Several years ago, my wife, Yvette, had an experience with a friend that forever shaped my understanding of the importance of fatherhood from a Christian perspective. She had invited a friend who was not a Christian to lunch. They were eating outdoors on a beautiful Spring day. Rather than saying her usual silent prayer, my wife asked her friend if it was okay for her to pray for the meal. And her friend said, “That’s fine.”

And so, my wife started praying with these words, “Dear Heavenly Father”¦” She thanked God for the food, the sunshine, the ducks, and for the fresh air. And when she finished, my wife noticed her friend had a troubled look on her face. She feared that she had offended her friend. And so, she asked her, “Was there something wrong with the prayer?” And her friend said, “No, no, there wasn’t. But I could never think of God as a heavenly Father; because my father was such a beep.”


Watch the Keynote: What Fathers Reveal about God

 


How Earthly Fathers Relate to God Matters

When my wife told me this story, it impressed upon me how much people’s relationships with their earthly fathers have a direct and lasting impact on their ability to relate to God as a father. It’s understandable to see how the notion of a loving heavenly father can have no meaning to those who have never experienced the love of an earthly father.

In fact, if one’s earthly father is so terrible, it would be easy to think that God””who is a father””might be infinitely terrible. The Bible says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of a dark world, against spiritual forces of evil in a heavenly realm.

Over the years, God has shown me that the attack on the institution of fatherhood and the strategy to make fathers absent or unloving is a primary goal of Satan himself. Why? Because if fathers are distant, distracted, disconnected, or even abusive, children will believe all fathers are this way”š even a heavenly father who claims to love them unconditionally.

But this is clearly not God’s plan. His desire is for all fathers to respect aspects of his character. They are to be an earthly mirror of a heavenly reality. Matthew 7:9-11 illustrates this clearly. When Jesus is speaking to a group that clearly had a lot of fathers. He said, which of you if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, would give him a snake? If you then, though you’re evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?

This passage demonstrates that God has this perspective, there’s this presumption, that all fathers, even ones that are not followers of Christ, were created to imitate his goodness. In fact, if this were not the case, the entire analogy would lose its meaning. You see, I believe that good fathers are an example of common grace like life-gripping rain that falls on the righteous as well as the wicked. But you know, there’s more here. When you contemplate the symbolism in Jesus’ example in this verse, there’s an even deeper meaning, especially for fathers and fatherhood.

For example, consider the comparison of a stone to bread. And especially for a small child, a piece of bread and a small stone may look the same; they may feel the same, but they’re not the same. The bread was and remains today a key source of physical life and sustenance. It represents the spiritual life as Christ’s body that was broken for us to save us and to bring salvation to the world a stone, especially in the time of Christ””it could be a tool of destruction and death. Remember, it was a stone that martyred Stephen.

Now the symbolism of the snake in the comparison between a fish and a snake, is a key one as well because a fish is a symbol of the Christian faith. Of note, Jesus’s first disciples were fishermen who he transformed into fishers of men. These men fervently shared the good news that salvation is available to all men. In contrast, the serpent is a symbol of the evil one who seeks to thwart the gospel and lead mankind down a path of death and destruction. So what Jesus is saying in this passage is that God’s call to and designed for fathers is to make sure that their children have both physical and spiritual life.

Godly fathers start to provide a pathway and a connection to God’s saving grace because when they give their children good gifts, it makes it easier for them to connect to a heavenly Father who gave the best gift of all his son who died on a cross for our sins. So, when they hear the words, “Dear Heavenly Father”¦” it’s winsome rather than worrisome.

What the Research Says about Fathers

Several years ago, Touchstone magazine published a thought-provoking article by Robbie Lowe called The Truth About Church and Men that illustrated this link between fatherhood and saving grace. In the article, Lowe examined data from Switzerland, a national survey that they’d done that sought to determine if a person’s religion would be carried through to the next generation. And if not, why not? Here’s what he concluded: There’s one critical factor. It’s overwhelming and it exists. It is the religious practice of the father of the family.

The survey data indicated the following:

  • If the father doesn’t attend church and the mother attends regularly, only 2% of the children attended regularly while 37% attended irregularly and over 60% didn’t attend church at all.

Now this data is striking:

  • If the father did not attend church regularly, one in five children were regular church attendees, even if the mother attended.

