The decline of fatherhood has been lamented for several decades, not just by Christians, but increasingly by all who recognise the profound psychological, emotional and developmental effects it has upon children.
While more and more people are praising modern trends in fatherhood (such as stay-at-home dads and shared domestic chores), unfortunately these trends do not compensate for the growing number of children without a permanent father in the home. Intermittent interaction with a divorced father is better than complete absence, but it has still produced a culture where millions of young men attempt to fill fatherly voids with figures like YouTube phenomenon Jordan Peterson.
I recently completed my first year as a father. It’s been an unprecedented joy to watch my child grow, but I’ve been frustrated by the fogginess and even indifference surrounding modern fatherhood. Western culture increasingly downplays the distinction between fatherhood and parenthood in general. Meanwhile, many Christians seem to uphold traditional ideas about fatherhood that lack both the precision and nuance needed to father in today’s world.
What does it mean to be a father in the 21st century? As a Christian, how might my goals differ from those of other fathers? I have organised a few thoughts around three headings.
Although human fatherhood derives from God’s perfect Fatherhood (Eph. 3:15), we must remember it is subject to the Fall and is characterised by failures. Human fathers influence the way their children understand failure and how God deals with them.
King David’s failures with Bathsheba and Uriah are well known, but his shortcomings as a father are also significant. David’s sexual failures should have been communicated to his children as dire warnings, but judging by the activities of Amnon and Absalom (2 Sam 13:14;16:22), David failed to equip his children to learn from his mistakes. Likewise, David’s headstrong and violent failures should have led him to take extra care in steering his children away from those pitfalls. Instead, we read about Absalom’s murder of Amnon and David’s failure to discipline the actions of both Absalom and Adonijah (1 Kings 1:6).
In some ways fatherhood begins with an inevitable ‘distance of fatherhood’ (described by various thinkers) which we can see when we contrast it to a newborn’s immediate, bodily intimacy with the mother. Ultimately, this ‘distance’ between father and child must be breached and, like the Heavenly Father, human fathers must be the first to extend themselves across this distance (1 John 4:19). In doing so, they transform the distance into an invaluable space for the child to engage the inevitable difficulties of life. In this space, the father can allow his children to suffer in ways that the mother cannot (Matt. 27:46; Heb. 5:8), but also suffers in new ways himself as he wrestles to preserve the autonomy of his children, even when he is tempted at times to disown them (1 Sam. 8:7; Hos. 11).
Throughout history, fatherhood has presented itself as a nonessential burden. Whereas mothers begin from a position of intimacy and must consciously choose to reject it (Isa. 49:15), fathers begin from a position of distance and must consciously choose to claim their role as father. In order to genuinely promote the freedom of the child, the father must freely accept his role as father.
Claiming this role is paradoxical since it simultaneously limits and extends the father’s own existence. Children limit their father by requiring time, energy and commitment; they extend their father’s existence by carrying his ideas, beliefs and identity into a future beyond his own lifetime.
This free, conscious claim of fatherhood is first modeled by God in the creation of humankind, but illustrated in more detail in God’s calling of Abraham and covenant with him. By these actions, God binds himself to the life and choices of a man who is already his child but also genuinely independent. The sacrificial animals of the covenant symbolise the fate of those who break it and limitation of those who accept it (Gen. 15:17; Jer. 34:18–21), but God also recognises the potential to extend his plan of redemption by enriching the life of Abraham with many offspring.
The father maintains this tension between limitation and transcendence. He must fundamentally and repeatedly risk his future with the child in order to promote true freedom for the child and in himself. God loves us enough to promote our freedom by extending grace on top of grace, just as he freely chose to father Israel in a way that ‘risked’ his own reputation and preserved their ability to reject him.
Just as fathers must claim the responsibility of fathering their children, so also must children choose to obey their fathers. The mother-child relationship involves less conscious choosing; it begins with the gift of conception and ripens in the womb. But where there is conscious choosing, there is also potential for
In this context, the father is strongly linked to the idea of forgiveness (Mal. 4:6). Mothers expect and even hope for their children to surpass them. Fathers, however, have the potential to experience the succession of their children as a confrontation (2 Sam 15–19).
The threat of rebellion provides potential for true forgiveness. Crucially, this does not mean it is easy or natural for fathers to forgive their children. However, when we consider the story of the Prodigal Son, it is powerful not because it portrays forgiveness as the pinnacle of tolerance, but because it reveals forgiveness as unmerited grace – built on the gift of unmerited freedom given by a father.
This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of our Engage News Magazine.