Scripture Reference: John 3:5-8, Galatians 4:6-7, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, 1 John 3:1-2
The Father's VoiceDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 22, 2000
Selected highlights from this sermon
In God we can find the fatherhood that all of us need whether we’ve come from a good home or a bad home.
If you think of yourself as a failure, or if you feel condemned or wretched, if you are disappointed in the way you live your life, don’t worry because God doesn’t look at us the same way as we look at ourselves.
When we trust Christ as our Savior, God adopts us. We are His sons and daughters, and we can say, “I am loved by God as much as He loves His Son, Jesus.”
“I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” Those are the words of Ernest Hemingway before he committed suicide in 1961.
Well, as you know, this is a series of messages titled Why Good People Do Bad Things. And we’ve talked about issues such as shame and anger and desires, and how they deceive us. And today we’re going to talk about the impact of a family on us, particularly the impact of a father. Ernest Hemingway actually married four times. He lived a life of debauchery. He was in love with booze and travelled the world without conscience, rebelling against his Christian upbringing.
The question we want to ask is, “Why?” His grandparents on his father’s side were graduates of Wheaton College. They attended in the 1860’s. His grandfather, Anson, was a good friend of D. L. Moody, and actually was the secretary to the Y.M.C.A., and his famous grandson, Ernest, was born in 1899, the very year in which D. L. Moody died. Adelaide, Anson’s wife, was in love with nature and she communicated that to her grandson, Ernest. They moved to Oak Park and were very active in Christian ministry and in the Church.
On his grandmother’s side, his grandparents were equally committed. In fact, they called that grandfather Abba. Just to kind of indicate their great respect, as if he was almost a god, they so reverenced him and appreciated him.
Ernest’s father was named Edward. He was a physician and a very strict disciplinarian. For example, if the kids were playing together and suddenly there would be some kind of an infraction he would take them to their room, they would be spanked, and they would be on their knees asking God to forgive them for what they had done. One day he took the kids to the Joliet Correctional Center (the prison), and he showed them the huge gates, and the barbed wire and the guards and said, “That’s what will happen to you if you pursue a life of sin.”
The problem is that for little Ernest, the standard seemed to be too high, though he went along. He was a good Sunday school pupil and read the entire Bible in the King James Version. And he was the treasurer of the church in Oak Park, volunteered for ministry, and sometimes gave speeches on behalf of the church.
Well, later on he became involved in journalism. After World War I he came back and went to northern Michigan where he began to write his stories, and at that time his parents began to reject him. They said, “Why don’t you get a real job?” He was having some difficulty getting his stories published, and so he went from job to job and then he wrote a book that was published and his parents interpreted it as disgracing them. And so the breach between him and his parents was complete.
Later on, Ed, his father, being a high strung perfectionistic person who had all these high standards for his kids as well as himself, no longer could put up with his depression (which sometimes happens to those who live such a tightly wound life), and he took the pistol that his father, an alumnus of Wheaton College, had given him, and shot himself.
But Ernest’s relationship with his mother now grew even more strained, if that was possible, and on one occasion she sent him a birthday cake and put the pistol that her husband had used to commit suicide in it, hinting for him to do the same, which he did in 1961.
But my question to you today is, “Where did things go bad?” Here he is. He is dedicated to the Lord in the Oak Park First Congregational Church. The evening of his baptism his mother wrote in her diary, “We have dedicated him as an offering to the Lord to receive His name and to be counted as one of His little lambs.” What went wrong?
Well, of course, Ernest Hemingway is going to be judged by God in accordance with God’s standards, and I do not want to make excuses for him, but at the same time we would be amiss if we didn’t see the connection between his home life and the man he eventually turned out to be.
Let me suggest some lessons. When the standards in a home are so strict, and when parents are so determined that their children are going to tow the line, the children become so exasperate and discouraged that they often end up rejecting their parents and everything that their parents stand for. I think that’s what Paul meant when he said in the book of Ephesians, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”
Imagine high standards that are unobtainable. No matter how high the bar is, when you try to jump over it, it becomes an inch higher. Later on this series of messages I am going to preach a message on controlling people - people who want to control, and I’m going to suggest at that time that the reason that God can’t do a work in the adult lives of children is oftentimes because their parents get in the way. They keep manipulating, cajoling and controlling, and God does not work until the controllers give up their charade.
