Being a father has given me ample opportunity to reconsider my beliefs in light of Scripture. I was coached to be firm with my children: to hold boundaries and enforce obedience. These beliefs were underscored with biblical texts, "If you don't punish your children, you don't love them. If you do love them, you will correct them" (Proverbs 13:24). "Children, it is your Christian duty to obey your parents, for this is the right thing to do" (Ephesians 6:1). Yet over the years I've come to a deeper understanding of the intent behind these passages.
I am called to embody God's characteristics—and God is a loving and just Father. God doesn't require obedience to uphold a legal system, to be a punitive judge, or simply for obedience's sake, but to open the way to a loving relationship. As I get to know my Father's heart, I can show it to my children. Through my words and actions, I can invite my kids into a loving relationship with their heavenly Father.
What is Justice?
When my son was just learning to walk, he would cry if he didn't get his way. One morning, I went outside to replace the wiper blades on the car and he begged to join me. Since we lived near the street, I knew it wouldn't be safe. Despite his crying, I assured him that it wasn't best for him. I went outside and, as the storm door slowly closed, I saw him toddle quickly across the room. His crying silenced briefly as he envisioned joining me outside. When he realized he couldn't come through the door, his crying became louder. I firmly and strongly told him, "No," then busied myself with the task at hand. One wiper-blade replacement later, my concerned wife came to the door then opened it, calling to me with urgency, "Sam, did you know that Owen's fingers were caught in the door?"
To this day, my heart drops as I reflect on that moment. Even though someone might argue that my son knew better than to rush toward me or that if he had been obedient he wouldn't have been hurt, surely we can agree that no amount of legal correctness makes what happened right.
The biblical concept of justice requires us to reconsider our cultural reference points of justice. Legal does not mean just. There are several biblical concepts where deeper, richer meaning lurks beneath the surface. These concepts connect to us at a heart level. Sometimes we have to carefully reconsider life experiences in light of the Bible—and our intimate knowledge of God our Father's heart.
The Father's Justice
The concept of justice figures prominently in the biblical narrative; more than 2,000 verses deal with justice and God's concern for the poor. Yet, God's reference to justice has something more to it than the strict adherence to law.
God's vision of justice is the Hebrew word "tzedek," translated as "fixing," both in the sense of repairing what is broken and in the sense of making steady something which should not move. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks highlights that this concept in Scripture stands in opposition to "mishpat" or "din," which deals with legal rightness, but not the justice that God seeks. Even in situations where someone has a legal claim, they ought to forgo those claims if honoring the image of God in another requires a meek response (see Deuteronomy 24:12-13 and Exodus 22:25-26).
We see this concept of biblical justice play out in Scripture as God "parents" fledgling Israel. God gives detailed laws and commands to establish a covenant relationship with the people. But again and again the people turn away in disobedience. Their decisions make them susceptible to their enemies and experience conflict with one another. Yet God longs to protect and defend Israel, to establish them in love so they can thrive. We see God continually call them to repentance, forgive them and receive them back into relationship, even when they have broken the law and should be judged severely.
Following God's Heart of Justice
As a father, I am called to follow God's heart of justice. This begins with the amazing responsibility of honoring the image of God in my children. I restore God's image in them again and again—through leading, nurturing, setting boundaries, and at times disciplining. And I help them become restorers of God's image in their own relationships, as they learn to live in right relationship with others. At times this means forgoing "legal justice" in lieu of "biblical justice." Even when my children have broken the rules and disobeyed—when the law would clearly condemn them—the door is open for changed behavior, forgiveness, and covenantal love. Scripture says God forgives and heals, "As a father is kind to his children, so the Lord is kind to those who honor him" (Psalm 103:13). This is the father I want to be, one who has received God's kindness and is ready to extend it to my children.
This Father's Day, whether in corporate life or personal parenting, consider how the Bible critiques, softens, corrects, and fixes our expectations of fatherhood. How does Scripture help you reconsider justice and discipline, love and parenting? How does learning more about God's characteristics inform and shape your relationship with your children?
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