I don’t remember wanting to be like my dad growing up. That sounds insulting, but it’s not meant to be. Not really.
See, my parents split up when I was a kid, so beyond our scheduled visits, I really wasn’t around him all that much. I didn’t really know him all that well so I couldn’t know whether or not I wanted to be like him. And what I did know was filtered through my particular biases and bitterness. It hasn’t been until I became an adult—and more specifically, after I became a Christian—that I got to see my dad for who he is and learn more about what he’s really like.
He’s not a perfect man, by any means. Nor would he claim otherwise. He’s committed many sins, and made many mistakes. And yet, what’s been helpful to me has been seeing how he lives in light of them. Here’s what I mean:
When he’s wronged someone, he apologizes. And although he knows he can’t undo the hurts or damage of certain decisions, he does his best to make amends. But he also knows he can’t make someone forgive him. He is not responsible if someone cannot find it in themselves to forgive him—regardless of the amount of effort he could put in, he can’t make it happen.
What’s all the more amazing about this is my dad is not a Christian. At least, not yet (but I hope he will be, someday). Yet, he still models an aspect of repentance that I want to do likewise. There’s no way for me to make someone forgive me. There’s nothing I can do to remove bitterness from someone’s heart. I can make restitution, to the degree to which I am able, but I can’t guarantee that my actions will result in reconciliation. This is a good thing to learn, and to see modelled, and to follow suit in. But I also don’t want to stop there, any more than I want my own son to stop at wanting to be like me.
Whether our fathers are believers or not, whether they’re good men or not, they’re at best a blurry image of the one whom we are called to imitate. And as Thomas Watson reminded us long ago,1 the one we are to imitate is God, our Father in heaven.
“The child not only bears his father’s image, but imitates him in his speech, gesture and behavior,” Watson wrote. “If God be our Father, let us imitate him” (cf. Ephesians 5: 1). So we imitate God in forgiving others, in pardoning offences and sins committed against us. We imitate him in his works of mercy, being rich in good works; being “merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
“He who has God for his Father, will have him for his pattern,” Watson wrote. So we honor our imperfect fathers and we imitate the good we see in them. But we also honor them by not settling for imitating them, but by only being satisfied in imitating our perfect Father in heaven.