In something I was writing to a friend the other day, I said that we should be very careful when pointing to the Father of Jesus in drawing lessons on how to be a good parent. For example, I asked, should I send my son to his death? Or turn my back on him at his moment of greatest need?
For as long as I’ve been a father, I have wondered about the possibility of taking God the Father as my example of how to be a dad. But each time I approach the idea, I always fall back, feeling it to be rather unattainable. This is mostly because of the infinity of God. There are no limits to His wisdom, no limits to His knowledge of the inner most thoughts of His children’s hearts. And perhaps more daunting than any other comparison, there are no limits to His energy. No matter what we, His children, do, we cannot wear Him out. This is definitely is not true of the father of my children. I marvel at how much brattiness He allows His children to get away with, knowing just how to let us reap what we sow for the maximum long run benefit to ourselves and our relationship to Him. The thought of trying to be that kind of father for my kids frankly exhausts me. But here and there, I do try.
But the question I began with was whether or not it would be profitable for me to look for an example to follow at the way God the Father relates to His Son Jesus. Hmmmmm…
One time, several years ago, I called my son up onto the stage with me to use him in a visual sermon illustration. In the illustration, I was the Father, my son was the Son, and a friend from our fellowship stood in as the Holy Spirit. As Tanner came up to the stage, I said to everyone, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am… mostly well-pleased.” The laughter that came from the congregation seemed to understand what I meant. There were, indeed, many parents in the room.
The truth is, whether or not I could claim to be well-pleased at any given moment with my son or his sisters, I love them with so great a love, I really cannot describe it. Really. In fact, that’s why it may not make sense to some readers, but just to think of them—any one of them—fills my heart with both love and a sense of dying. Weird, huh?
When you love someone enough—no, it’s not about quantity, but quality—when you love someone so as to be willing to die for them, and that love is something that fills your heart everyday, it begins to leave the pretaste of death as a constant presence. When your kid’s heart breaks, you die a little. When your kids go out into a world full of dangers, and you know without having to think about it that you would die to keep them safe, you feel a little like you actually have died. Your prayers for them begin to take on a dying-for-them quality. I really don’t think I can explain it better than that.
Now I look back again at the questions I asked my friend: Should I send my son to his death? And should I turn my back on him at his moment of greatest need? Let me answer these one at a time.
First, the question of whether I should send my son to his death. Well, obviously I can’t do these things… right? Only God has strength enough to do that, right?
Tell that to Abraham.
There is really nothing about God’s expectation of Abraham in Genesis 22 that does not pertain to my role as the father of my children today in the 21st century AD. Indeed, God asks me to sacrifice my children to Him each day.
This is what the Lord Jesus says: “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
Just as my love for my own self must be laid on the cross, so must my love for my family. Each day, as I watch my son and youngest daughter go out the door to board the bus for school, I must sacrifice them to the cross of Jesus. I think of their older sisters, so far away, living the life of college students, and I have to sacrifice them to the cross of Jesus. Only by doing so can I keep them forever.
Strange as it may sound, it is true. A. W. Tozer wrote of Abraham’s tortured experience in going to the region of Moriah to offer Isaac,
God let the suffering old man go through with it up to the point where he knew there would be no retreat, and then forbade him to lay a hand upon the boy. To the wondering patriarch he now says in effect, “It’s alright Abraham. I never intended that you should actually slay the lad. I only wanted to remove him from the temple of your heart that I might reign unchallenged there. I wanted to correct the perversion that existed in your love. Now you may have the boy, sound and well. take him and go back to your tent. Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing, that thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.”
Is there really anything different from this in what God wants for and expects from me in relation to my children? Well… okay, He hasn’t asked me literally to take them out the countryside and kill them and offer them as burnt offerings. I am glad that I am not asked to do anything that drastic.
But, then again, am I not? In fact, might I not even dare to say that God’s challenge to me is greater than the one to Abraham. Mine is a harder sacrifice for the very reason that it is easier. Abraham came to the horrid brink in a comparatively brief moment of time, and once it was over (if Tozer is right), he would ever after know that his love of Isaac had been purified by the fire of the test. But I am asked to take my kids to the Moriah of my heart every day, and while I know that I will not be asked to kill them as Abraham was, I also know that the job of offering them to God will never be done as long as I live this life on earth!
