On a shivery February 2012 day in Rochester, N.Y., Philip Owens stopped at a convenience store near his home to get a big fountain drink before he started out on a journey. Because he was going to be in the store for—just a second—he hastily left the car running and dashed in to get his drink. A quick transaction and he would be on his way again. After all, his 6-year-old son was blissfully asleep in the backseat. “Why disturb his son’s peaceful slumber?” he reasoned.
According to the Associated Press, it happened in a flash. The thief hopped behind the steering wheel and was gone with the vehicle. Thankfully, through Philip’s cell phone signal from the car, the police were able to quickly locate it; and Philip’s young son was safe and sound inside—still asleep in the backseat. The boy was totally oblivious to the danger that had enveloped him. Whew! What a close call!
Because the thief escaped and was unknown, he wasn’t charged with a crime. The father, in an ironic twist, was charged with endangering the welfare of a minor, although he was panic-stricken and intended no harm. I suppose it must be admitted the hasty convenient store dash was a careless move for a father to make.
I don’t know if I ever made that same bone-headed mistake when my kids were tikes, but I’ve made a boatload of fatherly errors in my time. As it turns out, fathers are human beings; sometimes they make mistakes.
If a father truly wants to be a father—there is one fatal mistake he dare not make. There is one fundamental thing a father must be; if he isn’t this one thing, then he isn’t a father, though he may have been involved in bringing a child into the world.
What is that one fundamental thing a father must be? Let’s take a closer look at Matthew 6 to find out.
Matthew 6:9-13 contains what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Chapter 6 is notable for that fact. Prayer is an important theme in this chapter, but it is not the most dominant theme. What is the most dominant theme? A clue is found in the repeated appearance of a particular word. The word is father—12 times the word father is used in this chapter. It is here that Jesus repeatedly refers to God as Father.
From all we know from Scripture, God’s essence transcends gender, but a favored descriptive word for God in Scripture is the word father. Father is used to describe God scores of times—Scripture clearly wants the reader to know God is our Father. Let’s look at some of the specific references to father in Matthew 6 and see what we notice.
Matthew 6:4: “Your Father…sees what is done in secret.”
Matthew 6:6: “When you pray…close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen.”
Matthew 6:6: “Your Father who sees…will reward you.”
Matthew 6:8: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
Matthew 6:9: “This, then, is how you should pray, ‘Our Father in heaven…'”
Matthew 6:14: “Your heavenly Father will…forgive you.”
Matthew 6:18: “Your Father who sees will reward you.”
Matthew 6:26: “Your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Matthew 6:32: “Your heavenly Father knows you need them (food and clothes).”
When we take together all these expressions from Jesus in Matthew 6 about our heavenly Father, what do they tell us about His fatherhood? What is the most fundamental element of His fatherliness?
Could it be that He is un-absent? In other words, if as Jesus says the Father knows us, sees us, receives our prayers and knows what we need in the way of food and clothes, then mustn’t He be fully present and available to His children? Indeed, He must.
He is the God who is un-absent to His children in all ways and at all times. He is accessible and in the midst of His children. He is ready to provide, protect and comfort. In this most fundamental way, He is our heavenly Father, “an ever-present help in trouble” (
When Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, He starts with having us address “Our Father” as the very first words we utter in prayer. Why? Because prayer is not about primarily a transaction in which I tell God what I want (or need); it is fundamentally a relationship with God—who is my Father—who is ever-present with me. All I have to do is tune into His presence because even though He is unseen, He is real.
God our Father wants us to know He is not distant, detached or aloof. He is present. He is available. He sees us. He knows us. He is with us.
For those of us males who are privileged to be dads, what is the message for us about what kind of father we ought to be? What kind of father should we be if we are to model our heavenly Father?
For those of us who desire to be fathers modeled after our heavenly Father, it would be good to remember we undoubtedly will make mistakes in our fatherly undertakings. It is likely that our children (and our wives) will forgive us our blunders as long as we follow God the Father in this one respect—that we are truly present to our children, available, that we know our children—truly know them—that we listen to our children as our heavenly Father listens to our prayers. If our love is expressed by our animating, caring presence, then we will be fathers after the manner of God the heavenly Father.
Just about the worst thing a father can be is an absent father, saying by your absence to your children, “I don’t care about you.”
Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin recorded a timeless song in 1974 titled “The Cat’s in a Cradle.” The song underscores the tragedy and destruction that comes from being an absent father. Chapin’s wife wrote this song in the months following the birth of their son Josh while Harry was incessantly gone on road trips playing his music. She gave the song to Harry, and he recorded it. It is a cautionary tale for any of us who might become absent fathers.
If you Google the words—”my father was never around” —you will see an avalanche of digital pain. You will read heart-wrenching stories of children writing of fatherly abandonment and neglect. You will feel the vibe through your computer screen of children suffering. They tell their horrific tales online to the world because their fathers weren’t around to listen. They weren’t fathers modeled after God in that they were never there.
As fathers, God calls us to be present to our children. This is how we as dads can be similar to God.
OK, we can understand the implications of modeling the Father God if we are earthly fathers; but what of us who aren’t conventional fathers? What if we are women, single or men without children? How does the message of the Father God apply to us? What are we to do? Here are some ways those who aren’t fathers can live out a life of fatherliness.
First, decide to be a father to the fatherless irrespective of your age or gender. There are hurting, broken children—young and old—who are desperately in need of a loving, supportive presence. Determine to be a father in someone’s life. According to the Anne E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore, Md., 34 percent of children in the United States are growing up without a father in the home. They yearn for a supportive presence.
Second, if you had an absent father, forgive him and pray for him. Determine to give the pain to the Lord Jesus. Don’t allow your frozen resentment toward your father to steal your joy from you. While this exhortation could sound like a glib cliché, it is not intended as such. Freedom and delight in life comes in part through forgiveness of those who have misused us.
Third, if you have the hollow absence of a missing father in your life, then ask God to send you a spiritual surrogate father. Ultimately, remember God’s promise for those who do not have a father.
Fourth, if you were an absent father in the formative years of your children, make every effort to be present now. Humble yourself and ask your children to forgive you. Resist the urge to make excuses or give reasons for your absence. Be patient with your children as they struggle to make sense of your new presence.
In his book Dreams from My Father, President Barack Obama wrote these words about his absent father: “Every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes.”
President Obama may well have a point—that children who suffer from the absenteeism of a father are prone to try to fix their internal and external dysfunctions by trying to live up to what the father expected or by trying to live a good life, thereby atoning for the father’s misdeeds.
I think Scripture points us to a third way to respond to an absent father. We do not have to fix our own internal junk or atone for our father’s sins. Instead, we can be redeemed by our heavenly Father. We can rest in the strong and loving embrace of God our Father and pass on His grace, provision and presence wherever we go.
We ourselves can then become fathers to the fatherless. May it be so.