Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (AND OUR OWN)

When we were living in Venezuela many years ago, on one hot afternoon, a young man named Carlos sat on our veranda and under the trees in the chair opposite me. We were enjoying the shade and the breeze, and we were talking about the fatherhood of God.

“Since becoming a father myself,” I told him, “it is not quite so difficult for me to understand some of the things that God, as our Father, has been willing to do for us in the past, and still is doing for us.

“When I look at my own children, there is so much of myself that I see in them. This is not surprising, since they have inherited half of their genetic factors from me. When God made man, we are told that God made us in ‘his image.’ It is not that I understand all of the truths that are involved with this phrase, but whatever else it means; it means that when God looks at us, there are some things of himself that he sees in us.”

Carlos seemed to be listening intently to what I was saying, so I continued speaking.

“I am also able to understand a little more about the lengths to which God has been willing to go to redeem us. I do not pretend to comprehend entirely or even a small portion of all that is involved in our redemption, but what I am beginning to see is that it is God’s great love that was his motivation in redeeming us. I can see this fact because of the love that I find I have for my own children, even though my own love is far from perfect.”

Here Carlos stopped me.

“For me,” he said, “this is very difficult to understand. Certainly, I do not have the perspective of a father, only that of a son. Nevertheless, among my friends and I, we do not have an image of a father as one who loves us. All of us have had fathers who lived detached from family life, and who, on the occasions when they would come home, usually came home drunk and held us all in terror.

“Our fathers came home not to love us, but to beat us,” he said.



“It is because of this, that whenever anyone talks about God as our Father, we have a negative reaction. Our fathers were severe authoritarians and knew how to give out punishment for wrongdoing, but it was anger that motivated them instead of correction. We looked upon them as “punishers” (that is the word that he used - "castigadores" ). There was no element of love.” 
 

Earthly and Heavenly Fathers

Every Sunday in this church we all pray together, “Our Father, who is in heaven…”

God is revealed to us in the Scriptures as a Father to his children. For some people with troubled childhoods and who had fathers that were either abusive or absent, or even as in the case of Carlos, both of these, praying to our Heavenly Father is not a comforting thought. They view God as a “Punisher.” Some see God as a Father only in the sense of one who is only interested in castigating you when you do wrong. For these people, God is the true authority figure, but not the person to whom one would go to look for love.

Because of this, it is almost surprising to me that God has chosen to relate to us in terms of a Father to his children. He knew that the role of fatherhood would be very poorly demonstrated by earthly fathers. God is perfect in all of his ways, but in contrast, I have little doubt that even in the best examples of earthly fathers, there are some aspects of their fatherhood in which they are almost complete failures, or at least in which they could do a much better job. There is no question that our view of our own earthly fathers affects our view of God our Father. 
 

Are There Any Examples of Good Earthly Fathers?

Even when we look at the fathers in the Bible, we see very flawed individuals given to us as examples of fathers. Even King David, Israel’s greatest king and the man who was called “the man after God’s own heart”[1] failed miserably as a father. As we read the history of David’s family, we see that he was a very permissive in regards to the way that he raised his sons, besides being absent from them for much of the time.

His oldest son turned out to be a rapist, raping his own half-sister. David’s second son was the full brother of the girl, and for revenge for his sister’s rape, sent hit men to murder his own older half-brother. This second son then later tried to usurp the throne from David his father, actually sleeping with David’s concubines (plural). David was forced to flee for his life and go to war against his own son, ending with the son being killed in battle. These were only some of the appalling events surrounding the family of David. And of course we know of David’s own personal scandals. One could hardly call him a “successful” or an “ideal father.”

David is undoubtedly the most famous of fathers in the Bible who had failed in their duties as fathers, but by no means the only one. In fact, it is very difficult to find even one father in the Bible of whom we read nothing negative regarding the way that he raised his children or conducted himself in his personal life. 
 

Shall We Follow Bad Examples?

