Michael Willman, “The Kiss of Saint Joseph,” c. 1675, from the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland.
One of the most challenging aspects of faith is coming to understand who God really is, not who we want him to be. Over the last few decades, I have had heard numerous homilies and reflections that not only talk about the model of St. Joseph for us as a father, but also how God the Father provides a model for us in our paternal role.
Yet, through a series of deep reflections and personal experiences, I have come to believe that in order for us to truly understand God the Father, we must better understand what it means to be an ideal human father, a role billions of people share in this world. In doing so, scriptural, ethnological and personal realities suggest that we will come to better understand the nature of this mysterious God the Father that we so desire to know. Of course, certain aspects of God will always remain beyond our limited perceptual powers, but in exploring this link deeper, there are truths to behold.
To begin, I will put forth two primary values of fatherhood that I believe hold true across countless cultural and creeds.
First, as fathers, we are asked to have unconditional positive regard and love for our sons and daughters. Although this may be expressed and manifested differently, few people would ever suggest―no matter what our offspring do―that we should remove this unconditional love for them. We might scold, redirect, punish, and even dare I say disown them, but deep down I believe that most fathers understand that we are never to stop loving our children as if they are the physical and spiritual embodiment of ourselves. It is one reason that the story of the prodigal son is so embraced by many; our sons may have gone astray, but we should always open to welcoming them back into our lives.
Yet, there is a second value of fatherhood that I believe is rather distinct to this role. It is the value of respect. Although fathers are asked to unconditionally love their children, I propose that an ideal father expects that his offspring must earn his respect in what he does and what he says. While a father’s love cannot (or should not) be removed, a father’s respect is something that can evolve or devolve depending on what his son or daughter does. While this may sound harsh or unfair to some, I would argue (in what would constitute another article itself) that the plight of the world, the success of our communities, and the growth of an individual into an adult greatly relies on this dynamic aspect of respect. In other words, one of the great values of fatherhood is that the youth of the next generation learn that who they become and how they are viewed has much to do with what they say or do. While the story of the prodigal son is a great representation of the first value (unconditional love), I often think we would have benefited from hearing “the rest of story.” In my mind, this is the part where the son (hopefully) re-earned the father’s respect through much toil, humility and personal growth.
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with God the Father? To answer this question, let me first start with a parable as it may have been told long ago.
There was a homeless man who lived on the edge of a city. Over the course of a few years, the owner of a house nearby saw him walk by repeatedly, and although he surmised that the man was without a regular place to live or work, the owner never said anything. But one frigid day, the homeless man decided that he really needed a place to stay and food to eat. So, he walked to the front door, and knocked repeatedly. Finally, the door was opened, and the owner welcomed him in. The homeless man indicated that he was cold, hungry, and without a place to stay. Immediately, the owner felt for him and gave him some food and offered that he could stay there for the night. But in talking more with the homeless man over the next few hours, the owner eventually decided that he had some work that needed to be done in exchange for a small pittance and food. Over time, the homeless man gained the owner’s respect and with that, came increased means of support, collaboration and trust. Eventually, the relationship grew in mutuality and became a friendship that lasted until the owner passed away decades later. At the owner’s funeral, his beloved friend, once the homeless man he didn’t even know, remarked that “I knew instantly upon meeting him that first day that he cared for me. But I didn’t truly understand just how much love he had to give until I worked to earn his respect.”
Over the years, all of us have heard the biblical phrase “knock and the door shall be opened.” Not a single expression has ever been uttered that seemingly provides greater support for the prayers of petition that we utter each day. I have no doubt that at times, God grants us gifts of peace, healing and capacity that we have done nothing to earn or deserve. But, increasingly I believe that just like a human father, who should never remove his unconditional love from his kids, God does expect us to earn his respect through what we think, say and do. In many ways, there are stories that embody this throughout the Old and New Testaments, whether it be about Isaac, Noah, Moses, Joseph or Peter. God may equip the unequipped, but he still repeatedly provided gifts of clarity, reputation, and even dominion to those who work hard, despite their faults, to earn his respect and follow his way.
You may ask yourself, though, why would God do this? Why not just give of his love and divinity freely? Well, one possible answer is this. Just as a humanly father knows that children who do not earn his respect are bound to struggle in many ways as they progress into and through adulthood, so I believe that God knows that his world will suffer mightily (and be forever threatened) if people don’t do the same. In His mysterious way, God has created and allowed a world of astounding beauty, connection, but also heartache. But consider if God just repeatedly gave “handouts” to those who petitioned him for various matters, regardless of what they did. On the surface, this might seem the easy solution, but what would occur is that these autonomous, remarkable beings would devolve deeper and deeper into unhealthy, immobile states of mind, body, and spirit that would permeate the world. Miraculous gifts are great to receive, but they only teach us one thing: to keep asking God for more miracles. But gifts that are given, after we have subjected ourselves to repeated situations of toil, uncertainty and even discomfort―all in the name of answering his call and earning his respect―not only offer the potential of a miraculous gift, but also the clear understanding that in order to experience the full spectrum of his love, we must work to earn his respect in becoming who he has called us to be.