By Roydon Frost. First published on the Gospel Coalition Africa.
It is no secret that fatherhood has fallen on hard times. Just consider how we hear the word “patriarchy” (literally, the rule of fathers). In Western culture, and in African culture where it is influenced by the West, the word is hardly a compliment. In fact, it’s more of a slur. If you want to discredit or denounce something, call it “patriarchal”.
Of course, good reasons exist for this development, for the abuse of women and children by men is a heinous and widespread evil. But here’s the question: Will the solution to domestic tyranny be found in degrading fathers and dissolving fatherhood? Do we fix the problem of fraud by demonising accountants and abandoning the audit? It seems our culture would answer a resounding ‘yes’ to these questions. Fatherhood as a socio-cultural institution is under attack. I propose an alternative.
The solution to the problem of fatherhood is not to tear it down. Rather we must build it up. We don’t need fewer fathers but better fathers. We don’t need fathers to step aside but to step up.
The Tragedy of Fatherless Homes
Consider South Africa. For we have a live experiment in the dismantling of fatherhood. However, it’s not going well. The separate development and migrant labour policies of the Apartheid government wrenched generations of fathers from their families. As a result, fathers would have to leave their families and go and work on the mines or in the cities for months, even years at a time. To this day we are still reaping the whirlwind of those fatherless households: broken individuals, homes, communities and a broken society. So, if this experience is anything to go by, attacking fatherhood is not the solution.
Let me share my own experience of fatherhood. My grandfather was an engineer. He served in the second World War. From the stories I’ve heard he was typically old school: firm and strict but not unloving. One story goes that when my father was 12, they were out hunting together and my father broke hunting protocol. My grandfather walked over, took his gun from him, and said nothing but, “You will be walking home”. 15 kilometres. Make of that what you will. But I can tell you this: my father has a healthy respect for guns to this day. Not long after this incident, my grandfather died.
The Impact of Absent Fathers
When I was growing up my father was, like any other, a mixed reality. He was a good father in so many important respects. I can see now that in most of the areas where he struggled or failed as a father, he truly suffered from the absence of his own father during his formative years before manhood. He simply had no example to refer back to; no-one to ask for counsel. In his fatherhood, he missed having a father, and I missed having a grandfather.
No doubt my own fatherhood is also damaged by this knock-on effect. Three generations on, my children will likely still be feeling the effects of my father’s absent father, even in those low branches of our family tree. As individuals we need our fathers. As a society we need fatherhood.
Making the Case for Fatherhood
Many readers will have a hard time swallowing that, as you think of your own fathers. How can I possibly make the case for fatherhood with the little bit of evidence I’ve scraped together, set against the weight of your own pain? The truth is, I can’t.
Perhaps the only thing I can do, is take you to the origin and essence of fatherhood, to its pure and unpolluted source: the fatherhood of God. What do we know about God the Father? How do we know it? For the sake of word count, let me focus in on just three ways in which we experience the fatherhood of God.
Jesus Relates to His Father
First, think of Jesus. Think of how much you love and trust him. Meditate on it. Let your heart be warmed by it. Then consider how this Jesus whom you love and trust with your whole being, related to the one he called, “Father”. He loved his Father (John 14:31). He lived off his Father’s every word (Matthew 4:4). Obedience to his Father was his daily bread (John 4:32-34). There was nothing he wanted more in this life than for his Father to be honoured (Matthew 6:9). When he was in trouble, above all else, he wanted to speak to his Father (Luke 22:41). When he was overwhelmed by that trouble, he gave his life, rather than see his Father dishonoured or disobeyed (Luke 22:42). If Jesus, our Jesus, relates to the Father like that, what a Father he must be!
Jesus Models the Father’s Love
The second way we experience the Father is in Jesus himself. He came to show us the Father (John 14:8-9). He and the Father are one (John 10:30). To know him is to know the Father (John 14:7). All that we love about Jesus comes to us, in some divine mystery, from the Father (John 5:26). The compassion, the kindness, the infinite power exercised in sacrificial service, the ability to see into our sinful souls and embrace us anyway, the grace towards his enemies, the care for the outsider, the total integrity of truth and love, the free offer of eternal life – all of it, everything that won us to Christ, comes to us through the Son, and from the Father.
We Know God as ‘Abba, Father’ in the Spirit
The third way we experience the Father is by the Spirit, so that like the Son we can call him, with all the intimacy of a true child, “Father”. Abba, Baba, Ntate, Pappa, Dad. For it is in the power of the Spirit, through the perfect life and death of the Son, that we know God as Father. Know Him. Not merely in the theoretical sense of an orthodox theology, but in the full experience of a Father’s tender love and affection. What a Father he is!
We can know God as Father, and so we can know fatherhood as it ought to be known. The love of the one true Father opens up for us the possibility of healing fatherhood as we know it in the world. Because we have the Father, we have all the resources we need to build a better fatherhood. Fathers can repent and begin to love their children as they ought. Children can respect their fathers and forgive them their many failings. We can begin to risk loving our fathers and being loved by them in return. Why? Because we live in the perfectly secure embrace of our heavenly Father, who loved us first.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us every reason to celebrate fatherhood this Father’s Day, and – in the power of the gospel – to hope for better things.