I think there is a second lesson, and that is that children who are rejected by their parents, tend to reject everything that their parents stood for. Now, of course, you say, “Well, Hemingway’s parents couldn’t have approved of his behavior. I mean, after all, four marriages, a life of booze and writing things that were denigrating to the Christian upbringing that he had.” I understand that, but at the same time his parents could have said to him, “Ernest, we want you to know that we love you. We will always love you. You are our child. Until the day we die we will love you and even beyond. We don’t like what you are doing but our affection will never be withdrawn.” What a difference that might have made!
There’s a third lesson and that is the impact that parents have on us, particularly the impact of a father for good or for ill. I had intended to speak briefly about fatherlessness in our society. Let me say that forty percent of all those who are being reared in America today are in homes where there is no father. Or if they are in a home where there is a father, he may be an absentee father in the sense of being totally passive, and totally disconnected from the emotional and spiritual life of his own children. And then, of course, we begin to think also of those who are abusive fathers. The list could go on.
What happens in a home like that is there is a tendency (and it is not inevitable) for a boy who grows up without the restraints and the model, to work out his anger with violence or with sexual exploits. Whenever I find a man who is very angry (And you know I’ve met some people like that; you meet them and you know that they are angry.), I always say, “Tell me about your relationship with your father.” They are very angry. They are either into evil or they are strongly driven.
In the life of a young woman, a daughter, the effect may be different. She does not know whether or not she is beautiful to men, and she wants to prove herself, so she goes from man to man, seeking somehow the approval from men because she did not have a father who would approve of her and love her tenderly and righteously and in a pure way. A young woman who was working in what is sometimes called a gentlemen’s club said, “We as girls are dancing for the father we never had.”
You know, the late Princess Diana I think is one of the saddest stories, but a recent biography says that her need for attention was all consuming, and few people could produce the affirmation she needed in quantities required. She had a void that no one could possibly fill.
Could I simply say that if you are a person who grew up in that kind of an atmosphere it may be true of you (not necessarily as we shall see) that you have an unlimited number of unmet needs, perhaps a bottomless pit of unmet needs. Now can you imagine what that does going into marriage with all those expectations, when you get married thinking that the person you’re going to marry is actually going to make you happy? There are people who get married thinking that, and you can understand the deep disappointment, as the needs are never met.
Now I had intended, when I was preparing this message a few weeks ago, to speak about how to be connected and make peace with our fathers, no matter what they were like. But as I began to think about it I have changed the focus of my message, and I want to speak primarily about peace with our heavenly Father. And this message is intended to motivate you to seek God and to find in God the fatherhood that all of us need, whether we have come from a good home or a bad home. God is into fatherhood.
The word father occurs 1,180 times in the Bible, but before we open the Bible I have one more question to ask. Why is it that somehow we know that God loves us intellectually but we just don’t connect? I’ve had people say, “I know that He loves me because the Bible says that he does, but I don’t feel anything.” Why this disconnect between what we know in our heads and what we experience in our hearts? Why is it that we can read the Psalms where David said, “Even though my father and mother forsake me the Lord will pick me up,” but somehow the Lord doesn’t seem to be picking some people up? And it seems that that bottomless pit of unmet needs continues.
Well, of course, I am glad that we don’t have to be whole and perfect before God blesses us and uses us, but I believe that the key is found in the fatherhood of God. And first of all, the reason that we sometimes do not find that fulfillment in God is because we think that God thinks about us and feels about us the way we feel about ourselves. We feel like failures. We feel condemned. We feel so wretched at times. We feel so disappointed in the way in which we have lived, and we think God thinks that way too. Let me pass this word of wisdom on to you. Feelings are not facts. God does not think of you the way you think of yourself.
Let me give you a second reason, and that’s because we are dishonest about our feelings. You see, if you were brought up in a home (and all of us to some extent were) where you had to always bottle up your feelings, where everything had to be pretend, pretend, pretend because appearances were everything, you soon discovered that you could not express your feelings and as you got older you became emotionally numb. The answer to that I think again is found in the Psalms where we find that David, for example, continually was coming before the Lord and spilling out his heart before God. It has to do with honesty when the mask gets taken away, when all of the pretense ends, and we are who are in all of our reality, in all of our failure, and in all of our limitations, in the presence of a God who knows, who cares and who understands.
