Not just any fatherly involvement can reach the hearts of our children. To really open up a child's heart, a father must observe the work-and-keep model of Genesis 2:15. There must be the working—as a father nurtures and cultivates the soil of a child's heart. And there must be the keeping—the correction that, as we will see in the following chapter, is to be exercised in a relationship of joy and love.
I am constantly amazed at the number of people who assure me that their fathers hardly ever praised them, but constantly criticized and berated. I meet people all the time who tell me that their fathers beat into their heads that they were losers who would never succeed. I can scarcely imagine what that is like. There is only so much a pastor can do to remedy such an upbringing, and the best he can do will include pointing such a person to the effective healing love of our heavenly Father, who can do far more than any man. But as fathers we can ensure that our own children are raised with the rich fertilizer of fatherly affection and esteem.
A godly father plants good things in the hearts of his children. He plants:
- The seeds of his own faith in Christ.
- A longing for truth and goodness.
- His hopes and dreams for the godly man or woman the child will become.
- His own confidence that the child has all the gifting and capacity needed to serve God faithfully in whatever way God may genuinely call.
A godly father works these things into the soil of his child's heart as he shares his own heart, listens to and molds the child's heart, and waters these tender plants with faith and love.
At the core of godly fatherhood is exactly this kind of emphasis on sharing his own heart and developing his child's heart. What can we do to forge such a parent-child bond? It is often observed, and rightly so, that quality time cannot substitute for quantity time. So what kinds of quantity time must fathers spend with their children?
I have an approach to this that involves four simple categories: Read, Pray, Work, Play. That is, I want to forge a relationship with each of my children as we read God's Word together, pray together, work together, and play together.
First is the father's ministry of God's Word. There simply is no substitute for our children hearing the Word of God read from our lips, with its doctrines explained clearly so they can understand, and the message applied to their hearts. (This is not to denigrate a mother's equally important ministry of Scripture.)
It is not sufficient for fathers to send their children to church, Sunday school, Christian camp, or private Christian school. You must read the Bible to your children yourself. Obviously, our children must see some correspondence between the Bible and our lives. But even as we work out our own Christian growth, we must read God's Word to and with our children.
God's Word is "living and active" (Heb. 4:12). It gives life to believing hearts (Isa. 55:10–11) and imparts light to the eyes and wisdom to the inner man (Ps. 19:7–9). Holy Scripture should form a regular part of our conversation, so that families are not merely reading the Bible as some kind of ritual but studying and discussing together its life-giving teaching.
If we cannot make time to read the Bible together as a family, we should seriously reflect on our priorities. Most Christians today did not grow up in homes that practiced family devotions, but it is imperative that we revive this practice of family piety. We do not have to be elaborate, as if someone from church will be grading us. The family can simply gather for a reading of God's Word or a good devotional book with scriptural teaching, followed by discussion and prayer. (It is even better if the family can sing together.)
For some families, this time happens most naturally at breakfast, and in other families during or after dinner. A more prolonged gathering for family worship might occur once a week or so, but briefer devotions should occur more or less daily. The father does not have to be a Bible scholar, but he must read and teach Scripture to his children. As he does so in faith, God's Word will bind the hearts of fathers and children together in the unity of truth.
Another way men work the garden under their care is through a nurturing ministry of prayer. This is accomplished as parents bond with their children by praying for them and with them.
Prayer, like Scripture, is an absolutely non negotiable element of faithful parenting, one that communicates our sincere love to our children's hearts and shows them our reliance on the Lord's sovereign provision of grace. Our children need to grow up hearing their mother and father praying for them, and they need to have frequent experience praying with their parents. Naturally, much of this prayer will involve adoration of God and intercession for those outside the family. But parents should pray for the specific needs of their children—the things that, at that moment, are pressing on their hearts—and their children need to hear these heartfelt prayers. This means we have to know our kids, including the burdens they are facing—whether peer pressure, a health concern, anxiety over tests, or difficulties with friends.
