The Tragedy of


One of the reasons why it's so difficult to "sanctify" believers today is the tragedy of missing fathers. Young believers find it all but impossible to think of God as their father. It's because they were raised without fathers of their own. This article - taken from a sermon I preached many years ago - explains the impact of this tragedy on the whole process of growing in Christ. It was preached on a Fathers Day.

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by Pastor Douglas Shearer

A lot of the contributions fathers make to their children’s development are very subtle. Did you know that? Sure...

  • there’s the protection fathers afford;
  • the boundaries that only fathers can establish and enforce;
  • the example fathers set for their sons;
  • the sense of worth all good fathers pass along to their daughters.

There’s all that and more. But there are the subtle contributions as well. And that’s what I want to explore with item4you this morning - the subtle contributions - the contributions that are so often overlooked.

Have you ever noticed how fathers interact with their children? They’re less inclined to care for them - meaning hold them and cuddle them - than to play with them. A mother will draw her infant child up close to her breasts and wrap her arms around him - and, more often than not, rock him or sing to him.

A father, on the other hand, will hold his child out in front of him at arms length - look him straight in the eye and then, more often than not, throw him up in the air and catch him - turn him around - draw him up close to his chest and tickle him - all the while laughing at the top of his voice. Dads, in other words, roughhouse with their children, don’t they?

A lot of times, mothers try to put the “kabash” on roughhousing. It all seems so foolish and pointless.

But guess what? It’s not! It’s far more important to a child’s development than any of you have probably imagined...

  • 100_0494A child can tell very early on that his father is bigger and stronger than his mother. Consequently, he associates strength with his father. And when a father roughhouses with his child - whether a son or a daughter - that association is driven deep into the child’s psyche and profoundly personalized. Why? Because he can actually feel his father’s strength; it’s up close and real; it’s touchable; it’s palpable; it’s tangible. And that generates a striking impact on how a child conceptualizes authority later in life. He tends not to depersonalize authority. Authority is less likely to become a faceless specter - which is exactly how it’s conceptualized in the minds of sociopaths and deviants.
  • In addition, roughhousing fosters a link between strength and love. “That’s my dad throwing me up in the air; that’s my dad swinging me between his legs and wrestling with me on the floor.” It’s not just that authority is personalized - that it’s given a face; it’s that the face is smiling.
  • Finally, roughhousing with dad helps a child develop self-control. There are limits that a good father always insists upon when roughhousing with his children. No biting! No spitting! No hitting! No temper tantrums! Roughhousing teaches both sons and daughters the important principle of boundaries.

Fathers, then, in roughhousing with their children,

  • personalize authority; they give it a face;
  • then they put a smile on that face; and,
  • finally, in roughhousing with their children, fathers teach the all important principles of self-control and boundaries.

What other subtle, but important contributions are there? Well, let’s think about it. Mothers stress personal safety and emotional security; fathers, on the other hand, emphasize initiative, competition, challenge, and risk-taking:

  • On a hike a mother will want to turn her family back toward home when the skies begin to cloud up and rain drops begin to fall; a father, on the other hand, is more apt to press everyone forward to complete the adventure.Alanandthekidsroughhousing
  • A mother is likely to keep a child in bed if he develops the sniffles; a father is more apt to send him off to school.
  • Most mothers don’t want their sons to play football; most fathers do.
  • Most mothers don’t want their sons to fight under any circumstance; most fathers encourage their sons to fight back if they’re bullied.
  • Most mothers don’t let their children swing too high on the playground; most fathers encourage them to swing as high as possible.

I remember many years ago when my brother and I were juniors in high school, we began discussing the possibility of biking our way through Europe when we turned eighteen. We told our mom and dad about it. Mom was horrified; Dad thought it was a great idea. Mom was convinced we’d die over there - or at least lose our innocence. Dad was sure it would be good for us - that it would help us mature. He told us that he would match whatever funds we raised for the trip. My mother was appalled. Not only was dad encouraging us to run off to our death and loss of innocence, he was helping to fund it.

I recall another incident back in 1977: Sita and I - along with our four kids, Kendra, Greg, Alan, and Margo - drove out to the Grand Canyon in a gargantuan motor home. On the way back, I decided to take a short cut through Death Valley. Even before we drove into the valley, the temperature was over a hundred and ten degrees - and it was still just 10:00 in the morning. When we reached the valley entrance, we spotted a booth - and next to the booth was a magazine rack filled with pamphlets warning visitors of the dangers Death Valley posed during the summer months. No one was manning the booth because it was too hot.

