Last year my spiritual focus was on “Knowing God” and one of the rich portions of that study was on the Fatherhood of God. As I was working my way through J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, I highlighted these words:
Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into His family and fellowship, and establishes us as His children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the father is a greater thing.
I love that thought: “to be love and cared for by God” as a father cares for his child.
You may struggle with the idea of God as a father because you have no positive context to understand fatherhood as a good thing. Your father may have been unkind, selfish, or even abusive. Or you may be like so many today who’ve grown up fatherless.
Thankfully, Scripture is full of touching portrayals of God as a gracious father. It is helpful to study these to get a better understanding of His character. One of my favorite narratives that gives us a glimpse of our Heavenly Father’s compassion is found in Luke 15. You probably are familiar with the story, but I encourage you to pull out your Bible and start reading in verse eleven to get a fresh perspective.
I’ll skip the self-centered rebellion of the son (you can read it in your Bible) and I’ll pick up the narrative in verse twenty:
[box]But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20–24) [/box]
I think we do a great disservice to the text if we focus on either of the prodigal sons (there were two of them, ya know . . .), rather than placing the greatest emphasis on the father’s love and grace displayed. The father had been watching and waiting. He knew his son was off track; living in a way that was shameful to the father and the family as well. But when the son made the return trip home, with a broken heart and repentant confession . . . the father was racing to meet him.
I’ve experienced this so often. When I make the slightest turn back toward Him, the Father more than meets me with a loving embrace. He blows me away with His kindness and gracious reception!
But living the prodigal life isn’t always so obvious to everyone else. Even when I don’t think I’m off track, when it’s not as obvious because I’m still going through the “obedient motions,” if my heart is operating in selfishness, I’m a prodigal; I’m in rebellion.
I’ve turned inward rather than outward, like the “other” prodigal, the one who stayed home and worked hard.
I’m skipping a bit and I don’t want you to miss out, so keep reading the text through the end of the chapter and watch this “other” prodigal’s ugly display:
[box]But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found. (vv. 28–32) [/box]
Do you see yourself at all in this passage?
Imagine thinking the Father shouldn’t pour out mercy. The older brother is filled with hatred, jealousy, and prejudice, wanting his brother to be punished rather than forgiven . . . what a pathetic (and sinful) reaction to God’s grace being shown to a wayward brother. The older brother doesn’t appreciate grace and he doesn’t know his father’s nature very well.
It is in the Father’s nature to wait for the return of His own, to compassionately embrace the repentant rebel, while also patiently entreating the self-righteous bigot.
What a promise he shares with the older son . . . and one His children share in as well: “you are always with me.” We never need to fear rejection or abandonment, but have the comfort as His children that He will always be celebrating our every return.
Which brother can you relate to most? How has the Father received you when you come to Him in repentance?