Actually, one of the things that I appreciate about the writers on the Bible is their honesty in regards to the people that they are writing about. These are people who are the patriarchs of our faith; the ones put up for us to follow as examples. Nevertheless, in spite of this, the writers of Scripture did not hold back when writing about their failures. They did not present them to us as saints who had no faults in their personalities or in their actions.

Do you see how significant this is to you and me? If we only knew of the positive aspects of these people, it would be for us a constant source of frustration. We would be in a continual state of self-condemnation when we found we could not live up to the standard that they had set.

That is not to say that failures are permissible and that we can overlook them. The Biblical accounts of these men also include the sometimes very severe consequences of the sins of the fathers. David for instance, had to endure the truth that two of his sons had been murdered, directly as a result of his poor actions as a father. It was not lightly that God told Moses centuries earlier that the iniquities of the fathers will undoubtedly by visited on their “children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”[2]

Thankfully however, there is more to the story, and that involves the love of the Lord. God also told Moses that he will also show his love “to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”[3] 
 

The Sins of Our Fathers (and Our Own)

You can read whatever particulars you think is fair into these statements by God, but it is a plain fact that we are all partially the spiritual products of our fathers, be it in one way or the other; that is, either positively or negatively. In addition, if you are a father, what you do in your life will have an effect upon your children. I think that it is fair to say that this also extends to mothers, since the term “fathers” is often used in a generic sense to speak of our ancestors. “Our forefathers” does not only mean our male ancestors, but also our female ancestors.

If your experience with your parents and especially with your father was a positive one, it inevitably will make it easier for you to have a positive image of who God is. However, if like my young friend Carlos, your father was only a punisher with no balancing factors of expressions of love, then it probably will be more difficult for you to have a healthy opinion of the personality of God. 
 

A Perfect Father

It is for this reason and as I earlier said, that I have sometimes wondered why God relates to us as a father to his children, while at the same time giving us imperfect earthly fathers at best, and downright evil fathers at the worst. Would it not have been better if God would have related to us in a way that in our experience on earth, is always positive?

Of course I do not know the answer to this, nor does God need to ask advice of anyone about what he does, much less ask me. However, it is interesting to me that in the same passage when Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven,” he also said something about this comparison of our earthly fathers with our Heavenly Father. 

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13) 

In a similar New Testament reference, he puts it, “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9) 
 

The Perfect Compared to the Flawed

I suppose that there are those fathers who actually do wish evil for their children. I cannot say that these types of depraved individuals do not exist at all. However, for the most part, fathers want good things for their children. Even those fathers who do things that are very detrimental for their children, in some twisted way in their reasoning, they think that they are “helping their children mature,” or “teaching them self-reliance,” or some other such thing. Or perhaps the fathers are simply so busy with their work and other aspects of their lives that they severely neglect their children, but it not as if they actually wish evil for them.

Jesus, in saying what he did, says that no father who is really a father, would give his child something harmful when the child asks for something good. This is the sentiment of fatherhood that God wants us to know when we think of the father/child relationship that we have with him. If even our earthly fathers try to do well for us, would we think it is different with our Heavenly Father? 
 

“Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Give Me What I Want”

That is why Jesus also tells us this in relation to the prayer that begins with “Our Father, who art in heaven…” 

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) 

It sounds good, but perhaps you are saying to yourself about some specific prayer, “I have asked, but so far I have not found or received anything.” Or, “I have been knocking on heaven’s door for years about this issue or problem in my life, and no one has yet opened it for me!” 
 

“My Father Who Art at the Dinner Table, Give Me What I Want”

When I was talking to my young friend Carlos on our porch in Venezuela, one of the matters that we were discussing was the way that God answers our prayers.

“My boys are like all boys,” I told him. “They are good boys but are also basically impatient. When they ask me for something, they would like to get it immediately. Very often and even usually I do immediately give them what they ask for, but not always.

