I was driving home from a friend's house on a Saturday night when the familiar highway I had traveled many times began to remind me of an "old-school" fun house. For the record, a fun house is an ancient carnival attraction that would thrill you with a spooky yet hilarious experience. Walking through the fun house was a journey through a quirky maze of creepy hallways and squeaky floors. Coupled with the crooked twists and turns, you would see crazy distorted images of yourself and others in a sea of contorted mirrors. The optical illusion caused by the mirrors made you look like an elongated piece of taffy stretched in multiple directions.
Unlike the fun house adventure, my drive home was no laughing matter. Clipping along at a speed of sixty-five miles an hour surrounded by fast moving automobiles was radically unnerving. I had no clue if I was going in the right direction or not. I could barely see the lines on the road, the traffic signs looked to me like moving green, and blue blurred shapes with hieroglyphic images. If I ever prayed for direction, it was that night! It was only by the grace of God that I made it home safely.
My drive home that night made two realities implicitly clear. One, my vision had changed and it was time for me to see the optometrist for my first pair of glasses. Two, I realized one's vision has the ability to change so gradually that it is unnoticeable—to the point where what was once so common becomes out of focus and unrecognizable.
Focusing on fatherhood
The ability to see clearly is important. Fatherhood and fatherlessness are issues in our nation that are in desperate need of immediate clarity of focus and our attention.
One critical aspect of fatherhood that is plaguing our society in epidemic proportions is fatherlessness. In America and throughout the world father absenteeism is pervasive and the ramifications are devastating! Fatherlessness adversely affects individuals, our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, our cities, and our nation. Studies show that fatherlessness impacts education, poverty levels, social behaviors, health care, emotion development, and a list of other factors that are essential to our children's wellbeing.
Coupled with the fatherless crisis is the innate struggle men encounter in not only trying to be a present father, but being a good father as well. Being present is one thing, but being a good father is a whole other ball game. Many dads are present in the home, but being present is no guarantee that they are the loving and nurturing fathers God intends for them to be in their homes. A present "bad dad" can, and have done equal, and in some cases more damage to their children and family than an absent dad. Men who love their families constantly grapple with the question, "How can I be a better dad?" You have to ask yourself, "Where can the average man find out what it takes to be a good dad?" The short answer is—not in too many places.
Spiritually, our fatherhood crisis has created a relational and theological challenge as it relates to our heavenly Father. We call the God of the universe "Father," and he is! God is our loving heavenly Father, and he is a good Father! However, our current fatherhood fog distorts his image in the hearts of those who are desperately longing for a father's love. They can only see him through the lenses of their personal experience, not our positive social commentary.
I never will forget when Jamie sat in my office for the first time. Jamie was a young woman finishing up her Master's Degree at one of the local universities. As she sat in my office, she told me her story of how she hated her father because of the abuses he had inflicted on her and her family. She had recently come to faith in Jesus, and in her honesty expressed to me how the concept of God as a Father was unsafe for her. The graffiti masking the accurate image of God the Father in Jamie's life was a result of the massive failing of her natural father. Like Jamie, there are many people whose image of our heavenly Father is unsafe. They are unable to experience the ultimate love of Father God because of the pain caused by their earthly father.
However, regardless of where you are on the fatherhood spectrum—there is hope and help available for you! There is hope and help available for you if your daily existence involves coping with the chronic pain of a father wound caused by an absent father or abusive father. There is hope and help available for you if the feeling of inadequacy and the inability to be a good father to your children dwarfs your soul. There is hope and help available for you if are longing for the love of your heavenly Father, but you are too afraid to let go and fall into the embrace of his loving and awesome arms. Yes, hope and help are present and available for you and it's found in the revelation of God our Father through his son Jesus Christ.
The baptism of Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew 3:1-17, speaks powerfully to the issue fatherhood and fatherlessness. Though the passage marks the inauguration of Jesus' earthly ministry, these verses allow us the privilege of beholding one of the most intimate interactions between Jesus and his father. In the beauty of this moment we see Jesus acting in loving obedience to his Father, and the Father disclosing to the world unashamedly how deeply he loves his son. The divine warmth of this Father and Son embrace radiates four life-changing truths that powerfully address the subject of fatherhood. These verses give us insight into:
The basic needs of our children How men can be good fathers The one who has the power to heal your deepest father wound
Read Matthew 3:1-17
God the Father is present with his Son
The first truth we see in the passage as it relates to fatherhood is that God the father is present with his son. "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him" (Matt. 3:16).
