Inattention and confusion
Not long ago, I was called upon to teach on the topic of fatherhood to a group of men inside a Texas state prison. My focus would be on a chapter early into the book From Faith to Faith by Bill Dotson, founder and president of Abiding Fathers ministries. I was well prepared for the 30-minute lesson that would challenge these men to stepping up in their role as fathers, both while they were still incarcerated as well as upon their release back into society. My lesson was well organized, with very digestible points and a specific call to action for each one. As usual, I wanted to give these men ideas for discussion that they could wrestle over together when we transitioned from the large group setting to several small discussion groups.
I knew the men well, and I knew that many have children and grandchildren at home. I anticipated that this would be a deep evening of ministry and that God would move in the hearts of these men who missed their families terribly. So, after an opening prayer, and a little humor to say hello, I dove into my notes. After just a few sentences, I started to notice that several men were either actively taking notes with a puzzled look on their face, while others looked a bit distant and checked out. By the look on their faces, I sensed that something was awry. I had started to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to them: Whaa… Whaa… Whaa!
“Lord, what is going on?” I prayed inside. The Holy Spirit quickly began to reveal that before we were going to be able to reach these men about fatherhood, we had to first address “sonship”.
No strings attached
The vast majority of these men not only had no clue how to be a father, but they had no idea how to be a son. Most had no experience with a father figure throughout their life, and for many that did, the stories of neglect and abuse would break your heart. Instead of growing up with confidence as the son of a proud and loving dad, most acted out of a deep sense that they were an orphan. An orphan who, out of fear, always looked out for number one.
Orphans focus on getting theirs first and getting all they can, because whatever it is would probably never be there again. Orphans never really belong, so everything is temporary—food shelter, clothing, affection and love. The orphan mindset believes that anything given has strings attached, and they must be always vigilant, since everything is at risk of being taken from them. Layer after layer of self-protection, self-reliance, and self-provision had been ingrained into these men’s thinking, both in their head and in their heart.
I knew their pain. I had felt like an orphan, too. My father had struggled with alcoholism, and he was never the dad I wanted or needed him to be. I closed my notes for the teaching and just put what I heard from the Holy Spirt out into the room.
I told the men that most of us growing up without a father felt a deep internal sense of confusion and loss when it came to the relationship of a loving father and a son who was truly loved at face value. Rows of heads nodded in agreement. Although many of the men were deeply convinced of the existence of an almighty, omniscient, creator-of-heaven-and-earth God figure, few had truly considered being able to call Him “Abba Father”. Sure, they had heard the phrase, but without any tangible or contextual father reference to draw upon, that level of intimacy and trust was beyond their ability to experience as a deep truth. In the absence of a stable father in the home, we all had been left wondering what it was really like to be loved as a son.
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” Romans 8:15-17 NIV
“You have been adopted, you are co-heirs with Christ”, I exclaimed, wanting these men to understand their true identity. “Contrary to what you have been thinking and living out, you are NOT an orphan. You have a Daddy—we know who He is, and He adores you.”
I could feel hope rising.
I explained that as a co-heir with Christ, each of them also had the most amazing adopted brother ever possible—His name is Jesus—and directed them to how the Savior started His prayer when the disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”.
“Look at that!” I exclaimed, feeling the blessing of sonship for myself. “In Jesus’ own words, you and I are included. Our Father. That’s you and me, too.”
The same truth applies to every person who is a believer in Christ. By what Jesus did on the cross, He made it possible for us to call the creator of the universe “Papa.” Whether or not a man has children of his own—whether he is a husband or a brother or a pastor or a father—as a believer in Christ, he is a son of God. A child of the King. That identity informs every other role.
As we broke into an hour of small group time after the teaching, it was obvious that God knew what He was doing. By encouraging us to take a step back from fatherhood to explore the idea of sonship, He brought to light the lies surrounding the orphan mindset. All of us left the time of ministry with a new understanding of what it means to be a child of God, and that regardless of our worldly titles, our true identity is found in Him.