The power of a dependent father

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]

When you are little your father is very big; you are weak, but he is very strong; you know very little and he seems to know everything, you feel feeble compared to his powerful presence.

When your father is very powerful, you are able to do so much. You feel safe and secure in his great arms. You are comfortable, if not confident, to ask him for anything. He takes you to places, shows you things, entertains you, houses, feeds, clothes and educates you.

And when you go to school you can boast about how great your father is—how much greater than other children’s fathers.

But when you grow up and become a father, you realise how difficult life is; how weak and inadequate you are; how complex the world has become; how vulnerable you actually are; how few resources you have to care and provide for your family. Though some fathers in this world are very powerful.

The devil is a powerful father. Or so he seems to his children. His power lies in his lies; for he is the father of lies (John 8:44). A murderer from the beginning, he uses his deceit to accuse both God and God’s children. He accuses God of not having our interests at heart; of not being righteous and merciful; of not forgiving the sinner of his sin. He accuses God’s children of the sins that Christ has already paid for. He undermines the gospel message of complete pardon by continually reminding us of our unworthiness while omitting or denying God’s atoning mercy. Alternatively, he assures us of our own moral righteousness so as to turn us away from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He accuses God of narrow minded judgementalism in finding fault with such wonderful people as we are! Sometimes he even claims that if God was loving, he should understand that nobody is perfect and so accept us just the way we are. Whatever the lies he uses, the devil is a powerful father in the way he brings people into his family of slaves and leads them on to death.

Yet the devil as a father is not in the same league of power when compared to our Heavenly Father. Such a comparison is more of a contrast than a comparison. For though they are both fathers – one is of love, the other of hate; one is of life, the other of death; one is of truth, the other of lies. Their power is not to be compared for the devil’s claim to power is part of his lies. His power is a derivative power – he derives it from his children. Whenever his lie is not believed or denied it is stripped of its effect and of its power.

It is not so with God’s power. Our Father in heaven is inherently powerful. Indeed our Father is none other than “the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). And as James (1:17) says “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” That is why we can always approach him with our requests because, as Jesus taught: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

Prayer is child’s play. It’s not just that children can do it—it is that prayer is essentially what children do; they ask their father for things and depend upon their father for everything. Prayerful dependence on the Almighty Father is not only expressing our child-like faith but also expressing our confidence that our Father is the most powerful being in all the world. However, while prayer may be child’s play, it is what all men are called upon to do: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling” (1 Timothy 2:8).

In response to this command, some of the men in the Cathedral congregations are developing a pattern called 1,2,3. Straight after church they are meeting in small groups of 3, to pray with each other. They are following a simple pattern: each one is sharing a Bible verse they have read in the past week, or one point from the sermon they just heard. They then share with each other one prayer point from their lives. Finally they pray briefly for each other. It only takes a few minutes. They are looking to expand by expanding the number of groups of 3. They keep inviting other men to join them – but when they get to 4 members they split into 2 groups of 2 and seek to find a 3rd member to join them. You don’t have to be asked to join, you can start your own, or ask to be part of a group. You don’t have to be a father to join one of the men’s 1,2,3 groups, but if you are a father you will know how important it is for children to keep in touch with their heavenly father.

Little boys compete with each other about most things even who has the most powerful father. But nobody has a more powerful father than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one who welcomes our prayers—it is in our dependence upon him that we have any power to father our children.

18 thoughts on “The power of a dependent father

  1. “The devil is a powerful father. Or so he seems to his children.”
    “Whatever the lies he uses, the devil is a powerful father in the way he brings people into his family of slaves and leads them on to death.”

    What part of humanity constitutes “the devil’s children” and “the devil’s family”? Is it everyone who isn’t a Christian?

    • Jesus’ point in John 8 seems to be to make a contrast between those who believe in him and therefore have God as their father, and those who don’t, who therefore have the deceiver as their father.

      So… yep.

  2. I presume you speak for your fellow SydAngs, Sam Freney?

    If so, it would seem that SydAngs reserve the exclusive right – divinely sanctioned, of course – to demonise other human beings.

    Do you see why non-Christians might find it insulting, bemusing, and/or malicious that SydAngs think of them and speak of them en masse, individually, and by default as “the devil’s children”?

    • Hi Grant,

      No, I don’t presume to speak for others (although I suspect a few would agree with me).

      But what you point out has always been both the offence and majesty of the gospel, hasn’t it—spoken by all Christians since the time of Jesus? That we are all, apart from God, helpless and rebellious, but by the grace of God given freely in Jesus and his death for me every one of us can know life as it was meant to be? That’s no less true for me than for anyone else.

      I know full well the offence of the gospel, because it tells me that I cannot win anything by myself, I’m dependent on God. But if it’s true, and the solution is graciously extended to me, then I’m going to keep talking about it.

