Today is Father’s Day, and given that fathers and fatherhood are in crisis in our modern western culture today, I thought I’d go “off script” so to speak, and talk a little about why fathers matter, and the unique blessings fathers provide for their families. In so doing please understand that I am not criticising families where – for whatever reason – there is no father, nor am I making any sort of moral judgement of those who happen to live in a fatherless family.
In a recent book [show picture] “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked”, the author begins by pointing out that until fairly recently, most of the scientific research about parental influence on children focused on mothers and simply left dads out. However, more recent studies have shown how fathers also have an important role in their children’s development.
You can’t hide an elephant, but our society is doing a pretty good job doing just that. So let’s take a look at this elephant for a moment, shall we, and ask the obvious question: Why do fathers matter? According to the research, by every social indicator available, children do less well when deprived of their fathers. The reasons are complex but can be boiled down to the fact that fathers and mothers contribute differently to the healthy development of their children. They complement each other.
So, for example, when it comes to parenting styles, while mothers are generally more nurturing, fathers tend to emphasise rough and tumble play with their children. Mothers more frequently use touch to calm, soothe and comfort their infants, while fathers tends to use touch to stimulate or get their children excited (like tickling and wrestling and jumping out from behind the couch and saying “boo!”). One of things I liked doing with my children when they were small
was throw them in the air and catching them. They loved it, but my wife Sue was less than enthusiastic, closing her eyes out of fear that I would drop them (which thankfully I never did).
In further scientific studies, fathers were more likely to hold their children at arm’s length in front of them, making eye contact, or else hug their child so that they are looking over their shoulder. Mothers, on the other hand, tend to hold their children close. When playing with their children, mothers tend to get down to the child’s level, allowing the child to set the pace and the rules of play. Fathers’ play, on the other hand, is more like a teacher-student relationship, being rough in a good-natured way with their kids. This is particularly important for boys, because it provides the opportunity for the development of socially acceptable forms of behaviour. Children who “rough-house” with their dads learn quickly that biting, kicking, and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.
Fathers also differ significantly from mothers in the way they discipline and the way they express love toward their children. While mothers focus on interfamily relationships, fathers tend to focus on broader social skills and developing friendships. The research, then, is quite clear: mothers and fathers both ‘matter’ for children. Now all of this is not only firmly backed up by modern scientific research. The Bible, too, makes it very clear that God established the marriage of a man and a woman as the foundation for the family, and therefore society, giving them the command and promise to be fruitful and multiple (and he didn’t mean plant apple trees and do your times tables).
Furthermore, the Bible also gives specific instructions about how fathers and mothers are to raise their children. Since this is Father’s Day, let me focus on one passage that speaks specifically to fathers:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’- which is the first commandment with a
promise- ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’. Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:1-4).
Notice first, that fathers are instructed not to “exasperate” their children [the old KJ version says: provoke not your children to wrath]. This does not mean that fathers should not expect a lot from their children, or that they should not discipline them when they have been naughty. As theologian and writer, Robert Capon points out: “Children can stand vast amounts of sternness…It is injustice, inequity and inconsistency that kill them.” Therefore, fathers, if you are going to avoid disheartening or infuriating your children, then develop a passion for fairness.
St. Paul goes on to tell fathers to “bring your children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Notice that God is speaking specifically to fathers. Martin Luther points out that, in a certain sense, the father is the “pastor” or “priest” of his household. His pulpit is the dining table and his ordination papers are his marriage certificate and the birth certificates of his children.
Now there are some startling statistics regarding the father’s priestly role in the family and church attendance. When the father takes the spiritual lead and brings his family to Church, nearly 80% percent of the children stay with it. However, when fathers leave the responsibility solely to the mother, only around 40% of the children stay on into adulthood.
