One Generation to the Next: Reflections on Fatherhood

 

On Father's Day next month, many churches will take time to honor dads with a few words of praise, maybe an exhortation to love their wives and children, and perhaps a small gift (our church has all the children come up to the front to get Little Debbie snack cakes to pass out to dads in the congregation). It's traditional and fun, but often rings hollow in the face of the real challenges of fatherhood and the full-on cultural assault on dad's role in the family.

How many churches, I wonder, will spend any Sundays this year, even Father's Day, speaking hard truths about the state of parenting in their congregations or urging fathers to joyfully fulfill their calling according to God's Word?

The world runs rampant with fatherlessness. Just look around to see the pain that causes in millions of homes, not to mention the social crises festering for want of dads to help children grow up into nobility and virtue. It is also possible-whether from working long hours, addiction to hobbies, or simply "checking out" through television, gaming, or social media-for children to be practical orphans even with a father in the home. As a friend of mine put it, what good is providing for your family if you don't provide them with your presence? The film and sitcom stereotype of dad as a buffoonish overgrown child (or anything but a thoughtful provider and leader) has far too much cultural traction. If the Church is to effectively speak to these problems and work for healing, then we need to expand our vision of what it means to be a father and equip our men to rise to the challenge.

Let me be the first to admit that I do not (and don't expect to) have fatherhood figured out. This year's Father's Day is only the fourth observed on my watch, and I wrestle daily with how to be disciplinarian, disciple-maker, and dad to my two daughters. Even so, Scripture has a lot to say to fathers, and it goes far deeper than teaching them how to provide for one's family or how to smile after receiving that seventeenth mismatched tie or "World's Greatest Dad" mug. We need to rediscover and celebrate what it means to be a God-honoring father.

I. Father as Image-Bearer
Nothing puts greater fear in my heart when thinking about being called "father" than the realization that I share that title with God Almighty. On good days, I rejoice at the privilege and responsibility of modeling for my children attributes of my Father and theirs: providing, protecting, disciplining, forgiving, and reflecting the wonder of the Trinity by loving their mother well. On bad days, I quake at the manifold blasphemies my bad example to them perpetrates. Most days, the struggle is on as I see the failures, but strive against them and long for the strength to do better.

If that were the end of it, fatherhood would result in despair for even the best of dads. Mercifully, the Father who made us and entrusted our children to us has a Son of His own: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. No one has seen God at any time, the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him" (John 1:14, 18). When I fail to measure up to the Father's standard, the best service I can offer my children is to bow before the Son in repentance, leaning wholly on His grace.

Unless my children see me in as great need of Jesus' atoning sacrifice as they are, even my "successes" as a parent will only condemn. After all, the writer of Hebrews points out that we as earthly fathers are but a shadow of the real One-we discipline "for a short time as [seems] best to [us], but He disciplines us for our good so that we may share His holiness" (Heb. 12:10). We are always to point to Him, never stealing His glory, but magnifying it even in our frailty.

II. Father as Storyteller
The bedtime story is a touchstone, perhaps because it evokes the key role that dads have as the "myth-makers" of a child's world. The Lord entrusts us with the tremendous task of shaping their understanding of Himself and telling and re-telling the story of His work in the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation of the world.

Twice in preparing His chosen people for their escape from Egypt, God gives instructions to fathers to explain the significance of the celebrations commemorating His mighty deliverance. "And when your children say to you, What does this rite mean to you?' you shall say, It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians but spared our homes'" (Ex. 12:26-27). "You shall tell your son on that day, saying, It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (Ex. 13:8). The memory of the Lord's work must be passed on to each generation. "We will not conceal them from their children, but tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord and His strength and the wondrous works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our Fathers that they should teach them to their children" (Ps. 78:4-5).

Your children are watching and listening to you to make sense of their world. The stories you tell, by your words and by your choices, will do more than any other influences to form their perceptions of reality. Are you telling the right ones?

III. Father as Educator
In addition to myth-making, we are to be our children's schoolmasters. This is another side of the same coin, the instructive counterpoint to the imaginative story. In Deuteronomy 6, after the Lord gave His commandments to Israel a second time (after the failure of the first generation to heed them), He charges parents to keep the next generation from forgetting. "You shall teach them diligently to your sons, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:7-9).

Such an all-encompassing call the teach God's truth in every circumstance is a necessary corrective to the allure of the world. Satan longs to snatch our children from God's family, and the Lord entrusts fathers with defending them through what Paul calls "the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). He does not tell us to oversee or delegate this responsibility, but to carry it out ourselves. Whatever decisions you make for the education of your children, remember this: no teacher, counselor, or youth pastor can capture your child's heart and mind like you do, and God has not given them the mandate to teach His Word and ways to your children. At the end of the day, this is your responsibility, and God will hold you accountable for it.

Of course, how we teach matters as much as what we teach. In that same verse in Ephesians, Paul tells us not to "provoke [our] children to anger." In a parallel passage, he writes, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart" (Col. 3:21). As we train up our children, we should shower them with love and encouragement, making certain to show them often that serve and discipline them from gratitude to our Father for His grace given to us.

Conclusion
These passages all share the theme that being a dad is a high calling and a full-time job. Christian fatherhood is about so much more (though certainly not less) than showing up at ballgames, playing with your kids, or even keeping your family involved in church. As fathers, we need to see clearly the Lord's design for us as His image-bearers, storytellers, and educators. This family vision should be the bedrock on which all the daily details of raising your children is built. It must be embraced by dads-if it comes from your church, your wife, your school, or even your parents without your buy-in, your family will struggle in its mission to glorify God and reflect His character.

What about homes with no dad in the picture or families with a father whose sins have scarred and embittered them? What about fathers who've earnestly sought to obey God, but whose children have rejected the Gospel? The Lord's plan doesn't change in the face of sin; in fact, the reality of sin is what informs most of a father's calling. These truths should never be reduced to greeting card boilerplate, but pursued in such a way that churches built on the foundation of godly husbands and fathers become the most natural place for hurting families to turn. The Church's responsibility to the fatherless and the widow goes beyond providing for their physical needs, but lovingly restoring to them the spiritual leadership they've lost-whether by others' sin or their own choices.

What is the cost of losing sight of this vision, of putting other desires and plans above God's design? Hear what the Israelites sang after returning to Jerusalem from exile. "For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonishments with which You have admonished them. Behold we are slaves today, and as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, behold we are slaves in it. Its abundant produce is for the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins" (Neh. 9:34, 36-37). Godly fathers equip their children to obey the Lord and enjoy the freedom that comes from that. Abdication of that responsibility paves a rough road for children, opening wide the door to sin's bondage. The stakes are high, but God's grace is great. It is our joyful task to "man up" and prepare our children to praise His name, one generation to the next.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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