“Father…” I choked on the word as Roger and I sang a worship chorus with a small congregation in Kauai. I was a new believer at the time, and I still associated the word with my personal experience.
I love my father, and the Lord brought peace and great healing to our relationship before Dad passed into eternity. But for a very long time our relationship was a source of deep hurt.
Distorting the Gift
Although God gave us the gift of family, when fathers' hearts are not turned toward their children, that gift becomes distorted. Such families suffer a loss that is difficult to overcome. For some, it is devastating.
And the pain often carries into the next generations….
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My grandfather abandoned my grandmother and their three young daughters. He divorced her and married his secretary.
As my mom told the story, my grandmother discovered he was engaged in an illicit relationship when she found a birth control device in the glove box of his car.
By the way, words matter.
He was not “having an affair.” Replacing the word “adultery” with the word “affair” is a direct attack on the family. Ask Siri to define affair, and you will hear a harmless list of definitions that include “love affair.”
But love builds up. Love is patient. Kind. Not self-seeking. It does not dishonor others.
Adultery tears apart families. It is the antithesis of love.
When my grandmother confronted my grandfather about this discovery, he set a bottle of gin on the kitchen table. “Drink that,” he sneered, “and it won’t hurt anymore.”
Years later, she died an alcoholic's death.
My mother’s childhood ended that day when, before her father walked out the door, he turned to her and said, “Take care of your little sisters.”
Mom was 12 years old.
Years later, my own childhood suffered from the impact of grandfather’s unfaithfulness.
There is much more to the story, of course. (More than I will ever know.) Yet I have learned firsthand that when we yield ourselves to our Creator, He exercises His power to heal and restore.
Broken Things, Big and Small
This morning I determined that my little toe may be broken.
For the past couple of days, I felt a dull pain — seemingly caused by something lumpy in my shoe. I took my shoe off a few times to feel inside but didn't find anything. So I straightened the seam of my sock, thoughtlessly assuming it was the source of the problem.
When the discomfort intensified this morning, I examined my foot. My little toe was red and swollen. I vaguely recalled smashing it against the base of the dining room table earlier in the week. A searing pain had made me hop briefly, but I had things to do, life’s demands to meet, so I quickly moved on.
(After all, it’s only a toe.)
My left foot was already compromised by a previous issue that made it partially numb, so it’s not surprising that it took a while to realize my toe was broken....
Are you wondering why I'm telling you about my broken toe when we’re supposed to be talking about fatherhood?
Well, elements of my experience present a fitting analogy for how we relate to the broken condition of fatherhood in our culture. Of course, there's one big difference: a broken toe is a minor injury.
Broken fatherhood brings to mind the state of affairs described by the Prophet Isaiah:
Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds....
Read in context as a commentary on our present culture, I find the passage sobering:
5 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me....
4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
5 Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
6 From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds....
7 Your country lies desolate;
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
foreigners devour your land.…
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?…
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow....
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Is 1:2–20). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
As a nation of families, we sustained grave injuries long ago. Yet we moved on without stopping to examine the source of our problems — seemingly oblivious — because there are always things to do, life’s demands to be met, and we have a pre-existing condition (a/k/a - sin) that numbs our awareness.
A Devastating Injury
It's hard to pinpoint when the most devastating blow occurred. Perhaps it was during a world war when fathers were called out of their families and onto the battlefields? Or perhaps it was the industrial revolution that disrupted the family structure?
Whatever the cause, I personally witnessed a full frontal assault on fatherhood as I was growing up in the 60s and 70s:
- Fathers, once portrayed by the media as providers and protectors, were increasingly portrayed as non-essential, bumbling fools.
- Women’s rights were on the rise—which was good in so many ways but horribly exploited by those seeking to destroy biblical families.
- Culture began to celebrate the “I” in place of the “we”—unaware of the dangerous implications of that shift.
My father was distant, self-absorbed, selfish, and depressed. He was a commission salesman, and we rode a financial rollercoaster of feast or famine. (I often wondered whether our mortgage would be paid.)
Dad was 10 years my mother’s senior. She was 16 when they married, and he was the “head” of the house in the first years of their marriage. Mom talked about how, after she made their bed in those early days, he’d drop a quarter on the sheets (like they did in the military) to evaluate her work.
Things had changed substantially in their marriage by the time I hit my teens. Dad ruled from law rather than from love, and we all rebelled against him, my mother included. In our godless household, this led to a fatal wounding that culminated in the destruction of their marriage.
Lessons from Brokenness
Although both motherhood and fatherhood have been gravely impacted and undermined by sin, here we are focusing on fatherhood. The Prophet Malachi warned us:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mal 4:5–6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
I have seen the effects of that curse up close and personal in my own family of origin. As I shared, even after embracing the reality that Jesus Christ died to save me from the blindness and destruction of a sinful life apart from God, my understanding of fatherhood remained extremely broken. (I couldn’t say the word “father” without choking.)
God often teaches us of His goodness and sufficiency through brokenness.
That brokenness prompted me to begin researching a biblical view of fatherhood. The picture that began to emerge was extremely different from the one I gleaned from personal experience.
Instead of abandonment, I saw sacrificial love.