  3. I would add that Jesus’ comments in John 8 are directed to a particular group of Jews “who had believed in him” (v.31), but now took exception to his claim to lead them into freedom. This group – called simply “the Jews” thereafter – claim their descent from Abraham as the basis of their freedom. Jesus insists that the freedom they need is from “sin” itself, and accuses them of having no place for his word in their hearts and wanting to kill him. It is this alleged murderous intent in particular that marks “the Jews” here as children of the primal murderer and liar. Jesus is making a shocking rhetorical contrast intended to undermine his interlocutors’ confidence in their Abrahamic descent. In response, “the Jews” retort that Jesus is a Samaritan (i.e. not a proper Jew) with a demon familiar. It all ends with “the Jews” picking up stones and Jesus making a quick exit. So there’s a lot of mutual demonisation going on in this episode.

    It would seem that Phil Jensen extrapolates from this quite specific argy-bargy a general principle – which you concur with – that all non-Christians can validly be characterised as “the devil’s children”, the party of the archetypal murderer and liar. I don’t see that this is what Jesus is stating or implying in the heated rhetoric of this passage.

    The “devil’s children” charge in John 8 does not even apply necessarily to all Jews, let alone all non-Christians. Yet the rather slippery designation “the Jews” has made this and other Johannine passages grist for Christian antisemitic mills over the centuries, with horrific consequences. I would contend this alone provides a very good reason why specific scriptural contexts should not be universalised.

    • Grant,

      You make some really helpful comments about the nature of the discussion Jesus was engaged in with those who are essentially his enemies. Yes, he does identify particular intent with that of the devil, and so links them that way.

      I would want to say, though, that this contrast between those who believe in Jesus and those who do not is set in a more general context, both in John’s gospel (1:1-2, 9-14, 3:36, etc.) and more generally in the Scriptures. I think it’s an entirely reasonable step, given the broad definitions that John uses, to see this conversation as a specific instance of a more general truth.

  4. Sam,

    IRT: ” But what you point out has always been both the offence and majesty of the gospel, hasn’t it — spoken by all Christians since the time of Jesus?”

    There’s nothing majestic about wholesale demonisation of the Other, no matter who does it. Offensive? Yes, but offense is not the worst of it.

  5. Sam, your suspicions are correct. I agree with you. But then I’m a Christian who attends an Anglican church in Sydney Diocese. And Grant, I don’t see why believing in clear Biblical doctrine is “demonising” anyone. Telling people that they need to repent and believe in Jesus Christ rather being lost in their sins and so on the devil’s side is not what I would call demonising.

  6. Sam,

    IRT: “I would want to say, though, that this contrast between those who believe in Jesus and those who do not is set in a more general context, both in John’s gospel (1:1-2, 9-14, 3:36, etc.) and more generally in the Scriptures.”

    John 1 mentions no children of any devil, of any primordial murderer or liar. The opening, from v.1 to v.18 plays on the dichotmomy light/darkness. The world does not recognise the light of the world/Word of God, and “his own”, i.e. Israel in general, “did not receive him”. Up to v.17, the identity of the Word/True Light/Son is not stated; we are kept in suspense. When the suspense is broken in v.17 and Jesus is actually named for the first time, it is in explicit contrast to Moses, setting up the dichotomy of Moses: Law / Jesus: Grace & Truth. The synthesis between them is achieved through the figure of John the Baptist, who becomes a sort of epitome of all that Moses and the Prophets stand for – the last of their tradition – and a mouthpiece through which they are made to endorse the new order represented by Jesus. In short, it’s a law/grace dichotomy, the Old Way versus the superseding New.

    The John 8 showdown between Jesus and “the Jews” is an outworking of this theme. It’s more accurate, I think, to construe the “children of the devil” motif in John 8 as an instance of this Old vs New dialectic. There, the devil is associated not with the vast mass of humanity outside of first century Judaism, but with those reactionary/retrograde forces within that context (i.e. within the in-crowd) that seek to obstruct the process of fulfilment represented by Jesus. It’s a message to those who fancy themselves guaranteed the favour of God by virtue of genetic descent, cultural identification, and/or credal confession.

    As for John 3:36, again, there is no mention of any devil. God’s wrath remains on those who “reject the Son”. The context here is the need for John the Baptist (the representative of the Old Order of the Law) to become less, while Jesus (representing the New Order of Grace) increases. It’s an emphatic disqualifier of the traditional authorities of Jewish tradition – remember, Jesus has just been discussing “the Spirit” with a representative of that tradition, Nicodemus. Rejection of “the Son” is clearly what “the Jews” of John 8 do, but this is more an active rejection, personally directed at Jesus, not some default consequence merely of being born. Nor is it necessarily the same thing as indifference, or ignorance, or misunderstanding, or leading one’s whole life in a non-Christian culture.

    To associate every non-Christian by default with a being that represents the irredeemable epitome of murderous evil – that is unjust, dehumanising, spiteful, and even cruel. And if that is, truly, what “Scripture” teaches “more generally”, then it is a hateful belief system.

  7. David Morrison,

    IRT: “Telling people that they need to repent and believe in Jesus Christ rather being lost in their sins and so on the devil’s side is not what I would call demonising.”