I picked up one of the pamphlets from the magazine rack and handed it to Sita. I can still remember Sita’s shriek. To this day it reverberates in my ears. There on the front of the pamphlet I’d given her was a picture of two cars carrying two families. One car was entering the valley; and the other car was leaving the valley. The car entering the valley carried a dad, a mom, and two kids - all plump and happy - with big smiles on their faces. The other car leaving the valley also carried a dad, a mom, and two kids - but they were all fleshless skeletons.

Sita began to sob hysterically. “Turn back,” she screamed. “We’re all going to die!” We decided to take a vote. “Shall we go forward or turn back?” The vote was four to one with one abstention. Kendra, Greg, Alan, and I voted “Forward, into the valley!” Sita, of course, was the lone dissenting vote; and Margo, because she was just two years old, abstained.

Any child psychologist will tell you that the outcome of that vote was quite predictable. By the age of two and a half, most children - more than two thirds of them - would rather pal around with their dads than with their moms? Why? It’s because they prefer dad’s high adventure risk-taking.

You ask what does that contribute to a child’s development? Again, it’s very subtle. Numerous studies all point to the same conclusion: children begin to break away from their parents at a very early age. The term psychologists use to describe it is “individualization.” They want to define themselves; they want to carve out their own identities.

  • Mothers - more inclined toward care-giving and emotional security - tend to discourage individualization.
  • Fathers - more inclined toward challenge and risk-taking - tend to encourage it.

item7Fathers, therefore, become their children’s “gatekeepers” - meaning they lead their children through the gate which separates childhood from adulthood.

But what if there’s no father to open that gate? What if there’s no father to temper a mother’s inclination to keep the gate closed? What happens then? Almost inevitably, her children - especially her sons - begin to resent her; and, if she persists in holding the gate shut, they often become enraged. And, for sons, that rage frequently spills over onto all women. It’s no coincidence that sons raised in fatherless families commit most of the violent crimes against women.

And there’s so much more:

  • It’s a father, not a mother, who helps a daughter cultivate her femininity. Did you know that? It’s against the backdrop of his masculinity that she develops it and learns to appreciate it - to value it.
  • Without a father’s presence, sons are apt to play up a woman’s sexuality; and play down her inherent worth. And it’s just his presence, nothing more. Not so much what he says or what he does; just his presence. Did you know that?
  • It’s a father, not a mother, who gets up out of bed during the night when there’s a strange noise in the house. “Dad’s on the job. He’ll take care of us.” It’s hard to exaggerate the sense of well being that conveys to children. “Day after day; night after night; week in and week out; year after year: Dad’s watching over us.”

Did you know that over time good fathers gradually become less of a distinct memory in the minds of their children - meaning each specific lesson they taught - each specific example they set - it all begins to fade - and what emerges is more of a feeling - a feeling of warmth and love. Any child raised by a good father will tell you that.

My Dad died four years ago. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m going to live the rest of my life without him.” He was larger than life. When my dad walked into a room, he filled it. When he smiled, we all smiled with him.

  • I can still hear his whistle.
  • I can still hear him singing.
  • I can still feel his hand wrapping around mine.
  • I can still hear him laughing with my mother.

item12My dad and mom were the best ballroom dancers in the world. When they danced together, their feet never touched the floor. They simply floated. It didn’t matter whether it was a fox trot, a waltz, swing, cha-cha-cha, rumba, or a tango. Nobody could out dance them. And every time they danced together, my dad made my mom look stunning. I can’t tell you how much I learned about how a husband should treat his wife from simply watching my dad dance with my mom. He turned her into a princess.

There’s a picture of my dad in our hallway: he’s got a big, wide-brimmed hat on - and there’s a big smile on his face. And every time I walk past that picture, I can feel a lump forming in my throat.

I see my dad in everything I do.

  • I see him in the way I think;
  • in the way I say “hello;”
  • in the way I hug my kids; and, most especially,
  • in the way I love my wife.

item15Who can measure the importance of a good father? His value is inestimable.

But fathers are becoming an endangered species. I’m sure you know that. How could anyone miss it?

