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Merely disciplining ourselves in Christian practices will never produce lasting joy in our lives. Too many of us are doing things out of duty rather than delight. We’re praying and reading our Bibles out of routine rather than relationship. We live with continual guilt, feeling that we aren’t doing enough for God. We try to get up early every morning and spend quality time with the Father, but it’s never enough. We memorize portions of Scripture and witness to everything that breathes, but we always come away feeling as if we haven’t accomplished enough. We’re consumed with a fear of punishment for not measuring up, and we expend a great deal of energy trying to do more.
In 1995, before leaving on a ministry trip to Australia, I read a true story about a seminary student who struck up a conversation with a teenager who had been living on the streets of Melbourne. As the student tried to share the Gospel, the teenager asked pointedly, “What is God like?”

What a loaded question. The seminary student had one chance to share the Good News with this teenager and felt pressured to come up with just the right answer. His mind raced. Reflecting on what he had learned in his recent studies, the young man replied, “God is like a father.”

Without hesitation, the teenager snapped, “Well, if He’s anything like my old man, you can have Him,” and he walked away. Later the student learned from a social worker that the teenager’s father had beaten his mother and raped his sister repeatedly. The word “father” had dialed up all kinds of emotions and terrible memories, and the door to sharing the Gospel had been slammed shut.

This story vividly illustrates the relationship between the impressions left on us by our earthly fathers and our perceptions of God. Because this teenager had a bad experience with his own father, he was unable to grasp the goodness, kindness and loving nature of the heavenly Father. Likewise, if you have had a bad experience with your father, then it’s not always going to be easy to relate—consciously or subconsciously—to God as your Father.

What is God like? How do you perceive Him? How would you answer these questions?

Ideally, our experiences with our father should point us to the heart of a greater Father who loves us more than any earthly father ever could. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Maybe you’ve felt the sting of a clenched fist or recall the haunting, cruel words of a childhood incident. Maybe you still carry the scars from wounds of the past. If so, you’re not alone.

Over the years, I’ve had countless people tell me, “I have no problem believing Jesus loves me, but I can’t seem to relate to God as my Father.” More often than not it’s because they were emotionally or physically abused when they were growing up, or their fathers were never there for them. Many of these same people have grown up without ever hearing their father say “I love you.”

If you are one of those individuals, I urge you to take your disappointments, hurts and wounds to the Father and allow Him to heal you so you can freely receive His loving embrace. It may not be easy to reflect on your past, but it’s necessary. The Holy Spirit wants to lovingly target specific “pockets of pain” in your life so you can become emotionally whole.


Many of us grew up in homes that were very performance-oriented. A lot of our fathers only expressed their approval after they thought we had accomplished something significant. The pat on the back, the words “well done” or an extra-long embrace were only given after we had excelled in an area like education, sports, music or employment.

While achievements should be recognized and celebrated, they should never be a prerequisite for receiving a father’s love and affirmation.

This performance-driven mentality eventually spills over into our Christian lives. Initially as young believers, we may sense God’s unconditional love and enjoy the simplicity of relationship with Christ, but it doesn’t take long before we think we’re not doing enough. This mindset ingrained in us from childhood rears its ugly head and starts haunting us again. It suggests that we can’t run hard enough, chase God fast enough, pray enough, serve enough or be in church enough.

But the heavenly Father never bases His love and affirmation on what we do for Him. Have you ever noticed how the Father affirmed His Son? It came at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—perhaps much earlier than you’d expect.

Mark 1:9-11 says, “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (TNIV).

These were life-impacting words to Jesus. But do you know what was just as meaningful? The timing of the words. The Father’s affirmation of His Son came before Jesus’ ministry ever began. He hadn’t worked a single miracle, healed any blind eyes, cleansed any lepers or ruined any funerals. Yet the Father was pleased with Him. Why? Because the Father delighted in His Son, and Jesus delighted in His Father. They were in relationship.

I believe the Father’s love and approval were pivotal to Jesus’ success in life and ministry. They empowered Him in His commitment to His Father. Because of the Father’s blessing, Jesus was able to find His identity in their relationship with one another. As a man, He didn’t need the ministry to experience fulfillment in His life.

Many of us believe God’s acceptance of us depends on how faithfully we serve Him. But the Father’s love and acceptance are completely unconditional. You can’t do anything to win His approval. He loves you because, in His grace, He has chosen to do so. You are fully accepted by the Father because you are in Christ. Grace can never be repaid. It carries no price tag—not because it’s worthless, but because it’s priceless.

Merely disciplining ourselves in Christian practices will never produce lasting joy in our lives. Too many of us are doing things out of duty rather than delight. We’re praying and reading our Bibles out of routine rather than relationship. We live with continual guilt, feeling that we aren’t doing enough for God. We try to get up early every morning and spend quality time with the Father, but it’s never enough. We memorize portions of Scripture and witness to everything that breathes, but we always come away feeling as if we haven’t accomplished enough. We’re consumed with a fear of punishment for not measuring up, and we expend a great deal of energy trying to do more.

We have been programmed to believe that our success in life is based on what we do. This view has permeated our society and even the Church. We, as Christian leaders, think we’re successful when our churches or ministries reach a certain size. We base our success on the size of our staff, our budget and our sphere of influence.

But what is the biblical view of success? The Scriptures clearly reveal that what makes one successful is not what he or she does. In fact, true success is being loved by God and being lovers of God. Psalm 18:35 says, “You make your saving help my sword, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great” (TNIV). What makes a person great? The presence of God in that person’s life—not his or her accomplishments.