“There are several reasons why I do not do this. Sometimes I know that the thing that they ask for is not really good for them, so I of course do not give it to them. But there are other times when I actually want to give them something even better than what they have asked me for, but it takes a bit longer to prepare it. Also, they are sometimes not yet old enough or not mature enough for the thing that they want, so I need to wait until the time is right. They need to learn about some things yet.

“However, in the eyes of my boys, when I am not immediately giving them what they asked for, they think that I did not hear what they asked me, or that I am not letting them have it. Perhaps they even think that I am unable to give it to them. But what they do not know is that all the time I am keeping it in mind and preparing it for them.” 
 

Ask and It Shall be Given

I continued explaining all of this to Carlos: “I think that God our Father is often like this in regard to our prayers. We ask him for something, but when it is not answered immediately, we think that God has not heard us. Or perhaps we think that he has denied our request, or does not care. Maybe we even think that he cannot do what we asked.

“However, does it ever occur to us that perhaps God has something even better in mind than what we asked for, but it is just that the time is not yet right for him to give it to us? Perhaps there is something that we need to learn first, or perhaps it is simply that God is preparing something so magnificent for us, that he is busy bringing all of the factors together in order that our request can be answered in such a way that it will exceed even what we had in mind.” 
 

Another Friend

Understandably, Carlos had a more difficult time relating to this. Coming from his background and with his previous experience with his own abusive and absentee father, he could not as readily see this.

But that does not change the reality of what I was saying.

I had another friend in Venezuela, one whom had asked me to help him learn English. This fellow’s name was Humberto. Humberto was actually from Medellín in Colombia, but had moved to Venezuela with his brother and brother’s family, because at the time, Medellín was a very violent place. In those years, the entire city and even a great part of the country was largely controlled by the very powerful and destructive drug cartel of Pablo Escobar.

While living in Colombia, Humberto had been shot in the spine by what the people called a sicarrio. These were people who were funded by the drug cartel to maintain control of local areas. The story behind Humberto’s injury is a little long and involved, but the short of it was that he was shot not only in the spine, but also in the head and at first not expected to live. He did survive, but as the result of that fateful day, Humberto became a paraplegic and was confined to a wheelchair.

There are few people whom I have ever known who have my respect as much as does Humberto. Not only was he mistakenly shot and paralyzed and now has his present difficulties of living in a mountainous region of Venezuela having only a very basic wheelchair, but when he was growing up, Humberto’s experience was much like that of Carlos in regard to his father.

Unfortunately, this situation of abusive fathers was a somewhat common experience among the people whom I knew in Latin America, just as it is becoming more so here. But Humberto’s response to his poor example of an earthly father was different from that of Carlos.

After telling me about his childhood and adolescent years and of the abuse of his own father directed toward him, Humberto told me, “Never did I know what a father’s love was until I met my Heavenly Father.” 
 

The Prodigal Father

Jesus told a story in Luke 15 of what has become known as “The Prodigal Son.” So widely known is this story and what it is named that most people probably do not know the true meaning of the word prodigal. Since the son was a rebellious lad, people often think that calling someone prodigal is the same as calling them rebellious.

But that is not the meaning of the word. The word prodigal actually means someone who spends money extravagantly and freely, and often also recklessly. If you know the story, the son surely also did this.

But there is someone else in the story that spent money in a similar fashion. However, this person did not spend it on himself. Here is how Jesus relates the story, picking it up at the moment when the son returned home:

The father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on my son, 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 15:22-24) 

This is perhaps the very best illustration of what our Heavenly Father longs to do for each one of us. But like the father in the story, he is waiting. He is watching for you, wondering when you will return home.

The only thing that is required of us is to admit what a mess that we have made of our lives, and make a move to return home. You will find our Heavenly Father waiting for you there, with all the gifts that he intends to give to you.






[1] 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22


[2] Exodus 34:9


[3] Deuteronomy 5:10

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