One day, an Australian seminary student met a teenager living on the streets of Melbourne and struck up a conversation. As he tried to share the Gospel, he asked pointedly, “What is God like?”
What a loaded question! The seminary student had one chance to share the Good News and felt pressured to come up with just the right answer. His mind raced. Reflecting on what he’d learned in his recent studies, he replied, “God is like a father.”
Without hesitation, the teenager snapped, “Well, if he’s anything like my old man, you can have him,” and walked away. Later, the student learned from a social worker that the boy’s father had repeatedly beaten his mother and raped his sister. The word “father” had dredged up all kinds of emotions and terrible memories, and the door to sharing the Gospel had been slammed shut.
This story vividly illustrates the relationship between the impressions left on us by our earthly fathers and our perceptions of God. Because this teenager had a bad experience with his own father, he was unable to grasp the goodness, kindness, and loving nature of the heavenly Father.
Ideally, our experiences with our fathers should point us to the heart of a greater Father who loves us more than any earthly father ever could. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Maybe you’ve felt the sting of a clenched fist or recall the haunting, cruel words of a childhood incident. Maybe you never heard your father say, “I love you.” Countless people have told me, “I have no problem believing Jesus loves me, but I can’t seem to relate to God as my Father.” More often than not, they were emotionally or physically abused while growing up, or their fathers were never there for them. If you’ve had a bad experience with your father, it may not be easy to relate—consciously or subconsciously—to God as your Father.
What do you think God is like?
How do you perceive Him?
The Affirming Father
Many of us grew up in homes that were performance-driven. Our fathers may have only expressed approval after he thought we’d accomplished something of significance. The pat on the back, the words “Well done!” or an extra long embrace were only given after we had excelled in something like education, sports, music, or employment. While our achievements should have been recognized and celebrated, they should never have been a prerequisite for receiving our father’s love and affirmation.
This performance-oriented mentality eventually spills over into our Christian lives. Initially as young believers, we may sense God’s unconditional love and enjoy the simplicity of relationship with Christ, but it’s not long before we think we aren’t doing enough. This mindset ingrained in us from childhood rears its ugly head and starts haunting us again. It suggests to us that we can’t run hard enough, chase God fast enough, pray enough, serve enough, or be in church enough.
But our heavenly Father never bases His love and affirmation of us on what we do for Him—His acceptance is completely unconditional. You can’t do anything to win His approval. He loves you fully, and that will never change because you are in Christ. And grace can never be repaid. It carries no price tag – not because it’s worthless, but because it’s priceless.
Merely disciplining ourselves in Christian practices will never produce lasting joy in our lives. Too many of us are doing things out of duty rather than delight. We’re praying and reading our Bibles out of routine rather than enjoying our relationship with God. We live with continual guilt, feeling that we aren’t doing enough for Him. We try to get up early every morning and spend quality time with Him, but it’s never enough. We memorize Scripture and witness to everything that breathes, but always come away feeling we haven’t accomplished enough. We’re consumed with a fear of punishment for not measuring up.
We have been programmed to believe that our success in life is based on what we do.
But what is our Father’s view of success? The Scriptures clearly reveal that what makes a man or woman successful is not what they do; true success is being loved by God and being lovers of God. Psalm 18:35 says, “You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great” (NIV).
What makes our lives valuable? It’s God’s extravagant love for us—not our accomplishments. Our worth is defined by the fact that He created us for Himself; He doesn’t want our efforts as much as He wants us. He certainly does enjoy what we do for Him. But most of all, He enjoys us!
The Approachable Father
Some of us also had fathers who were overly strict and stern. They placed demands on us that often broke our spirits, ruling the home with a mixture of fear and guilt. Instead of offering love and affirmation, they may have continually pointed out our faults and mistakes—perhaps thinking they would motivate us to “try harder.”
If you grew up with a dad who was demanding or abusive, you may have difficulty receiving your heavenly Father’s love; you may tend to think He’s always looking for some fault in you. As a result, it may be hard for you to picture Him smiling over you in loving approval and acceptance.
