Suppose You Had an Awful Father

February 27, 2019 3:19 pm

I’m not an especially good traveler, especially on long fights. One of the wilder experiences I’ve ever had was a flight from New York to Tel Aviv, on which numerous children were very active and very loud. As I tried to get some rest, I was annoyed by one little boy in particular who kept running up and down the aisle, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Abba! Abba!” I remember thinking that his parents ought to get him under control, that his sheer delight in seeking out their attention was driving everyone else a little crazy. Of course, as soon as that thought passed through my mind, a very different thought settled in as well. I remembered that Paul used the very same word when he described the way our hearts cry out to God the Father through Jesus Christ his son. Paul wrote, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6 ESV).

‘Abba’ is an ancient Aramaic word that is used of an intimate, personal, affectionate relationship between a child and his father. We might use the word Papa. It’s the word that
Jesus used in prayer when he spoke to God, and it’s the word that Jesus gives to us in our prayers. The astonishing truth is that we are now also God’s children, and we speak to God the Father with the very same word that Jesus used. We call him Papa.


Lin Manuel Miranda’s incredible musical Hamilton is a sensation, drawing thousands and thousands to its compelling performances. The show opens with an introduction to the title character through the eyes of his contemporaries. His arch-foe, Aaron Burr, starts by emphasizing Alexander Hamilton’s lowly origins: he was an illegitimate orphan surrounded by sin, poverty, and squalor. How did he rise to become a Founding Father of the United States? Hamilton’s dire beginnings are an apt summary of our own. We are originally the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. The ill effects of their treason against God yielded its bitter fruit in us, too, so that we were God’s enemies, opposing him and his ways at every step. We are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), and it’s astonishing that any of us rise from the ash heap of human ruin to the throne room of God’s glory.

How can sinful people have a relationship with God that is deeply personal and affectionate? How can that possibly happen? In short, it’s a gift. When God bestowed his love on us through Jesus Christ, our representative, something amazing happened. When Jesus died on the cross, he bore our guilt and shame—all those things that were impediments to our relationship with God—and took them with him to his death. Paul puts it this way: “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21 ESV).

Our sin was carried to the Cross by Christ so that his righteousness could be bestowed on us freely and permanently as a gift.

Paul so emphasizes that this gift of righteousness is free, undeserved, and given by love that he eliminates every human achievement, religious observance, ethnic pedigree, or social standing as potential criteria for being part of God’s family. According to the Apostles, we are beloved not because of our behavior but because we are Christ’s.

Even though we were born into a fallen household, a rebellious family that was named for Adam and Eve, Jesus has paid the full penalty of that rebellion against God. Not only does God declare us to be utterly and completely free from any guilt associated with the human fall and our sinful condition and actions, but he goes even further and counts Jesus’s own
perfect righteousness to us. Then he goes further than that and says that we are sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, God adopts us as his own children.

This is why the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Spirit of adoption” and why we cry out from the depths of our being, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). Like the little boy who was running up and down the aisle of the airliner, we celebrate with great joy and delight the love that God has for us as his children. We and celebrate and revel in the love that God has for us and has given to us in Jesus. This freely given status that is bestowed on us by grace makes us the children of the living God.


“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1 ESV). Sadly, many Christians have not yet fully embraced
this amazing truth. So many people who go by the label Christian try to earn favor with God, try to do things that they believe will somehow make God love them more—when in
fact nothing they do could make him love them any less or any more than he always has and does. God has loved us eternally, sacrificially, and supremely in the gift of his son Jesus Christ. Even when we run away from him, our status as his children remains unchanged. We are the children of the living God, and he is our Abba Father—whether we are at our best or at our worst.

J. I. Packer wrote, “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, fnd out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child and having God as his Father.” He’s absolutely right, of course. Some people don’t have a deep experience of the fatherhood of God—and thus of their own belovedness in his sight—because they’ve had difficult, even diabolical, experiences with their fathers. My own dad endured deep pain as the result of a neglectful and abusive father. The pain and the wounds of contemptible treatment create scars that mark their lives for years. Even the best of human fathers are imperfect and will make mistakes in judgment, decisions, and discipline. Not only that, but fatherhood is largely despised today, and many children grow up without a father in the home.

Against the backdrop of failed fatherhood, we have to remember that God’s fatherhood for his children is absolutely perfect. Having God as our father means that we are loved perfectly and securely and eternally. Paul wrote that God gave us our destiny in Jesus Christ because of his love for us before time began. This means that God’s love for us in no way depends on our performance or even on our response to him. He loved us when we did not love him. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). The initiative is wholly with God, and it began before the first day ever dawned.

This means that we do not come before God with a résumé of our righteousness that will somehow endear us to him. Leave at the door any thought that your performance as a “good kid” could commend you to God; lay aside any fear that your failures will bar you from God’s favor. Both are trash that needs to be taken out. We come running to God because he has already loved us perfectly, and that will never change—because he never changes.


That eternal, unchanging love brought God to our rescue through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God desires to root our lives in his love for us so that, liberated from any kind of
performance-based relationship, we instead enjoy the beauty and security of being his own sons and daughters who are loved perfectly—no matter how imperfectly we love or are loved by others.

God is not disillusioned with us. God had no illusions to begin with. Knowing our proclivity for treason and hate, he loved us still.

I will never forget standing in a courtroom after having answered all the questions put to me by a judge about whether or not I understood and was willing to take up the
responsibilities of being the father of my first child. The judge looked me in the eye and declared that the tiny baby boy was mine by adoption and that nothing could ever change that. He said, “Your marriage may even end, but your fatherhood of this boy can’t and won’t!”

Though sobering, that moment was also one of inexpressible happiness. The joy that I felt that day is but a distant echo of an eternally deeper joy in the heart of God the Father, who has done so much to secure us as his own beloved children. My friend, an even greater tribunal has been assembled for us, and a greater judge sits in the chair. The judge himself is the one adopting, and he is adopting not a single child but all those who have put their faith in Jesus. He vows to make them his own forever, and he places the Spirit of his Son Jesus in their hearts. The very name that Jesus uses in his relationship with God—Abba! —is the name that he gives us to use as well.

This is an exceprt from ‘Indispensable: A Guide to Christian Basics’, available now for pre-order on Amazon.



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