Ok, I am going to date myself here. When I was a kid, the Temptations had a hit song on the radio entitled: Papa Was a Rolling Stone. Being a bass player, I loved the bass groove, but the lyrics communicated the far too familiar fatherless saga. The main tag line in the song was a fatherless lament of a broken family. The words were, "Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died all he left us was alone … "
Currently in the United States, roughly 45 million children under the age of 18 go to bed at night with no father present. The facts from Father Facts state, "In America, 24.7 million children (33 percent) lived in a biologically father-absent home in 2010. 20.3 million lived with no father (biological, adoptive, or step) in the home."
These percentages represent not just sterile numbers, but children like yours and mine who long daily for their daddy's love and affection. However, each day the hole in their soul remains a barren canyon because a father is not present to fulfill the longing of their young hearts. Their dads are missing in action! Here is an example:
Five-year-old Christopher was standing outside the door of the church where his grandmother was inside serving people who needed clothes or bread. Standing there on the curb enjoying the sunshine—waiting for granny to finish, a strange man rides up to Christopher on a bike and begins to talk to him. The stranger begins his inquiry by asking Christopher, "Do you know who I am?" With the childlike honesty, Christopher tells the man, "I don't know who you are." To which the stranger replied. "I'm your biological daddy." Biological daddy? Christopher was thinking: What in the world is a biological daddy?
The strangeness of this man's response, prompted Christopher to call his grandmother. He said to her, "Grandma you need to come outside. There is a man out here who says he is my biological daddy." When his grandmother stepped out the door, sure enough it was his biological father on the bike. She greeted him, and then the biological daddy took five dollars out of his pocket and gave it to Christopher. He promised he would come by to visit him. Years have passed however, and the man on the bike has not shown up again. Absent!
God the Father did not abandon his Son, Jesus. The Bible tells us that when Jesus came out of the water the Holy Spirit descended and rested on him. Yes, the Spirit was the empowering agent in Jesus ministry. However, this was also a sign that God was present with his Son! His Spirit was resting on Jesus. He was not going to leave him fatherless—God the Father would always be there for his Son. If God thought it important to let the whole world know that he was present with his Son, how important is it for fathers today to be present with their children?
Yes, many obstacles and challenges are barriers that seek to keep fathers from being present with their children. Such as:
Decline in marriage Divorce Addictions Antagonistic relationship with child's mother Legal issues Work Teen Pregnancy Sin and selfishness
However, as dad you do not have the luxury of just wimping out. Fathers, your children need you! Make an inward resolve to fight through the barriers whether they are real or just your excuses. God was present with his Son and he can give you the grace, strength, and courage to be present with your children. A good father is a present father.
God the Father acknowledges his Son
In the passage, we also see God the father acknowledging his Son. He thunders these words, "This is my son … " (Matt. 13:17).
Speaking from heaven, God the Father makes a bold declaration to the world saying, "This is my son!" In essence, he's saying, "No one make a mistake about it, he belongs to me. I am his Father and he is my Son!" God the Father leaves no ambiguity surrounding his relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus is clear on who is his Father and so were those who heard the Father speak. In our fatherless culture today children and adults are longing to hear those life-giving words from their father. Those of us who have grown up with or have fathers who have conveyed that message to our hearts are very blessed and fortunate. However, sadly there are countless individuals who long for their father's acknowledgement, but never receive it.
Ticole is a young adult in our church in whom Jesus Christ has done a wonderful work in his heart and life. He went through some very difficult times that from his own admission stem from never having been acknowledged by his dad. In his thirties now, he has only seen his dad one time in his life. During that brief meeting, the words spoken to him from his father lips were, "I am not your daddy!" This is what Ticole says happened:
My mom had always told me that my father was a policeman. One day a policeman was visiting our house. I was only five, so I enthusiastically asked the man in the blue uniform with the shinny badge, "Are you my daddy?" He responded by telling me, "No, I am not your daddy!" Sadly, he was. When the door closed behind him, my mother said to me that was your dad. Those brief moments I spent with the policemen were tragic for two reasons. One it was the first time I saw my father and it was the last time I ever saw him! I heard he had two other kids, but his presence and influence in my life is non-existent. The sadder truth was he wanted my mom to abort me. However, praise God, my mom chose differently. She decided to let me live and devoted my life to the Lord to be used for his purposes.
