God is an Authoritative and Loving Father

Children from authoritarian and permissive households just don’t learn the tools needed to navigate our complex world. Children from lovingly authoritative families do.

Tommaso Donini, “The Holy Trinity,” c. 1625
Tommaso Donini, “The Holy Trinity,” c. 1625 (photo: Public Domain)

Recently, I published an article which posited that to more fully understand God the Father, we must also come to understand what it means to be a dad on Earth. In the course of this article, I talked about the values of unconditional positive regard and respect that seemed intricately linked to both our fathers on this earth and our Father in heaven.

Yet in taking this thread further, I believe that an understanding of what constitutes ideal parenthood in this world will continue to unveil both who God is and why it is so critical for our world that he is this way. For starters, well over a half-century of research has indicated that children raised by authoritative parents have better outcomes in almost any important area we can imagine, whether it be academics, occupational success, emotional regulation, physical and psychological well-being, relationships, self-care, legal outcomes, or many other circumstances.

Authoritative parenting is best understood on three dimensions: acceptance versus rejection, behavioral control versus lax control, and psychological autonomy versus psychological control. Authoritative parents strive to love their children unconditionally (first dimension) regardless of a child’s demeanor, behaviors, or any other factor that might service to challenge this. Throughout childhood and adolescence, they impose moderate to high levels of behavioral control (second dimension), in which children clearly come to understand not just what is right or wrong, but also what is healthy and not healthy. Finally, authoritative parents strive to teach and promote psychological autonomy (third dimension) from an early age, thus encouraging and promoting the development of critical thinking skills that will be used throughout their life span.

To be clear, authoritarian and permissive parents may very well love their children as much as an authoritative parent. But what research has clearly found is that this love alone is often not enough in promoting the kinds of outcomes most parents desire for their offspring. For various reasons inherent in these other parenting styles, children from authoritarian (e.g., “my way or the highway”) and permissive (e.g., “do as you will”) households simply just don’t learn the tools needed to navigate what is a complex, ever-changing world.

Now, let’s take the findings here and consider how this might apply to our world and God. As opposed to centuries and millennia prior, when God was regarded by some with great fear and distance, the prevailing notion of God today is one of endless, warm love and mercy. While this may have provided many with a greater comfort in seeking a relationship with Him, consider that this notion of his love does not protect us from what can be a harsh, and at times, unforgiving world although it can certainly provide us with solace and purpose. We certainly hope that God accepts and loves us as we are, no matter how much we fail to live up to hopes and expectations. But beyond this, I can’t help but think that God remains as an authoritative parent, not just providing unconditional regard, but also promoting good behavioral controls and promotion of psychological autonomy.

You might be saying, “Wait, God can’t force me to be back home by midnight or not drink when I am driving or scream at my spouse.” Well, no he can’t, but he has created our minds and bodies, and all sorts of logistical, relational, and societal realities that make decisions in these two matters fraught with risk. As another example, God can’t prevent you from eating 10 Blizzards in a night from Dairy Queen. But he has created human beings with a GI and metabolic system that make this a chancy decision, especially in the long term. Ever wonder why God created the Ten Commandments? I would suggest that beyond any spiritual benefits that come from adhering to its rules, it is also one of many templates that God fashioned to look a lot like that second dimension of authoritative parenting (behavioral control versus lax control).

And what about the third dimension, psychological autonomy versus psychological control? Well, as I contended in series of articles about free will, which I believe is the cornerstone of God’s design and the greatest gift he has given, everything in our life is predicated on each of our own abilities to develop and use this gift accordingly. When we do, it opens up unimagined riches and treasures of this world and helps buffer us from its harsh realities; when we do not, it results in a cascade of negative encounters and circumstances. So how do we unlock the secret of free will? Well, it begins and ends with promoting psychological autonomy (and not psychological control), which is the basis from where critical thinking will come. You can teach a 4-year-old to stay away from the road because “I said so.” But as he grows older, he is not only going to have to understand why, but also in what situations and how he will safely cross the road when it becomes necessary. There are millions of decisions made in a lifetime that place demand on this skill, and God has created a world that rewards those who utilize it well and punishes those who do not.

Throughout all of this, though, you may be asking yourself. Well, if God is an authoritative parent, then are you saying he treats us like we are kids? And here is where the beautiful symmetry of our world and God becomes so evident. Years ago, I published an article entitled "The Double Helix of Faith and Family". It was a treatise on my sense that the stages of our life with our parents mirror the stages of our life with God. I suggested that just like a little baby, we are first designed to know God by his love. I see this in the eyes of our littlest child, Kate, who is 8 months old. Although she might do things that cause us challenges (e.g., urinating through her diaper), she only knows us one way: by our warmth and love. Repeatedly throughout the day, even in our frustrations, all of us in the family show Kate endless expressions of our love and affection and she increasingly loves to reflect it back. But as she gets older, as her 3-year-old brother Samuel will attest, she will begin to not know us just by our love, but also by our limits and our teachings. If she leans over the railing on the deck, she will get a brief scolding and timeout to keep her safe. If she throws her food on the floor out of anger, a targeted response will ensue. As she grows, she will understand that love is not always so effusive and pleasant, but sometimes it will be re-directive and formative. But, someday, God willing that she is blessed to grow into adulthood, her mother and I hope that while she continues to feel our love and respect our advice, she will come to know us as the type of friends only possible through our early authoritative love.

Almost 25 years removed from my high school graduation, I can see that my own mother and father remain authoritative parents, only that this has grown into a friendship that largely respects the autonomy that age and experience have provided. Whether we like it or not, so it seems that God is with us. Although each of us find ourselves at different places in our spiritual journey, we never escape the reality of those three dimensions with our Creator. And yet, there is a final ironic final twist. See, while we have been talking about God and authoritative earthly parents, we as their children and His children are actually given the final say. Each can offer us unconditional positive regard, but we decide whether we accept it or not. Each can provide a set of rules and boundaries that can provide for a healthy, holy, happy life, but we ultimately choose whether we reject or accept them. And each offers the opportunity to use our free will as we will, but we ultimately make the call in just how freely our will is used. In the end, the choice becomes ours as the ultimate authority lies with us.