    Are “being lost in their sins” and “being on the devil’s side” necessarily the same thing? You seem to be conflating an involuntary state of being with a deliberately hostile application of the will. And in that you could well be demonising people.

    Is everyone – man, woman and child – who is not, like you, “a Christian who attends an Anglican church in Sydney Diocese” (or something like it) by default a child of the devil, i.e. the epitome of deceit and murder?

  8. Hi Grant,

    I suggest you have a closer look at Eph 2:1-3, and notice that Paul explicitly links our sinful nature with demonic following. What is particularly illuminating is that although written to a Gentile audience, Paul believes that he too was under the same prior condition. Thus, both Jew and Gentile remain the same; apart from Christ we are dead in sin and following the spirit of this world, whether this is consciously recognised or not.

    Your false dichotomy and attempts to segregate our sinful state from a wilfull following of the demonic, is not a position the Scriptures allow for. It’s not either/or, but both/and, and hence why Sam’s earlier comments about the “majesty” of the gospel rings true; without Christ we are lost, utterly lost, following the prince of this world and under the wrath of God. There is great joy in the redemptive purposes of God.

    (BTW, I’m not a SydAng)

  9. Mark, thanks for the reference and for pointing out the holes in my attempt at a charitable reading. I maintain that the children of the devil passage in John 8 that Phillip Jensen rapped on does not apply to every non-Christian by default. But you’re right, Ephesians 2 is identifying everyone outside of Israel as hopelessly lost and under the sway of the aerial archon (aside – do you believe that there’s a bad angel controlling the atmospheric space between the earth and the heavens, as Ephesians appears to? Interesting implications for cosmology…).

    Yes, Ephesians 2 applies the broad black abominating brush universally. The point of putting everyone on this even footing is “so that no one can boast” of being exclusively deserving of God’s favour. Ephesians has in view here a spurious righteousness based on forensic fulfilment of Jewish ritual obligations, building a sense of purist separatism – “the barrier of the dividing wall”. Two people groups – Jews and non-Jews – are to be welded into a single new humanity by the cross, with the formerly excluded non-Jews now able to undertake the good works prepared for them by the Jewish God. I get that.

    Now, this 2000 year-old vision splendid is all very well, but the shine fades quickly when one considers that it demands today a crudely reductionist anthropology even more divisive than the one it is supposed to supersede. When I read Phillip Jensen’s post, I find the spirit of purist separatism alive and well, a separatism that characterises everyone outside the tribe without exception as the manifestation of deceit and murder; they are, quite literally, diabolised, and so dehumanised.

    “There is great joy in the redemptive purpose of God.”

    For some, yes; for others, it’s a nightmare.

  10. Grant,

    I’m not convinced that Ephesians is suggesting the type of “supercession” that you suggest. Remember, this is a Gentile audience, not a Jewish one. The idea of “Jewish ritual obligations” that you suggest doesn’t appear to be the point. How would this be relevant to pagans? Given Paul gives almost identical teaching in Colossians, another pagan city, would seem to make your interpretation difficult to accept.

    I dare say that Paul’s anthropology finds it’s grounding in the Old Testament, especially places like Genesis 6 that preceed the nation of Israel, or a “them vs us” mentality. Or perhaps somewhere like Psalm 51.

    It seems to me that your interpretation of these fundamental passages to Christian theology are not sturdy. All of humanity is depraved- this is what Paul is suggesting. And as you so elequently demonstrated, we have no authority to boast on our own goodness once we understand the gospel. Correctly understood, these truths should bring us to our knees’s, thankful for the fundamental grace that has been bestowed upon us.

    Although I do admit that at times I am prone to the kind of thinking you criticise, a “better than thou” mentality that can only be demolished through the help of the Spirit. In that regards, your comments are helpful. But I still fundamentally disagree with your hermeneutic.

    Kind regards.

  11. Mark,

    IRT: “Although I do admit that at times I am prone to the kind of thinking you criticise, a “better than thou” mentality that can only be demolished through the help of the Spirit.”

    To view the mentality in question as merely “better than thou” is to miss my point, Mark. I do not take issue with run-of-the-mill feelings of individual superiority, to which we are all prone, regrettably. What I object to is the blithe ease with which Phillip Jensen and fellow travellers effectively diabolise everyone outside of their Christian tribe. Unlike Phillip and friends, I do not think that it’s right, fair, and just (let alone sane) to insist that human beings are depraved slaves controlled by a malign, deceitful, murderous superbeing and deserving of unending torture. A feeling of superiority is nothing compared to that.

    But I’ve shrieked on that point beyond long enough. Rest you.

    • I think it’s right, fair and just. But I don’t think it looks and feels quite like you might think!

    • Have a read of the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. The picture of a torture chamber of people wanting to get out, but God not letting them, may not be quite accurate.

      Hating the experience forever, might be accurate. But even if people believed in that, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they would rather submit their desires to the God of the Bible instead.

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