There’s a third reason, too, and that is that we probably were brought up in homes where performance dictated love. Certainly Ernest Hemingway was in a home like that. If you perform and get that good job, we will love you. If you do something that we think disgraces the family, we will reject you.
Let me ask you a question. What if you were to fall into sin this next week, serious sin? Now I have to clarify that I certainly don’t recommend it. As a matter of fact, I warn you against it. But if it happened, would that drive you away from God, or would the knowledge of your sin cause you to rush in the direction of Jesus Christ’s outstretched arms? Do you think that God’s love for you is dictated totally upon your performance, or do you understand that He loves you because He loves you because He loves you?
What I’d like to do in the next few moments, and they shall be few, is to list four or five graces that God gives to us, and this outline I trust is going to be a motivation for you to seek God. All of us must seek God. We have to take a page from the life of David who said, “As the deer pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants after Thee, oh God.” Let me give you some of God’s graces toward us, and I’ll give you verses of Scripture that you can write down, and in some instances, read later.
First of all, He begets us. It says in James 1:18, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.” It says again in 1 Peter 1:23 that “we have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
Now, my dear friends, just like in natural birth, you have the sperm and the egg coming together, so it says in John 3 that we must be born of the Spirit. So watch this. God takes the Word of God and combines it with the Spirit of God and the result is the life of God when we are born again and we become partakers of the divine nature. In fact, there is a part of you, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, that cannot sin, and the reason it can’t is because it is righteous. It is the nature of God. I think that is the way in which we should interpret those verses in 1 John that give us so much trouble, where the Scripture says that he that is born of God sins not. He cannot sin. It has to do with the new nature. Looked at just from the standpoint of our new created nature, it cannot sin. And this means that there should be a family resemblance. Right? You beget a child and the child looks like you do. God begets His children and His children should somehow represent Him, and that’s why the Scripture says that we should also be followers of God, and imitators of God, because He begets us by His own will.
Let me give you a second grace that God gives to us, and that is that He adopts us. You know it says in Galatians 4, “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out ‘Abba Father,’ so you are no longer a slave but a son, and since you are a son, God has made you an heir.” The whole idea of sonship in the Bible is very interesting because what the Lord says here in Galatians is that a child that grows up can inherit a lot of money but he doesn’t enjoy it till he gets old enough. God says that’s like Israel. They didn’t enjoy their inheritance because, he says, “They were like a child.” But he says that you, the minute you accept Christ as Savior, are a son, a full-fledged son, with all of the rights and privileges and honors pertaining thereto. That means that you can enter into your inheritance immediately. You can have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior yesterday and begin to walk in the inheritance that is yours as a son of God, and now that you are a son of God, God is not going to abandon you. You are not going to be part of a child custody battle because you are going to belong to Him forever. He adopts us.
Do you remember that story of Peter Dyneka? He was coming from Russia in the 1920s by boat and if you know anything about Europe in those days nothing was ever included in the price of a ticket. It’s that way today. We flew a number of years ago on Aeroflot, one of the airlines, and you had to buy the orange juice that was served on the plane. So here’s Peter Dyneka thinking that he had to bring his own food on the ship. His parents prepared all of this rye bread. They dried it out so that it wouldn’t get moldy on the ship, and he took it. When everyone else went to the dining room he went to his room and he ate his moldy bread. And some of the soldiers said to him, “You know, we’ll even give you some of our food if you’ll help us,” and so he was working just to get a little bit of dessert. It was not until he arrived in America, he said, that he realized that the meals were included in the price of the ticket. My dear friend, it’s possible for us to live without recognizing that the blessings of sonship are included in salvation. You are an adopted son. You are an adopted daughter before God.
Third, He loves us, and for this I do ask you to turn to 1 John in that marvelous passage in chapter 3. These are the letters of John. It says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him.”