A ceremony in the Jewish tradition called the act of redemption speaks powerfully of the need Ticole and others to have a father acknowledgement. The ceremony goes as follows:
On the child's 31st day, a child is brought to the rabbi in the presence of family and guests. When the father approaches the altar with the child, he is asked if he desires to leave the child or redeem him. If the father chooses to redeem the child, he hands a special coin to the Rabbi and the Rabbi pronounces three times in the presence of the company of people, "Your son is redeemed." Afterward the child is returned to the father.
The implications of this ritual are riveting. For one, the father publicly acknowledges that he accepts full responsibility for his son before God and the people. Second, the son grows up knowing that his dad had a choice to leave him or redeem him. Knowing that he has a father who wanted him and chose him has great positive spiritual, emotional, and psychological implications throughout the child's life.
Just as God acknowledged his Son, natural fathers are expected to do the same. In an age where many children do not even have a father's name on their birth certificates, this ritual speaks volumes to the importance and the need for father to acknowledge their children. God the Father acknowledged his Son, as dads we have the responsibility and the privilege of acknowledging our children too.
God the Father loves his Son
In the passage, we also hear and see God expressing his love for his son. "This is my Son, whom I love … " (Matt 3:17).
A few years ago, I conducted a funeral at another church in our city. The scene was already gut wrenching due to the circumstances surrounding the death of the young man. The church was packed wall to wall with grieving young people attempting to make sense out of this needless and so final situation. The deceased young man lived a life involved in gangs. What I gathered from some of the comments of the adults there was he felt trapped and did not see any way out of his lifestyle. Once I finished the eulogy, the funeral directors opened the casket so that friends and family could say their final farewells. Typically, what follows is usually standard fare, tears are shed, words of goodbye are spoken, and stares into the heavens are made.
However, during the viewing I experienced something that I had never witnessed before. A tall, well-dressed man came and stood over the casket and stared into space. After standing there for what seemed like an extremely long time, he removed the tie from his neck and placed it on his dead son. He then went back to his seat. Moments passed and he proceeded to the casket once again. This time while standing there, he took off his watch and placed it on his deceased son's wrist. If my memory serves me correctly, he also removed a chain from his neck and placed it on the young man as well.
Observing this father grieving over his son puzzled me. It seemed strange and somewhat odd that the father would place these objects on his son in such a bizarre manner. After the service, a woman who was like the boy's mother told me what was going on. She informed me that the man was the boy's father. She made clear to me in no uncertain terms that the dad had not fathered the young man and pretty much had been out of his life for the most part.
Then it hit me; this father was not dealing with grief alone, but with guilt as well. In placing these useless objects on his son's cold body, in essence he was trying to fulfill in a pitiful way his fatherly duties. Sad to say, he was too late! The questions I ask myself are: Why didn't he give his son a tie and teach him how to tie it when he was nine or ten? How come he didn't give his son a Mickey Mouse watch and teach him how to tell time when he was still in grade school? What kept this man from loving his son?
God's love for Jesus was not only mere words and sentiment. His love for Jesus was expressed through tangible ways and actions. God the Father lived in close proximity to Jesus to know what he needed. In the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) by teaching us how to pray, Jesus shows us how our loving Father is committed to meeting our needs as his children. Here are a few brief observations from the prayer:
He's present and attentive (Our Father who is in heaven) He desires the best for his children (His kingdom come and will be done) He provides for his children's daily needs (Give us our daily bread) He forgives his children (Forgive us our debts) He protects his children from evil (deliver us from evil)
So many times, as dads we think our only responsibility is to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Not so. Our children have other needs too. We have the privilege of being fathers who live in close, loving proximity with our children so we can best know how to meet their needs and show them our love.
God the Father affirms his Son
In these verses, the Father is also affirming his Son. God tells the world, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
Affirmation is powerful and we all need it desperately. Time will not permit us to talk about all of the causalities and heartaches of life people have experienced in search of healthy affirmation. I find this phrase of the text so amazing! Here, God tells the world, that Jesus is his Son whom he loves and that he is "well pleased." Think about it for a moment. At this point in Jesus' life he has not …
Preached a sermon Healed the sick Raise the dead Cast out any demons Called and disciples Died on the cross Risen from the grave
However, the father validates him not for what he has done or for the future works he will do. The Father affirms Jesus solely because of who he is—his beloved Son!