Moreover…

  • If the father attended regularly, regardless of what the mother does, two-thirds to three-fourths of the children became churchgoers, either regular or irregular.

And even…

  • If the father is an irregular churchgoer, between half and two-thirds of the children in this survey attended church regularly or irregularly.

And all these findings were for Switzerland. I doubt that you get very different results in the United States. I believe that God has given fathers a very important spiritual role. I believe that children have a hole in their souls and the shape of their dads. It’s as if God whispers into the wounds of their mothers that there’s a special man that will love them like no other. And if he’s unable or unwilling to fill this hole, it can leave a wound that’s not easily healed. I know this well because I’m a wounded soul and some of you may be as well. The bottom line is that we have a major problem. If fathers are to be the most effective in leading and standing in the gap for their families, they need to be sitting in the pews with them.

Two Great Initiatives

There are two great initiatives that Christians are called to live out in the public square and to promote in their private lives and in the public square as well. That’s the Great Commandment, “Love God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Great Commission, which is to make disciples for Jesus Christ.

These great initiatives are lived out first and foremost in the family. Fathers living out the Great Commandment with their children, their neighbors, and their near ones, and fulfilling the Great Commission to help their children become disciples of Jesus Christ.

In fact, you see this principle reflected in the 10 Commandments as well. The first four commandments are about loving God. The last five are about loving your neighbor as yourself. And then the centerpiece. The fifth commandment is about family”¦mothers and fathers.

Now, it’s easier for children to honor their fathers if their fathers are honorable. And the evil one is all about making fathers dishonorable; primarily by their physical, emotional, or spiritual absence. This is the evil one’s plan. And unfortunately, it’s worked all too well in our culture and even among some of the people of God. It’s easy to understand why one of the most important objectives that we should have been to get the church fully engaged in turning the hearts of fathers toward their children.

When Fathers are Not Engaged

Today, one out of four children in this nation live in homes absent their fathers, three out of five in the African American community. These children are more at risk for some of the most intractable social ills:

  • teen pregnancy
  • low academic performance
  • poverty
  • crime

Armed with these facts and the impact on children and families when fathers are not engaged, I’ve been on a mission for years, speaking to as many pastors and lay Christians as I can.
The conversations generally begin and end the same way. I would start by telling them a few things. One is that there are few things closer to the heart of God than children having good and godly fathers.

Then I often share the impact uninvolved or absent fathers were having on communities, on families. Folks would shake their head knowingly and approvingly and share how important they believe the issue was. And in some cases, how the presence or absence of their own dad impacted their lives. So far so good.

But when I asked specifically what they were doing in their churches and what was happening in their churches to help men be the fathers God desires them to be, folks couldn’t give me many examples.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these churches usually have men’s ministries in some form. However, when I started to probe regarding what these men’s ministries were doing to help men be better dads and equip them to improve their skills as fathers, there was no programmatic support.

For example, I would ask church leaders:

  • What was specifically and intentionally being done in churches to help dads understand their unique calling as Christian fathers?
  • What was being done in the church to help fathers understand and live out their biblical responsibilities in relationship to their children’s needs?
  • Where and to whom were they send a father who’s struggling with his teenage daughter?
  • Are fathers in the church organized to support one another?
  • And what about new dads? What was being done proactively to help these new fathers get off to a good start?
  • What if the father’s incarcerated? Did the church have resources to help him stay connected to his family while he was incarcerated? And what about when he’s released?
  • What about the teen dads? What was being done to support and reach these very vulnerable fathers?
  • What about outreach to the community of fathers, which in large measure is an unreached people group?

Those are the questions. These are key questions because the research shows that dads need some help. Many years ago, National Fatherhood Initiative did a comprehensive, national survey called Pop’s Culture, a national Survey about fathers”™ attitudes toward fathering.

Are Fathers Replaceable? Surveys Say No

What Fathers Say

And one of the key questions that was asked of these dads was, were you prepared to be a dad? How are you prepared to be a dad? Nearly half of these fathers said that they were not prepared. More troubling when asked if they felt that they were replaceable by mom or some other guy, half of them said that they thought they were.

Now, these were not guys who would be dads or could be dads. These are guys who were dads. Yet, despite these disturbing statistics and all this data, most churches and men’s ministries do very little to support helping fathers get the skills they desperately need.