Let me pause here. How great is the love of God toward us? That’s a good question to ask. Let’s take it into the human realm. When our three daughters were born, my wife and I didn’t say to ourselves, “Now we don’t know whether or not we are going to love these girls until we see how they turn out and how they perform; and if one of them becomes a nurse, and another one becomes a teacher, and another becomes a missionary, well then we’ll decide to love them.” That’s not the way it was with them, and it’s not the way it is with our grandsons. We didn’t say, “Now if Jack becomes a doctor and if Samuel becomes a preacher, we’ll love them.” No, all that they needed to do was to be born. In fact we loved them before they were born without any performance on their part, without any other reason except that they are our children and our grandchildren.
Let me ask you today how much does God love us? God loves us as much as He loves Christ. God makes no distinction between His love for Jesus Christ and His love for us. It is mind-boggling because we know that He is desperately in love with His son, Jesus.
Let me ask you another question. How long has God loved you? Did He begin to love you in that special sense? We know that He loves the world, but He loves His own people in a special sense. Did He love you in that special way just since you were converted? No, He loved you that way from all of eternity. Jesus said in John 17, “Oh Father, You have loved them even as You have loved Me, for You loved Me from before the foundation of the world.” Paul said in 1 Timothy that God has granted us grace from all eternity.
I speak to those of you who are weary of performance. I speak to those of you who are weary trying to please God and never thinking that you have done enough. If you are a member of His family we want you to know that God has lavished His love upon you. “How great the Father’s love is,” and that love is secure quite apart from your performance.
How could I put it most clearly? Perhaps this will help. Do you realize that it would be heresy for you to say that you think that God would love you more if you were better? That’s heresy. Of course, he wants us to be better. Of course, it’s possible to displease Him, but nothing shall cut us off from the love of Christ. Whether it is outside forces, or whether it is our own disobedience, we are His sons forever and He loves us because He loves us because He loves us.
No wonder David, who was always struggling with his identity, and experienced rejection from his family (as is evident in 1 Samuel), kept coming before God. No wonder he kept reaching out to the Almighty and saying, “God, I do have within me this bottomless pit of unmet needs, but You will come to me and You will meet my need (the security of his Father in heaven). God loves us. He exalts us.
Notice what the text says in 1 John 3:2. “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” It’s mind-boggling. John is saying that the Spirit of God comes to us.
And Paul says in Romans 8, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, and if sons then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
Now think this through. You realize that God had one Son, the Lord Jesus whom He greatly loved, but he wanted to have many sons. It says that He wants to receive many sons into glory. So Jesus comes and dies so that God will give Him many sons, and those sons are going to rule on the throne of the universe.
In the book of Revelation Jesus said to them, “Those who overcome I will have them sit with me on my throne even as I overcame and sat with my Father on His throne.”
Now listen, those of you who are into logic and clear thought. Does that not mean that we are going to sit on the throne of God? I think so. “He who overcomes will sit with Me on My throne as I overcame and sat with My Father on His throne.” Is it possible to get anything more beautiful, anything more encouraging, or higher than that? Doesn’t it make the pains of this life seem rather small, knowing what awaits us? And that’s why Paul says that the suffering of this present age cannot be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us. Doesn’t that somehow bring healing in the midst of our own family struggles and the failures that have been pushed upon us?
What I am trying to say to you today is it wasn’t necessary for Hemingway to commit suicide just because his father had done so and because his mother included in the birthday cake the gun with which he had done it. There is such a thing as finding a rest in God and His Fatherhood that somehow begins to make up for the lack and the pains and the hurts of life.
Well we could go on. God comforts us. He is the God of all comfort. God forgives us. “Like as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities them that fear Him, for He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust.” Now, in light of the fact that God has done so much, this now becomes the basis upon which we make peace with our earthly father. And I want you to know that you can do that with or without his cooperation. For some of you your father is dead. I think of a woman who told me, “I can’t even visit my father’s grave, because standing there I fear that his hand might come out of the soil and hit me one more time.”
Now, my dear friend, I want you to know that it is possible for you to make peace with that past, and how do you do it? First of all you be truthful. Think about what happened to you. It’s okay to go through the grief and the sorrow of your home life, like Ernest Hemingway could have done.
Secondly, in addition to truth, what is important is to grieve for the past. It’s okay for some of you to grieve for a childhood that you didn’t have. It’s okay to weep. It’s okay to have feelings. God created us this way, but then what we must do is to choose to forgive because in the book of Malachi, God says, “I’m going to turn the hearts of the fathers towards the children, and the children towards the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” There is healing in relationship to God our Father, and in relationship to our earthly father as well.
