March 6, 2015

Fathers, Love Like the Father

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[intro]How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! — Psalm 139:17, NIV[/intro]

When my daughter was about 18 months old, I found myself attempting to watch my little girl while my family ate at a restaurant so that my wife could breathe easy for a moment. While eating, my little girl was in rare form. She repeatedly wiggled out of her booster seat to stand on the table and shout gibberish to everyone in earshot and spill lemonade. I recall resisting the urge to pass off my daughter to my wife and fleeing the scene so that I could just veg out with a cold one in front of the TV. Wrangling my mischievous toddler didn’t leave me feeling tranquil or sane, but I somehow, I pushed through.

Later, as we were leaving the restaurant, an older gentleman approached, grabbing my arm and looking me square in the eyes. Startled, I wondered if he was in the right frame of mind. Before I could get my wits, he told me that he had been watching me throughout dinner and launched into an unexpected compliment. The man told me that it was refreshing to see a young father engaged with his child and went on to share his observation that men in our society rarely engage with their own children, especially when they’re small. I thanked him and then we left.

However, instead of feeling like I got a ‘Father-of-the-Year’ nomination, my heart sank as I contemplated the reality that many children—small and vulnerable image-bears of God—have fathers who are checked out, either literally or functionally.

Many kids, even those with fathers, grow up with a slew of issues in large part because their fathers didn’t engage them. When fathers seem disinterested, I wonder what their children make of the Gospel message that essentially says their cosmic Father desires a redeeming relationship.

If we’re glued to our phones, managing inboxes, or checking every ESPN update instead of engaging the pawing hands and little voices that need us, it tells our kids they are not important. If we routinely lose our tempers or show coldness toward their mother, it destabilizes their world. So, here are seven things that fathers can do—especially with their young children—to love them like The Father loves us.

1. Be Prioritized

Loving like The Father doesn’t happen casually. It has to be be a deliberate process considerate of what matters most with disciplined follow-through. While our accounts for God and the Mrs. ought to come first, our accounts for leisure and even work should come after our kids. Having criteria established can help us sort through what matters most in the midst of life’s chaos. It takes planning, gut-checks, and routinely auditing our behavior. It means regularly saying “no” to good things if and when they interfere with being a dad. It means more days off to stay home when they are sick and more nights in to tuck them in.

2. Be Engaged

Often, our skewed priorities and frantic lives leave our kids with the last scraps of our time, patience, and attention. Yet, God is dialed-in, always mindful of and engaging with His children. Our love should reflect His: patience outlasting irritating behavior, love more robust than sin. This means instead of just distracting, silencing, or avoiding our kids, we should seek to understand and comfort them, especially when heavy emotional lifting is required. King David tells us that God tenderly keeps track of our own sorrows, collecting our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). Does this describe your heart as a father?

3. Be Available

How do we engage children who rarely connect with us when or how we want them to? At least part of the answer has to do with being available to our children. Scant timetables leave little room to really understand and know our kids. For instance, every day after school, I ask my kids about their day. If I get any feedback, it is typically vague. Yet, if we have hours of play, eat together, and pull-off an extended bed-time routine complete with snuggles, unhurried stories, and thorough engagement, then they seem to naturally gush their joys, fears, and all that is going on in their lives. Loving fathers know that quality time requires a good quantity of time.

4. Be Gentle, Approachable, and Celebratory

The text says that since we are not condemned, we can draw near to God and call Him “Abba,” which is like affectionately calling him, “dear daddy” (Romans 8:1, 16). Kids won’t feel safe enough to approach us with confidence unless they know we really like them and welcome their attention. The Father takes pleasure in His children (Psalm 147:11), and gladly rejoices over His own (Zephaniah 3:17)—and so should we. Gentle, approachable, and celebratory fathers are the ones who succeed in teaching and discipling their children because of the deep trust and relational capital they can draw from.

5. Be Relaxed and Interested

Being uptight or perfectionistic will breed insecurity. Kids shouldn’t live in fear of messing up or displeasing their nit-picky old man. Children will be open and vulnerable when they are set at ease. Since kids learn by playing, look for opportunities to be fun and to flex your imagination. In fact, I’m of the conviction that we should get lots of mileage out of chasing our kids around with a monster voice and routinely rolling around on the floor. Since we dads are to be invested in what makes our little ones tick, we need to be able to step into their worlds. So, develop a literacy of their favorite TV shows, know the names of their friends, and be easy going.

6. Be Refreshed

Since kids are demanding, we need to be on our game. To be on our game, we need to take care of ourselves to give our children the best version of ourselves. Are you executing disciplined priorities in such a way that your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are met so that you have enough left in the tank for your kids? If you are just hanging on and perhaps looking for your children to pick you up, the deck is stacked against you. Since loving fathers are refreshed fathers, make sure you have time for exercise, hobbies, spiritual disciplines, and for date nights with your wife.

7. Be Pointing To Jesus

Our kids should be able to watch us love our Lord as normal function of life (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7). They should see us with Bible in hand, leading in prayer, serving, and telling stories to familiarize them with our hero, Jesus. We need to talk with them about what they’re learning in church. Ask them what Jesus thinks about them, whether or not His love for them will ever go away. When we put them in timeout after attempting to assassinate their sibling, we need to ask them how Jesus wants people to be treated and then forgive them in His name. Our only hope is that Jesus first fills us so that we have enough love to overflow to our children. Thus, we can’t point to Him if we aren’t seeking Him regularly.

Fathers, if we want to be the men we’re supposed to be, we need to first center and continually re-center our existence on how we have been loved (1 John 4:19). After all, His love is the rocket fuel that will empowers us to become fathers who love like The Father.

Image Credit: Angela Sevin

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