Fathers have been much in view recently. In June, Harriet Harman, Leader of the House of Commons, was forced out of her London home when two ‘Fathers4Justice’, dressed as comic-book characters, climbed onto her roof to campaign for better access to their children.
In May, a father rescued his two-year-old son who had fallen over a sea-cliff. Taking his life in his hands, he lowered himself on exposed telephone cables to a ledge where the terrified child had lodged. Later, the father said his head was telling him to be cautious and wait for a cliff rescue team to arrive but his heart urged him to take immediate action.
Other stories are more a case of sinful-man than superman – sometimes of betrayal and cruelty on a truly horrific scale. In Austria, a father is accused of locking his daughter in a cellar for nearly 24 years where she gave birth to seven of his children.
We would like to imagine that such crimes are unique but we have come to recognise that fathers do, too often, abuse or abandon their children. ‘Absent fathers’ have been identified as a common starting point for family and social breakdown. Recently, Justice Secretary Jack Straw attributed the ‘continuing problem’ of gang violence to fathers who fail to take an active part in parenting.
Written out of the script
Children who lack a father-figure may, of course, get support from other sources. Nor do we underestimate the Herculean task performed by many single mothers in raising their children successfully.
Nevertheless, the absence of a stable husband and wife relationship in the home is increasingly recognised as a major source of educational and behavioural problems among children. In recent months ET has carried statistics demonstrating this.
That is why many observers were surprised when Parliament recently voted through new legislation which explicitly excludes the requirement for a father when unmarried women seek fertility treatment. Single women and women in same-sex partnerships can now obtain such treatment without any reference to a father.
In the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, fathers have been written out of the family script and replaced by the ill-defined notion of ‘supportive parenting’. Civil partners and same-sex female couples can now be named as the parents on birth certificates.
Dispensing with God
But there is a further strand to this attack on the family and the concept of fatherhood. In the Bible, God reveals himself as the Father of his people. Creatively, lovingly and providentially, he is both the supplier of his people’s needs and the great example for every believing father to follow.
The Lord Jesus Christ emphasised his unique relationship with his Father but, at the same time, he bestowed upon his followers a father-child relationship with God that is wondrously derived from his own.
After his resurrection he declared, ‘I go to my Father and your Father; and to my God and your God’ (John 20:17). The Apostle Paul picks up this theme in the opening greetings of several of his epistles (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3).
Fatherhood speaks of authority and influence, and those who diminish the role of and need for a father – even in simple legislative devices – erode not only a natural and social institution but the concept of God as Father.
Those who undermine the divinely instituted structure of family life by promoting same-sex civil unions are not merely painting fatherhood out of the picture. They are creating a new social order that dispenses with the biblical concept of God.
The privilege of adoption
We often neglect the great Trinitarian truth of adoption and the fatherhood of God. This should be more than mere doctrine – it should be central to our worship and a living experience for every Christian.
Those who, by grace, have become the adopted children of God through faith in Jesus Christ, have no absentee Father. He is ever-present and actively involved in the individual and corporate (familial) lives of his people. All our ideals and patterns of fatherhood find their highest expression in the way God deals with his children.
See how our heavenly Father has brought life to his children and his children to life. See how he cares for his little ones with a love that is manifested, in due proportion, both in comfort and discipline.
See how he provides food, clothing, security and support – exemplifying the joys and duties of those who father children of their own. See how he teaches us gently and patiently – how he sometimes ‘suffers us to hunger’ in the wilderness of this world that he might ‘feed us with manna’ (which is Christ) and teach us that ‘man shall not live by bread alone but … by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 8:1-9).
Perhaps our relationship with God is most simply expressed by the word ‘Abba’ – a word replete with intimacy, closeness and familiarity. What warmth and understanding lie here!
‘Abba’ does not translate directly in English, but it calls up the notion of deep love and absolute confidence. It is the privilege of those adopted into the family of God to address their Father so. Indeed, our cry of ‘Abba!’ is the Spirit-prompted proof that we are children and heirs of God (Romans 8:15-17; Galatians 4:6-7).
Nor is our filial love towards the Father a product of our fallen human nature, but the very love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5)
– a mutual, sacrificial, loyal commitment energised by faith.
Knowing what father means
Parenting is something that many of us do, but few of us do as well as we would like. It is a privilege and a blessing to bring a new generation into the world and take on the solemn yet joyful obligations that brings. Today, we must prize and safeguard the honour and privilege of fatherhood, not least against all the challenges it faces in the course of our natural life.
But even the most heart-warming examples of natural affection pale in comparison to the love of God for his children. When we look around at the examples of fatherhood in our own society it is easy to see where we fall short.
We sympathise with those who have had bad experiences of cold or abusive parents. But we must never measure God’s fatherhood by human experiences impoverished by sin. Instead, let our understanding of fatherhood be as that displayed by God and testified by his eternal Son – for whoever has ‘seen’ Jesus Christ has seen the Father (John 14:6).
In Christ, therefore, let us seek to know the Father. And from Christ let us draw both our own experience of the Father’s love and our understanding of all that fatherhood should mean on earth.