What Mothers Say

We followed up that survey with the survey of Mama Says, a national survey of mothers”™ attitudes toward fathering. These mothers were given a list of four common places they might offer support to fathers to help them be better dads. They were asked to rate them as very important, important, or not important. Eighty percent of the mothers rated churches and other communities of faith as very important places where they expected fathers to get help. The head of schools, community organizations, and the workplace. In fact, the church was the number one option for mothers who described themselves as not very religious or not religious at all.

Do Good Christians Automatically Make Good Dads?

So, it stands the reason if churches were to embrace this call to support fathers and mothers, inside and outside, the congregation will be saying, “Amen.” In any case, after lots of conversations with pastors and ministry leaders and Christian dads, God gave me an important insight into what might be going on. I believe there’s a shared perspective and maybe a misconception that if we can just help men be better Christians, they’ll automatically become better dads.

In other words, the assumption was that good Christian men equal good Christian fathers. I admit that this seems logical. But here’s the problem, when I started to examine the lives of so many men whose stories are chronicled in the Bible, I detected a disturbing pattern.

What the Bible Says about Fathers

Many of them, even men who had deep and abiding hearts for God, had made some rather serious mistakes as fathers that impacted generations. Therefore, if these guys had problems, it seems to me that fathers today could too. In fact, that’s why I believe that God left these “bad dad” mistakes front and center, consequences and all in so many of the biblical narratives.

God truly loves fatherhood and fathers, and he wants these mistakes to be easy to find. That’s why I wrote Bad Dads of the Bible: Eight Mistakes Every Good Dad Can Avoid. There are only eight. If you nail those, you’re good. There’s a need because so many guys have grown up without good dads in our generation. There’s a need to be intentional around the issue of fatherhood.

There”™s a saying that wise men learn from their mistakes, but the wisest learn from the mistakes of others. That said, when God called me to serve at Care Net in this work, he gave me a very poignant and personal example of how fatherhood is so connected to the life issue as well.

Moms Say Fathers Matter

And as a result, working to reach the father of the unborn child is critical and central to Care Net”™s ministry model. Do you know that? Did you know that 86% of the women who have abortions are unmarried? We did a national survey with Lifeway, and we surveyed women who had abortions and we asked them, who was the most influential in your decision to abort? Guess who she said, “father of the baby.”

Dads Say Fathers Matter 

So, we said, okay, let’s survey the guys. We asked post-abortive men the same question, who was the most influential in her decision to abort? And guess what he answered; he said, “I was?” So, the woman who has the abortion and the guy who participates”¦both are saying he’s the most influential. Yet we built a movement for the last 50 years that doesn’t engage him. That”™s why we engage fathers at Care Net.

In any case, early in my tenure, I had a conversation with a young lady, a very close family friend, and we were talking about the ultrasound and how it’s used in abortion clinics. And she was very knowledgeable. So, I asked her how she knew so much. She got quiet. And then she told me that she’d had an abortion when she was 19. She began to sob. I didn’t know what to do, so I just hugged her. For a long time, I just hugged her.

When she finished crying, as she was wiping the tears from her eyes, she looked into my eyes and said these words, “I guess that’s what it would’ve been like if I had had a father. Huh?” You see, her father left when she was just a little girl, and she was a wounded soul with a hole in her soul in the shape of her dad. And it left her vulnerable to the tempter. So much so that she had sacrificed the vulnerable neighbor growing inside her womb.

God Calls Fathers to Be Strong Husbands

But you know, her question was deeper than she even realized. Yes, she had no father that she had confidence in to step in to support the life of her unborn child. No father who would say, like Joseph did to Mary, who by the way, was facing an unplanned pregnancy from her perspective. And you see what God did there? He didn’t give her a baby daddy. He gave her a husband.

This woman crying on my shoulder didn’t have a husband who would do that, who would stand with her, who would say, “I’ll be a husband to you and a father to the child growing inside of you”¦” A man who would wipe her tears and say, “I love you and we’ll do this together.” She didn”™t have that. And so, my brothers and sisters, we have sacred work to do, God’s work to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. Let us be about this work.

This post is adapted from a keynote at the 2023 Colson Center National Conference.