Abba and Adoption. I can think of no better starting point for learning a spiritual formation alphabet than 'A' for "Abba" and 'adoption.'
Unpacking Packer. I recall hearing nothing about the doctrine of adoption from preachers in my early Christian days - I awakened to it while reading J.I. Packer’s book, Knowing God. Packer masterfully distilled adoption’s crucial vitality when he wrote,
“…the entire Christian life has to be understood in terms of it. [Adoptive] Sonship must be the controlling thought – the normative category, if you like – at every point.” Packer had me hooked and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Adoption (Rom. 8:15) began to reel me in.
Toxic. For the first dozen years of my salvation history only God knows what my “controlling thought” had been. Whatever it was it certainly was tainted by the lingering anger and frustration I carried from a disappointing relationship with my biological father. There had been sharp, on-going animosity between my parents, much of it stemming from my father’s passivity. We had not realized Dad struggled with clinical depression. As his suffering worsened, I experienced Dad as emotionally unavailable, distant, aloof, functionally uninvolved and apparently uncaring. In response I adopted a toxic attitude: “Dad, you haven’t helped me much along the way; you’ve left me on my own to make life work.” Hatching judgments against him, I reacted by becoming equally aloof and uninvolved with him. I was busy constructing my ‘self’.
Unavailable. Only after his death did I recognize my need to forgive Dad and apologize for my sinful responses to his difficult life. I made a 2,000 mile pilgrimage to the hilltop cemetery where we had buried him some months earlier. In a rainy downpour I searched each row of markers looking for his gravestone, determined to find him and make the pronouncements which were churning in my heart. But I could not locate the gravesite. Shaking my fist at the stormy sky, I raged, “Just like always, you are not here when I need you.” Truth is stranger than fiction at times: as a final expression of bitterness toward father, my mother had chosen to not place a marker on the grave. Even his resting place was ‘unavailable’ to me.
Shame. Later I did my forgiveness work in absentia. But for months thereafter I carried a loneliness and heaviness which I later recognized as shame. I was ashamed of my fatherless-ness, my disconnection. I sensed a vague personal inadequacy and a lingering restlessness, a vital lack. Eventually I came to realize my condition was a common continuance of Adam and Eve’s garden affliction, for their sin had resulted in a loss of intimacy with God the Father and, as the scriptures explain, they knew their nakedness – they were ashamed (Genesis 3:10 ). Jimmy Long has further explained:
“The sin of Adam and Eve separated them from God. This separation is like a wall that God built to shield his holy character from our guilt. We build a second wall when our shame causes us to feel unworthy of God’s presence. …we long for the kind of intimate relationships that the human pair experienced before the Fall.” (Generating Hope, InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Adoption. My father-wounds and my own sin continued to grind my soul. I was constantly hungering for Fatherly love, acceptance and belonging, the kind of connection which might bring deep meaning to my life and a settled peace to my soul. When I finally recognized my specific need, I was awakened to God’s solution:
When the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father,” prompting us to cry out, “Abba, Father.” Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir. (Gal. 4:4-7, my synthesis of ESV and NLT)
“Then Jesus came. His mission was to take our sins upon himself as a guilt offering of redemption and to remove our shame by restoring us to a right relationship with God the Father, thus tearing down the wall of separation.
Christ’s role is to enable God to be a Father to us, while the Holy Spirit’s role is to allow us to be again a child of God. The Holy Spirit helps us deal with shame, which prevents us from restoring our relationship with God as our Father.” (Jimmy Long, Generating Hope, InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Two-Part Harmony. Transformation occurred as I began to understand and experience the reality of biblical ‘adoption.’ My vision of God was clarified, my first love deepened and my desire to glorify and honor God as Holy Father was vitalized. A stabilizing peace arose within my soul and I began to find rest in His presence. I began to sense the Holy Spirit crying out within my own heart, “Abba, Father,” and He enables my own exclamation, “Abba, Father.” My cry harmonizing with the Spirit’s cry: two-part harmony so wonderful it can only be appreciated with the ears of our new heart.
Practice Solitude. I have re-visited the cemetery, not physically but in my mind during solitude retreats. I still find no marker on the grave but now two things seem remarkably well-placed: grief and joy. I can grieve over my fatherless-ness and yet never stray from the joy of my adoption. The grief is not without hope (1 Thess. 4:13) and the joy is being made more complete clearly because of my adoptive relationship with Abba (1 John 1:3-4).
I recommend you practice similar solitude: meditate on Gal. 4:4-7, persistently exercising your heart cry of “Abba, Father” and wait for the beautiful harmony to develop in your soul. The Spirit of Adoption’s main role is to tune your heart to resonate with Father God, enabling “Abba, Father” to become your controlling thought.