"A Boy Named Sue" was created by Shel Silverstein and popularized by Johnny Cash. If you've heard classic country music at all, you probably know it. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Country charts in 1969, and it was Cash's only top 10 single on the Billboard Top 100. The song tells the tale of a young man's quest for revenge on his absent father. The father's only contribution to his entire life was naming him Sue, a girl's name. The name resulted in regular giggles and bullying at young Sue's expense. The moral (if you can call it that) is found near the end where Sue's father reveals that all of the suffering Sue endured was by design:
And he said: "Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong."
There is an element of truth in that. As much as we may try to pursue comfort for our children, the book of Hebrews teaches that the Father disciplines those he loves (Hebrews 12:6), and this discipline certainly does have a purpose: "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). Like Sue's name, the Father's discipline does toughen us up.
In spite of this similarity, there are other obvious ways that Sue's dirty, mangy dad is nothing like the Heavenly Father.
For one thing, our Father is present, and he is speaking to us from a heart of love. Sue's dad "disciplined" his son by abandoning him. But the Heavenly Father's discipline comes with a present and comforting word. The author of Hebrews reminds us of this fact when he asks, "Have you forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons?" (Hebrews 12:5). This "word of encouragement" isn't just any word of God to Israel, but it's God's word through the mouth of of the sage father speaking to his son (Proverbs 3:11-12). The father's loving presence and words make all the difference. Even in the song, Sue walks away with a (somewhat) different point of view after hearing his father speak. The Father's words make sense of our suffering. When we suffer alone, we only become bitter. But when we suffer in the presence of our Father's comforting words, there is purpose.
As a dad, I wonder how often I'm more like Sue's father than the Heavenly Father. I'm not dealing stud in a Gatlinburg honky-tonk, but I do sometimes dole out discipline with gruff distance and silence. Correction can take the form of punishment and 'go to your room!' instead of gentle "discipline and instruction." I'm present, but I'm not present. I speak, but my words of correction contain no love and comfort.
Those times reveal how cynical I am about the Father's love. I think that I deserve respect from my children, but I fail to honor God for the way he uses parenting trials to discipline me for my good. The author of Hebrews reminds us, "We have all had human fathers who discipled us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!" (Hebrews 12:9). The discipline we endure as parents is painful, but the Father desires for it to draw us closer to him and make us more like him: "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness" (Hebrews 12:10b). He wants us to come to him. We don't have to hunt Him down in a spirit of revenge. We can draw near and experience both his guiding staff and his correcting rod as a comfort (Psalm 23:4).
This is the way that our Father's discipline makes us tough. When the Father has his way with his children, we won't kick like a mule or bite like a crocodile. Instead, our Father's training produces in us character like his own--a harvest of righteousness and peace.