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What I Learned About God From My Father


To My Son and Son-in-Law:

When I was about 10 years old, Grandpa Sillars left me alone on our acreage while he and grandma went into town. The last thing he said as he left was, “Don’t ride around on the garden tractor while we’re gone.”

Had he not said that it would never have occurred to me. But he did and, as the Apostle Paul says, when the commandment came, sin sprang to life. Before the dust of their car settled, I had hustled up to the back shed where we kept the garden tractor, and fired it up. As an aspiring dirt bike racer (an ambition never realized, sadly) I was in that stage of boyhood where nothing was cooler than spinning your back wheel to kick up a rooster tail of dirt as you power out of a turn. Lacking a motorbike, I’d make do with the tractor.

This trick was beyond our tractor, however. So I drove to the top of our back lawn, which rose about 40 vertical feet in a moderate slope from our deck to the treeline. I cranked the throttle, popped the clutch, and roared downhill. Moments before I’d have crashed into the deck, I cranked the wheel hard left on the theory that, aided by momentum and gravity, the back end would break loose and produce the desired spray of turf. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Instead the thing tilted right, flinging me toward the base of the deck. It clunked once on its side then came to rest, upside down, before my horrified young eyes.

When dad—er, grandpa—came home I rushed up, blubbering something about the tractor, really sorry, didn’t mean it, really, really sorry, etc. Dad’s face took on a worried look, but he was clearly confused. I didn’t know what he’d do. I was too old to be spanked, and he rarely spoke harshly to me and my sister, but this was clearly beyond the pale. Siberia seemed like a possibility.

When I took him out back, his worried look became one of alarm. “Are you okay?” he asked anxiously, eyeing the disaster. “Yes,” I snuffled, and braced for the worst.

“Well, that’s good,” he said. “You could have been killed.”

Then he pushed the tractor upright to inspect the damage: a cracked hood and an elliptical steering wheel. I waited for my punishment, but eventually grandpa turned to me and said something like, “That was foolish, but you seem sorry about it, so that’s enough. Just don’t do it again.” From then on, I have never doubted that God forgives sinners.

How Dads Image God

The biblical teaching that humans are made “in the image” of God is often interpreted as referring to some immaterial intellectual or spiritual quality that sets us apart from mere animals. But the concept of “image,” as famed Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke points out, also includes other aspects, including duty and authority. In the ancient Near East, an idol and sometimes the king himself represented the god to the people, a physical surrogate for the god’s dominion.

The teaching that people are created in God’s image, therefore, carries the idea that humanity represents God to creation. They have an obligation to care for it with the same care as the Creator does, and with that responsibility comes authority.

Human fathers represent God to their children in a similar way. We call God “Father” because it reminds us that fathers’ relationships to their children should mirror their relationship to God. Fathers have an enormous influence on their children for good or for ill. By their character and actions, they teach their children who God is.

Many people’s fathers are or were an utter disaster. They were absent or unpredictable, indifferent or abusive, or worse. They turned the idea of a loving heavenly Father into a cruel parody and made mere belief next to impossible.

Some dads take a legalistic “Old Covenant” approach. Like Israel under the Mosaic Law, children have to earn favor and rewards through obedience and performance. Grandpa wasn’t perfect, as you know, but he had a New Covenant relationship with us. His love and affection never wavered, even though our actions sometimes called for discipline.

There’s a particular danger for Christian fathers who mistakenly portray God as in their own image, instead of the reverse. They become caricatures of the Old Testament God of wrath, domineering and overly controlling. They dole out punishment without mercy. Lacking humility, they demand that children “be holy, as I am holy,” except that, of course, they’re not and the pretense crushes their children spiritually.

How Grandpa Taught Me about God

I don’t see those tendencies in either of you two, and for that I’m grateful. Grandpa isn’t perfect, but here’s how I learned about God from him. He would come and ask me to play catch. He showed me how to shoot a basketball. He played Monopoly with us during Christmas holidays, somewhat reluctantly, and he usually tried to cheat, but he’d sit there with this goofy smile until we figured it out so we knew he wasn’t trying to get away with it.

He made me wash floors and pull weeds in the garden, and frowned at me when I complained. He took us to church on Sundays and youth group on Fridays. He was an elder and shed real tears when the church split. He was always telling these ridiculous jokes he’d heard in the teacher’s lounge. He limited our TV time.

When I needed money for something legitimate, he’d say, “My wallet’s on the fridge.” He came to a lot of my baseball and basketball games (but not all) just because he liked to see me play. When I hit high school he had his doubts about some of my decisions, but he let me make them and I always felt his support.

The only thing that made him really angry was when we disrespected grandma. Now that grandma is in late-stage Alzheimer’s, he’s keeping her at home, as you know, probably until the end. She’s seldom responsive, but when I call he puts the phone on speaker and says, “Say hi to your mother.”

You two will most likely be fathers yourselves someday (no pressure!). I pray that what you haven’t learned from me, you can at least learn from grandpa.