Whenever Father’s Day rolls around again, it seems like someone in my church circle asks this question.
It’s a good question, because a lot of what we learn from our own fathers can frame our understanding of God as Father, but it also seems in some ways a very American one.
Americans are obsessed with the father-child relationship. It comes into almost every film an American has had a hand in, from The Empire Strikes Back to Despicable Me. It would be interesting to speculate on why this is, but in this post I want to actually answer the question.
The contrast between the sorts of responses I’ve typically given to this question and the sorts of responses I’ve heard from almost every American I’ve heard give an answer are striking. They are different enough, in fact, that in answering this question I tend to feel more like an alien than at any other time except perhaps the Fourth of July.
In my experience, the number one thing Americans say about their Dads is Hard Worker.
There are various forms this takes, but in essence it’s the same. The value of hard work. Always working around the house. Doing whatever was needed to keep things working.
It’s not that my Dad was lazy, but hard worker simply isn’t what I most associate with him and what I consider I learned from him.
So while everyone else is talking about working hard and putting in an honest day’s work, I’m talking about how Dad would never let other people’s opinions slow him down, about generosity, about knowing what you want and then going for it wholeheartedly.
Dad’s never been afraid to be in a minority, even a minority of one. If he knows he’s right, the whole world can be against him and he simply doesn’t care. He wants to do the best thing (at least, as far as he sees it), and whether that is simple or very hard is nigh-on irrelevant.
When making decisions in a group setting, the absolute worst thing you can say to him is “we’ve never done it that way before”. Say that, and it’s a virtual guarantee that that will become the way he wants it. Other people’s opinions, whether current or filtered through the overarching structure of tradition, simply don’t matter to him.
It’s given me a unique perspective on the world. I come from a country famous for being attached to its traditions, but my father would seem to break traditions just to watch them explode, especially if he could see a better way.
His desire to do the best thing carries over into his generosity. As a child, I knew our family weren’t made of money. There were things I might have asked for for Christmas some years that I didn’t want badly enough to ask my parents to pay the massive price tag involved (a Grifter bike like some of my friends had was what I can currently remember). I figured that I could ask for it, but I probably wasn’t going to get it, so why go through the motions?
I do remember one year, though. I was completely obsessed with lego, and Space lego was a brand new thing. These were the original blue-brick sets with grey wings, yellow-tinted windows and a gold planet logo on the front. The spaceman figures came in all-red and all-white suits only (though they later introduced first yellow and then blue-suited spacemen) and specially-shaped bricks were the minority rather than the norm.
The ultimate set of these original space lego kits was the big Space Cruiser. I can’t remember how much it cost, but it seemed like an exorbitant amount to my child brain.
I can remember calculationg to myself, “Well, I’m pretty sure the Space Cruiser is out of reach, but I might be able to ask for the next one down, the Space Transporter.
The Transporter was pretty cool-looking. It had a little moon buggy thing that came out of the back of it. (So did the Space Cruiser, but they didn’t show it on the box so I wasn’t aware of it). I would have been well satisfied with the Transporter.
Come Christmas Day and the opening of main family presents in the afternoon, I unwrapped the big present from Mum and Dad to find… The Space Cruiser itself. The big mama of all the original space lego sets.
I actually thought at first that they’d got it by mistake, thinking it was the smaller Transporter. The two ships were alike enough in appearance that you could get them confused. Had they got it for me thinking it was the smaller set I’d asked for?
But no. This is my Dad’s generosity at work. I got the Space Cruiser I had really wanted but hadn’t dared to ask for.
He’ll spend whatever he needs to spend (within reason) to get something that the recipient will be really happy with. If that’s a small amount, that’s what he’ll spend. If it’s a big amount, he’ll try and find a way to make it affordable.
Stack that up against your hard worker for what my father taught me about God.
The biggest thing I learned from my Dad, though, the one thing he tried to impress on me, was “you can do anything you set your mind to”. High expectations? Yeah, but in fairness, not unreasonably so. I was a lazybones as a kid, and more critically, hadn’t a clue what I wanted. I know it must have aggravated him; his whole mindset was geared towards knowing what you wanted to achieve and then wholeheartedly working toward it, not letting anyone tell you you couldn’t.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and was brainy enough that I didn’t often need to make much effort in learning things. It carried over into a tendency to coast and drift, and Dad was determined that I wasn’t going to get away with it.
This is as close to the value of hard work that my Dad got. But it was more about working smart, using all of your powers, putting the effort in to make something of yourself.
I never had to deal with the situation some people describe, though, where they want to be a chef or a journalist or whatever and their father was determined that they should follow in his footsteps and join the Army. Dad made sure I always knew that the decision about my future was mine, not his. He just wanted me to hurry up and make it.
Whatever I decided, once I’d really made my decision, I knew that he’d back me, even if it wasn’t the one he’d have made. (If it wasn’t the one he’d have made, he’d try to talk me into his way of seeing, but it was almost like he wanted you to fight him sometimes. Like his opposition was more of a test to see how badly you wanted something. If you were willing to argue with him over it, you had the right level of commitment.)
Give him credit, too; the rules he laid down were always negotiable if you could present a good case. If it really wasn’t working, he was always willing to revisit it. Responsibility, not rules, was what drove him.
So this is what I learned from my Dad. Independence, Generosity, Commitment, Responsibility.
The really interesting part is when you make the step to think about what those imply about God.
I learned that truth is not a popularity contest. I learned that God doesn’t care about What Everyone Thinks as much as he cares about Doing The Right Thing. I learned that God is more generous than we sometimes dare to ask; that He’ll do whatever it takes to bring us an eternal happiness that will not fade. I learned that He cares about commitment. And most of all, I learned that He is not a rules mechanic. He doesn’t want legalism, He wants our hearts right with Him. He couldn’t care less about the religious niceties of our “do this”es and “don’t do that”s. He will, in fact, sometimes bust those wide open just to watch them explode.
A happy Father’s Day to all. I’m off to enjoy the day with my own father. For once I have him here with me.