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A recently purchased piece of furniture came with an instruction booklet of the assembly required, complete with pictures of what to do and what not to do. The what-not-to-dos came from common pitfalls that had undoubtedly led the common Allen-wrench craftsmen astray from properly constructing a fine piece of particleboard furniture. Yet it was the what-not-to-dos that proved to be especially helpful, saving me from much hand-wringing frustration. Similarly, through His Word, the Lord provides instruction for fathers that can save us from soul-wrenching pitfalls—pitfalls that can lead to our downfall, as well as the downfall of our children.

The Scriptures are filled with divine instructions of what to do as fathers—as well as what not to do—as demonstrated by the Apostle Paul’s dual instruction, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Along with instruction, the Scriptures provide plenty of positive and negative examples of fatherhood. The negative examples seem to be particularly poignant, especially when we read of many godly men whose children did not follow in their father’s way or had major failings. The multitude of examples seems to demonstrate that there is a pattern for fathers to note. A prevalent and pernicious sin in a child, perhaps if it had been addressed by the father, might not have ended in the way that it did.

These Old Testament stories are given by God for more than just parental instruction, but at the same time, they are not less than that. Therefore, they offer us both warnings and opportunities to learn how to best lead our children (and ourselves) toward godliness. No, we cannot be our children’s savior. But by God’s grace, we as their fathers can proactively point them to Jesus Christ, who not only saves us from sins committed, but also from greater sins and consequences that might be prevented. Let’s look at several scenarios from the book of Genesis.

Adam: The Anger of Cain

It does not take long for Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3 to show its effect amongst the first family. Their sons, Cain and Abel, are barely introduced before we see a domestic conflict at hand. Cain was angry at God’s acceptance of his brother’s offering over his own. Though God confronts Cain directly (Gen. 4:6), it is not enough to turn him from his anger, which had full vent in the murder of his brother Abel. Cain was destined to be a fugitive and wanderer for the remainder of his life. Were there signs of such a temper and anger in Cain that could have been addressed? Did Adam intercede, or did he sit idly by as he had done when Eve was deceived by the serpent?

Isaac: The Impulsiveness of Esau and the Deceitfulness of Jacob

The Scriptures tell us that hairy Esau “was a skillful hunter, a man of the field” (Gen. 25:27), yet he seemed to be as impulsive as the animals he killed. Selling his birthright to his brother for a pot of stew because he was worn out and exhausted from the field was not a wise decision (Gen. 25:30–34). Did he not think through the consequences of his decision before he agreed to the terms? Years later, Esau took a foreign wife, even though Isaac his father had instructed him to “not take a wife from the Canaanite women” (Gen. 28:6). Perhaps he did so out of spite for his father and the pain of deception he endured at the hands of his brother, yet he had to live with the consequences of dwelling with a foreign wife and living outside the covenant people of God. If his father, Isaac, had persuaded Esau to realize the consequences of his poor decisions early on, would the latter consequences have been the same?

The story of Jacob’s putting on goat’s hair and dressing in his brother’s clothing to deceive his aging, vision-impaired father is well-known. But were there not signs of Jacob’s deception beforehand, when Jacob cajoled the birthright from his brother? Was he not living up to the name given to him by his parents with the dual meaning of “heel grasper” and “deceiver”? When his twin brother, Esau, realized that he had been deceived, he exclaimed, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Gen. 27:36). The greater irony of the story is that Isaac was deceived and lied to in the same way that he had deceived and lied to Abimelech (Gen. 26:7). If Isaac had confronted his own deception, what could he have taught his son?

Jacob: The Discontentment of Dinah and the Pride of Joseph

The only named daughter of Jacob in the Scriptures is Dinah. Genesis says that she “went out to see the women of the land” (Gen. 34:1). The land refers to the pagan, foreign city of Shechem. What drew her to leave her own household to find something from the women in the next city? In Shechem, she discovered the true wickedness of the land as she was horribly violated by a man who took advantage of her. Was Jacob too preoccupied with his own life that he missed the wandering eyes of his daughter, which led her away and ended in her experiencing this abusive act?

The young Joseph received two dreams: dreams of his being exalted, and dreams of his brothers bowing at his feet. These dreams fueled the anger of his brothers against him. How did they know about these dreams? They knew only because Joseph had told them. Was this youthful immaturity, or did this come out of a prideful heart—pride that was perhaps spurred along by Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph (Gen. 37:3)? Had Jacob not learned the consequences of such favoritism from his own experience with his parents and brother?

A Call to Fathers

If time permitted, we could extend our study to Manoah and Samson, Eli and his sons, Samuel and his sons, or David and Absalom. My purpose is not to cast judgment on fathers, nor to merely play the hypothetical game of “What If.” God used the sinful situations of these fathers and children for His plan of redemption, which demonstrates that His grace is truly greater than all our sins.

God’s being sovereign over all these actions does not lessen the pain and consequences these individuals went through, nor the wretched consequences of sin that we as families endure. All the sins mentioned, though not an exhaustive list, are not only sins of the past, but are ever present in our own children (and often in us as fathers as well). When we see similar sinful proclivities in our children, fathers should not idly sit by, hoping that nothing bad will happen to our children. The above stories indicate that this is not likely. Rather, we are to engage the hearts and minds of our children with truth, and when they do sin, to lovingly bring them back through forgiveness and repentance to the righteous path. We are called as fathers to be shepherds and guides for our children in the journey of faith. May we be to our children like the voice Isaiah mentions: “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isa. 30:21).

However, with all the examples of fatherly relationships in the Bible, let us not miss the one example of the one perfect Father-Son relationship that did not fall, has not faltered, and will never fail. Beyond the to-dos and not-to-dos of fatherhood, let us always rest in what is done—accomplished and finished—in Christ, who perfectly obeyed His Father even unto death. From that Father-Son relationship comes all the grace, mercy, and strength for us as fathers as we grow in godliness and desire for our families to do the same.

This article is part of the The Basics of Christian Discipleship collection.