In yesterday’s piece, I made the point that while there is much said about the problem of fatherlessness in our society, especially among conservative commentators, a lot of what is said tends to focus on the quantitative side of things and not on the qualitative side. Having more fathers that begin and remain in the home throughout their children’s upbringing would certainly be better than the current situation of mass fatherlessness, but it is only part of the issue. What we really need is fathers who truly love their children and who are prepared to sacrifice themselves for their wellbeing on a daily basis.
In this piece I want to cover a couple of issues. The first is our relationship with our children, and then more briefly the challenges we ourselves face as we attempt to fulfil this role (I’m writing specifically to fathers here, but most of what is said applies equally to mothers).
Here’s a caveat before I begin. What I am about to write is overtly Christian. Now I know that might put some readers off, but my hope is that it won’t. Most of he principles I am setting out here are, I think, universal principles that all fathers should strive for, and indeed I would argue that anyone who really attempts to put them into practice will undoubtedly find that they help them become a better father. And that’s my hope, both for myself, and for anyone reading this.
The Apostle Paul has the uncanny ability to pack more into one sentence than most of us can pack into several thousand words. How does he instruct fathers to behave towards their children? “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). So that’s it, is it Paul? Is that all you have to say to fathers? Don’t make them angry and bring them up in God’s ways? Not really. Paul’s one-liners are like the opening of a treasure cave and we need to dig deep if we are to get to the heart of his teaching and mine the gold.
As he often does, Paul begins with a negative, moves it to a neutral, and then takes the whole thing over to a positive. So in Ephesians 4:28 he says this: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Imagine a dial with three markings. On the left hand side is “stealing”. In the middle is “not stealing”. And over on the right hand side is “labouring to give to others”. Religious moralism only sees the need to turn the dial from the left to the middle. “Don’t do this”; “Don’t do that”. As if the absence of stealing is all that is required. But Paul says no, that’s not all that’s required. God doesn’t just want “non-stealers”; he wants cheerful givers.
Paul does the same with the father passage. The notch on the left is marked Provoking, Exasperating, Frustrating, Angering your children. And there’s a whole range of different ways that this can be done. Paul says to turn the dial. Where to? To the “no longer provoking, exasperating and angering my children” spot in the middle? No, he says, dial it all the way to the right hand side. So just as the antidote to stealing is not “not-stealing” but rather giving, the antidote to provoking our children is not “not provoking our children”, but rather nurturing and admonishing them (some translations have this as training/discipling and instruction/correction, but the sense is roughly the same).
What might sound odd here is that having turned the dial from the negative notch – provoking to wrath – to the positive notch, we find Paul speaking of admonition (or correction). But isn’t admonishing (or correcting) a negative action? Of course it can be, and I’m sure we can all think of examples of ways we can rebuke our children in a wholly negative manner. And if such a way of rebuking becomes the norm, then it can clearly lead to exactly what Paul tells us to avoid – exasperating and provoking our children to wrath.
So how can admonition or correction be positive? It’s surely a question of why we do it and how we do it. If our whole wholehearted desire is to see our children corrected and restored, and if we deliver the admonition or correction in a way that reflects that, then it is an undoubtedly positive thing and our children will generally respond positively to it.
What of nurturing? That has a more naturally positive sounding ring to it than admonition, but what does it mean? Nurturing is about making sure our children have all the elements they need so that they thrive and grow up into men and women who have a genuinely contented, loving, servant spirit. It means not merely giving them moral instruction, but doing so in an environment that is warm and loving. It means following the sacrificial example of Christ, both in teaching and example, but making sure that we do not stifle our children or place heavy burdens on them.
They need warmth and love to thrive, and free air to breathe, and I’ve seen a good many families fragment because the atmosphere in the home was frigid, or because the parents stifled the children by attempting to squeeze them into their own particular mould.
Nurturing also means getting closer to our children. Cuddle them more (especially girls). All children need to feel wanted and secure, even if some of them don’t communicate this need as well as others. Talk to them more. Be interested in them and their lives. Speak kindly to them and well of them. Get rid of any hindrances in your life that might be a stumbling block for them, or barriers that might breed resentment and create a distance between you and your children. Seek their forgiveness, not just God’s if you have wronged them, or shouted at them, or failed them. Make sure they know you would give your life for them. Fill your home with love and with grace.
That’s the theory, but if your house is anything like mine, the reality is often a far cry. Occasionally I might approximate to some of these things, but there are too many times of miserable failure to recall. What then?
The things I have listed above are hard and they require self sacrifice and determination. We are bound to mess up; bound to fail. But this should make us press on, not give up, or react with indifference. Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, Christianity is not a religion of beating ourselves up over such failures and feeling guilty about them. Rather, it is a religion which says get down on your knees, seek God’s free and full forgiveness through Jesus, and then get up and go be a better father to your children.
Fatherhood is the most important social issue of our day, and the lack of good fathers is behind so much of what has gone wrong in our society. So if you don’t already, will you join me in making it a regular prayer to pray for fathers?
Pray that every child in the land would know their father throughout their childhood. Pray for every child to know the love and the warmth of a good father. Pray for fathers you know to be enabled to lead their families, and to nurture them with love and grace. Pray for good fathers to become better fathers. Pray for absent or poor fathers to repent and then succeed where they have previously failed. And above all, pray for you yourself to start rebuilding the foundations of this messed up society, by being the best father you can be to your children.