While doing a Prison Fellowship seminar in LaGrange Kentucky, I heard news that would forever change my life. I was going to be a father. Speechless, I stayed on the phone, but lost track of the details. The news was exciting but frightening. I was visibly shaken by the gravity of the situation. Others who had heard this news seemed so casual about it. Did they know something I didn’t know?
Why was I so affected by the prospect of fatherhood? It didn’t take long to realize this was the first new direction in my life I had not consciously prepared for. My college and grad school curriculum did not include Fatherhood 101. There was no way I could have anticipated these emotional and psychological changes. I knew who I was as a son, but who would I be as a father?
In due time, my son arrived, unconcerned about my profound consciousness change. He was here whether I was ready or not. His helplessness and dependence on me was sobering. No one had ever been so dependent on me before. I couldn’t help thinking, “What if I let him down?” “What if I forget to feed him, or change him?” The more I pondered these and similar questions, the more I knew how impossible it would be to neglect him. The first time I held him a bond developed between us. I discovered new dimensions of joy.
What I held in my arms was not just a baby, this was an eternal being. His helplessness reminded me of my helplessness before God. How could I bring him up “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). I couldn’t in my own strength.
Like Abraham, I was unable to produce a child of God without God Himself intervening. It sobered me to know I would be his primary model for his Heavenly Father. Because of all this before me, my prayer life improved dramatically. As I related to him I found myself seeking to imitate the way God related to me. In turn, I began to notice whole new aspects of God’s love. Praying, “Our Father in Heaven” would never mean the same again.
Like Jacob, I daily wrestled with God in prayer petitioning Him for a blessing. The desire of my heart was for God to adopt my son. This would be the greatest blessing I could ask for. Amazingly, I saw the bond develop between my son and the Lord. God has given me an additional blessing, a girl. With her arrival, all these fatherhood realities quadrupled and so did the joys.
As a father, God has made me the priest of my family. As priest, I have the privilege of being the first to see God’s work of grace in the lives of my kids. It takes patience and understanding to see this grace, especially when they act like spoiled brats. Too often I lack faith and act like a spoiled brat before God. Yet He shows me great patience and understanding. The more I imitate God’s patience with me, the clearer is my view of God’s grace in my children.
It is a function of fatherhood to identify the sparks of faith in our kids and fan them into a flame. How is this done? First, we should constantly remind our kids that we love them with all our hearts, yet our love for God is greater. Second, we must also function as John the Baptist for our children. That is, Jesus must increase as we decrease. They need to know our desire for them is that they will grow up to be children of God. Third, we must equip them with the tools they need to feed themselves from Scripture.
Becoming a father was one of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life. For the first time I began to understand how God feels about me. Every time I delight in my children I’m reminded of how God delights in me. Like God, I like to say “yes” to my kids. Sometimes I have to say “no” to them in order to say “yes” to something better. Now, when God gives me a “no” it’s not the end of the world. I know that My heavenly Father is saying “yes” to something better.
If God loves me half as much as I love my children, I am blessed to overflowing and have nothing to worry about.
Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX. Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr