The Heart of a Father
One of the most popular songs ever written is the folk rock song “The Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. It topped the US Billboard charts in 1974, and is so popular that it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011. It’s been referenced in tons of movies and TV shows, three times just on The Simpsons. The official YouTube video has 16 million views, and an unofficial video of the song on has 39 million views on YouTube.
I’ll bet you know the words …
And the cat’s in the cradle and the … silver spoon
Little boy blue … and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a … good time then
What most people don’t realize is that the song is based on a poem written by Harry Chapin’s wife Sandy. Harry used to introduce the song in concert by saying, “This is a song my wife wrote to zap me because I wasn’t home when our son Josh was born.” One of the main reasons the song is so popular is that it resonates with so many people. It’s about a father neglecting his son and the consequences that led from that neglect.
It ends by saying …
I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me[i]
I think that song strikes a chord with so many because it describes powerfully the importance of healthy fathers in kids lives and the negative impact that absent fathers have on our society. And that’s interesting because as a culture we have both downplayed the importance of fatherhood and also decry the impact of the lack of fathers. Even today there are people who see fathers as important, but not AS IMPORTANT in the lives of kids and in our society as mothers. And nothing could be further from the truth, because God designed men and women to work together as a team both inside the home and outside it.
So what, exactly, is the impact of a lack of fathers not just on kids in the home, but on society at large? According to the 2020 census, IN THE UNITED STATES, 18.3 million children under the age of 18, that’s 1 in 4 kids, live without a biological, step, or adoptive father in the home. And children raised in father-absent homes are at 4 times greater risk of poverty, seven times more likely to become pregnant as teens, more likely to have behavioral problems, more likely to face abuse and neglect, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, more likely to go to prison, more likely to commit a crime, and twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to suffer obesity, and are at two times greater risk of infant mortality. Increases in crime rates and incarceration, increases in medical expenses and health risks, and increases in mental health and addiction issues, all societal issues, all related to a lack of fathers in the home.
Dads, I want you to leave here understanding something today: You. Are. Important. A godly, involved dad in the home who loves his wife and his kids well has an impact not just on his home, but on his neighborhood, his community, and our society as well. So what does a godly man look like?
To figure that out, I’d like to look at two men in the Bible – two men who are often compared with one another – one who blew it, and one who followed him and set things right. Those two men are Adam, and Jesus. And as we do that, we’re going to come up with a good description of what a godly, authentic man looks like. By the way, this sermon is based heavily on the things we’ve been learning about authentic manhood in our men’s group that meets once a month on Saturday mornings as we walk through the Men’s Fraternity “33” series together. Our group this year will run from September 2021 through May 2022 and will focus on a man and his marriage.
That being said, let’s look at these two men, Adam and Jesus. Turn with me first to Genesis 3:1-7. Keep your finger there and flip over to Romans 5:17-19. Adam, and Jesus. Every man in this room, every woman in this room, and every mother and father the world has ever known are living in the shadow of one of these two men – Adam, or Jesus. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15:45-48 Paul says, Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.” Today, YOU are living in the shadow of one of these two men, Adam or Jesus. And your dad is or was living in the shadow of one of these two men – Adam or Jesus.
Let’s look first at Adam. The biggest question Adam leaves is, “What is he doing?” Look at Genesis 3:6. Adam and Eve are TOGETHER, and they come across an unprecedented presence and experience in the garden – the serpent and his temptation. Adam is standing there watching the whole thing go down. But Eve is the only one doing anything. Now, this passage has been used very improperly in two ways. The first is to blame Eve, and therefore all women, for everything. The second is to suggest that Eve was by nature weak and that Adam should have jumped in like a superhero to save the day. But this text doesn’t point us in either of those directions.
At this moment, Adam and Eve are together in the Garden. And they come across two things that are completely unprecedented – the presence of the serpent, and the experience of temptation. Now, I’m sure there were serpents in the Garden. Adam and eve had certainly come across them. But not one like this. Not one tempting them to go in a new direction, a direction they had never even considered before – the direction of rebellion against God, whom they walked with regularly in the evening. This is a completely new and unexpected presence and experience.
And Eve resists! She tells the serpent exactly what God has instructed them to do, and NOT to do. The serpent twists God’s words, but Eve doesn’t fall for it. “Did God really say you can’t eat of any tree in the garden?” And Eve is like, “Nope. We can eat anything we want. Anything ACCEPT FOR the fruit of that tree right over there, in the center of the garden.” The serpent throws Adam and Eve a curve ball, but Eve doesn’t bite. He has to keep at her to get anywhere. And eventually he does. Eve takes the fruit and eats it, and gives some to Adam, who has been standing there silently the entire time, and he eats too. Adam’s only action here is to mess up. Otherwise, he does absolutely nothing.
Adam is completely passive. Instead of taking his rightful place at Eve’s side and battling the serpent in his war of words alongside her, he fades into the background. He isn’t doing anything. He’s standing right beside Eve, but he abandons her nonetheless. She faced this temptation alone, without her partner fighting alongside her.
Second, Adam refuses to take responsibility. Look down at Genesis 3:11-12. After abandoning Eve and passively standing there taking up space while she fought the temptation by herself, he blames her for his failure. Actually, he blames her AND God. “The WOMAN, whom YOU gave to be with me …” Instead of taking responsibility, he blames everyone else.
Third, he instead of focusing on the well-being of others, he is focused only on himself. On what he needs and wants. He doesn’t fight for or alongside Eve. He stays out of the way. Instead of supporting her and lifting her up, he throws her under the bus.
And fourth, he chose the fruit for the moment. Instead of keeping his heart and mind focused on the big picture, he was focused only on his own needs in the moment, his own hunger.
Living in the shadow of Adam involves passively standing by, shirking responsibility, following my own appetites and living for my own comfort and well-being. And when I do that as a father, I wind up falling into one of these three types of ineffective fathers. These dads aren’t completely gone. The completely absent, uninvolved dad is definitely living in the shadow of Adam. But these other dads may still be involved in some way. But they’re caricatures of the authentic person God calls men to be as fathers.
The first is the distracted dad. This dad may be a good provider and a loving person, but his attention is always on something other than his wife and his children. It might be work, or a hobby he loves. But his attention is always somewhere else. He works long hours and spends his time at home thinking about work. Or he spends a lot of time outside the home, away from his wife and kids, engaged in a hobby – playing golf or fishing with his friends. But instead of including his family, he’s always away from them. And when he IS home, he isn’t focused on what’s happening in the home with his wife and his kids. His family might have a very nice house and a good life, but they don’t have the most important thing he can give them – himself.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a good employee, working hard, and making money. And there’s nothing wrong with having a hobby you love outside the home. The problem comes when these things begin to dominate your life, and they keep you from seeing and responding to the things in your life that are really important. His face is always in his phone, instead of seeing what’s happening around him.
The second father caricature is the critical dad. Unlike the distracted dad, this did is very involved in what’s going on around him. Unfortunately, no one can please him. He’s critical of everything and everyone. If his kid brings home an A, he asks why it wasn’t an A+. He is constantly picking at the performance of his wife and his kids, and he wears them down. Eventually, they’ll either internalize that critical voice and demand perfection of others themselves, or they’ll stop trying altogether because they know they can’t please him. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having high standard, but if you are always criticizing and never building up, you have a problem. According to marriage researchers John and Julie Gottman, positive statements and interactions should outnumber negative ones by a ratio of 5 to 1. That’s true with your spouse, and it’s true with your kids. If all you do is criticize, you need to learn to compliment and praise.
The third caricature is the angry dad. This is the critical dad times 1,000. But instead of stopping with criticism, he goes over the edge with yelling and screaming and stomping around, even physically abusing his wife and his kids. I don’t care who you are or how frustrated you are, there is never an excuse for abusing your wife or your kids. Ever. Period. Other angry dads are the silent type. They just sit there and stew. They aren’t yelling, but everyone in the house knows they’re angry. With either type of angry dad, the people living in the house wind up feeling like their lives are full of hidden mines ready to explode. Say or do anything wrong, and dad explodes. That’s what it looks like when we’re living in the shadow of Adam. But we don’t have to live in that shadow, because in Jesus, God sent a second Adam to set things right, doing things right where we did them wrong and dying our death for us so that we can be forgiven when we do mess up. But Jesus also shows us the path to real, authentic manhood as a godly man.
Where Adam was passive, Jesus rejected passivity. He didn’t sit around waiting on things to happen. He acted. In Philippians 2, Paul tells us that Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Vv. 5-8). Did not count. Emptied. Taking, Humbled himself. Became obedient. Those are active verbs. An authentic, godly man REJECTS PASSIVITY.
Second, where Adam failed in his responsibilities, Jesus accepted responsibility. He accepted the responsibility of obeying the will of God and doing the work God gave him to do. In John 17:4, Jesus is praying to the Father and says, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” He even accepted the responsibility of loving the woman God gave him well. Now, Jesus was not married. But the Bible does call the church the “bride of Christ.” And in Ephesians 5, Paul tells men to love their wives IN THE SAME WAY THAT CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). An authentic, godly man ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY.
Third, where Adam thought only about himself and his appetites in the Garden, Jesus lead courageously. He told his disciples, and he tells us, to “follow me.” Where Adam threw Eve to the wolves and let her fight temptation alone, and then threw her under the bus, Jesus provides protection and gives us life. An authentic, godly man LEADS COURAGEOUSLY.
Now be careful men. Leadership does not mean “I’m the boss.” It means “I’m the servant of others.” In the kingdom of God, leaders lead by serving. That’s the model Jesus gave us in the upper room when he washed the disciples feet. Men, if you want to lead your family well, do so by asking yourself, “How can I serve my family.” Not by doing what they tell you to do, but by setting your wife and kids up to succeed and by speaking life to them and providing life for them.
And fourth, where Adam focused only on the temporary, the fruit and his appetite, Jesus invested in the eternal. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust[a] destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt. 6:19-20). Jesus invested in eternal things, and he taught us to do the same. That means that as husbands and fathers we don’t use people and love things. We love people and use things. We see, value, and cherish people. We build them up. We help them to become the best they can be.
A godly, authentic man REJECTS PASSIVITY, ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY, LEADS COURAGEOUSLY, AND INVESTS ETERNALLY by investing in others.
Now, there’s no such thing as a perfect man, a perfect husband, or a perfect father. Just as there’s no such things as a perfect woman, wife, and mother. We ALL fall short of God’s glory. We ALL fall into sin, and sometimes we step right into it on purpose. We all make mistakes and mess up as people, as spouses, and as parents.
That’s why Jesus didn’t just give us an example that we can’t possibly hope to follow perfectly. Jesus also lived a perfect life and then died our death for us so that we can be forgiven when we fall into sin, when we make mistakes and mess things up. And we know that we can’t even follow Jesus as men OR as women without the power of the Holy Spirit present within us. But when we place our faith in Christ, and his Spirit fills our sails and gives us strength, he empowers us to live as godly men and women.
Some of us have dads who fell far short of anything remotely resembling the kind of authentic, godly father we’ve been talking about today. The good news of Jesus Christ is that God himself is a father to the fatherless. In Psalm 68:5-6 David writes, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home …” You may not have had an earthly father who could father well. And no earthly father will ever father perfectly. Even Jesus didn’t have one of those. But ultimately, God is the good father to each one of us, regardless of the successes and failures of our own earthly fathers. And the Holy Spirit empowers us to follow Jesus as people, as men and women, as husbands, wives, and single people, and as mothers and fathers.
There was a man who was a good husband and dad. He loved his family faithfully, was always around, steady, and took care of them. His influence, even if wasn’t realized, was central in everyone’s life.
But his family didn’t fully appreciate the scope of his love until one day when they found his journal. Upon opening it, they could see the backstory to their memories. Their happy experiences were intricately planned and carefully executed. He even reflected about how glad he was that he gave his wife and children such joy.
When they could see the backstory, these previously hidden details, in the journal, the family was filled with a new kind of appreciation and love for their dad and husband. They were welcomed into the quiet place of intentional planning and loving execution. They could see how they were central to everything that he had done. Thumbing through the journal, they realized his love for them engulfed their entire experience.[ii]
That was a man who joined Jesus, his Lord and Savior, in rejecting passivity, accepting responsibility, leading courageously, and investing eternally in others. Let us pray.
[i] Harry Chapin “Cat’s in the Cradle,” SongFacts (Accessed 5/14/21); Harry Chapin Lyrics, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” AZLyrics (Accessed 5/14/21)
[ii] Erik Raymond; “Discovering a Secret Journal of Grace,” The Gospel Coalition (8-27-19)