David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry.

Last week Bill Neely, an associate pastor of the church to which I belong, spoke at a couple of the morning worships here at the General Conference. One of Bill's worship talks focused on being a father, calling my thoughts again to the metaphor of God as our heavenly parent.

Scripture uses this image of God freely, though a cursory survey I did seemed to show that it appears much more frequently in the New Testament than in the Old. In the New Testament, Matthew, John, and Paul use the term most often. By the time John wrote, this term had become so well established that in most cases he seems to be using it as a name; he does not often draw out its meaning.

For the most part the biblical writers use this image to communicate what we can learn about God from this human relationship. "As a [good] father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him'' (Ps. 103:13).* "The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in" (Prov. 3:12).

But as I contemplated that worship talk, it was the vice versa that really struck me--what we can learn from God about being good parents.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the character of the father, who represents God, offers some rich and hard-to-live-up-to lessons on being a good parent. First, when his sons reached the proper age, he was willing to grant them the responsibility of freedom. My children are reaching the age at which that example is be coming increasingly apropos. Granting that freedom does not come easily to me; I prob ably have tended to err on the side of being overprotective, overcontrolling. I need grace to follow the example of my heavenly Father.

This parable portrays ideals of parent hood even more difficult to achieve. When the prodigal son erred miserably, the father was willing to forgive. I can say ''That's all right'' when my children disappoint me, but too often I say it through clenched teeth. Frustration or repressed anger dilute the forgiveness. The prodigal's father holds up to us the high ideal of forgiving graciously, joy fully; of offering an acceptance unshadowed by reservations.

This father offers another lesson particularly meaningful to pastors and others whose professions do not grant them the luxury of regular hours. He was available to his son when his son needed him. Very few of us can be immediately available to our children at any moment. But parents do need to work at being available regularly. And this means more than just physical proximity. Working as an editor, I'm generally home most evenings. But when I'm honest with myself, I recognize that though I've been in the same house and even in the same room with my children, too often my mind, my attention, has been elsewhere.

The portrayal of God as a parent in other portions of Scripture teaches us that a good parent is:

  • Caring: "Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost" (Matt. 18:14).
  • Observant: "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matt. 6:8).
  • Generous: "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 11:13).
  • A defender or protector: ' 'A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling" (Ps. 68:5).
  • A good example: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).

We, of course, cannot match the example set for us. Thank God that children are resilient! It's important that we exemplify humility and the willingness to say "I made a mistake; I'm sorry." *

* All Bible Quotations in this article are from the New International Version

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David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry.

July 1991

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