the end of religion—in the sense of its Latin etymology, from religare, “to return to bondage”—the end of trying to climb Jacob’s ladder by performing acts or smuggling anything under our vestments to fill out the shoulders. He’s denounced our entire way of being, for as Robert Capon has observed:
The entire human race is profoundly and desperately religious. From the dim beginnings of our history right up to the present day, there is not a man, woman, or child of us who has ever been immune to the temptation to think that the relationship between God and humanity can be repaired from our side, by our efforts. Whether those efforts involve creedal correctness, cultic performances, or ethical achievements—or whether they amount to little more than crassly superstitious behavior—we are all, at some deep level, committed to them. If we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by dint of our doctrinal orthodoxy, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Ruler of the Universe kindhearted, softheaded, or both (Capon, Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment , 176–77).
Religion is bad news; it traps us in a game we’ll forever and always lose. But the gospel is good news—it’s blown the whistle on the game and told us to hit the showers. The “Spirit of sonship” doesn’t lead deeper into religion, but deeper into the relational space in which we’re children whose immediate response to hurt pride is to cry out, “Abba! Father!” And it just so happens, the more we yearn for the Father, the more we reflect the character of Jesus.
When I was 15, my dad taught me to drive a manual transmission. We’d spent hours driving around a new subdivision, which had nothing more than paved roads and lot signs. I was getting the knack of it.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, the whole family had to go on some errand, and my dad asked if I’d like to drive—or, more likely, told me I was driving. We all piled into our brown, wood-paneled, rust-speckled Dodge Aries station wagon, my mother and brothers in the back seat and my dad riding shotgun. And when we hit the main road, my confidence took a trip to Caracas.
It was my first time on a busy road with a manual transmission, and we were puttering and jerking something horrible. Within moments a massive, black pickup truck filled the rearview mirror, his horn screaming for what seemed a century.
Obviously, I wasn’t doing it right, and neither the comments from the peanut gallery nor the blaring pickup were helping. That’s when my dad jumped to my defense—literally.
He unbuckled his seatbelt, rolled down the window, spun around in his seat, hopped onto the windowsill, and gave “hell-on-wheels” an obscene gesture and several choice words. After climbing back in, he simply said, “A little more gas, son. You’re doing fine.”
That’s a father fending off foes. That’s a father removing anxiety and fear. That’s a father endearing his son to himself. That’s grace.
Our heavenly Father isn’t upset that we’re not moving faster, or that we’re puttering and jerking. He doesn’t cuff us on the head, saying, “Can’t you get it right?” Rather, through the cross, he gives hell an obscene gesture, defending and encouraging us: “My kid is driving here—back off!”
Grace creates relational space in which the soul-cry “Abba! Father!” is possible. And that cry isn’t any old exclamation—“Cowabunga!” or “Goodness gracious!” or “Gadzooks!”—it’s a unconscious confession that I’m not an orphan. Here the Spirit is leading from fear and scorekeeping to freedom (2 Cor 3:17).
That’s an amazing space. Truly amazing things happen there.
In his wonderful book Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, Brennan Manning catches something of it: “To the extent that we allow the relentless tenderness of Jesus to invade the citadel of self, we are freed from dyspepsia towards ourselves. Christ wants us to alter our attitude towards ourselves and take sides with Him against our own self-evaluation” (Manning, Abba’s Child, 24–25).
God’s fatherhood puts us in touch with our true selves—“hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3 ESV)—releasing us from futile gyrations to perform and recommend ourselves to ourselves, to each other, and to our God out of need for approval and belonging. Even our yearning for praise and recognition recedes through surrender to the reality that we’re already beloved daughters and sons.
And this reality is true for birds of every feather. The Father’s grace trumps any score we—or others—keep for our lives. Remember that this Father’s Day—I’ll try to as well.
[[Sources: Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 176–77; Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 24–25.]]