Most pastors recognize the God-ordained role and responsibilities associated with fatherhood. Indeed, we have stood in the face of a liberal society and unashamedly proclaimed God's Word on the matter. We have admonished the fathers in our congregations not to buy into our culture's distortion and belittling of the honored station and so shirk those duties, but rather to accept the duty proudly.
We do so because God Himself assigned these responsibilities to the father — responsibilities that make the role noble, valid, and valued beyond a secular culture's comprehension. He has directed the father to raise his children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). The seasoned Christian father readily recognizes and embraces this assignment.
However, there is one fatherly responsibility that some of us may overlook, a responsibility that magnifies the crucial role of a father. While we recognize God's charge to verbalize His truth to our children, we may miss the corresponding duty to reflect God's fatherhood through our actions. According to His Word, an earthly father's example should illustrate certain truths of the Heavenly Father.
The Biblical Expectation
The author of Hebrews refers to the association between earthly fathers and God in 12:8-9. He illustrates the truth of our Heavenly Father's loving discipline with the example of an earthly father's loving discipline. The father's living example puts "skin" on an abstract element of God's love. Thus, a father's actions can reflect certain elements of God's nature and communicate priceless lessons about Him to his children.
In addition, the use of Abba in the New Testament as a designation for God reflects the crucial link between the image of an earthly father and that of the Heavenly Father. When Jesus instructed His disciples to pray, "Our Father, ..." He revealed the intimate relationship God desires with His children.1 When Paul employed the term Abba Father (Romans 8:15-16; Galatians 4:6-7), he drew on the imagery of a small child's intimate and endearing term for his father. God's use of this term demonstrates His intent and desire to have an intimate relationship with His children.
However, the significance of the use of Abba in these verses is rooted in the assumed intimacy between a father and his child. If a child's father were absent or cruel, referring to God as Abba would not likely have invoked such a sense of intimacy. In fact, it could have produced the opposite effect. A person's intimate relationship with his or her father should serve to illustrate the intimacy God's children can experience with Him.
In Knowing God, J.I. Packer suggests that the example of a loving earthly father helps communicate the truth of a loving Heavenly Father (p. 184). On the other hand, he acknowledges that a cruel or absent earthly father presents a contrast of God which must be overcome for a person to have a healthy view of God. Christian counselors and social workers face this dilemma regularly. When someone has been abused by his or her father, it may be difficult for that person to relate to God as a loving Father.
Paul, in Ephesians 3, addressed this connection between example and comprehension. In verses 14 and 15 he identified God as the Father of His family, the church. Then in verses 16-19, he explained that when the church is rooted and grounded in love, actively applying it to one another in the family, the body comes to understand the incomparable love of their Father — God. When we unreservedly love others, despite their faults, and when we receive the love of others, despite our own faults, we begin to grasp the nature of God's love for us.2 If this is true in the corporate setting of the local church, how much more so is it true when applied in our homes? As parents flesh out the reality of God's love in their home, their children begin to comprehend the vastness of their Heavenly Father's love.
The Practical Application
What an awesome opportunity! Through his actions, a father can actually convey the "communicable" attributes of God. Obviously we can't portray the "incommunicable" attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence (my wife was quick to remind me that this is the mother's job). But through our actions we can help them better understand some aspects of His nature, such as love, mercy, grace, patience, kindness, compassion, gentleness, goodness, justice, truthfulness, holiness, humility, righteousness, and faithfulness, to name a few.
A father is also in a strategic position to reflect the reality of God's promises, such as His promise to be with us, to enable us, to forgive us, to lead us, to protect us, and to provide for us.
We obviously can't adequately address a father's responsibility in all of these areas, but here are some examples to consider.
When a father restricts his praise or criticism to his child's performance, whether it is related to school, sports, or behavior, his child could easily conclude that God's love is linked to a person's performance.
When a father is always at work, when he is seldom available to hold, play with, talk with, and listen to his child, that child could have a difficult time relating to a heavenly Father Who promised never to leave us alone.
If a father is uninterested in his children's conversation and gives token, half-hearted responses to their expressed concerns, they may grow up to believe that God is not the least bit interested in their prayers.
When a father tells a "little white lie," or if his children know he cheats on his income tax, his children might have a difficult time conceiving of a Father who "is light, and in him there is no darkness at all."
When a father shakes his fist and screams that the other driver is a stupid idiot, the child might not grasp the concept of a Heavenly Father who is gentle, kind, and compassionate.
Tragically, when a Christian father acts in such ways his children may easily draw inaccurate conclusions about God — conclusions that may not be easily overcome. Perhaps this is why so many who have grown up in the church are no longer active in the church.
On the other hand, as a father is willing to play with his kids when he'd much rather rest after a grueling day at work, his child can get a glimpse of God's sacrificial concern for His children.
When a teenager "crosses the line" but is genuinely remorseful, and the father does not unleash all the wrath that might be fully deserved, his child can better grasp God's mercy.
