We live in a time of fatherless children. More and more, children grow up in fatherless families. Some lose their fathers through tragedies like fatal accidents or killer diseases. A growing number are victims of parents who divorce, usually ending up with their mothers who often get custody. A large number grow up in intact families but are de facto fatherless because their dads spend all their time at work and give no time to their children. Therefore, many children today grow up without experiencing father-love.
The critical role that a father plays in the development of his children is now well documented.
In Authentic Spiritual Mentoring, Larry Kreider writes:
The love relationship between a father and his son provides the ideal environment for training and developing the character and life of the son. Without love a son may grow but he cannot flourish. Fathers affirm their children and provide the gentle security of an unwavering commitment to their well-being. (Ventura: Gospel Light, 2008, 35)
What Kreider says about fathers and sons could also apply to fathers and their daughters though the dynamics are a little different.
One possible result of not receiving the father-love we need is that we tend to look for that love elsewhere. We tend to look for it from other authority figures we encounter in our lives. For example we may subconsciously look for it from the organizations we work for. Gordon T. Smith reminds us:
Sometimes we inadvertently treat the organizations we work for as though they have a parental function. We expect the one who supplies our paycheck to “parent” or care for us. We move into a level of emotional dependency that undermines our capacity to make necessary choices — to leave when we need to leave, to find emotional support outside the structures of the organization, to be true to God’s call on us. But organizations will let us down. We will continually feel betrayed by organizations if we do not move out of a parent-child relationship of dependence. (Gordon T. Smith, Courage & Calling, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 59)
Two tragic outcomes may result if we are not aware of the above dynamic. We may stay on in an organization though it may be time for us to move on because we are still waiting for the organization to give us the parental love we think we deserve. Or we get angry with an organization for not giving us the kind of parental understanding we think we are due, and, disillusioned, we leave when we should have stayed. But the organizations we work for are not our parents.
So, as Smith goes on to say, Christians need to move to that point where they fully embrace their identity as children of God, with their heavenly Father as the parent who will never let them down.
We move from dependence on human parental structures to a mature, adult dependence on our Father in heaven. This is what I long for for my (Smith’s) sons — that they would no longer call me father but “brother,” for we are children together of God our Father. I am still “Dad” in one sense, but I need to affirm with them that they are ultimately accountable to God and not to me. (Smith, Courage & Calling, 59)
It would seem then that the church today must be committed to providing spiritual parenting for her members, for at least two reasons. One, spiritual parenting is another way of viewing the discipling that we are called to do. Paul, for example, saw his nurturing ministry in parental terms (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8; 11-12). Like Paul, and Smith, we need to help our people mature in their relationship with their heavenly Father. The other reason why churches must take their call to spiritual parenting seriously is that this may be the only parenting that many of their members will ever receive.
There are those who, by the grace of God, turn out well even though deprived of fathering either by natural or spiritual fathers. And the last thing I want to do is to make single mothers feel guilty. Your load is heavy enough. I was a single father for many years and often wrestled with guilt because I felt that my sons were deprived of the mother-love that they needed for their development.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that if the Lord had allowed this situation to come about, I had to trust Him to make up the difference. I also noted that even the best parenting by two parents was no guarantee that a child would turn out well. I was also very grateful for the many friends, brothers and sisters who stood in the gap, channels of God’s love and nurturing. Single parents of either sex, indeed all parents, need to look to the grace of God and be open to the help of friends. Our heavenly Father will see us through.
Nevertheless, the church must take seriously the need for spiritual parents in today’s society. Men in particular need to step forward to be the spiritual fathers they were called to be. I know this is scary especially for those of us who never received spiritual fathering ourselves. In this too, we will need the grace of God and the help of friends. But if the story of the Gracious Father (Luke 15:11-32) is any guide, He will provide whatever is missing in our imperfect efforts. He is that kind of Dad.