It’s 7:30 at night, and I’m staring at my iPhone for no apparent reason. There is no crisis in the world that requires me. No organizational issue that demands a response, and no critical communication I must conduct on behalf of my family or friends.
I’m just scrolling through Twitter, aimlessly. This is probably a justifiable use of time during leisure activity or when waiting in the doctor’s office, but not at 7:30 on a weekday when the kids need my attention. And yet here I am, escaping the messy reality of being present as a parent, for the cheap comfort of the passive and useless acquisition of knowledge.
This is probably a justifiable use of time during leisure activity or when waiting in the doctor’s office, but not at 7:30 on a weekday when the kids need my attention.
The shame hits me, not in the moment when I’m chuckling over a funny tweet but later, when I kiss my youngest daughter on the forehead before putting her to bed. Will she know me as a good and godly dad who pointed her to the heavenly Father? Or will she know me as that adult male in her home who gave only small bursts of attention while his phone was charging? I’d like to think I’m the former, but there too many nights when I’m the latter.
There is the father I should be and there is the father I really am. The gap between those two is wide. I live in that chasm every day.
Good Dads of the Bible
I once thought about doing a project on the fathers of the Bible—a sort of devotional book for men, that featured heroic examples of fatherhood. The problem with this project, however, is that I had too few subjects.
There just aren’t that many really good dads in Scripture. I mean, we have the Old Testament Joseph, who overcame family dysfunction to become what appears to be a good father to his own sons. We have Noah, who, though far from perfect, obeyed God and shepherded his family to safety. We have the New Testament Joseph, who listened to the Lord’s angel, married his unwed pregnant fiancée, and cared for her, despite social pressure to “put her away.”
Other than that? Not much. The few images of fatherhood in the Bible, especially when it comes to our heroes, are far from exemplary. David, Israel’s greatest king, was an unfaithful husband who passively allowed one son to commit sexual assault and then alienated and went to war with another. Noah was seen naked and drunk in his tent. Abraham abandoned his firstborn, who was the product of an ungodly liaison.
In fact, you might make the case that the Bible offers more narratives of faithful, heroic mothers and grandmothers than it does of fathers. Hannah. Mary. Lois. Why is this? Is it because the Bible doesn’t place a premium on fatherhood? No. There are countless commands and injunctions—including a significant percentage of the book of Proverbs—that implore men to fulfill their calling and parent their children well.
I believe the Bible shows few examples of good fathering and many examples of bad fathering for a purpose: as part of an overall theme that highlights the way sin has so corrupted the human condition. Scripture both cultivates the longing in every human heart for a good dad and points to God as the heavenly Father who fills in where earthly dads disappoint. Even the best men are Adam’s heirs, who can either use power to exploit or retreat from responsibility with passivity. Only one man, the second Adam, fulfills God’s vision for masculinity.
The story of the Bible is not about its heroes, but about one hero. It’s not about the brave exploits of David and Abraham and Noah, but about the brave exploit of Christ in renewing and restoring His creation.
This matters for everyone, not just for those who have bad memories of their own father. It keeps us fathers from being overwhelmed when we recognize how often we fall short. Nothing puts a man in touch with his frailties quite like being a dad. Parenting, so easy in theory, is hard in reality, where the action is live and we’re faced with on-the-spot decisions between selfishness and sacrifice. Even the best dads need supernatural power—the power of God’s Spirit—and the understanding that as we are trying and failing to parent, God is also parenting our children and filling in the gaps.
Sometimes, on some days, those gaps are vast.
Redemption Instead of Regret
My four children are still pretty young. I have a lot of parenting in front of me, which means I have time to correct some patterns and grow in Christ as a man. By this, I don’t mean growing into a masculine caricature but, rather, growing into the man God has uniquely called me to be. Into faithfulness, love, and humble leadership. But even at this relatively young stage, I look back at some years with regret. Times I’ve not been fully present. Times I’ve lost my temper. Times I’ve shown my children a poor image of their heavenly Father.
Scripture points to God as the heavenly Father who fills in where earthly dads disappoint.
I can’t imagine the weight felt by many men who are older than me, whose children are out of the house. The parenting days are over, for the most part, and all that is left is a looking back. As a pastor, I’ve often sat across the coffee table from fathers who spilled out their anguished cries of pain and hurt, reliving their mistakes and praying for God to restore their relationships with their kids. I’ve counseled children stung by the unfaithfulness of their fathers. I’ve seen the bitter fruit of sin twist its way through human families. Each time, it has sort of seared into my heart a desire to be a good father. I want to learn from these older men and not repeat their mistakes in my generation.
I hope when I get to that stage I will have few regrets. My goal is never to be in a position of needing to tell my children I was unfaithful to their mother or leave them desperate, without a father to spiritually guide them through the difficult seasons of life. But I will have some regrets. Even if my kids all “measure up” spiritually (whatever that means), I’ll easily see periods in my life that are stained by my own sinful behavior. My kids are being raised by two sinners, of whom I am chief. One day, perhaps, they will sit on therapists’ couches, lamenting the ways I helped form them.
So I will have regrets. But I know what to do with them. Jesus took my parenting guilt and then bled drops of blood in the Garden and agonized on a Roman cross so I could be free of this burden. I can prevail upon the mercy of God. I can confess my sin. Though my failures, like Jacob’s limp, will always be present as a reminder of my dependence on God, I don’t have to be identified with those missteps.
What’s more, God is not wringing His hands. Yes, I will be accountable for my fathering, but my own kids will have to see in their experiences the hands of their heavenly Father, tracing their steps toward His sovereign will. To trust that God knows best for my own kids is perhaps the deepest level of faith a human can summon. The reality that I am the only version of an earthly father they will ever have is sobering. This requires a faith that only the Spirit can provide, a plan only God could conceive. Father knows best, yes, but only if we’re talking about the heavenly Father.
Some might say this theology dampens our motivation to father intentionally. It’s better, perhaps, to live with a kind of consuming fear. But I see that grace works a different way. Redemption, confession, and trust are catalysts—like fuel—to parenting well. Knowing I don’t have to perform to earn God’s favor, I am free to live out my calling as a parent—to be filled with the Spirit and to love my children the way I am called to love them. I’m free to depend on Jesus, to pray deeply and to love well. I’m liberated to apologize to my kids when I get it wrong and point them to that same well of grace for their own failures.
Even in the best families, there are deep pockets of dysfunction, but God is in the business of restoring what is broken, of healing what the enemy has made sick. God is a re-creating God, in my own life and in the lives of others.
Fight Over Flight
So, we fight on as fathers. Rather than languish in the daily stew of our own inadequacy, we press forward with faithfulness: learning, listening, loving. Knowing our weaknesses, we lean into the Spirit of God and lead our families.
My four kids—they need me. They need me working for sanctification and repenting of my sins. They need me pressing through the inadequacy and modeling the life of Christ among them. They need me both strong and weak.
Too many of us yield the fight and walk away. Some dads physically exit the home, their taillights the only lasting legacy. Others leave emotionally or spiritually, outsourcing the trench warfare to the church or leaving their wives to fight alone for their children.
God calls us to something better and empowers us. We can’t change where we’ve already failed, but we shouldn’t let past failures paralyze us. Right now, in this exact moment, I can be faithful. I can put down my phone. I can seek peace in this conversation. I can turn away from selfishness and toward service.
Satan’s first lie is always that sin will make us more human. And his second lie is always that sin is who we are. Yet we know that in Christ, we are not our struggles, our inadequacies, our regrets. We are being made whole. We are being made new—into the fathers God planned, from the beginning, for us to be.
Illustrations by Steve Scott