I seem to remember reading somewhere that at least one factor in the question of why young people join gangs was the absence of a father figure in their home. There are other factors, of course, but this one stood out for me, for it highlighted the importance of fatherhood. If a child is to grow up with spiritual and emotional health, the child needs both a strong mother and a strong father, part of whose respective tasks it is to teach their children, through word and example, what it means to be a woman and a man and how these two genders should relate to one another and to the world. It is a daunting task, and the stakes are very high. The task is complicated by failure (or, if one prefers, by “incomplete success”), in that if a father fails in his task of teaching his children well, it becomes harder for those children to teach their own children in turn. Failure thus can beget failure and so pass down through the generations. But there is a happy flip side to this, and it is that success begets success, so that if our fathers did their task well we can also transmit those lessons on to our children. Thus a father’s success can find beneficiaries in his children’s children’s children.
Part of a father’s task is that of a protector for his family. This is well stated in a brilliant article by Brook Herbert, entitled (provocatively), “Towards a Recovery of the Theology of Patriarchy”, published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 1996. In her article Ms. Herbert writes that the father’s bond with his children “is not a lesser bond than the mother’s, nor does it express a less dynamic love…the father welcomes and loves the child in the particularity of its own uniqueness…The role of the father implies not only the legitimization of the child, providing a visible and secure community, but also a commitment to the process of individuation that the child will undergo”. In other words, the father’s job is to provide a lasting and safe environment to grow, and also to love the child in such a way that it feels that it belongs there and is valued for itself, apart from any of its accomplishments.
It should go without saying that providing that lasting and safe environment involves keeping the family intact and unbroken by divorce. Yes, divorces happen, and after the family unity has been shattered, fathers must still do their best. But it is the easier task to preserve that unity and wholeness by avoiding divorce in the first place. Even apart from our Lord’s prohibition of divorce for His disciples (Mark 10:2-9) one should shun this path for the destructiveness it brings to the children. The first thing therefore that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.
Daddy also has another task in the home, which is to combine tenderness with strength, and to model the combination so consistently that the children regard the combination as natural. Here we get little help from our North American culture, which equates strength with hardness, and tenderness with weakness. Strong people are muscular guys like the protagonist in the movie “Die Hard”; loving people are quiet and sensitive, and never hurt anyone’s feelings or make them feel ashamed—even when they act shamefully and should feel ashamed. And since one gets more strokes for giving warm fuzzy affirmation than one does for exhibiting muscle-bond machismo, not surprisingly dads often opt for the former, and err on the warm fuzzy side of our culture’s unhealthy dichotomy. In so doing they opt out of their calling to be strong, immovable pillars, and are afraid of offending their children. They fear being “too authoritarian” and “too insensitive”, and therefore sometimes refuse to call sin by its true name or to declare that certain forms of behaviour are simply not allowed by anyone in the family.
If we would see an example of true fatherhood and how to combine strength with tenderness, and immovable standards and requirements with unconditional love, we need look no further than our heavenly Father. And since, as the Scriptures teach, that invisible God has become visible in His Son (John 14:9, Col. 1:15), we see the same expression and example of fatherhood in the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus is strong and His commands are clear: certain ways of living are required by Him from His children, and certain actions and life-styles absolutely forbidden. Yet for all this strength and immovability, He is tender and loving.
We fathers, if we would truly answer the call and not go AWOL from our divine duty, must strive to exhibit the same combination of strength and love as does our Lord. We must be clear about what we expect from our children and hold them to standards of righteousness, justice, fairness, kindness, and truthfulness. We must also make clear to them that we love them and value them for who they are, and that there is nothing they could do which could stop us from loving them—no failure that they could embody, no sin that they could commit, no error or stupidity that they could make that could possibly interrupt the flow of our love. The world equates love with approval, and in this equation, as usual the world is wrong. The Lord’s example makes this clear: when I sin, He does not approve, but He never stops loving me. Even in His reproof I can feel His love (Rev. 3:19). That is why I can repent, and return to sanity and health and safety.
Our kids must come to know naturally both that dad’s standards protect them, and that his love makes them strong. Our culture has put asunder things which God has joined together—things such as tenderness and strength. It is the job of the father to put them back together again.