Good News for Bad Dads

Michael S. Horton
Monday, May 2nd 2005
May/Jun 2005

Looking up at me with one of those puzzled expressions, my three-year-old son James, flanked by his siblings (seventeen-month-old triplets), queried, "Daddy, why are you still working? You said you'd play outside with me." My reply was sharp and impatient: "I'm working on something important right now." As soon as the words left my mouth I realized I had just told my son that keeping my word to him was less important than doing what I wanted to do. After all, it was the Lord's work!

Besides being selfish, it's just such responses-in word or deed over time, that make preachers' kids, well, preachers' kids. Pricked in my conscience, I recalled a story that has stuck with me and seems to be regularly brought to mind in moments of conflict between work and family. It was a conversation with the late Robert Preus.

Some readers will know Dr. Preus as the one who, with his brother, did more than anyone else to reverse the liberal drift of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and to recover its commitment to orthodoxy. A member of the Christians United for Reformation (CURE) board and a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Dr. Preus, I am fortunate enough to be able to say, was a good friend of mine.

As we drove up the winding ribbon of road leading to a board retreat in the mountains, I asked Dr. Preus how he accomplished so much in his vocation while raising a half-dozen children, all of whom grew up to be ministers or missionaries themselves. Embarrassed by the question, he nevertheless explained how his children had free access to his study. Climbing into his lap, busy toddlers would watch as he punched away at his typewriter or turned pages. As his kids inquired of his work, Dr. Preus used the opportunity to catechize them. His work for the church was not something his children interrupted; answering their questions was a part of his work for the church. Whatever our vocations, we all share in the priesthood of believers and especially as fathers, we must resist the temptation to see our job as our only or even primary vocation.

Although unmarried at the time, I knew Dr. Preus's advice would come in handy, so we had further discussions in ensuing years. Anyone who knows something about the home life of Martin Luther knows where this stuff comes from: he called his family "my little parish." In fact, Harvard historian Stephen Ozment has called Luther the virtual founder of our concept of the family as the most important unit of both church and state. And yet, Dr. Preus was quick to recount his failures and to wonder at God's grace. Imagining the good doctor's "little parish" sitting in his lap, Dr. Preus's practical advice returns unbidden to correct and encourage.

This is not the place to rehearse the statistics of how our fast-paced world has unhinged our network of grounding relationships and commitments. We all know the tensions between work and family. It is possible to have impeccable pro-family ideals and politics while missing the most obvious daily opportunities to love the neighbors closest to us.

Dr. Preus's story isn't everyone's. Some fathers became Christians later in life, or their work situation is less reconcilable with the domestic patterns of yesteryear. Some readers, for example, have been through painful divorces. Others may have strained relationships with their children who one day seem to be adoring fans and later appear to be aliens living under the same roof. Some dads find that, for whatever reasons, a "working weekend" extends into months and even years. (Harry Chapin's 1970's hit "Cats in the Cradle" scares the stuffing out of me.) Or their company downsizes and they have to become road warriors to cover the territory of others if they want to keep their jobs. Giving up a Lord's Day here and there for their work, plenty of Christian fathers have found themselves leading their families into a slow drift from the shoreline by the time the kids go off to college.

All of the pictures of ideal fatherhood and even the soundest moral wisdom can become a damning weight of guilt that leaves us lethargic, even cynical, about the most important vocation given to a man. You can skimp on a lot of things in life to just get by, but not this one. I'm learning bit by bit that it's so easy for little accommodations here or there to turn into habits, which turn into character. Nothing is better for proving that theory than having children. Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy is reported to have said, "If you have failed as a parent, you've failed at everything." We all know that she was right, but for that very reason, parenthood can be the most oppressive as well as the most joyful job in the world.

One of the practical effects of clear preaching of the law in all of its binding force, and the gospel in all of its sweet liberty is that we are able, really for the first time, to be the failures that we all are (if we allow ourselves to hear of it). "Good" fathers are not those who "have it all together." (Those people actually scare me.) In fact, one of the things we younger dads discover in conversation with more mature Christian fathers whose track record we respect is a corresponding sense of humility and weakness. Despite all the advice, they usually end with something like this: "But you know, it's often a mess-a mess that I've made of things, and God seems to have cleaned it up." This does not always mean that failures leave no lasting residue, but that God's promise can be trusted: "I will be a God to you and to your children forever."

So what is the good news for bad dads-that is, for all of us men entrusted with these precious lives? A number of points can be made.

