The Example of Fatherhood (Nov-Dec 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Kim Seidman
November – December, 1997

29I have a friend whose father is a workaholic. He puts in 65 to 70 hour weeks at the office, determined to provide for his children all the things he never had. In his relentless pursuit of financial success, he never has any time to spend with his son. He could not attend any of his high school soccer games, because they were always in the afternoons when he had to work, or Saturday mornings when he was in meetings. He would get home late at night, too tired to talk, and leave before breakfast. His son brought home athletic trophies, but they went unapplauded, just as all the dad’s hard work and faithfulness in providing went unacknowledged. The silence between them grew and divided them as time passed, and they had less and less to talk about. He left home and came to college without ever hearing or speaking the words, “I love you.”

Another friend was on my basketball team in high school. Her father had been a professional baseball player, and he had wanted his only child to be a boy, so he could teach him the game. She knew she could never be the son he wanted, but she tried to earn his love and approval by excelling in both academics and athletics. When he failed to acknowledge her achievements, she turned to her high school dates to gain attention and quickly developed a sexually promiscuous reputation.

I also know a man who is an alcoholic, like his father before him. When he is sober, he is a responsible and supportive dad, but the more he drinks, the quicker his temper flares. Several times I remember his young boy coming to church with bruises that were too extensive and dark to have come from “falling out of bed.”

I went to school with a woman who is a psychology student, intending to earn a Ph.D. and begin her own therapy practice, specializing in adults who were sexually abused as children. She is not a Christian, and it did not take me long to figure out why. Her parents have been missionaries in Africa for over 20 years, so she had spent her life there until coming to college in the States. Her father had preached countless sermons, helped to establish three churches, and baptized over 300 converts; but the same man would come home at night, enter his daughter’s room, and molest her. She has not stepped inside a church building since she left Africa.

Each of these individuals lacked close and healthy relationships with their earthly fathers. How would their perceptions of God be different if they had grown up with godly fathers?

Fatherhood possesses an inherent power which is only enhanced by the biblical metaphor of God as heavenly father. Metaphors are images that relate something familiar to something unfamiliar, so it is no surprise that “adolescents have trouble differentiating God relationally from their earthly dad. Their image of their fathers influenced their image of God.”1 Because God chose the father’s intimate, loving relationship with his children to represent his own infinite love for his creation, the role of the Christian father in adolescent spiritual formation is to emulate the heavenly father. As much as humanly possible, a father must seek to embody the paternal qualities of God, so that his children may gain accurate insight into the father heart of God. The following acronym defines a structure which aids in exploring the role of the father in adolescent faith development. A father is called to be:

Faithful, to
Affirm, to
Teach, to
Hold, to
Empathize, to
Remember.

To Be Faithful

A father cannot pass along to his children something he does not possess2

First and foremost, a father is called to be faithful: to God, to his wife, and to his children. His faithfulness to God means that he will worship no idols, not “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, or the pride in riches” (1 John 2:16). As the spiritual head of the family, should the father choose to walk in darkness, all his household will suffer the consequences of his faithlessness.

A father’s relationship with God provides a spiritual foundation for his children to build their own faith. The father who spends time in the presence of the Lord will refuse to measure his masculinity according to the worldly standards of prestige and wealth, because godly wisdom will teach him that no amount of success outside the home will compensate for failure within the home.3 The father who kneels before God will never forget where the source of his strength lies. A father who is faithful will pursue God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, and his life in God will empower him to fulfill his role in the home.

A father must be faithful to his wife. If he is not fulfilling his role as a husband, he is failing to model Christ’s love for the church, and when this love is not demonstrated in the home, young people become emotionally crippled. “The most important thing a dad can do for his children is love their mother,”4 because their marital satisfaction determines the peace and security of the home. “If the atmosphere of the marriage is distrust and anger, then that mood will permeate the entire family. If the attitude is non-communication, the children will get used to silence or foreboding. On the other hand, if the marriage is love, the whole family will absorb that love.”5 When the marriage is unhealthy, the children’s sense of security is undermined. “Through union with a woman, children are born. Through communion with the same woman, secure and confident children are born.”6

A young man learns how to treat women and his future wife by watching how his dad treats his mom: Does he respect her? Does he display his love and affection for her? How does he talk about her when she is not around? Does he look at other women or indulge in pornography? Consciously and subconsciously, the son is learning what it means to be a husband by observing his father. A girl is also watching how her dad interacts with her mom, wondering if it is desirable to submit herself to a man in marriage: Would it be a lifelong blessing? Or a lifeterm sentence? A girl’s father is the first and most important male in her life, and she will form her ideas about a future husband based upon her own relationship with dad. She will expect her spouse to treat her as her father treated her. If the father is loving, nurturing, and affirming, she will anticipate the same from her husband, but if her dad is verbally, physically, or sexually abusive, she will tolerate that behavior also, because she knows nothing different.

