Tuesday, November 3, 2015

God as Father: Lessons I Learned as a Dad (Part 3)

A few months ago I began a blog series that will be irregular (at best) on lessons I have learned from being a dad about God being our heavenly Father--i.e. what it means for God to be our Father, how that impacts our lives, our relationship with Him as our Father, etc. I have learned quite a bit since I became a dad because the father-child relationship analogy that the Scriptures use has become so much more real to me. Well, recently I have been thinking about another aspect of God's fatherhood and our relationship to Him.

My son Gabriel is almost three now, and that means he is in the stage commonly known as "terrible twos," which should really be "terrible twos and threes or maybe even fours." That means that Gabriel is beginning to understand more and more how he is individual with a will of his own and he is desiring to assert his autonomy more and more. Of course, every parent out there knows what is coming next: tantrums. Gabriel now knows what he wants, knows that he is an individual, and knows he does not want to be told what to do, which means we see a lot of tantrums. This is actually part of their developmental process and is a good sign in the grand scheme of mental and emotional development, though it sometimes feels like hell on earth for parents.

This past weekend, for example, we took him to two Halloween activities in our city on Saturday, and at both there was lots of candy, which is what one would expect. Well, we, of course, try to limit his sugar intake, but depending on the day and activity, we might bend the rules a little and let him have more than he normally would. And, we did that Saturday, letting him have a little more candy than normally we would. That, however, was not enough. At a local church's festivities, we cut off the candy because he had had more than enough and we were about to go home and have dinner, and all of a sudden his world went from being loads of fun to a tragedy that in his mind would rival Oedipus' discovery that the oracle at Delphi had been right all along. And, while he did not attempt to gouge out his eyes, the screaming and crying certainly made it sound like he had.

Such tantrums are common in our life right now, and my "gut" responses vary. Sometimes the tantrums are so over-the-top ridiculous that it is all I can do not to laugh. Often they are frustrating, trying my patience to its limits. Most of the time there is mixed in with other emotions a sense of loving pity--pity because he does not understand all the things involved in denying what he thinks he needs, pity because I do not like seeing him sad, pity because I am trying to do what is best for him and he does not understand, pity because his immaturity is making him overreact. Lately these tantrums have also been humbling for me personally, which may seem like an odd response, but allow me to explain.

In my prayer life, there are times when I "vent" to God about things going on and my opinion of how my life is going. Now, those types of prayers are not necessarily bad or sinful because He wants to know what is on our hearts and He knows them anyway. And, certainly honesty with God in our prayer lives is something we need to develop. But, there are times where my "venting" is really just a "grownup" way of describing a tantrum. When I look at Gabriel with pity while in the midst of a tantrum, lately I have thought, "God, is this what I look like to You when I vent in my prayers? Do I look like a child rolling on the ground screaming because I did not get my way?" I am pretty sure I know the answer to those questions, and I do not like it.

I think that is probably the case much of the time. Even though I might veil it in "grownup" language and might not be screaming while rolling on the floor, sometimes it is about the same thing--I am upset because I cannot understand why God is not doing something the way I think that it should be done, and I doing whatever it takes to convince Him that my way is better. It may not involve stomping and screaming, but it is not really any better than a tantrum. Yet, at the same time, when I think, "God, is this what I look like?" I also think "Wow, you are so patient, kind, and loving to me to put up with this." With a toddler, we can cut him some slack because he has not learned how to deal with his emotions properly, but I have no such excuses. And, yet, if I--a sinner and sub-par father--respond with loving pity, how much more does God as my heavenly Father do that for me?

