Jack Pearson and the Good Father
(Don’t worry, no spoilers about how Jack Pearson dies.)
After the Super Bowl last week, millions of Americans tuned in to see This is Us. This gripping series follows the Pearson Family (Jack, Rebecca, and their three children). The show uses flashbacks to reveal how the childhoods of the three Pearson kids affected their present-day lives as adults. One of the most significant impactors of their childhoods is their individual relationships with their father, Jack, and then later, Jack’s untimely death. In many ways, the character of Jack Pearson offers us (and our students) a wonderful glimpse of the gospel and the love and devotion of our heavenly father.
Throughout the flashbacks, the audience can do little but admire this father who, though while flawed through and through, would do anything and everything for the family he loved. From crazy family trips, to inventing new family traditions, to laying down his own personal dreams so that he could provide for his wife and children, Jack is a loving father and a good husband. You just can’t help but love the guy.
A Prodigal Son
Jack’s son Kevin carries Jack’s charisma, but is also impulsive, self-centered, and has made some very poor life-choices. In previous episodes, we see him fall into the dark hole of substance abuse, and destroy or damage virtually every relationship he has.
In the midst of attempting to pick up the pieces of the mess he’s made, Kevin has a cathartic moment where he speaks to his dad. Kevin, like the Prodigal Son, is aware of his brokenness, ashamed of his actions, and wrecked by the distance between his father’s virtues and his own. He feels that the only way to be okay is to make his father proud of him. He sits down at the tree where his family had scattered Jack’s ashes; a place Kevin hasn’t been to since the funeral. Kevin says to Jack, “I just think you’d be really disappointed in my you know….I’m really struggling. I just think you’d be really disappointed in me.”
As an audience member, you can’t help but want to shout at Kevin and say, “He’s not disappointed in you! He loves you!” If This is Us has taught us anything about the person of Jack Pearson, it is that if he had been alive and looking Kevin in the eyes at that moment, he would have embraced his son, told him he loved him, and reassured him that he was proud of him. Why? Because Kevin is his son.
Kevin can’t get his mind around this. He still believes he has to do something to make his father proud; something to earn his love.
Students and the Good Father
I think sometimes in youth ministry, we can inadvertently take part in teaching the same untruth that Kevin believes. In all of our talks about what students should do, should say, and should think, we can sometimes lead them to believe that God’s love for them is really conditional. That what matters most to God is how correctly they think and how well they behave themselves. But this message leads kids to a place of shame where they are left assuming that God is nothing but disappointed in them.
That is not what our Father has for us.
A Good Father
“…which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 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 7:9–11)
Jack Pearson was, by our standards, a pretty great dad. A dad who, although he had problems, loved his kids. He made sacrifices for his family. He loved ferociously and unconditionally. We all want that in a father, and most men want to be that kind of father. Losing Jack left a gaping hole in his family, but his goodness also left them with a hope, a joy, and a legacy that the audience can see stretch through generations.
And Jack Pearson is only a glimpse at the kind of father that we have in God through Jesus. Jack was just a man (and a fictitious one at that). If Jack, with a bent toward evil, knew how to be a good dad to his kids, how much more good is God?
This is what students need to understand about God being their father. He is not a God that loves us according to our performance, but one that loves us because we are his children. When students understand that their salvation is truly by faith alone, that God’s love for them in Christ is unbreakable, unchanging, and forever, then they will be free. Free to live lives that will make him proud. Not out of compulsion or obligation, but in thanksgiving to a loving Father.
So when we teach the “shoulds,” we should root them first and foremost, in God’s love for his children.