Fatherless homes are fast becoming a mainstay of “Americana.” That’s the tragic truth. David Popenoe is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University - and a highly reputed demographic analyst - meaning he identifies, tracks, and tries to explain population trends. Eight years ago, he published an epic study entitled Life without Father. In it, he pointed out that during the three decades from 1960 to 1990 the percentage of children living apart from their birth fathers more than doubled - from 17% to 36%. He went on to warn that if the trend continued through the end of 1999, close to 50% of American children would be going to bed each evening without a dad to say goodnight to.

We’ve reached the Year 2000 - and, as it turns out, his projection has proven to be “dead on.” Imagine: 50% of American children are growing up without their birth fathers. And the trend shows no sign of slackening.

The primary reason for fatherlessness is fairly easy to figure out: it’s the continuing high rate of divorce here in America - a divorce rate that far outstrips the rest of the industrialized world. Popenoe indicates that the chance a first marriage occurring today will end in divorce stands right around 50%; and, by some estimates, it’s as high as 60% - especially if out-of-wedlock cohabitation is factored in.

But what about stepfathers? Can’t a stepfather make up for the loss a child suffers when divorce deprives him of his birth father? The shocking answer is “Not very often.”

And the reason is not what you might suspect; You might think it’s the fault of stepfathers - that most stepfathers make little or no attempt to bond with their stepchildren - that, by and large, they’re indifferent. But, actually, it’s quite often the other way around: it’s because stepchildren frequently refuse to bond with their stepfathers. And why’s that? It’s because they perceive it to be an act of betrayal against their birth fathers. And the more a mother tries pushing her children into the arms of a stepfather, the more resistance the children are likely to mount.

Mom may have given up on dear ‘ol dad; but nine times out of ten her children haven’t - even if he was a bit of a jerk. In fact, children often idealize a birth father whose daily presence is no longer possible because of divorce.

The plain truth is that a stepfather can’t very often play the role of “father.” His stepchildren won’t let him. And nothing a mother does is likely to change that - her tears, her threats, the blame she wildly hurls about - nothing - nothing at all. It’s that simple. And so remarriage following divorce doesn’t often solve the problem of fatherlessness. There may be a man in the house, but he’s not often perceived to be a “father.”

item17Divorce, though, doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s another dynamic at work - and it too is contributing to fatherlessness: it’s illegitimacy. It’s not just divorce that’s producing fatherlessness; it’s illegitimacy. The overall rate of illegitimate births reached 33% in 1990; but that was ten years ago. There’s little doubt that the rate today is even worse - though exact figures have yet to be compiled. Some estimates put it as high as 40% overall. Let that sink down into your minds - wrestle a little with it: 40% of births overall are out-of-wedlock. And study after study points to the same conclusion: the fathers of children born out-of-wedlock very rarely establish any kind of meaningful relationship with their children. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Surprisingly, the most dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births has occurred among white, middle-class, college educated women - a six hundred percent increase during the ten years from 1982 to 1992. What’s so terribly disturbing is that many of these women see nothing wrong with fatherlessness; they genuinely believe that fathers are unnecessary and superfluous - that fatherhood is obsolete. Men are needed for insemination, nothing more.

Make no mistake about it: that’s the mind-set now taking hold here in America.

And are we, as Christians, buying into this fast developing paradigm? If we aren’t, then why is the rate of divorce among Christians no different from the overall rate of divorce? Why isn’t it significantly less? Why isn’t it dramatically less?

We, as Christians, may bemoan divorce and illegitimacy - and weep over the fatherlessness it produces, but what we’re saying doesn’t line up with what we’re doing - with the kind of behavior we’re excusing among ourselves - or, at the very least, turning a blind eye to.

In fact, George Barna, a well known Christian demographer, reported recently in a Dr. Dobson newsletter that the divorce rate among Christians is no different from the the divorce rate among the unsaved. Our hand-wringing isn’t that sincere, is it? Fatherhood is slipping away - and we aren’t doing much about it. That’s a fact!

Let me try to illustrate the kind of subtle devastation that fatherlessness is wreaking within the church. About a year ago, I was trying to explain the goodness of God to a group of young singles - the love he lavishes upon us - the compassion he extends to us. So I quoted Psalm 103:13 to them:

As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him.

Psalm 103:13

Here, God is likened to a father. What kind of love can I expect from God? What kind of compassion? It’s the kind I’d expect from my own father! The kind I remember my dad lavishing on me when I was growing up. That’s what God’s love is like - only much more.

