Like many men in the Bible, I have begotten children; unlike many men in the Bible, I write a lot of articles and I’m friends with one or more of the editors of this website. Therefore I have been asked to write a piece on Christian fatherhood. But, unfortunately, none of these important qualifications makes me a good father. And to be honest, I’ve spent all the time between now and the time I was asked to write this worrying about how to say, in an edifying way, what I want to say: “I frequently feel like a father failure.”
I’m normally a confident, even-keeled guy. Actually a bit over-confident, perhaps. I’m a lot of classic guy things: I’m competitive, I’m driven, I’m hard-working (at my job[s], not as much on household chores, I admit…), and I’m better at begetting children than at parenting them. I remember a fellow father telling me after the happy birth of my first son, “You’ll start to feel like you know what you’re doing with him when he hits 8 mos.”
That boy’s voice is now changing (I literally hear it squeaking now in the kitchen as I write), and I’m still not sure I feel like I know what I’m doing. I love my boy (11), girl (10), and boy (7), truly I do, and I am happily faithful to their lovely mother. I provide for my kids; I hug them; I’ve read many books to them; I take them to church every single Sunday; we have had family devotions more than once in the last two weeks; I don’t drink or gamble.
But I get annoyed and frustrated with my children (FATHER FAIL!) much, much more quickly and more often than I wish. I still haven’t succeeded in getting them any kind of music lessons (FATHER FAIL!). I turn to family TV in the evenings more often than The Tech-Wise Family recommends (FATHER FAIL!). All three kids, taken together, have played only two seasons of sports so far (FATHER FAIL!). And one of my children who is not a girl nonetheless throws like one (FATHER FAIL!).
And I think you’re probably not supposed to say that anymore (CITIZEN FAIL!).
In no other area of my life do I ever feel like I’m often failing. In fathering, I can give myself a B only if I’m graded on a curve and total deadbeat dads are included in the class.
Founded on the rock
I’ll bet at least a few guys out there reading this piece feel 100% like I do, which doesn’t mean we’re all okay, that we can lower the bar so that we can do chin-ups while still touching the floor. It means we need to do what I do when I feel adrift: we need to reach for a rock. About all I can say for myself is that I’m not arrogant; I look to the Lord constantly. I seek growth. I rest on God’s word. I pray for my kids. Any good in my kids I will take as a reward coming from grace, not debt. And when the rains descend, and the kids come, and they beat upon my house, my certain hope is that my family will not fall, for Dad is founded on a rock.
Handholds on the rock
I’m just going to take you through a few of the Bible truths I rest on when I consider my fathering. I’ll call them Fatherly Handholds on the Rock of the Word. This is not a complete biblical theology of parenting; these are just some of the passages I most often turn to in the Bible pages of my mind.
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6 ESV)
This is, in a way, one of the scariest parenting passages, because it seems to put a terrible burden on me if I fail. Why do I reach for this verse? Because I recognize that the Proverbs are a distinct genre within Scripture: they aren’t meant to be—as one of my teachers put it once—ironclad promises of what is universally true but wise statements about what is generally true. Proverbs is the book of generalizations; Ecclesiastes is the book of exceptions. So it is generally true that when you train a child diligently in a certain way, that’s going to have a lasting impact on his or her life. Of course, we all know plenty of defections among the children of faithful Christian parents. But I do see articles occasionally saying that conservative Christian parents are better at passing their faith on to their children than any other group.
I have seen some Christian parents who, it seemed to me from the outside (God knows their hearts), believed that Christian schooling or homeschooling or no-movies-with-cussing or, I dunno, holding the line on regular vegetable consumption would guarantee Christian kids. A few of them were dripping with arrogance, I must say (“A public library?! We’ve never taken our girls to one of those!”—I literally heard this said with a sneer by apparently over-protective Christian parents). There are no guarantees; Prov 22:6 is not a guarantee. God himself said of Israel,
Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. (Isaiah 1:2 ESV)
But “train up a child” is a general rule, and I` rest on it.
Here’s another verse I turn to frequently:
The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them will find mercy. (Proverbs 28:13 CSB)
This verse has a double meaning, because there are two parties in the Dad-children relationship in my home: Dad, and children. I teach my children not to conceal their sin, and I myself confess and renounce sins in front of them regularly, especially those I commit against them. I do not conceal my sin. They always forgive me without hesitation; what a precious lesson to me. (They have also heard me apologize to their mother more times than I care to acknowledge in this public forum.)
Each of these apologies is a way of saying to God what David said to him in my favorite Psalm:
Against you—you alone—I have sinned and done this evil in your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence; you are blameless when you judge. (Psalm 51:4 CSB)
My goal in every apology is to “justify” God, to demonstrate—with no excuses and no mention of others’ faults—that he was right and I was wrong. This is, again, a way of pointing my kids (and my own heart) back to the Way even when I’ve stepped off it.
Over and over again, I’ve said to each of them, “Tell me what you did without any mention of what your sibling(s) did.” And I know my words have had an impact, because once I said to my daughter, “I’m sorry for being so angry at you when you hit me in the face with a pool noodle unexpectedly while I was wearing glasses.” And she said, “Dad, you always say not to mention others’ faults when you apologize.” Touché, my child. Out of the mouths of my babes…
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. (Genesis 1:28 ESV)
I’m going to get real frank here. Sometimes I wonder if I should even have had kids. There’s a chance they’ll grow up to hate God and hate me. And even right now, parenting means a lot of choices to do what is best for my beloved children even when a significant part of me wishes to be elsewhere. Add to this the pretty strong currents of adult selfishness and even outright opposition to “population growth” in Western culture, and I would have plenty of excuses not to beget anybody.
I fall back on the rock: God said I should have children. I trust him. “Be fruitful, and multiply” were, in a sense, commands.
But they were also, in a bigger sense, blessings. Look at the way the key verse in Genesis 1 is phrased:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 ESV)
The commands—1) be fruitful and multiply, 2) fill the earth, 3) subdue the earth, 4) have dominion over the earth—are actually what constitute the divine blessing. It’s like handing a rich meal to someone and telling them, “Enjoy!” It’s a grammatical command (an imperative verb), yes, but the overall meaning is blessing. I build my life on the rock, so I believe even when parenting is unpleasant that it’s a blessing from God. I am participating in what my creator is doing in the world.
When my first child was born, Huggies somehow found out about it, and they sent us an ad in the mail. It said—I’ll never forget this—“Welcome to THE RIDE.” I’m the dad here, and I’m in charge. I drive the family car and I hold the Roku remote. But there are times when I do just sit back and enjoy the craziness that comes from kids. Occasionally, they’re all talking at the same time, each one of them has a crisis, and my wife and I just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
I see what happens to older folks: the ride ends, their nests go empty and quiet, and they forget what childrearing was like. The energy that kids bring to a home, the life, the spark… It’s missing now. I love how my kids never walk. Every step I hear in this house is followed incredibly quickly by another, because they always run. I like how my kids want to know everything about everything, and how it often doesn’t occur to them that I am not omniscient.
I love these three children of mine very much. All three provide moments of incredible tenderness and humor and insight that I would never trade for more quiet. And I suspect that a poll of 7–11-year-olds in my household would give me an approval rating somewhere north of B+. But they are not my ultimate judges, my Father in heaven is. I will rest on his word, and I will continue to entrust myself to him who judges justly (1 Pet 2:23), knowing that Jesus suffered in my place for every bad parenting grade I’ll ever get.