‘¢First and foremost, the good news is also the simplest, most familiar, and most widely applicable: "God [the Father] so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

After owning your paternal depravity, look outside of yourself to the Father and his Son. Sometimes we hear evangelistic appeals in which it almost sounds as if God the Father is a reluctant, austere, grudge-keeping deity and the Son steps in to save the day. We can easily forget that the Father's love elected in his Son a family of adopted sons and daughters. It was the Father's love that sent his Son on a journey of suffering that would reconcile the world to himself. The Father gave everything to get us back: remember the parable of the prodigal son.

Sure, the fatherhood of God is a model that we are called to emulate. Adapting a point made by the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heshel, we can say that God's love as a father is not an anthropomorphism (that is, expressing God's character by human analogies), but that the love of human fathers is a theomorphism (that is, expressing our human notion by reference to God). God is the original, we're the image. No doubt, the better we get to know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the deeper our own healing will be from scarred memories and experiences of broken fatherhood in our own lives as children and now as fathers ourselves. Our heavenly Father practices what he preaches. He not only gives us the law that directs our steps in this solemn vocation, but carried it through himself for us and for our salvation. Hypocrisy dogs us as fathers, especially as Christian ones. We want our kids to be faithful in Sunday school and church, in the youth group, and yet at home we often excuse ourselves from the consistent expression of Christian nurture. There's a disconnect between our public and private lives-and the kids are the first to see it. Our heavenly Father is not hypocritical or inconsistent. He loves and guides not only by imposing expectations, but by demonstrating his fatherly vocation in every circumstance of our lives.

But if God's fatherhood is only a model for us, it cannot come as good news but only as further condemnation of our own poor performance. The good news is that this God, the Father of Jesus, is now our Father because of his love and the obedience rendered by his Son. In Christ, we do not dread this Father's displeasure as condemnation and judgment, but feel his fatherly hand in redemption and correction. In other words, the good news is not that God is our model of fatherhood, but that in Christ he has become the Father even of bad Christian dads.

So the good news for bad fathers, first and foremost, is also the good news for bad mothers, children, grandparents, employers, and employees. This is why, in our headlong rush for relevance, all of our "practical" preaching on fatherhood, motherhood, marriage, and family can become the most impractical preaching of all apart from the gospel.

A colleague tells me that not long ago a woman visited his church. "I'm struggling in my marriage," she confessed to him, "and my church is in the middle of a series on how to have good marriages." One would think on the face of it that preaching Christ from Genesis to Revelation would be less directly applicable to her situation, but she explained that what she really needed most in this situation was to have her Savior held forth as sufficient. Of course, she also wanted to know what the Bible said about how she should live. She knew that she was as much to blame in her marriage as her husband, and was ready to hear pastoral counsel from the Scriptures. But she found that having more "practical" tips on marital enhancement was not getting the job done. Instead, it was stoking the fires of her anger toward herself, her husband, and God. After a while of Christ-centered preaching, she was able to raise her eyes to heaven and gratefully embrace the God of Promise, and only then was she ready to deal with the issues she needed to address in her relationship.

So the most important thing we need as fathers is to have Christ placarded before us in his saving office. No amount of marital or parental technology will address the deepest doubts and insecurities of spouses and parents-which are always about more than being better spouses and parents.

Recently I saw a television news feature that offered valuable advice on how to protect one's home from Internet pornography. There are secular books out there that can help us understand the differences between men and women and how to be more sympathetic in our relationships. Countless programs are available for developing healthy sleep patterns, discipline, and structure in our children's lives-many of them my wife and I have found to be wise and helpful. But we go to church to hear and receive what cannot be said or given anywhere else. It is the most important message that anyone can hear, in whatever stage of life, and it is not only a message, but the actual gift of eternal life to sinners, even to Christian ones.

In his well-known exchange with the rich young ruler, Jesus was asked, "What is the one work I must do to be saved?" as if Jesus had come as a new and improved Moses, with some additional law, some new bit of practical advice for saving entrepreneurial types such as this fellow. Knowing that the young man wanted to justify himself, Jesus pointed to the law-not a new one, but the familiar one. "All this I have done from my youth," the young man replied. Nothing new here: this is the old list he learned in Sabbath school. No doubt, he really thought he had done it all. Like many young men and fathers today, he may have had his checklist of principles for success in life. He was probably even doing the time-management thing. He was all put together-that is, until Jesus showed him the real intention of the law. "Go sell everything you have and give it to the poor," Jesus commanded. Now he was undone. True, there was no law requiring a vow of poverty, but Jesus' intention was to expose both the deepest meaning of the law as selfless love of neighbor and the deepest resistance to this law of love in the heart of this young man.