In his book titled, Father Hunger, Douglas Wilson defines biblical masculinity in the following passage:
So what is it then? What is masculinity? Simply put, masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility. A man who assumes responsibility is learning masculinity, and a culture that encourages men to take responsibility is a culture that is a friend to masculinity. When a culture outlaws masculinity, they soon learn that such outlaws are a terrible bane to them, instruments that destroy civilization with their mutant forms of masculinity. Every society needs masculine toughness, but it needs a toughness that lives and thrives and is honored within the boundaries of the law. And if we want this kind of toughness in the men, we have to teach it to the boys, and cultivate it in them. Like a concrete foundation, masculine toughness has to lie underneath masculine tenderness.
Let me repeat the short definition again: “Masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.”
A Stunning Surprise and Sober Response
Keep that definition in mind as I tell you the story of when Roger and I became parents...
I never planned to have children. As an unbeliever, I had been successfully conditioned to see the traditional family as an impediment to artistic expression and the realization of a person’s full potential. (The enemy really does seek to turn truth upon it’s head, and, apart from the gift of sight God grants His children, he is often successful.)
But as my biological clock began to run down and God’s work in renewing my mind progressed, my mother instinct grew stronger. One day, my friend Patty and I prayed that if God wanted Roger and me to have children, it would “just happen.”
And it did.
The night I took my pregnancy test, my sister Tobey stopped by to show us photos of her trip to the Dominican Republic. She also (especially) wanted to see my pregnancy test results. When I emerged from the bathroom, test-in-hand, and she and Roger saw two faint lines appear, he asked what it meant.
Tobey shouted, “It means you’re going to have a baby!”
Immediately, the color drained from Roger’s face, and he asked if we could continue looking at the pictures of her trip.
(Some time later, we snapped this faded photo of us holding the pregnancy test.)
Now you might find his response surprising, especially from a man who so clearly loves and serves his children. However, in light of Douglas Wilson’s definition of masculinity, his reaction actually appears quite sober.
Masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.
I recall being pregnant, sitting at the edge of the pool at the Pheasant Run Resort where we had stayed on our wedding night. It was five years later, and we were staying for our anniversary.
I was watching a young couple interact with their small children, and a realization made me weep. They were a picture of a loving family so different from the one I grew up in.
My original frame of reference can be summarized by the title on a magazine to which I subscribed before I was married, and before I knew Jesus. The title profanely stated, Families: They ___ You Up.
Speed of the leader, speed of the team. God ordained fathers as leaders of their families. Whether present or absent, their profound influence is unavoidable, and it will bring either a blessing or a curse.
A Painful Harvest
After decades of mocking, belittling, tempting, and otherwise undermining the role of fathers in our society, we are reaping a deadly harvest — the curse promised by Malachi.
Children from fatherless homes are:
- 5 times more likely to commit suicide
- 32 times more likely to run away
- 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders
- 14 times more likely to commit rape
- 9 times more likely to drop out of high school
- 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances
- 9 times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution
- 20 times more likely to end up in prison
Fatherless boys and girls are twice as likely to drop out of high school; twice as likely to end up in jail; four times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems.
(Several sources reported these statistics.)
Healing Broken Fatherhood
Discouraging as that may be, hearts turned back to God find restoration.
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Ch 7:14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the children to their fathers.
I witnessed it in my relationship with my own dad. At the end of his life, he was a humble, loving father who was deeply grieved by his failures, and yet, comforted by the love of Christ.
Before my grandfather died, he came to my mother and asked for her forgiveness. Their relationship was restored.
And earlier this month, I witnessed my husband honor and serve his father, and his father give a blessing to my husband and my children. Apart from Jesus, their relationship would look quite different. (In fact, for many years, it did look quite different.)
In my own husband's parenting, I have seen up close and personal what Douglas Wilson describes as a biblical father reflecting Father God’s heart. Had I not witnessed it firsthand, I might have thought it merely a fairy tale or an unattainable goal.
What are fathers called to? Fathers give. Fathers protect. Fathers bestow. Fathers yearn and long for the good of their children. Fathers delight. Fathers sacrifice. Fathers are jovial and open-handed. Fathers create abundance, and if lean times come they take the leanest portion themselves and create a sense of gratitude and abundance for the rest. Fathers love birthdays and Christmas because it provides them with yet another excuse to give some more to the kids. When fathers say no, as good fathers do from time to time, it is only because they are giving a more subtle gift, one that is a bit more complicated than a cookie. They must also include among their gifts things like self-control and discipline and a work ethic, but they are giving these things, not taking something else away just for the sake of taking.
One Exclusive Source
As I write, I accidentally bang my toe against the metal base of my desk. The pain leads me to these closing thoughts:
- We are wounded and families are hurting.
- Fathers are point men and leaders of their families.
- We are under attack, and we have sustained injuries.
Life’s demands do not stop, and so we must move forward. But we would be wise to examine what has been broken, bind it up, and protect it so it may heal. If we neglect it, we may cause greater injury and one day discover an infection so severe that it leads to permanent loss.
There is One Exclusive Source for healing. The world prescribes many things to fix us, like “more family time.” Although family time is important, it can become an idol that inhibits true healing and restoration.
There is no easy prescription we can take apart from turning to our Heavenly Father.
Fathers’ hearts must turn toward their Heavenly Father in love, submission, and obedience. As fathers honor their Heavenly Father, the speed of the leader becomes the speed of the team and forms a stunning picture of biblical love.
Then, despite the challenges we face, we discover (as Luke 18:27 tells us):
What is impossible with man is possible with God.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 18:27–28). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Do you have a boy in your house on his way to becoming a man? Mark his transition with Celebrating Manhood — a rite of passage guide.