A father is also called to be faithful to his children, making them a priority in the face of all the pressures the world places on him. If a dad fails to father, someone or something else will; the world is full of father substitutes.7 By consistently keeping his promises and being there for his family, a man attests to God’s faithfulness and consistency – that God is and always will be there, especially in times of greatest need. Unconditional, eternal love reveals itself in faithfulness, and faithfulness over time breeds commitment, and commitment allows for a sense of security that is fertile ground for intimate relationships to develop.

To Affirm

All kids growing up seek their father’s affirmation. All.8

When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened, and God spoke, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Children look to their parents for identity. “Fathers who tell their kids, ‘You are my children’ give them an invaluable point of reference. Children then feel secure in exploring the world, because they always know where home is. They know where they belong … making this claim communicates belongingness, acceptance and pride.”9

Parents are the mirror by which children see themselves. Children with high self-esteem usually come from homes where they were loved and affirmed, while children with low or no self-confidence emerge from homes where little or no praise or love was expressed. So many suicidal teens see themselves as completely unlovable, because fathers did not communicate their love.

A father tends to affirm his children for external qualities, such as appearance and accomplishments, which perpetuates a cycle in which adolescents feel as though they must look a certain way or act in a worthy manner to gain attention and praise. Over time, this performance-based acceptance breeds resentment, because teens do not feel loved unconditionally and may even cease to believe this kind of love exists.

A parent can put a barrier between the young person and the kingdom of God with a negative, critical relationship. It is difficult for a teen to respond to the Gospel and its message of “I accept you for Jesus’ sake, not because of your behavior” while the parent gives the exact opposite message. The teen needs to experience through his parents the same kind of total acceptance that the Bible says we have in God.10

Fathers should identify and commend character or spiritual fruit in children’s lives, and praise them for who they are instead of what they do. Receiving unconditional acceptance and love from their earthly father enables teens to believe that their heavenly father also unconditionally accepts and loves them, thus freeing them from a lifetime of trying to earn his grace.

To Teach

Teaching children a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is the most important task fathers have set before them.11

A father cannot overlook his role as a faith-former in his children; too many relinquish that responsibility to the church, unaware that they have more influence in their adolescent’s spiritual development than any formally trained minister. Adolescents cannot be expected to take God seriously if their father does not. He is called not only to share the gospel, but also to live the cruciform life, because children are better witnesses than listeners. A father must demonstrate forgiveness, grace, and mercy for his children to believe that God extends forgiveness, grace, and mercy. He should model spiritual disciplines, such as meditating on the Word of God, praying and fasting. His silent example will normalize these practices and allow for a natural incorporation into his children’s routines; they will take their spirituality seriously if their father does.

Another thing a dad should do is confess his mistakes and failures in parenting to his children. Admitting mistakes removes barriers and promotes sharing. Adolescents are old enough to recognize their dad is fallible, but if he is unwilling to remove that mask, that communicates deception, and they, too, will be reluctant to admit weakness and failure. By confessing sin and asking forgiveness, allowing his kids to see him as totally dependent on God, he renounces the myth of perfection and places them in the hands of their heavenly father. “Only by removing himself as God, can he give them to God.”12

To Hold

God became flesh for us to show the way to come in touch with God’s love is the human way, in which the limited and partial affection that people give offers access to the unlimited and complete love of God, love that God has poured into the human heart.13

Physical affection is vital to the adolescent. Many dads refrain from displaying affection with their teenagers, because their daughters are physically developing, and their sons are becoming independent men. Yet this is the time when warmth, tenderness, and touch are needed the most, because fathers play a very influential role in the development of their adolescents’ sexual identity. Studies show that teenage girls with unaffectionate fathers are more prone to sexual promiscuity and tend to marry earlier while young women who continue to receive affection from their dads throughout adolescence have the physical closeness they need and are more patient in selecting a mate.14 Young men who are not affectionate with their fathers tend to be more physically aggressive and will have a difficult time demonstrating a love for their own children.

Teenagers need to be held by their dads. If a father’s affection is not physically demonstrated, there is a tremendous breakdown in the feeling of love as a result, because his embrace communicates total acceptance. There is no substitute. When children are held, they feel safe, secure, and protected. As they mature spiritually, they will be better able to understand that God holds them, and they are safe from the Evil One. They will know that resting in his arms is a haven, a place of comfort and security.