In his book Faith of the Fatherless, Dr. Paul Vitz reveals one of the reasons for this trend. In studying many prominent atheists throughout history, Vitz discovered that absent fathers (either by death or abandonment) or deficient fathers (either by weakness or emotional distance from their children) incline their children towards the rejection of God when they grow up. He concludes that the
spiritual worldview we carry with us into adulthood – particularly with respect to faith in our heavenly Father – is largely determined by our relationship with our earthly father. Once again, this doesn’t mean that mothers have no effect. It just means that fathers have a much more important role in the spiritual lives of their children than our modern culture would like us to believe.
As Christians, the reason for this is obvious, namely that hiding behind our earthly fathers is our Heavenly Father, who is providing for, protecting, and preserving us. Dad, therefore, is a powerful sign of God the Father’s care for all his children. Fathers, do not neglect your responsibilities to your calling to your children, or palm off the duties to your wife. While she is there to be at your side and to help you, you are ultimately responsible to God for your children’s training and instruction in the faith.
St. Paul goes on to speak to children: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord…Honour your father and mother…that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’. Children – and I’m talking to adult children here as well – you and I are instructed by God to honour our parents, and that includes our fathers.
Now I realise that this is not always easy. Some of us have lost our fathers under various circumstances. Some of our fathers died young. Some of our fathers abandoned us. Some were broken men. Some hurt us deeply. Some abused. Some neglected. Some fathers were unfaithful, or were never home when it mattered. Some had fathers who spent too much time at work, who missed their children’s growing up. Perhaps some of you had a father like that.
How do you obey God and honour such a man? You do it, firstly, by acknowledging that this is a command of God’s, and that it is unconditional. He doesn’t say honour your father if and when he is a good father. No, we are called to honour father simply because God says so. He is a gift from God to you.
Secondly, we honour our father by forgiving them, by letting go of the hurt, the pain, the privation that he inflicted. That’s where Father’s Day comes in. Let Father’s Day be a day of reconciliation and healing. Forgiveness does not means excusing the hurts of the past, or pretending they did not happen, or that somehow it wasn’t really as bad as we remember. Forgiveness means letting go.
In a movie back in the 90s called Smoke Signals, a young Native American man is struggling to forgive his father for abandoning his family when he was a boy. When the father subsequently dies in another state, the young man goes on a road trip to collect his father’s ashes. At the end of the movie, as he is scattering his father’s ashes from a bridge, we hear his voice-over speaking:
How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream.
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often or forever when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?
For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth…or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing…or leaning, for shutting doors, for speaking through walls, or never speaking…or never being silent?
Do we forgive our Fathers in our age…or in theirs, or their deaths, saying it to them…or not saying it?
If we forgive our Fathers…what is left?
How do we forgive our fathers? We forgive our father by remembering that Jesus bore the pain, the suffering, the abandonment, the abuse of all children by their fathers on the cross. We forgive our fathers by remembering that anger and hatred do not heal; but that only the wounds of Jesus bring true and lasting peace. We forgive our fathers by burying the wounds of the past in the
healing wounds of Jesus. And we forgive our fathers by remembering that Jesus has brought us to a true and loving Father, our heavenly Father, whom we can call ‘Father’ with delight.
On the other hand, we who are children of our fathers must also confess that we have not always honoured our fathers as we should. We have sometimes made life difficult for them. We kept them up late at night worrying about us, watching for us, imagining the worst. We challenged their authority and defied their discipline. We did not always receive them as God’s gifts and blessings to us.
Let today – Father’s Day – be a day for forgiveness and renewal for both fathers and their children. Let it be a day for children to confess their sins against their fathers, and to be forgiven through the precious blood of Jesus, the perfect Son of his Father. Let today also be a day for fathers to confess their sins against their children, and also to be forgiven through the same Jesus whose death on the cross makes peace between you and your heavenly Father. Let this day be a day to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us, and to receive anew the gift of fatherhood and of our fathers.
As the prophet Malachi reminds us: “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” And let us all have a blessed Father’s Day! In the name of Jesus. Amen.