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Divine Fatherhood, Earthly Fatherhood

Upon finding out in May that I am going to be a father to a newborn baby in less than seven months now (!), I have been taking a fresh look at what all the Bible has to say about fatherhood. So since Father’s Day is this Sunday, I’d like to share how God in the Bible bases human fatherhood in his divine fatherhood. Jesus puts it this way in Luke 11:11-13: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Among other things, these verses tell us that God’s Fatherhood of believers should be the foundation for believing fathers’ fatherhood of their own children. After all, it is by God’s Holy Spirit that we call upon him as our Father (Rom. 8:15). Even good fathers, Jesus says, “are evil” compared to our loving heavenly Father, but they “give good gifts to [their] children” after the pattern of their heavenly Father, from whom “every good and every perfect gift” comes (Jas. 1:17). Each and every command for fathers in the Bible–including commands to discipline children–is grounded in God’s loving fatherhood of us, his children in Jesus Christ.

The Bible commands fathers to discipline their children in passages such as the following:

  • Proverbs 3:11-12 – My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
  • Proverbs 19:18 – Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.
  • Proverbs 23:13-14 – Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with a rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
  • Ephesians 6:4 – Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 

Notice how Solomon and the Wise in Proverbs and Paul in Ephesians ground fathers’ discipline of their children in God’s discipline of his children. Solomon does this in Proverbs 3:11-12, in which he teaches his son to “not despise the Lord’s discipline” because God disciplines his children “as a father [disciplines] the son in whom he delights.” Fathers should discipline their children because discipline is an act of love. We know that discipline is loving because God disciplines us his children out of love. As the writer of Hebrews comments on these verses,

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (12:7-10)

Even the best earthly fathers are imperfect and inevitably discipline wrongly from time to time because they discipline  “as it seem[s] best to them,” and they are not omniscient, as God is. But God’s discipline, since God is perfect and knows all things (even the deep things of our hearts), is invariably “for our good” with the ultimate purpose “that we may share his holiness.” Fathers should therefore lovingly discipline their children because God lovingly disciplines us for our holiness.

This truth that our fathers discipline us because God disciplines us remains true for the commands in Proverbs 19:18 and 23:13-14. Solomon, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commands fathers to “discipline your son[s].” There is a popular strand of modern psychology insistent that disciplining children scars them for life, but God insists that a father’s discipline is good: “there is hope” in that discipline, and failure to discipline is tantamount to “set[ting] your heart on putting him to death.” As “the Wise” elaborate in Proverbs 23:13-14, children will not “die” or be otherwise grievously harmed by “a rod” of discipline; rather, discipline “will save his [a son’s] soul from Sheol,” from hell. This is how the above verses in Hebrews expound the wisdom of Proverbs 3:11-12. Since God disciplines us in order for us to share his holiness, fathers should discipline their children so that the children will become more holy.

This is where Ephesians 6:4 is key: as fathers raise their children “in the discipline … of the Lord,” they must be careful to “not provoke [their] children to anger.” In disciplining their children, fathers must keep in mind Proverbs 15:1, which warns, “a harsh word stirs up anger.” The Bible clearly teaches that fathers should discipline their children, but the Bible is equally clear that fathers should discipline their children lovingly so as to not provoke their children.

God is wise. He knows our weaknesses. And Satan is crafty (Gen. 3:1). He tries his hardest to pervert good things and make them evil. So God, in his wisdom and knowledge of our weaknesses, gives us verses like Ephesians 6:4. Discipline is good, but it mustn’t provoke children to anger. God knows that we men, in our discipline, can be too harsh (because we aren’t perfect like God). We discipline “as it seem[s] best to [us],” but sometimes we are amiss. I pray that God would write his word in Ephesians 6:4 and other verses concerning discipline on my heart so that when my child has arrived, I will be faithful to discipline him or her, when needed (and it will be needed!), in love. Because I am a Christian, he or she will know that I am disciplining him or her in the Lord, but I pray that I would not defame God’s love by disciplining my son or daughter in anger or anything other than love. Like every earthly father, I will surely fail in this at times, but I pray that God would conform my fatherhood closer and closer to his own. Father God has given me every good gift, even his Holy Spirit–how can I not want to lavish love on my child in a similar way, even in moments of discipline?

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