If am moved with pity because Gabriel does not understand all the things involved in denying what he thinks he needs, then how much more is that true of God? The gap between God's knowledge and my own is far greater than the gap between my knowledge and Gabriel's--I am much less than a toddler in my knowledge compared to God. As the LORD says in Isaiah, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." If I am moved with pity because I do not like to see Gabriel hurt, how much more is that true of my heavenly Father who loves me perfectly? Of course, just like I know it is sometimes necessary for Gabriel to experience disappointment for his own good, so He knows that sometimes it is necessary for His good plan for me. Yet, even though it is necessary, it does not mean He does not experience fatherly sympathy for His confused and hurting child. If I am moved with pity because Gabriel does not understand that I am trying to do what is best for him, how much more is that true of my heavenly Father who always works all things for my good? My wisdom (as limited as it is) far exceeds Gabriel's, and, indeed, Gabriel would not throw a tantrum if he knew what I knew. Well, the same can be said of us. God's wisdom far, far, far exceeds our own, and God always answers our prayers in the way we would have them answered if we knew everything He knew and were as wise as Him. But, just as Gabriel does not understand because his knowledge and wisdom are limited, so I do not understand because my knowledge and wisdom are limited. So, my heavenly Father looks upon me with loving pity and says, "My child, you do not understand, but please trust me, for I love you more than you love your own son." And, if I am moved with pity for Gabriel because his immaturity causes him to overreact, how much more is that true of our loving and understanding heavenly Father? Immaturity does not, of course, excuse Gabriel's reaction and neither does it excuse my "grownup" tantrums, but it does move me to fatherly compassion for my son, and I think the same is true of our heavenly Father.

At the end of the day, I still need to do what is best for Gabriel, as God does for me, but thinking about how much I--a very imperfect father--am moved with love, compassion, and pity for my son makes me so thankful for my heavenly Father who is the perfect Father. If I can respond in love and compassion to my son, most certainly God does to me. Even when I throw a tantrum, He looks upon me with fatherly love because He has adopted me and loved me perfectly in Christ.

There is, of course, another side to this: how I would like Gabriel to respond. I know Gabriel cannot understand many of the decisions Erika and I make concerning him, but I would like him to respond by saying, "You know dad, I don't get it, but I know you love me, so I trust you." Obviously that is pipe dream for Gabriel. Every day Erika and I care for him, feed him, clothe him, love him, give him experiences, and so much more, but when what he thinks he "needs" is challenged, he forgets all that. He so easily forgets how much love we have shown him, so trust in those times is hard. But, am I really any different when it comes to my relationship to God--my heavenly Father? Throughout my life God has provided for me, proved Himself faithful over and over again, and never let me down, and yet when what I think I "need" is challenged, I forget all that too. I bet my heavenly Father would like me to say, "You know Dad, I don't get it, but I know You love me, so I trust You."

That is what the Psalms do. Do you know what the most common type of psalm in the book of Psalms is? It is not the hymns, the confidence psalms or the wisdom psalms. It is not the thanksgiving psalms or psalms of remembrance. It is the laments. There are more psalms of lament than any other type of psalm. These psalms express intense sadness, suffering, and confusion about life, and there are more of them than any other type. That alone should tell us something about the Christian life: God's people experience real suffering and pain often. But, the psalms of lament have a characteristic to them that keeps them from descending into "grownup" tantrums.

These psalms (e.g. Ps 13, 22, 26, 42-44, 74, 77, 79, 88, 102, 130, 143) almost always follow a very important structure. They begin with an invocation to God for help. Then, there is a complaint section that may lead to a plea for help, confession of sin, or cry for vindication. And, then, most importantly, all but one of them end with confident praise to God. For example, Ps. 13 ends with:
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.
In this psalm, David has not seen any resolution between the beginning and the end, but even when he complains and cries out for God to act, he does not forget what is true about God. Even though it does not feel that way to him, he reminds himself of the truth.

I think we can learn something about how we should pray when confused or in pain from these psalms. It is okay for us to pour out our hearts to God and cry out to Him in pain and confusion. In fact, it is good for us to do so, but when we do that, we must never act arrogantly towards God--thinking we know better--or question His character--accusing Him of wrongdoing. The psalms of lament always ground their complaint in the goodness of God and then come back to that goodness with faith at the end, even when everything in the life of the psalmist seems to testify to the contrary. The psalms of lament combine honest, intense expressions of grief with truthful, biblical, faithful reminders of who God really is.

When we pray and "vent" like that, then we are not throwing a "grownup" tantrum but are doing exactly what we want our children to do: saying, "Dad, I don't get it, but I know You love me, so I trust You." That is a righteous lament; not a toddler tantrum.

By His Grace,

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