The New York Times ran several articles last week in their “Room for Debate” series on fathers’ role in the conversation about parenting. Many of the contributors noted the negative stereotype of men as played out in the media. While we as men may not be able to change that stereotype in the short run, we do still have influence in our own small spheres. And it is up to us to use that influence in a positive way.
The greatest influence we have, of course, is with our own kids. That being said, our greatest responsibility is not to bemoan the culture, but to be good stewards of that responsibility. So I want to lay out three areas where dads need to be dads, where they need to take an active role in parenting.
The three habits or responsibilities come from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. In 2:9–12, Paul writes these words: “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (ESV)
The first issue has nothing to do with dads but with whether or not we can accurately use this passage which is not directly about dads as an example for dads. Paul is not a father, in the physical sense; he has no children. He is just simply making an analogy. He claims that his actions are father like. The reason we can apply these ideas to dads is because Paul assumes the Thessalonians would understand the analogy. If fathers didn’t behave this way, the Thessalonians could simply say, “Hey, Paul, you’re not acting like a dad to us. Dads don’t do those things.” For Paul’s argument to make sense, he needs to use actual responsibilities that dads participated in.
The second issue is motivation. We can often do the right things for the wrong reasons. The reason that we behave the way we should toward our kids is not for our benefit. It is not to relive our past. It is also not to make them successful, happy, rich, beautiful or well-adjusted. The reason we do what we do is so they will walk worthy of God. If that is not our sole reason, we are spinning our wheels.
So what are the three things that we need to be doing. We need to walk beside them, enter into their hurts, and speak the truth.
Paul uses three words: exhorted, encouraged, and charged. When translators are doing their work, they often want to translate word for word to avoid clutter. Each of those words captures a shade of meaning from the Greek words Paul used, but there are some nuances that are left out. It is those nuances I want to discuss.
The first word that Paul uses is the verb form of the word that John uses in his gospel for the Holy Spirit: paraclete. This term is often referred to as helper or comforter. It can take both of those shades of meaning. In general the Holy Spirit enters into the life (sometimes we use the phrase “comes along side”) of the believer and gives them what they need when they need it. He knows them intimately. He has a relationship with them, and because of that, he can provide encouragement when they need encouragement, and comfort when they need comfort and urging when they need urging.
Dads need to do the same thing. We need to know our children well enough to provide what they need when they need it. We need to have a PhD in our children, knowing their ins an outs, what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons, what makes them happy. And this is a never ending job description because, as you know, children are constantly changing. Even if I learned everything about my ten year old, she will be eleven next year, and her personality is still undergoing transformation.
The second word that Paul uses means to console, especially in the face of tragedy. It is to enter into someone’s hurt. What we need to keep in mind as dads is that this tragedy is from the child’s perspective, not ours. We may think something is no big deal. Well, it may be a big deal to our kid. Men, especially, have a I-can-fix-this attitude. We think we can explain why our kids shouldn’t cry over spilled milk or a broken toy or a disappointment at school. But if they are crying, that is not the time to try to fix it. It is the time to offer comfort, to enter into their hurts and console. There may be a time later when we talk about big deals versus small deals and the proper way to react, but in the moment that is not the time.
The third thing that Paul says that fathers do is tell the truth. This word means to testify or bear witness or to insist upon something as a matter of great importance. It is related to the word where we get our word martyr. A martyr is someone who holds to their convictions at great cost to themselves. And we as fathers need to make sure that we are telling our children the truth. Which means we need to live the truth. It is not only that we let them know right from wrong. We also need to make sure that we are modeling right from wrong. We cannot tell them one thing and do something else. That is not loving or helpful to our children.
Each of these three things is impossible to do on our own. We may come close at times, but we will fail to be consistent in them. That is where our relationship with God comes in. If we do not depend upon him, who loves our children more than we do, we will not be able to adequately fulfill our responsibilities as fathers. So our first priority is to develop a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. To know him through his word, by spending time with him in prayer, and in fellowship with other believers who can offer encouragement and exhortation to us when things get difficult.