One day my daughter and I were talking about a trial that was weighing greatly on her heart. She expressed her frustration not only with the situation but with God, crying out, "Daddy, I know you've been praying for me, so why doesn't God answer your prayers?" How encouraging that my daughter had noticed my prayer ministry for the affairs of her heart; this was a question I was happy to deal with.
We should also be open with our children about our need for them to pray for us. Sometimes these will involve adult issues, where children ought not to be concerned with the details. But they can know the basic issue, like this: "Daddy is facing difficult pastoral decisions, so we need to pray for God's wisdom and help for him." Or, "Daddy is dealing with a problem at work that requires God's guidance and direction." Any real relationship is two-way, and a close relationship with our children will involve our requests for them to pray for the real needs of our own lives.
Third, if I want to draw close to my children, I need to work with them. By this I mean assisting them with whatever tasks and projects are before them.
When it comes to schoolwork, fathers must convey more than high expectations and demands. We must also be involved in our children's studies, helping them where they have problems and providing general support and encouragement.
Other areas of endeavor should also be of sincere interest and concern to fathers. To be genuine, we need to back up these expressed interests with concrete action. This may mean assembling invitations for a birthday party, contributing to a scrapbook, or helping a boy build arm strength because he'd like to try out as a Little League pitcher. The more we are involved in our children's work in a supportive, encouraging way, the more their lives will be intertwined with ours in a bond of love.
The relational two-way street applies here as well. As much as possible, we need to involve our children in our own work. This probably does not mean our 9-to-5 employment. But it does mean chores, yard work, and basic household maintenance. My children, especially the boys, love to help me work on things around the house. Since I am not particularly adept in this area, it challenges my patience to involve children who are even less competent. Taking the time to include and teach them makes everything slower and more difficult. But so what? Far more important than the pace of progress is the relationship with my children that is being strengthened as we work together.
Lastly, fathers should play with and alongside their children. This involves stooping to their play and inviting them into ours. Simply put, families need to share fun, lighthearted times together.
This was harder when my children were very little, because I found it difficult to play with their small-child toys (this undoubtedly reveals a deficiency on my part). But as they have grown, I have found some of their toys a little more appealing. For the boys, this now means mostly Legos and the video games that are rationed to them. I need to know about and be "into" all the Lego vehicles they make (Star Wars ships, mainly), letting them explain to me all the details of their creations. I also need to know enough about their video games to be able to follow (more or less) their conversations on these subjects. Do I need to be constantly honing my video-game controller skills and gunning for the high score at whatever version of Mario has captured their attention? Of course not. But it is important for me to have some appreciation for these games my boys love, and make some time to play with them.
The same is true with daughters. Naturally, some girl play is not all that appealing to dads, but we must take an eager interest in what our daughters are doing and let them enjoy telling us about their dolls and play sets. This is how we become part of their world in a way that draws their hearts to us.
As children grow older, I firmly believe the whole family should play indoor games together and engage in outdoor recreation as a family. These playtimes create shared experiences that are interesting and fun, and bind our hearts together as a family.
Fathers also need to invite their children into their own games (which presupposes that we should not have interests that draw us into sin). For instance, I am a lifelong Boston Red Sox baseball fan, but I had quit following baseball for more than ten years, primarily due to a lack of time. When my boys reached elementary school, however, I revived my interest in the Red Sox so I could share it with my boys—the girls are now involved, too. This gives us something we share, and pretty much every summer evening we check the scoreboards to see how our team is doing. We follow the players we love and we ride the highs and lows of dedicated fans, experiencing all this together.
This is my simple agenda to ensure I am actively and intimately involved in the lives of my children: Read, Pray, Work, Play. I must read God's Word to and with my children regularly. We must bear each others' burdens in prayer and worship the Lord together at His throne of grace. My children need my positive, encouraging involvement in their work (and they need an invitation into some of mine). And we need to bind our hearts with laughter and joy in shared play, both one-on-one and as a complete family. This all requires time, for time is the currency with which I purchase the right to say, "My son, my daughter, give me your heart."
This excerpt is taken from The Masculine Mandate by Richard Phillips.