Does something drive you to serve God in order to please Him? If so, you need to realize that you weren’t made to find your identity in your ministry or in the things you do for Him. The Father doesn’t define your life by what you do. He defines your life by who He created you to be for Himself. He doesn’t want your efforts as much as He wants you. He certainly does enjoy what you do for Him. But most of all, He enjoys you! And He is more committed to you than you will ever be to Him.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to show this love to those around you. If you have the opportunity to someone whose earthly father was very performance based, you can change their image of their heavenly Father. Show them love when they least expect it. Just as Jesus did, say “I’m proud of you” when it seems undeserved. It may feel awkward at first, but boldly show unearned love. When this person has failed, show the same love. Remind them that you love them not because of what they do, but because of who they are.


In 1996, Christopher Robin Milne died in England. You may recognize the name. His father was the famed children’s author A.A. Milne, who named the lead human character in his Winnie the Pooh books after his son.

According to Christopher Milne’s obituary, his father spent little time with him. He was too busy making other children laugh and smile through his writing to take time for his own son. Christopher died in his 70s, hating his world-renowned father because he had failed to live the kind of life he depicted in his books.

Like the younger Milne, a lot of us grew up with passive fathers. They appeared distant and rarely got involved in our personal lives. They weren’t very affectionate and rarely showed any emotion.

Today, we live in a fatherless culture. Twenty million children in the United States under the age of 18 live with one parent. Eighty-four percent of children who live with one parent live with their mother. The percentage of children who live with two parents has been declining among all racial and ethnic groups.

Those of us who grew up with fathers who were not actively involved in our lives often have difficulty understanding God as our Father, because we view Him as distant and aloof. Our earthly fathers never expressed their love and affection for us or spent quality time with us. They didn’t seem to notice our joys, our sorrows, our struggles, or our successes. This has led us to believe that God doesn’t care about the details of our lives. We then find ourselves running to Him only in an emergency. Our relationship with Him never deepens or becomes intimate because, in the back of our minds, we fear that God is not really interested in us.

But just the opposite is true! You are special to Him (Psalm 139:13-18). There has never been another human being quite like you, and there never will be. You make Him smile. You make Him laugh. In Zephaniah 3:17, the Bible says you even make Him sing for joy. He looks at you and grins. He sees your hair, your skin, your smile, and He rejoices. You are Father’s unique son or daughter. You bring Him pleasure and delight in a way that no one else ever could.

The blemishes, scars and extra pounds may weigh on your heart, but they don’t weigh on His. He loves your freckles. He loves your funky-shaped toes. He loves you—just as you are. He loves you when you’re awake, vibrant and full of life. And He loves you when you’re down, struggling and lethargic.

The truth is, God really likes you. In fact, He enjoys you. You may not think you measure up to supermodel or Mr. GQ status, but He does. Thanks to the gracious act of His Son, He sees you perfectly redeemed. He isn’t tolerating you. He isn’t waiting for you to get more mature in your Christian walk before He can enjoy you. He loves you right where you are, even in your weakness and immaturity. He’s not keeping a record of your mistakes or the times you blew it. His blood takes care of all those things. All He sees is you—and He enjoys you!

People with inactive fathers often feel that they’re a nuisance or that they have to fight for attention. When working with them, be aware that they may need—whether they show it or not—more attention than other people. Without coddling them, provide them with constant affirmation that you like having them around. When someone feels that they are of value to others, they are more able to understand their value to God.


Some of us also had fathers who were overly strict and stern. They placed demands on us that often broke our spirits. An authoritarian father tends to rule the home with a mixture of fear and guilt. Instead of offering love and affirmation to his children, he continually points out their faults and mistakes. This type of father believes that if he reminds his children of their faults, they will be motivated to try harder. However, this behavior can eventually lead to real emotional damage.

If you grew up with a father who was demanding and abusive, you may have difficulty receiving the love of the heavenly Father; you may tend to think He is always looking for some fault in you. As a result, it may be hard for you to picture Him smiling over you in loving approval and acceptance.

Like a beaten puppy, you may find yourself afraid of God because you assume He is just like the other authority figures in your life. But He isn’t. You must realize that God is different from any other authoritarians you’ve ever known. He isn’t perpetually angry with you. He isn’t just putting up with you. He enjoys you even in your struggles.

The Father has blessed me with two sons. When they were babies, they couldn’t communicate. They couldn’t play golf with me. They couldn’t do anything but eat, sleep and make messes. But I loved them intensely! Later in life, when they could communicate with me and play golf, I didn’t love them any more than I did when they were babies. They were just in a different season of their lives.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (TNIV). Do you get the message? God is not an authoritarian Father. He doesn’t want you shrinking back in fear or apprehension of Him. He’s an approachable Father who loves you passionately.

The true fear of the Lord is not a tormenting fear or an emotional fear. It’s not even a fear of punishment in this life or the life to come. The fear of God is the sense of awe we experience when we’re brought face to face with the transcendent (unequaled, surpassing, matchless) splendor and beauty of who He is and the incredible love that He has for us.

It is the awe and reverence that bring us close to the Father’s heart and leads us into a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. We can be assured that even when He disciplines and corrects us, He still delights in us (Proverbs 3:12). Far too many of us mistake divine correction for divine rejection. But the Father’s correction is deeply rooted in His affections for us. While He may be displeased with a certain area in our lives, He is not displeased with us as people.

People with harsh fathers are sometimes a bit rough around they edges. Others are so broken that they aren’t rough enough. Either way, they require gentleness. You may have to be more forceful in getting their attention, but they need to feel safe and protected. Be patient as trust may take a while for you to earn their trust. When they fail, sympathize with them instead of showing disappointment or even guidance.

It’s imperative we understand that the Father deals with us according to the sincerity of our hearts. Although He sees the undeveloped areas of our character, He also hears the willing cry of our spirits. As we set our hearts on loving and obeying Him, He will make  adjustments in our lives until we come to maturity. And He will enjoy us in the process! As leaders, we must join process as well.

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