Psalm 103:13 is a figure of speech called a metaphor. Metaphors are used throughout scripture to help us understand God. Why? Because God is like a giant ball: we can’t get our minds around him. He’s just too big. So God has provided metaphors to help us out. A metaphor is a kind of mental handhold that enables our mind to grab hold of God. Without metaphors, we’d have a hard time grabbing onto God. Did you know that there are very few propositional definitions of God in the Bible? What we have instead are metaphors:

  • God is our fortress.
  • God is our shepherd.
  • God is our shield and our buckler.
  • God is our nursing mother.
  • And, of course, God is our father.

Obviously, the Bible uses many metaphors to describe God. But can you guess what is the one metaphor most frequently used? It’s the metaphor of a father. No other metaphor comes close to being used as frequently - not even the metaphor of a mother.

But when I quoted Psalm 103:13 last year to that group of young singles, their eyes didn’t light up. Their faces remained pretty much expressionless. It’s not that they didn’t understand it intellectually. It’s that it meant nothing to them emotionally. It didn’t resonate in their hearts.

I took a poll that evening - and found that of the seven persons there, six were raised without their birth fathers - four because of divorce, one because of abandonment, and one because of death. Is it any wonder, then, that their eyes didn’t light up when I read Psalm 103:13 to them? The metaphor it used meant nothing to them. It provided no handhold for them.

Here was a group of young Christians who desperately needed to touch the love of God - who needed to know what that love is like; but the metaphor most often used to convey that sense, the metaphor of a father, that metaphor was dead to them. And why? Because they were raised without fathers.

We have a whole generation of children, now adults, who are struggling to grasp the love God without the one handhold God most especially designed to make that possible.

What in God’s name have we done to our children?

Those of you who are fathers, don’t you realize that God has made you a living metaphor - that the quality of your fatherhood is what enables your children to grab hold of God - that it’s your fatherhood that makes God existentially real to them? Don’t you know that when your children read Psalm 103:13, they hearken back to the example you’ve set for them?

As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him.

Psalm 103:13

What does this psalm say to your children? It depends on what kind of father you’ve been, doesn’t it?

Imagine that the year is 1444 BC - and that your son is a young Jewish warrior at Kadesh Barnea, the gateway to the Promised Land. Moses rises to address the nation - and especially your son and his fellow warriors who very shortly will be sent into battle. And here’s what he says:

The Lord your God, who goes before you, He will fight for you, according to all He did for you in Egypt before your eyes,

And in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son...

Deut 1:30-31

Moses is encouraging your son’s faith in God, isn’t he?

item19It’s faith that will carry your son into battle. It’s faith that will enable him to engage the soldiers of Canaan in mortal combat. Moses knows that - and that’s why he’s encouraging your son’s faith. But his encouragement can only be as effective as the metaphor he’s using - the metaphor of your fatherhood. How effective have you made that metaphor for your son? His life now depends on it. Do you understand that?

Will it remind him of the love you lavished upon him - of the protection you afforded him? Of how you stood guard at his bedside - and carried him in your arms throughout his youth? Of how you delivered him from his fears and rescued him from his troubles? Of how you were always there when he cried out for you.

Or will the words Moses is speaking fall on deaf ears? Will those words fail to resonate in your son’s heart? And, consequently, will your son’s faith fail him when item20he most desperately needs it?

We all know what happened at Kadesh Barnea, don’t we? The words Moses spoke did indeed fall on deaf ears. Israel’s faith did indeed fail her. And the price her sons and daughters paid was forty years of aimless wandering in a dry and barren wasteland.

Is that what we’re consigning our own sons and daughters to - forty years of aimless wandering? Don’t you realize that when your fatherhood fails, it’s difficult to kindle your children’s faith? The link between your fatherhood and your children’s faith is more real than you can possibly imagine.

I can’t tell you how many persons I counsel whose faith can’t be kindled. Their faith is like water logged wood. It doesn’t catch fire easily. It lies there - cold and damp. And more often than not it’s because the one metaphor God most especially designed to ignite it is ineffective. And why? It’s frequently because their fathers failed them.

There is perhaps no more vital verse for our generation than Malachi 4:5-6.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:

And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Malachi 4:5-6

I’m imploring you, fathers, to make this verse your verse. I’m pleading with you to turn your hearts back to your children; and I’m asking you to begin praying daily that God will turn the hearts of your children back to you.