Unreasonable, dissatisfied men roam this world. And many of them have children along the way. This is no surprise to our culture. The terrible father is a recurring motif in our literature and a common feature in our experience. You can read Mark Twain and Richard Wright, or you can talk to your child’s classmate or a friend from church. A good dad is hard to find.
People have generally lost the sense of what a strong, self-sacrificing father looks like, largely because they’ve never seen one. Anyone with a listening ear and a speck of empathy can see the unique difficulty that growing up under a crummy father can cause.
Our early relational experiences—particularly with those entrusted with our care—are incredibly shaping. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s part of God’s design for human development. Through fathers and mothers, children receive a framework for understanding the world and everything in it, from important things like morality to relatively trivial things like clothing styles. Why else would God be so adamant that parents teach their children the knowledge of him in the context of the everyday activities of life (Deut 6:7; 11:19)? And alongside the words they speak, parents model the character of God in their affection for, generosity to, and patience with their children. This should be particularly true of fathers (Psalm 103:13, Matt 7:9-11, Eph 5:4, Col 3:21, 1 Thes 2:7-12).
So how can ministers of the gospel help people whose fathers were bad role models?
First, we recognize that earthly fathers can lie to their children about the nature of fatherhood.
Sadly, there is a wide spectrum of sins a father can commit against his children. Some fathers are volatile and moody, subjecting their children to an anxious existence. Other fathers are uncaring and unmotivated, showing little interest or delight in their children and thus depriving them of confidence in the relationship. Others are dissatisfied and accusatory, subjecting the children to impossible standards and punishing them with insults and manipulation. Still other fathers are lazy and indulgent, satiating their children with brightly colored distractions so that he can pursue distractions of his own. Each of these ways of relating to children lie to them about the nature of authority, fatherly dedication, familial intimacy, and the privileges of sonship.
Second, we recognize that these false beliefs about fatherhood can hinder a person from trusting the fatherhood of God.
This is not to say that something irreparable gets knocked loose in the subconscious during the developmental years. Rather, the false beliefs formed through experience can be more functionally significant than what we learn from Scripture. Often, people approach God with the kind of suspicion they developed for their fathers, projecting on him the same moodiness or ill intent they suffered under. But this is to interpret God in precisely the wrong direction. We don’t project on God things from our experience. He reveals himself to us, by which we then understand our experience.
Third, we recognize that God’s revelation of himself as Father is ultimately the only way to undermine false beliefs about fatherhood.
Believing the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than just rejoicing that my sins are forgiven and that Jesus is my righteousness. It is also involves believing in my adoption as a son (Eph 1:5, Gal 4:5) so that I can call out to God with the intimate confidence of a child-heir (Rom 8:15-17). God includes his children in the love he has for the eternal second person of the Trinity (John 17:23,26). Even those with excellent earthly fathers cannot imagine such generous divine fatherhood!
Faith in such a surpassing vision of fatherhood is a gift that God gives by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of his Word. So we unapologetically rely on the Word to do what it alone can do. And as we cast this positive vision of God as he has revealed himself, we should also help identify and consciously put off those false beliefs about fatherhood that undermine childlike trust.
For instance, we may challenge others to consider the following lines of questioning to identify and oppose false beliefs provoked by poor fathering:
- How is your conception of God similar to your conception of your earthly dad? Volatile and moody, uncaring and unmotivated, dissatisfied and accusatory, lazy and indulgent? What does Scripture say about your conception of God?
- How do you feel toward God? Do these feelings line up with what you know from Scripture or with something else? What do your feelings indicate about your attitude toward God?
- What is the Father’s disposition toward you? Are you thinking of your relationship with God as dependent upon your efforts to appease him? Does God put the burden of the relationship on your shoulders?
Fourth, we help men to be earthly fathers who reflect their heavenly Father.
People with crummy dads may know better than anyone else the importance of a good dad but feel the least equipped to be one since they didn’t benefit from an example. Specific instruction in parenting is very helpful for those who lack the background to sense it naturally. But the more specific the instruction, we must be careful not to imply that there is a single system of parenting that, if followed, will result in his being a good dad. I’ve seen men from homes with poor or absent fathers become almost militaristic in an attempt to avoid being an inattentive dad. I’ve seen others become almost indulgent in an attempt to avoid being a harsh one.
The secret to becoming a great father is not so secret: by faith, be a child of your heavenly Father. As you trust your Father, you will know what fatherhood was meant to be. Here’s a pertinent prayer from Paul—that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:17-18).
A version of this article was originally published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol 16, num 1, Spring 2012, pp. 63-65.