In much of our preaching and teaching today, the "principles of successful living/fatherhood/marriage/whatever" are familiar. Sometimes there is a new piece of advice that sounds useful, but for the most part it's common sense. The law is always common sense-until Jesus explains it. Then it is just sheer "lunacy"-an impossible demand. That is why the rich young man went away sad. And it is why, after a constant diet of moral direction devoid of the serious demand of the law and the consolation of the gospel, so many end up concluding that the "God thing" may be for others, but not for them. Helpful advice can indeed come in handy. But until you have felt the force of God's law and its demand for total surrender to the unqualified love of God and neighbor from the heart, you can never know the liberating power of the good news that "while we were still sinners"-still enemies of God and our neighbor, even those neighbors in our own household, "Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

‘¢Second, once you have encountered the darkest depths of your own depravity and the greatness of God's mercy in Christ, space opens up for a new and unexpected liberty to take up the vocations to which God has called you in genuine though faltering love.

"How shall we who have died to sin live in it any longer?" Paul asks. It's a rhetorical question, not an exhortation. He goes on to explain that we have been buried and raised with Christ, participating now in his resurrection life by the Spirit (Rom. 6:1-5). These are facts about every Christian, not advice for those who want to enter into some upper tier of Christian living. Love of God and neighbor can spring only from faith, from union with Christ, not from our own New Year's resolutions. Only after this does the apostle give exhortations to which we really can give our allegiance. Now that we have recognized that this is true of us-that we are ourselves those who have died to sin's tyrannical dominion and are free for the first time in our lives, we are to offer up our bodies to obedience rather than to sinful desires. We obey out of promise, not in order to attain it.

At the end of the day, we will end up disappointing ourselves, our spouses, and our children. God is the only truly reliable promise-keeper. The recognition of this utter dependence on God's sovereign grace on our part as fathers will not be lost on our children. It frees us to acknowledge our sinfulness to God and even to our children, who cannot fail to be impressed with such practical relevance of the gospel in their own relationships with us as fathers who have failed them-and will again, in some way.

‘¢Third, God not only gives promises to us as believing fathers for the sake of Christ, after all, "the promise is for you and for your children." (Acts 2:39)

God still works covenantally within family units, not just with individuals. While each of us must embrace Christ and all of his benefits personally, we must not view our children as pagans who need to become Christians, but as the heritage of the Lord who are on loan to us from one who loves and cares for them more than we do. "If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:13).

There are too many commands given to us as fathers to take our vocation lightly. We bear tremendous responsibilities for the rearing of our children. God works through means, and fathers are significant instruments of his own covenantal nurture. Yet it is the Lord's faithfulness that keeps us and our children in his Son by his Spirit. Far from motivating carelessness, this nevertheless allows us to relax in a proper appreciation of God's sovereignty.

Uptight over whether our children will walk with the Lord, we often communicate this in all sorts of unintended ways. Eventual rebellion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are responsible to God for how we raise our children, but we are not ultimately responsible for how our children respond to God, whose ways are notoriously mysterious. Sometimes fathers are not responsible for particular expressions of waywardness on the part of their children. But even when they are, the good news is that they are the Lord's and he has made them promises that no human father can make, much less keep.

Sin is a complex distortion of our image-bearing. Its dominion toppled, sin's presence in our lives continues to corrupt our best works. It cannot be reduced to mere acts of sin, nor are we merely sinners. Sin is a condition as well as an act, and we are sinned against-victims, as well as sinners. Sometimes we learn that sinful patterns are to some extent inherited by our own fathers, and these cannot be easily eradicated by simplistic appeals and exhortations-or even by the announcement that we are new creatures in Christ. It was our union with Christ that has made us enemies of the world, the flesh, and the devil in earnest. Our union with Christ, however, does not mean that our depraved inclinations and "the sin that so easily besets us"-deep trenches of sinful patterns, will be filled in all at once by a miracle of grace. This is why we never get beyond the gospel. It is not something that we need at conversion and then outgrow as we mature in the Christian life. That goes for Christian fathers as much as for anyone else.

Our mistakes as fathers will have repercussions, perhaps throughout our children's lives as well as our own. We may even require long-term counsel and correction for patterns of neglect (sins of omission) and abuse (sins of commission). Yet with the wind in our sails that comes from knowing that God has pledged himself to us and to our children, we can limp along and strain toward the high calling that has been given to us, both as children of God and fathers of our own children within a covenant of grace.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, May 2nd 2005

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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