Like a beaten puppy, you may actually be afraid of God, assuming He’s just like the other authority figures in your life. But you must realize that He is different from any other authority figure you’ve ever known. He isn’t perpetually angry with you or just putting up with you; He enjoys you even in your struggles.
I’ve been blessed with two sons. When they were babies, they couldn’t communicate with me. They couldn’t even play golf with me. All they did was eat, sleep, and make messes. But I loved them intensely! Now that they are adults, I don’t love them any more than I did when they were babies. They were just in a different season of their lives.
1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (NIV). Do you get the message? God is not an authoritarian Father. He doesn’t want you shrinking back in fear or apprehension of Him.
The true fear of the Lord is not a tormenting fear or an emotional fear. It’s not even a fear of punishment in this life or the life to come. The fear of God is the sense of awe we experience when we’re brought face to face with the transcendent (unequaled, surpassing, matchless) splendor and beauty of who He is and the incredible love that He has for us. It is this awe and reverence that can bring us close to the Father’s heart and lead us into a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness.
Because of our past experiences, many mistake divine correction for divine rejection. But the Father’s correction is deeply rooted in His affections for us. While He may be displeased with a certain area in our lives, He is not displeased with us as individuals—as Proverbs 3:12 says, “the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (NIV). Although He sees the undeveloped areas of our character, He also hears the willing cry of our spirits. As we set our hearts on loving and obeying Him, He will make adjustments in our lives until we come to maturity.
The Affectionate Father
In 1996, Christopher Robin Milne died in England. You may recognize the name. His father was the famed children’s author A. A. Milne, who named the lead human character in his Winnie-the-Pooh books after his son.
But according to Milne’s tragic obituary, his father spent little time with him. He was too busy making other children laugh and smile through his writings to take time for his own son. Christopher died in his 70s, hating his world-renowned father because he failed to live the kind of life he depicted in his books.
Like the younger Milne, a lot of us grew up with passive fathers. They seemed distant and rarely got involved in our personal lives. They weren’t very affectionate and rarely showed any emotion. So we have difficulty understanding God as our Father, because we view Him as distant and aloof. Our earthly fathers never expressed their love and affection for us or spent quality time with us. They didn’t seem to notice our joys, our sorrows, our struggles, or our successes. This has led us to believe that God doesn’t care about the details of our lives. We then find ourselves running to Him only in an emergency. Our relationship with Him never deepens or becomes intimate because, in the back of our minds, we fear that God is not really interested in us.
But just the opposite! You are special to Him. There has never been another human being quite like you, and there never will be. You make Him smile. You make Him laugh. The Bible even says you make Him sing for joy. Whether you understand that or not doesn’t stop God from responding to you in this way.
He looks at you and grins. You are your Father’s unique boy or girl, bringing Him pleasure and delight in a way no one else ever could. He loves your freckles and funky-shaped toes—and He loves your heart. He loves you when you’re awake, vibrant, and full of life. And He loves you just as much when you’re down, struggling, and lethargic. He even loves you when you’re sleeping. He loves you when wake up—even with morning breath and “sleep” tucked in the corners of your eyes. He can’t wait to hear your first thoughts. He looks forward to accompanying you throughout the day and talking with you. He loves watching you enjoy His creation. He smiles when you look at the mountains, sea, or sky and think of Him. Just being with you is enough.
The truth is, God really likes you. In fact, He enjoys you. You may not think you measure up, but He does. He isn’t tolerating you. He isn’t waiting for you to become more mature in your Christian walk; He loves you right where you are, even in your weakness and immaturity. He’s not keeping a record of your mistakes or the times you blew it. Thanks to the gracious act of His Son, He sees you perfectly redeemed!
S.J. Hill is a gifted teacher and leader in the Body of Christ with over 37 years of experience in the ministry. S.J. has authored four books: BURNING DESIRE, ENJOYING GOD, PERSONAL REVIVAL, and GOD’S COVENANT OF HEALING. He and his wife, Pam, are the parents of two sons, Jonathan and Lance.