To Empathize

Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event.15

Perhaps the most important thing a dad can do to maintain open communication is to empathize, that is, to put himself in his children’s place in order to identify with their own personal struggles. Teens will cease communicating if they feel that they are not being taken seriously.

Harry Chapin wrote The Cat’s in the Cradle in the ’70s. The first couple of verses are about a boy growing up, desperately wanting to spend time with his dad, but he was always too busy, and they would have to get together later. The last verse fast forwarded several years and turned the tables, because, as the father grew older and finally had the time, he wanted to be with his son; but the son had become too busy. A father cannot truly know his kids without spending vast quantities of time with them. Time is the biggest pressure fathers face in raising teens. “For the father, it is a loss of intimacy and the satisfaction of really knowing his son or daughter. For the child whose father has been unavailable, the primary loss is generally a feeling of rejection that turns to anger … the child’s self-esteem also tends to suffer.”1 Kids just want to be with their dads. It is a God-given, inherent need.

Shakespeare wrote, “It is a wise father who knows his own child.” The best way to know someone, to understand what they are thinking and feeling, is to listen. Fathers are often searching for solutions to problems, when their children just want to share their struggles. They want someone to know what they are thinking, what they are experiencing, without passing judgment. “Many teens dislikes, complaints and hurts cannot be handled on a purely rational level. Recognizing and dealing with their feelings, making them feel better about themselves and assured of love, is often what is needed.”17 In a culture that generally disrespects adolescents, their idealism, their unanswerable and uncomfortable questions, teens desire to be heard and understood. Sometimes they are seeking answers, sometimes they are seeking empathy in quest of their own identity and faith.

To Remember

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may given them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the hose of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.18

A father’s final role in adolescent spiritual formation is to remember his place. Ultimately these are God’s children and not his; he is but a steward who has been entrusted for a brief time with human treasures, created in the image of God. His mission is to equip these young people for service in the Kingdom. While they are in his care, he is appointed to oversee and actively participate in and contribute to their physical, social, mental, and spiritual development. When this task seems too overwhelming for anyone, he should remember that he is not alone; the community of faith surrounding him will help raise his children in the Lord. The gifts he lacks and the sum of his shortcomings and imperfections are not a curse, but rather a reminder that he is human, and God is the only perfect father.

Exodus talks about the sins of the fathers being passed on to the fourth and fifth generations. Family sins are not merely bad habits; they are deeply ingrained, unrighteous traits that must be brought tot he cross of Christ and crucified. Only the washing of blood, only the gospel can free men to love their families enough to face their own pain in order to bring health into their homes.

Beautiful things can happen when a father and his child nurture their relationship as God envisioned and intended for their mutual blessing. My friend Caren has this kind of relationship with her dad. He is her best friend, but she never questions his authority. He is her hero, but she is aware of his humanity. He is her preacher, but she knows she does not have to be perfect. her father took the time to develop an intimate relationship with her. She believes that his unconditional love for her is the impetus behind all of his actions. When she makes a mistake, he seeks understanding before he disciplines and is quick to forgive. When she talks, he is quick to listen. When she cries, he is quick to hold. Caren loves her dad. She sees in him an image of her heavenly father.


1 Ken R. Canfield, The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992) 88.
2 Jay Kesler, ed. Parents & Teenagers (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1984) 97.
3 Ibid., 95.
4 Thomas Hesburgh.
5 Brock Griffin, “Marriage and Fathering … What Children Gain When You Love Their Mother,” Today’s Father, (National Center for Fathering, Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 4).
6 Ken R. Canfield, The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992) 117.
7 Ibid., 35.
8 Dr. Frank Minirth and Dr. Brian Newman and Dr. Paul Warren, The Father Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992) 196.
9 Ken R. Canfield, The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992) 32-33.
10 Jay Kesler, ed. Parents & Teenagers (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1984) 140.
11 Greg Johnson and Mike Yorkey, “Daddy’s Home” (Whaton: Tyndale House Pbulishers, 1992).
12 Dr. Frank Minirth and Dr. Brian Newman and Dr. Paul Warren, The Father Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992) 192.
13 henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
14 Steve Farrar, Point Man (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1990).
15 Gaston Bacheland, as quoted in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, ed. By Angela Partington (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
16 Jay Kesler, Parents & Teenagers (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1984) 105.
17 Ibid., 134.
18 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: A. Knopf, Inc. 1951), 18, 19.
Wineskins Magazine

Kim Seidman is a Junior ministry major at Abilene Christian University.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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