Yet it is not Abraham’s example as a father that we are considering here; it is God’s, specifically God’s being the Father of Jesus. In his book, The Unfolding Mystery, Edmund Clowney beautifully shows the connection of Abraham and God the Father:
Calvary demonstrates the love of the Father for us…. Abraham was asked not to spare his beloved son. We feel the wrench on his heart as Isaac asks, “Father, where is the lamb?” Yet Abraham walked on with Isaac, up the mount, the two of them together… [T]he heavenly Father led His Beloved up the hill to Golgotha. When the Son, who was always pleasing to the Father, cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the Father paid the price in His silence…. We must reverently confess that for our salvation the cost to God was everything.
So the answer to the first question, the one about whether I should send my son or daughters to their death is… yes… in an odd, but very important, way.
There is another aspect to this, though. So far, I have only pointed to the effect of the sacrifice on my own heart. But there is also the benefit to the world. God, as anyone who has ever heard John 3:16 knows, gave up His Son for love of the world. I, too, can and must give my children for the sake of the world. What if the Lord should call one of them to go off and serve Him in some crazy adventure in some far-off place? What if it meant that I would likely not see them much, if at all, for the rest of life on earth? Could I offer them up to the Lord in my heart? How might God, through such a terrible parting, bring salvation and the light of the glory of His Son to the world?
This makes me think of the lyrics of one of my favorite Keith Green songs, one he wrote specifically for his son:
Song To Josiah
Oh my son, you were born in a world that hates you,
And I swear I will never forsake you.
But there was a father centuries ago,
Who watched his beloved son die. Oh, die.
Oh my son, I am weak and I’m trembling,
For the Lord I am always remembering.
Oh what a strong shepherd holds you in His arms.
He’ll break you and make you His own.
And then take you home.
Well if I could I would protect you from what you will see.
This world will promise love and beauty, but it lied to me.
And I will show you, if you will listen.
And I will promise, to listen too.
Oh yes, there are some who love the lies, they will kill you if they can.
Though you speak the truth in love, they will hate you like the man,
Jesus, although he was God, he allowed himself broken for you.
Well if I could I would protect you from what you will see.
The world might seem so alive, but it’s dead to me.
And I will teach you, if you will hear me.
And I will promise, to hear you too. Yes I do.
Oh my son, I am only your brother.
For a sister, God gave me your mother.
But just like a mother, so long ago, had to watch her beloved son die,
Oh son, we will try, to let you go.
Now what of the second question? Should I turn my back on my children in their greatest moment of need?
Praise God! The answer to this one is a resounding NO! And this is why: The godly sacrifice of children made by any human parents, whether it be Abraham’s offering of Isaac or any of us offering our children these days, is embedded in the one true sacrifice of the one true Father of the one true Son. For that reason, ours need not be total or final. In fact, it is because the one true sacrifice is made by God Himself, that for any of us actually to go through with it would be wrong.
That Abraham was ready to go through with it was good. That he did not actually have to was even better… infinitely better. The death Abraham’s heart experienced at the thought of killing his son, the death that my heart feels at the thought of giving over my children into the hands of a wild and demanding, though perfectly loving, God—that death is not ultimate and, therefore, not finally crushing.
God did what Abraham did not have to do. And that is exactly why Abraham did not have to do it.
Timothy Keller speaks of this exchange between God and us in terms of prayer:
We can know that God will answer us when we call, because one terrible day, He did not answer Jesus when He called. He received the prayer rejection we deserve, so that we could receive the prayer reception He deserved.
The same applies to my sacrifice of my children. Ultimately, I am not asked to lay my children upon the altar and turn away from them, because God has already laid His Son there and has done the turning away.
As a father, I am given the blessed opportunity of fellowshipping, in some little measure, with the heart of God, as I lay my children before Him knowing that he can do with them as he pleases. But I will NEVER know what my heavenly Father experienced in turning away from His own Son. That, He alone knows. He did it, so that I would never have to.
O, Yahweh, God… Thank You for the gift of Your Son. Thank you for laying Him upon the altar. Thank You for loving us, creatures who continue to be such poor fathers and mothers to our own children. Forgive us for clutching our children so closely to our hearts that we make idols of them. Help us to remember that the safest place for them is in Your hands; and strengthen our faith to lay them there before You each day. And thank You—oh, THANK YOU, Father, that we need never turn away from them! For You have done the only turning away that will ever be needed.
We praise You, O Wise God, for the power of Your holiness! For You were able, having reconciled us through the death and the cutting off of your Son, to turn back to Him. You turned back to Him, and reversed the work of death. Though You had been pleased to crush Him for our sakes, You were then pleased to raise Him for Your sake and for ours.
Thank you for inviting us, through Him, to call you Father.
We love you, Father, who first loved us!