Sunday is not Mother’s Day, and Mother’s Day is not Parent’s Day. In God’s common kindness, on the third Sunday of June, at least in the United States, we honor fathers.
Even though we often praise mothers and fathers for generic virtues that could be true of either — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control — it is also fitting to give thought to what it means to honor a father as father. What makes Dad a dad (and not a mom)?
Of course, no earthly father is perfect. Many, if not most, have obvious flaws, and clearly some are manifestly “worse” than others. And the stakes are great in fatherly failures or fatherlessness, because of God’s particular calling on fathers as fathers. When fathers fail, the devastation can be deep and enduring. The dysfunction and pain can last a lifetime, and echo in subsequent generations. And yet even when our fathers have failed us, we still typically have something to be thankful for — and not just virtues that overlap with Mom’s, but qualities that were distinct manifestations of his fatherly masculinity.
What might you say to Dad? Consider several ways you might honor your father as father this year. Perhaps just one applies, or a few, but you can honor Dad for what you can. And for fathers, especially young fathers, consider these reminders of the high calling God has given us.
1. Dad, you were present and available.
One of the great tragedies in our day is how absent many fathers are. And many more are present physically, but unavailable emotionally. A father’s presence, or absence, will shape his home profoundly. “Thanks for being there” or “You were always there” may sound simple, but these can be significant words for a father to hear from a child. As Robert Coleman writes about discipleship, “The only way that a father can properly raise a family is to be with it.”
And when a father is present and available, he is able to know his children personally and specifically, not just generally — and to speak into their lives personally. Because Paul had been present and available (1 Thessalonians 2:8–10), he could write, “You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you . . .” (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). He knew them specifically and could speak into their lives, as a father, with specificity, not just in generalities.
2. You carried a special weight for the family.
God calls fathers to gladly assume sacrificial responsibility for his wife and family. It begins with a special kind of care for Mom. God requires more of a husband in relation to his wife than God requires of the wife in relation to her husband (Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7).
Then, as an extension, fathers also shoulder a peculiar responsibility to initiate toward, provide for, and protect the family. God gives men the broad emotional shoulders for carrying the weight of the family, by faith. God means for dads to carry more burdens than moms, not less, and even with their strong shoulders, to regularly come to the end of themselves, and lean consciously on God with specific trust.
3. You did not abuse your fatherly power.
God gives fathers a remarkable power in the lives of their children. A finite, dependent, insecure child unavoidably looks to dad for safety and love and affirmation. And God calls fathers to use their dad power to help their children, not hurt them. To serve them, not control them. To encourage them, not demean them. To give to them, not take from them. God calls dads to buckstop the hardest decisions, not just the easy ones — to selflessly own the toughest calls instead of always selfishly making the simple ones.
When Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children,” he is acknowledging the extraordinary power dads have (Ephesians 6:4). Dad’s effect on his children will not be neutral. His power, even if he remains unconscious of it, will work for the child’s good or ill, for establishing in righteousness or provoking to sin. God gives dads this power to use on their children’s behalf, not against them. The heart of fatherhood, like the heart of Christ, is self-sacrifice to serve, not be served (Mark 10:45). Taking our cues from Jesus doesn’t mean dad assumes his place on the throne, but that he “gives himself up” (Ephesians 5:25) for the good of his children.
4. You formed our identities.
Christians often sum up the six days of creation in Genesis 1 as “forming” and “filling.” Days 1–3: God forms the world. Days 4–6: he fills the world with its inhabitants. Similarly, dads and moms have complementary callings in forming and filling, whether the home and its culture or the children and their upbringing.
In particular, dads have a special power in forming or shaping the identities of their children, while mothers fill and develop. Dad’s forming work happens not only through words, but words are important, even central (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). We might say that dads name and moms nurture. Dad names and forms (as Mom nurtures and fills) the children’s identities, especially their spiritual identities. Who can estimate the lifelong impact of seeing dad engaged in corporate worship, leading in prayer, reading God’s words, or saying, “I love Jesus”?
And Dad’s role is vital in affirming sons as future men, and daughters as future women. Dads speak and show to their sons that they are like dad, and that’s good. Sons learn from dad how to care for others, as dad does for mom. And dads speak and show to daughters that they are like mom, and that’s very good. Daughters learn from dad how a man cares for a woman, as dad cares for mom.
5. You disciplined us for our good.
God calls fathers to lead the way in discipline and correction. Paul charges fathers in particular, not parents in general, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). This doesn’t mean Mom is not involved in discipline. She most certainly is. But fathers bear a special burden in formation, and in doing so, they teach us about our heavenly Father:
What son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7–11)
God calls fathers to love their children enough to discipline them — not in a way that’s convenient for dad, but costly to him, both in time and emotional energy. Convenient discipline comes from selfishness. Costly discipline flows from love.
6. You kept your promises to Mom.
Looking back on my childhood now, no words from my father move me more deeply to joy and gratitude like remembering his blood-earnest promise, “I will never divorce your mom.” Growing up in the 80s and early 90s, seeing friend after friend suffering through the process and aftermath of their parents’ divorce, my father’s words were bedrock under our feet as kids trying to find our legs in a confusing world. I could see it in my father’s eyes and hear it in his voice. Come what may, he would never abandon my mother.
The foundation of our family, under God, wasn’t Mom’s commitment to Dad, vital as it was. It was Dad’s unbreakable, unassailable commitment to Mom. In this way, Dad taught us deep down, long before we could understand it enough to express it, that the bedrock foundation of the new covenant is not the church’s commitment to Christ, but Christ’s to the church. As good as it was to hear, and believe, that Dad would never divorce Mom, he was simply echoing another’s words: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Dad, you kept your promises to Mom, and oh what fruit grew in this soil.