The Ideal Father
When you were a child, what was your idea of a perfect father? Have those ideas changed since, and, if so, what has changed them?
As I sat down to craft a Father's Day message for Adam on Saturday, and as I listened to more great preaching on Hebrews 12 Sunday morning, I realized that fatherhood is one of those subjects that keeps unfolding, layer after layer, the more one contemplates it. How little I have appreciated this role for many years of my life!
We may craft our idea of a perfect father from any number of sources. My ethic of fatherhood during my pre-teen and early teen years was informed by my own dad, a limited amount of theology, what my mom said (she knew everything), movies, TV, and, of course, my own wisdom. My perfect dad would: love God, love us, be awesome at his work, be "emotionally present," protect us, be hilarious, be proud of me, think I'm always right, and discipline my little sister. Most of these, my wonderful dad did on a daily basis. I admit that many of my frustrations growing up arose out of our differing expectations about the last two.
Not everyone has a father like mine: God-fearing, hard-working, loyal, loving, and undeniably FOR his family. Perhaps not many at all have/had that kind of father (or perhaps had him and lost him). But I'm willing to bet there is a common thread between most of us even so: as a child, I am willing to bet I'm not the only one who did not know or appreciate what God expected of my father, or of me.
Cue Heart-Warming Music
Notice that, while most of the items on my Ideal Father list were good, positive things, I was not particularly interested in being instructed, trained, or disciplined. It turns out that any cursory survey of Scripture reveals those pesky authoritative qualities as a really big part of a father's job. Authority with love, yes, and with compassion, definitely, but not without the pain of being confronted with my foolishness by another sinner.
Sadly for Little Meggie, there are even more verses commanding children to honor their fathers, receive their instruction, and not to reject their discipline than there are to fathers to give the instruction and discipline in the first place. But like that red-headed mermaid whose voice I apparently have, I dreamed of a land where daddies did not reprimand their [elder] daughters.
Or imagine a popular 90s sitcom where teachable moments (cue heart-warming music and Bob Saget on my bed) came after the daughter had already played out the scenario in her own way, often rejecting her father's instruction, then received some unpleasant external consequence, and was now feeling miserable. The consequence came from outside and not from dad, and that's how the warm fuzzies happened and how the daughters managed to apologize. Bob Saget had been right and they had been wrong, but his daughters had to learn this the hard way.
Fatherly Discipline Is a First Thing
It's telling, isn't it, that the first person of the Godhead is called Father? It's like we're supposed to make a connection or something. I linked above to Hebrews 12:7-11. This is one of several places where a Scripture writer assumes his readers understand something basic about fatherhood, and uses this to teach them something about God. Take another look:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:7-11
To the writer of Hebrews, it is assumed his readers know that fathers discipline their (legitimate) children, and, at the moment, it hurts. It is assumed they know that, despite the pain of discipline, true sons (and daughters) respect their fathers in this role. So what happens to our ability to understand God the Father if we demand our fathers be benign and supportive, there to comfort us when we are hurting but not there to hurt our bottoms (proverbial or actual) when we are rushing headlong into foolishness?
Real Live Consequences
He has no right to talk to me about this when HE is SO.... I could have written that song and it would have been the soundtrack for several years of my adolescence. We chafe at being corrected by our earthly fathers (and other authorities too) because they are sinners. I'll just take my direction from God, thank you very much.
The giant problem with just taking direction from God I've outlined already. God commanded me, while in my dad's household, to take direction from my dad. Obeying God meant obeying Dad. And it doesn't stop with dads and childhood; all kinds of sinners get to direct, correct, and reprove me now. My husband, church elders, my boss, my government...all exercise authority over me because God put them in a position to do so, and they do it imperfectly. If my god is okay with me rejecting authority, he is a god of my own imagining. He thinks like I do. He is me. The convenience of this plan is that it avoids uncomfortable situations like admitting my sin to some other sinner, and it also fairly does away with the need to confess anything to god. He agrees with me, after all.
This is the crux of the problem with expecting fathers, earthly and heavenly, to be benign: humanity is infected with something malignant, and salvation involves a painful death, that of self and pride. Our fathers are, or ought to be, on the front lines for their children. I didn't want to confess my sins to my earthly father because I'd deceived myself into believing my sins were minor, misunderstood, or appropriate responses to injustice on his part. When it came time to confess my sins to my heavenly Father, I really had to strain to come up with more than one or two. I had no way of interacting with how treasonous every sin is in the eyes of a holy God, what a gracious gift each day was that I did not get sent to eternal damnation, and the fact God calls us to safety through the instrumentation of sinful men and women who are clinging to His Word.
Coming to Terms
When we celebrated Adam's first Father's Day 10 years ago, I still hadn't begun to realize the magnitude of fatherhood. I, the Mom, knew everything about what the kids needed. I read all the books and made all the charts and worked all the routines. Everything our children would experience day-to-day would be under my purview, and these day-to-day things seemed all-important. I wanted Adam's help executing my plans, as if he were a clone of myself (and also a pack mule, because all that baby gear was really heavy). I wanted the kids to have Daddy time, but this was at least half just so I could have a break. Yes, I realize how much negative exposure I am getting today.
Over the years watching Adam be Daddy to our three kids, seeing him grow progressively into that role with persistence and strength, I both admired many things about him and chafed when his parenting priorities rubbed against mine. But my heavenly Father never stopped parenting and disciplining me through Scripture, the Church, and, absolutely, through my husband, and something mysterious happened: I began to learn honor for Adam as the head of our family. I learned, not only mentally (because my mind had grasped these things long ago) but experientially, how embracing his distinct role as husband and father for Christ's sake frees us both to be who God calls us to be, and equips us to tell an amazing Gospel story with our everyday lives.
Moms have so much influence over how children view their dads. When I chafe and believe my husband should function as an extension of myself, my kids think so too. When I rejoice in Adam's distinctness and leadership as father, my children do too, and, thank God, more and more, this is our story. They love him, and by God's grace my goal is that they would honor him and learn from their relationship with him how to be children of God, who offers them Life, but only through death to pride and self.
I am a planner and always will be, but now, rather than expecting my husband to come alongside and work toward my goals for the family, I consider him when I make these plans, and then I bring them to him for feedback. I also want to know whether he has any goals for our family I can help plan and execute. I find myself watching Adam to see what he prioritizes, things that are often uncomfortable for me, and trying to grow in those areas. I also forget to do these things sometimes, just to be honest. But less.
I look back on my childhood and wonder how many things could have been different if I had been different--more submissive, more sanctified. My dad loved God, loved us, was/is awesome at his work, was "emotionally present," protected us, was hilarious, and he was proud of me. Most of the time, we were happy, but when I knew he was displeased with me, I pitted my will against his. I didn't allow him to be for me in fatherly training, because that meant he was against my cherished, prideful view of myself. I wish I could change it all. If I'd started earlier with this humility stuff, I'd be, like, super-holy now.
God doesn't let us go backwards and change things like that, though, and I believe this is partly so that we can tell stories of His grace--big stinkers turned less stinky, little by little, as we, in faith, get scrubbed fresh in God's big bathtub. Happy belated Father's Day to all of you important guys out there.