When a father controls his tongue and temper, his child can better grasp God's patience.
When a father consistently keeps his promise, regardless how small, his child can better grasp God's faithfulness.
When a child repents and the father never raises the issue again, his child can better grasp God's forgiveness.
When a father sits down with his young daughter and pretends to have tea, when he allows his young son to show him how to properly color a picture, or when he willingly changes the baby's dirty diaper, his children can better grasp God's humility.
A Personal Illustration
My understanding of God's promise of protection is greatly shaped by my own father's physical strength combined with his absolute devotion to protecting his family. He was a very large and very strong man. When he was 14 years old, he was already 5'11'' tall and weighed over 200 pounds. After fighting in World War II as a U.S. Marine, he returned to the States and got involved in amateur boxing, then went on to become a professional heavyweight boxer. Eventually, the Lord saved him and called him into pastoral ministry, but he left none of his size and strength behind. On one occasion when I was about 11, my older brother and I had finished working out with a new set of bar bells and weights, and we decided to measure our new-found muscles. My Dad sat amused as he watched us wrap the tape measure around our biceps and chests, and then debate over whose was bigger.
After a while, he called for us to bring the tape measure to him and wrap it around his chest. We were dumbstruck as the tape kept expanding past 50", then past 55", and finally stopping at 56". But then, he asked, "Are you ready?" Neither of us was ready for what followed. He flexed his massive chest and the tape measure swelled to 60". He later told us that when he was boxing, his chest was 60" and his waist measured 34".
My father was indeed a formidable force. When we boasted to our friends, "My Dad can beat up your dad," we were right!
We saw his power and protection first hand a couple of years later. An empty lot around the corner from our house was being prepared for the construction of a new home. One day after the concrete sidewalk had been freshly poured, the neighborhood children came pounding at our door, babbling hysterically that "the man" was holding our eleven-year-old brother, Fred, hostage in the construction trailer. Apparently he and some of his friends had written their names in the wet concrete, and the construction supervisor had come out screaming, grabbed Fred, and forced him back into the trailer. Before he got in, Fred yelled for his friends to go get his Daddy.
My father raced around the corner, burst into the trailer, and told Fred to go on home. At that point, Fred's captor mistakenly picked up a knife from his desk, turned, and pointed the knife at my father. Daddy calmly, but convincingly approached him and informed him that unless he wanted to eat the knife, he had better put it down. He wisely complied. Daddy then walked up to the defeated kidnapper, put his finger in his face, and told him, "If you so much as look at any of these children again, you will answer to me."
When he left that trailer and word got out to the neighborhood kids, he was an instant hero. Our father had stared down a man with a knife and defeated him without even touching him. But to us, his actions merely reinforced what we already knew — our father was willing and able to do whatever was necessary to protect us, even if it endangered his own life.
When I first studied Jesus' request in John 17:15 for His Father to protect His disciples from the evil one, I had a level of understanding and assurance that could never come from mere verbal instruction.
A Pastoral Examination
Our actions, no doubt, help shape our children's view of God. If this is true of Christian fathers in general, how much more is it true of pastors? The father who is also a pastor has an increased responsibility to model the Heavenly Father to his children, for they examine his behavior when he steps down from the pulpit. If they observe the communicable attributes of God in his daily life, they are better prepared to relate to God as a good father. The resulting testimony of their lives can have a far-reaching impact on their world. However, if they fail to see God's presence, patience, faithfulness, mercy, forgiveness, and love lived out in their own father, the negative stereotype of the "preacher's kids" is more likely to flourish.
But the pastor's impact as father reaches beyond his own home, for his children are not the only ones who monitor his example. Church members (adults and children alike) who have had ungodly fathers may also examine the pastor's behavior with his children. This, in turn, can help shape their understanding of God as Father. The pastor's unsaved neighbor will watch how he treats his children and will draw conclusions, not only of Christianity, but also of God.
We must never allow a jaundiced culture to convince us that the role of father is dispensable. Furthermore, we dare not minimize or ignore the impact a pastor/father has in the lives of his children, his church, and his community. Indeed, the spiritual maturity of the next generation of Christians may well hinge on the legacy we leave as godly Christian fathers.
1 D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Matthew, Vol. 8, Zondervan Publishing House, pp. 169,170.
2 William Hendricksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of Ephesians, Baker Book House, p. 172.
Set aside "special" time with your children each week — a time they know belongs all to them. For younger children, you might read to them (books of their choosing) during that time. When they are older, spend the time in an activity that is especially meaningful to them. Believe me, it will make an impression that will last their lifetime.
Pray for your children every day — pray for their spiritual growth, for the situations they are facing, for their relationships, for their future spouse, and for protection from the evil one.
Ask your children for prayer requests and let them know regularly that you are praying for them.
John Revell is editor of SBC LIFE.