I became a father since last Father’s Day — which means I have very little to say at this point from my experience as a father. But I do see my 31 years with my dad differently now through the eyes of my son. I certainly don’t understand fatherhood now like I hope to in ten years, but I see the Father in my father far more clearly than I did ten months ago.
Coming up on one year of being “Dad” (or really “Da” at this point), I appreciate at least one big quality about fatherhood: its impossibility. As I learn how to care for our son, and then look back on all my dad did for our family — working far more than forty hours a week to provide for us, while saving some of his best energy and creativity to love, discipline, and play with his boys, and to help us know Jesus — I wonder at the miracle.
My dad did not have the same kind of example. My grandfather was one of the worst men I have known personally. I struggle to remember a single positive lesson I learned in the first twenty-five years of knowing him — not one memory, not a piece of profound advice, not a character quality I longed to emulate. For the vast majority of the years I knew him, I learned nothing from him of love or loyalty, of honesty or self-control, of marriage or fatherhood. Such was the playbook my dad received growing up and carried into our family.
Every good dad is a miracle worked by God in some uniquely impossible circumstances. No man has the giftedness, strength, and resolve to love a woman and their children in a way that joyfully sacrifices for their needs and consistently leads them to Christ. Every good father, then, is extraordinary.
The New Testament says surprisingly little to fathers directly. The two pillar texts are really just one pillar said slightly differently in two letters. First, the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians,
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
Then again in Colossians,
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)
The only direct command given to fathers in the New Testament is a prohibition: do not provoke your children to anger (or discouragement). I take that to mean that, as a father, I will experience the inclination to unnecessarily and unlovingly incite irritation, disappointment, aggravation, or even outrage in my child — through selfishness, through harshness, through neglect, through stubbornness or pride, through a thousand other ways. Paul’s words raise our awareness, as fathers, of the effects of our sin on our sons and daughters.
Yes, instruct. Yes, discipline. But do not provoke.
“Do not provoke your children.” It’s true, but hardly something we would print on a T-shirt for Dad on Father’s Day. How might Paul’s charge be stated positively? Paul would not say, “Fathers, do whatever necessary to placate your children’s unpredictable (and often unhealthy) desires, striving at all times to avoid any sadness, frustration, or disappointment.” We know that because he says to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Discipline does not mean always saying, “No,” but you cannot have any meaningful discipline without it. Good discipline requires regular denial, and therefore regular disappointment, and discouragement, and probably some form of anger (as my wife and I are learning already).
Positively, Paul might say to me and other fathers, “Fathers, do whatever you can, in the strength and resolve that God supplies, to inspire your children to love your God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to delight to live according to his word.” Inspire, sacrifice, encourage, teach, play, and discipline not to please yourself, but to see that your sons and daughters are pleased in God. Die every day to yourself — to every impulse to trade away moments of their growth and good for your comfort or convenience — to shape their hearts for Jesus.
We will not manage our children’s discouragement and anger for long by simply giving them what they want or making their circumstances a little more comfortable. If we really want to father them well, we will model a joyful, selfless, and sacrificial love for God that lives to die for others. If our kids discover that kind of love for themselves, it will stave off a childhood (and a lifetime) of discouragement and anger. We will provoke them, instead, to courage and joy.
Not every dad is a good dad, which means Father’s Day is not a holy-day for every son or daughter.
Some dads refuse to work.
Some dads give everything to work.
Some dads are demanding and oppressive.
Some dads are distracted or indifferent.
Some are harsh, even abusive.
Some dads, tragically, walk away altogether.
Instead of pointing their children to God and his love, they thoughtlessly and selfishly provoke them to discouragement and anger.
But an extraordinary few gentle men love their God and their families with supernatural sacrifice and resolve — men like Richard A. Segal, Jr. Of course, they don’t get the final credit. Miracles don’t brag about their ability or ingenuity. They can’t explain it, other than to point to the only God who makes true gentle men. They simply and joyfully say, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Six years ago, God performed another miracle in our family. Months into a fight with cancer that would eventually take his life, the grandfather I had known, feared, and counted hopeless had become another man — a new man, in Christ, through faith. God had produced patience where there had been a swift temper. God had produced joy — sure and strong — where there had been only bitterness and irritation. God had humbled the proudest and softened the hardest.
He had made a once-terrible father into a chosen son, a once-harsh dad into a gentle man — another miracle.
If your father is not the father God calls him to be, God may still make him new. He rescued Richard A. Segal, Sr., at age 78, and he could just as easily work a miracle for your dad. Keep loving, keep serving, keep sharing, and, most of all, keep praying.
And if you have lost your father, like my dad lost his six years ago now, know that God sent his Son to make you his son or daughter forever. He says to you again this Father’s Day, “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). And according to Galatians 4:4–6, he has sent his Spirit to live in you and to remind you that you have a Father who loves you perfectly and endlessly, especially on Father’s Day.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have a son and live in Minneapolis.