In his book, Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning tells the story of a Jewish boy named Mordecai, who would not go to the synagogue. His parents did all that they possibly could. They threatened him. They cajoled him. They tried to manipulate him. Perhaps they did as my parents did when I was 5 or 6 years old. They promised me candy if I would go to church because I was not a willing churchgoer at that age. I’ve changed a little bit. I have to be here now, you understand (laughter).
Well, they brought in a psychoanalyst, and he took the boy and psychoanalyzed him until there was nothing left to analyze, and the boy ran out into the woods, across the streams, and listening to the birds, but he would not go to the synagogue. So they brought in an expert on behavior modification and he modified everything that could possibly be modified. He was supposed to unblock his blockages and he tried to unblock his blockages. The boy still would run out into the woods, and across the streams and listen to the birds, but he would not go to the synagogue.
So one day an old rabbi came to the village, and the parents told him their tale of woe, and he said, “Leave the child with me.” And after the parents left the rabbi took the boy in his arms and held him and pressed the trembling boy closely to his heart and held him. He said nothing. He just held him. Well, the next day the boy went to the synagogue, and after he went to the synagogue he went to the woods and he then listened to the birds, and crossed the streams. But in the woods he began to speak the word of God.
And the story goes on to say that he turned out to be a very wise and gentle man. And when people were filled with panic they would come to him to find peace. And when they were looking for hope he would give them hope. And when they experienced tragedy he would give them comfort.
You see, when we talk about the heart we’re talking about that effective part of us. We are speaking about the origins of our loves, and our hates, and all of our desires and wishes, and somehow when that young boy was held to that old man’s heart, he penetrated the consciousness of that rabbi so that now the boy not only knew some things intellectually, which he was rejecting, but he now knew some things effectively or emotionally, and somehow his head and his heart were unified.
You know, if we were to come to the New Testament and interview the man called John, the disciple of Jesus, and we were to say, “John, tell us who you are. What is your identity?” I don’t think that John would say, “Well, I was a disciple of Jesus.” I don’t think that John would say, “I am the author of one of the largest books of the New Testament, including three epistles.” I don’t think that John would say, “I’m the one who was on the Island of Patmos when God revealed Himself to me and gave me what is known as the book of Revelation.” He most assuredly would not say, “Well, my claim to fame is that I am the brother of James.”
What would John say? I think John would say, “My identity is the fact that I am the disciple whom Jesus loved, and I am the one who leaned on His breast at dinner, and that’s really who I am. I am one who is loved by God.”
I want to say something to you today heart-to-heart, man-to-man, and woman-to-woman. I don’t believe that we are ever healed within as long as our identity is still our vocation where we think of ourselves as being an attorney, or a missionary, or a carpenter, a nurse, or a banker. We are healed when we think of ourselves as being one who is loved by God, loved because we are loved, loved because we are His sons and daughters, loved because He begat us, loved because He redeemed us. And we simply rest in that love.
Could I ask you a question today? Are you willing to give God permission to sense and to feel His love regardless of your past, whether it’s good or bad? Are you willing to peel back all of the layers that have developed and all of the rationalization that has developed and there in the presence of God simply say, “God, I am broken and I am wounded, and I give You permission to love me; hold me close to Your heart?” And if that is true of you, and if it is true of me, not much else about us really matters.
Cleland McAfee wrote,
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.
There is a place of comfort sweet,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where we our Savior meet,
Near to the heart of God.
There is a place of full release,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where all is joy and peace,
Near to the heart of God.
Ernest Hemingway needed to hear that. It’s too bad he didn’t, but you and I need to hear it too. We are healed when God takes us close to His heart and says, “I love you because I love you and because you are Mine.”
And our Father today we want to thank you for your mercy and your grace. Thank you for Your Fatherhood. We sang earlier “Our Father who art in heaven.” Oh what a joy it is to be able to say, “Father.” And thank you that you show us Your love. Grant it, oh God, in the lives of all who have listened and bring healing where there has to be healing, and deliver us from a performance mentality. Father, show us Your love, and may we bask in it and delight in it. We pray that we shall be strong, in Jesus’ name. Amen.