By the time I was ten, I had had three earthly fathers.
The first father was the absent one, my biological father. My parents divorced in a storm of anger and legal drama when I was just a few months old, and my mom and I lived with her parents for the next several years. Father Number One left the country he despised for a new life on a new continent, where he stayed.
The second father was the abusive one, my stepfather. My mother had impulsively married one of her more promising boyfriends, and while it seemed like a good idea at the time, his physical abuse started within weeks and escalated rapidly until one final beating which put her in the hospital just before Christmas. She and I fled in secret to another state a thousand miles away and Father Number Two never found us.
The third father … but I’ll save him for later. Please stick around for that.
When I became a Christian as an adult, I discovered that many people, even Christians, who’d had absent or abusive fathers early in life had trouble seeing God as a benevolent, loving Father. It was easier for them to see God as someone distant or frightening, someone they could never hope to please, someone who was constantly judging them and finding them guilty or inadequate, or someone who professed to love them but did it conditionally and with many strings attached.
They had learned from imperfect, human men that fathers (or those who stood in the place of fathers) were often not trustworthy, loving, or safe.
As children, we can’t control the hand we are dealt in life. I don’t pretend to know why some are dealt a pleasant and somewhat easy hand and some are not. I don’t understand why some children live in uncertainty, hopelessness, and fear as a result of the family they are born into. But I do know this: the God of all creation, our heavenly Father, loves each of his children—no matter what their circumstances in life—with an unconditional, unending, unshakeable love.
And no matter what your circumstances were or are, it’s important to know that the things that we, as grown-up children, still long for from our fathers are the very things that God the Father offers to us right now.
- He offers us his strength when we are weak: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.” (Psalm 62:2—read the whole psalm here)
- He offers us safety when we are worried or afraid: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1—read the whole psalm here)
- He offers us unconditional love when we feel unlovable: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8—read the whole chapter here)
- He offers us a home when we wander: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2—read the whole chapter here)
- He offers us comfort when life is hard: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18—read the whole psalm here)
- He offers us forgiveness when we have failed yet again: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.” (Psalm 86:5—read the whole psalm here)
- He offers us permanence when we feel abandoned: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations … from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:1, 2—read the whole psalm here)
- He offers us wise and loving correction when we have gone astray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10—read the whole psalm here)
He is our Father, a perfect, unchanging father who gives freely to us, allows us to learn from our mistakes, never forgets us when we wander, waits patiently for us, rejoices in our repentance and return, shows boundless mercy toward us, does not compare us to others, and calls us Son and Daughter forever. (Read the story here. An excellent book on this story is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.)
Now, about that third father of mine …
Oddly enough, despite having one father who was absent and one who was abusive, I’ve always easily accepted God as a source of strength, security, and unconditional love. For years, I shrugged at this immense blessing, thinking, “Well, God has given me the gift of not thinking of him as being like the earthly fathers I’ve known.”
It was only recently that I realized that God had actually given me a different gift—the man who was my most important earthly father, yet such an unassuming and reliable part of my past that I hadn’t consciously put him in the category of a father figure. Father Number Three was my grandfather, my mother’s dad, whom I lived with until I was eight and then off and on through young adulthood, whenever I needed the safety and comfort of home.
From this quiet, gentle, music-loving man I received the secure, unconditional love of a grandfather for his only grandchild. After his retirement, he spent many, many hours caring for and ministering to my mother and me, accommodating our frequent needs for transportation, food, shelter, and much more. For many years, he was the most dependable and trustworthy man I have ever known. I see now that he was God’s gift to me as an image of what fatherly love could be.
Eventually, I was able to return the favors in small ways: helping him sell his house, cleaning and doing laundry, making sure he was well cared for after his stroke, and, along with my husband and baby, driving him to and from his church every week. Which, as a part of God’s good plan, resulted in a brand-new habit of regular churchgoing for me and my family that we’ve continued for 25 years.
This, all from a man who never once spoke to me of God, Jesus, the Bible, or anything remotely related to religion—even in the context of his own church or us accompanying him there. (In my family, religion was considered a private matter and was never a topic of conversation.) But while he never talked about God, he showed me God’s love nearly every time I interacted with him.
I hope, if you’ve read this far, that you’ve perhaps recalled a father figure, even a minor character in your life, who has helped you think of God in positive, loving ways. And I hope, even if you have no father figure who has given you that kind of love and security, you can rest in the sure knowledge that God’s perfect love for you covers all human shortfalls and disappointments that we so often experience here on earth.