I did not have the best relationship with my father when I was growing up.
Like most Chinese fathers of his generation, my dad provided financially for the family and brought us on outings and holiday trips. However, I did not find him to be very emotionally present or expressive. In my head, I knew he must love me, but in my heart, I did not feel that he delighted over me or enjoyed my company. And while he did not verbally praise me for what I had done well, he did make his disapproval known when I did something wrong.
Several years ago, God revealed to me that my relationship with my father needed healing and restoration. He also showed me that how I perceived my dad came to color the way I saw Him as my Father. I knew that God was real and He loved me, but I had no emotional understanding of Him lavishing His love over me (1 John 3:1) or delighting over me (Zephaniah 3:17). When I did well in life or in my walk with Him, I did not think He would be proud of me, but expected rebuke and discipline when I sinned or fell short.
Thankfully, God brought to my attention how much I had misunderstood Him, and He began to heal my perception and experience of Him by showing me what He was really like, according to His Word. He also pointed out to me the importance of working on my relationship with my dad.
Since then, it has been a gradual process for me of learning to forgive my dad for the hurts I had experienced. I began to see that he did not have a perfect relationship with his father either, and was doing the best he could as my dad, given what he knew at the time. God also led me to understand that my father was a man who needed Him; without knowing the Father and His love, how could my dad have given to me a love that was aligned to His?
So around Father’s Day this year, I felt God prompting me to reflect on what I am thankful for when it comes to my father. More specifically, I felt God challenge me to think about how my father—imperfect as he was and an unbeliever—actually helped me to understand aspects about God the Father.
So (as part of the promise I made a few years ago to write about working on a better relationship with my father), here are five aspects of God the Father that my non-Christian dad “taught” me in my relationship with him.
God Is Always Present
While I was disappointed at my dad’s emotional absence for many years, I realized quite recently that I had always been able to count on my dad’s physical presence at home. I was never left to wonder where he was or if he was coming home; I knew that he would always return by a certain time.
This came as a surprise to me. It was actually because of his constant physical presence that I could believe that God the Father was always with me as a young believer. Even though I did not attend church for several years after receiving Christ, and so had no one to nurture me in the foundations of the faith, I somehow never doubted that God was with me at all times and would listen to me when I talked or prayed to Him.
This may explain why, in my prayers for others as a younger Christian, I would often simply say, “God, please be with them.” No one had taught me how to pray, but I was felt sure, in a simple and intuitive sort of way, that as long as God was with the person, everything would be okay.
God Is Faithful
My dad demonstrated such constancy in other ways. He held the same job from before he was dating my mum, until he finally retired a couple of years ago. He was a man of regular habits: morning coffee with a newspaper, television in the evening, and early bedtime at night. He availed himself to kill pests in the house, helped out with chores when asked, and mended broken gadgets and items. He might not always do it immediately, but he would always do what he promised to do.
For most of my life, I did not think much of his actions, until it dawned on me that my dad’s habit-keeping and promise-fulfilling ways enabled me to understand that God is a faithful Father who is not fickle and unpredictable. Rather, He is a covenantal God who is true to His unchanging Word. The Father always keeps His promises.
God Is Logical and Reasonable
In the same vein, I grew to be certain that the Father was logical and reasonable, instead of arbitrary and irrational. I recognized that He would always act with good reason. Even when His rationale eluded me, I have learned to still trust that His actions are beneficial and do make sense in the larger scheme of things.
I believe I could see God this way because of what I knew of my dad: he prized logical reasoning. When we played chess together in my childhood, he would explain to me the cause-and-effect of his tactics and how he anticipated my moves. There were also many moments when he would point out to me the importance of thinking rationally before acting.
God Is Self-Sacrificial
One afternoon, many years ago, I happened to walk past the storeroom as my dad took out a Chinese calligraphy painting of a horse. The horse was majestic: throwing its head back, mane wild in the wind, as it raises one of its forelegs in a posture of triumph.
I asked my dad where he bought the painting from. To my utter surprise, he said that he painted it himself when he was a teenager! I asked him why he did not pursue being an artist as a career, and he simply said that it was not the practical thing to do at the time. Instead, he went to a technical school to acquire the skills he needed to get a job that could support a family.
It sounded so foreign to me: I could not imagine giving up my dreams for work in an area that I had completely no interest in! But it also opened my eyes to how self-sacrificial he was: he would give up something he was so good at in order to do what was necessary to financially support our family.
This aspect of my dad eased me into the understanding that our Heavenly Father is a self-giving and self-sacrificial God—One who does not do anything out of selfish or self-centered ambition, but humbly considers others and their best interests above Himself (Philippians 2:3-8). The ultimate and clearest expression of this was when He gave His beloved Son Jesus up to die for and rescue the world from our sin and brokenness (Romans 8:32; John 3:16).
God Is Creatively Redemptive
My dad would almost never throw away broken gadgets or items. Instead, he would always try to repair or revive them—whether by opening up machinery to examine and fix the problem, or gluing things back together, or sunning them (to get the moisture out), or some other innovative means.
This allowed me to believe that the Father, too, is intent on redeeming broken people and situations, and there is no limit to the number of creative ways He can do so. My dad’s determination to always mend defective things laid in me the foundation for knowing that with God, there is nothing that He cannot turn around for good; He wastes nothing and can always work out all things—good and bad—to be conformed to the purpose of His will (Ephesians 1:11).
As I reflected on how these aspects of my father provided the lens through which I could better know God, I found myself being more thankful to him for being my dad. This does not mean that the negative parts of our relationship no longer have an impact on me, but it does help me to see my dad with a more balanced perspective, instead of fixating only on his weaknesses. He is, after all, a human being, marked by both flaws and strengths. I hope that, with time, this new way of seeing would also translate into better ways of relating to him. I believe God will make our father-son relationship beautiful in His time (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
If you, like me, have an imperfect relationship with your father (or mother) that has cast a shadow on how you see God, may I invite you to also prayerfully consider if there may be aspects of God that you understand more intuitively today in light of your relationship with your dad (or mum)? What you discover may just surprise you, and, who knows, perhaps even open up opportunities for healing to begin.