I can remember the countless times as a little boy that I couldn't wait for my dad to get home so I could show him or tell him something I had learned during the day. My dad might not be so impressed with the basketball shot I was able to make or project I made. However, he would always tell me, "Man, you are doing great—go on man!" Encoded in his message was not only praise about the accomplishment, but the affirmation of me as a person. Even though I am well past those early years, my dad still speaks those affirming message to me a few times a week when we talk, and I love it!
At a men's retreat, a group of thirty to forty men of all ages sat in a room in the presence of God and one another, sharing joys and deep aches of the soul. Sitting in the chair, with his face buried in his hand, his head occasionally rising to gasp a breath—Jason sobbed, "Why don't he want me? I don't understand why my dad don't want me. Why don't he want me, man? What's wrong with me?" None of the older men or the young men in the room had the answer to his question. But most of us knew the problem: young Jason was crying out for the acceptance and affirmation of his father. He was saying, "Am I such a defect that I am unlovable as a son?"
What happened next was absolutely beautiful and unscripted. Phil, an older man in the group, got up out of his seat and walked over to Jason. He embraced him and in a loud voice said to him, "Jason I'll be your dad and you're my son!" Moreover, until Phil graduated to heaven he lived up to those words.
For the last couple of years we have been facilitating a conference called Father Shift. The purpose of the conference is to bring awareness to fatherlessness, facilitate healing and to equip individuals and churches to address the issue. In our Seattle conference, one of our speakers shared with me an experience he had following the women's night.
While he was making his way to his car, two women approached him with tears of joy streaming down their faces. Out of the duo, he told me the woman who pulled on his heartstrings the most was an eighty-year-old lady. He said, she grabbed me and asked, "Where were you guys fifty years ago? I've lived all these years with this father pain, and tonight, God gave me what I desperately long for, and I didn't even know this could happen!"
During the men's night portion of the conference, we had the men pair up with each other and look directly into one another's eyeballs and say to each other, "You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!" Men who were strangers, melting like butter, fell into one another's arms. Shame or embarrassment had no place in the moment. The presence of God the Father filled the auditorium. Men of all ages and colors, some for the first time that night heard life-giving words affirming them as a beloved son!
You may be like Jason or the eighty year old woman longing for the affirmation of your father. I want to tell you are not flawed or unlovable! Though your earthly father may never affirm you, your heavenly Father will. It was God the Father's pleasure to affirm Jesus and it is his pleasure to affirm you! Hear these words today! You are his child, he loves you, and he is well pleased! Dad's make sure you take the time to speak these life-giving words to your children too. They need desperately to hear them.
Conclusion: refocusing on fatherhood
Today, you may be a person who is living with a father wound. Your earthly father may have failed you, but God will not. He promises to be the Father you always wanted and needed. Just as he opened the heavens to proclaim his love for his Son Jesus, he will touch the pain in your heart and pour out love and mercy to heal your deepest wounds.
Today, you may long to be a better father to your children. Follow the example of your heavenly Father. Be present with your children physically and emotionally. Find creative ways to let your children know that they are yours and that you wouldn't trade them for the world. Understand—yes, you are not perfect, but who is? Stop beating yourself up over your shortcomings. Rely on your loving Father to give you the grace you need to be the father he wants you to be. He will help you to be present, acknowledging, loving, and affirming to your children.
Today, your heart may be burdened for the many fatherless children living in your extended family, church, or community. Allow the Father's heart to become your heart. Find a child to whom you can be a mentor, become a big brother, a surrogate dad or a grandpa. Be there for them and share the heart of your heavenly Father with them. Let them know how valuable they are, and how much God and you love them! There is no need to try to be a pro; just being present in a kid's life is invaluable. Remember, your prayers make a difference in the lives the fatherless too.
The time to refocus on fatherhood is now, and by our heavenly Father's wonderful grace, get active, and make a difference!
Mark Strong is the senior pastor of Life Change Christian Center in Portland, Oregon and the author of Church for the Fatherless.