Last weekend I was out in Anacortes, Washington (about a hundred miles north of Seattle) preaching at the Faith on Fire conference. One of the talks I gave was entitled “Mercy and Fatherhood.” In it, I spoke about how a father can show mercy to his children. What follows is my notes for that talk. What does a priest know about being a father? Why don’t you read this post and then tell me? Remember that I have been the son of my father, I have two brothers, and I am uncle to 12 nieces and nephews. I am also a careful observer of life.
So consider these seven observations from an outsider and observer.
I. The merciful father loves the mother of his children.
One of the most merciful things a father can do for his children is to love their mother with tender affection and gentle, protective support. Children bond with their mother very closely, especially in their early years. They are reassured by seeing love, tenderness, and support shown to their mother.
In contrast, when children see their mother dishonored or, even worse, abused by their father, they are easily struck with fear and a sense of dread.
How beautiful is this mercy of a father! It also helps his sons understand how to treat women, and helps his daughters understand how men should treat them.
II. The merciful father attends to his own healing and maturity.
All of us have character defects and “issues” that affect others around us. Some have anger issues; others are too fearful and non-assertive. Some have problems with drinking; some with pornography. Still others can be lazy or impatient.
A father can show mercy to his children by working on whatever ails him and thereby avoid inflicting frustration and pain on his children. Scripture says, They made me keeper of vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept (Song 1:6).
It is a work of mercy for a father (and a mother, too) to work through his own issues and thereby spare his children pain. There is an old saying, “If I get better, others get better too.” In doing this, not only are children spared pain, but they are better able to grow in virtue.
III. The merciful father does not allow his career to eclipse his vocation.
Whatever career a man has, his vocation as husband and father is more important. And while the two are not wholly separate (since a father provides for his family), there is far more to being a father than being a breadwinner.
Children need their father in their lives, not merely off in the distance sending money. It is a great work of mercy for a father to cherish his children and to share in their lives. It is a necessary component of their maturity for him to manifest the masculine genius of being human even as their mother manifests the feminine genius.
Children want their father’s support, encouragement, and approval. A young man deeply needs his father’s model. He also needs his father’s affirmation as he grows into manhood. There is perhaps no greater mercy than for a son to hear his father say, “I’m proud of you; you’ve done well.”
A daughter delights in twirling her skirts and in being the apple of her father’s eye. He models for her the love of a man who loves her for her own sake, without lust. This can help her learn to distinguish love from lust and to develop the self-esteem that will help her to navigate the complex years of courtship and to discern a good husband.
A man who is more wedded to his career than to his family is too seldom around to have these crucial effects, which are far more precious than the extra money or additional possessions earned by long hours at the office.
Be careful, fathers. Career can be big on the ego and it can easily ensnare you. Home life may be less glamorous and less immediately rewarding in terms of money, but there is no greater satisfaction than to have raised your children well. The rewards will be enormous for both them and you. And this is a very great mercy.
IV. The merciful father is the spiritual leader of his home.
He establishes the structures of grace. In our culture, too many men leave the spiritual and religious lives of their children to their mother. But Scripture says, Fathers … bring up your children in the training and discipline of the Lord (Eph 6:4). This does not mean that the wife has no role, clearly she does.
A father is to be the spiritual leader in his home, sanctifying his family (see Eph 5:25-27). He should be the first one up on Sunday morning, summoning his children to prepare for Holy Mass. His wife should not have to drag him along to Mass. He should read Bible stories to his children and explain their meaning. He should teach them God’s law. While his wife should share in this, the father ought to lead.
Surveys show that the highest predictor (by far) of children going on to practice the faith in adulthood is whether their father practices the faith.
A father should also seek to establish his household with the structures of grace. He should live under obedience to God and insist that his children do likewise. This makes for a home that, while not free of sin, makes it easier to live the Christian faith rather than more difficult.
All of this is a great mercy that a father extends to his children. Through his leadership, a father molds his family into the beloved community where God’s justice and mercy are esteemed and exemplified. By God’s grace this mercy reaches his children.
V. The merciful father listens and teaches.
It is a beautiful work of mercy for a father to actively listen to his children and to give them his undivided attention whenever possible. It bestows on them a sense of dignity, because they see that what they say and think matters to their father. And it reassures them that he cares for their welfare and what is happening in their lives.
After listening, a father should also respond and teach, giving his children guidance. Too many children today are not being taught by their parents, especially regarding the critical moral issues of our day. If parents do not teach their children, someone else will! And that “someone” is not likely to be an individual with godly views. More often it will be some pop-star, musician, or teen idol. Perhaps it will be a gang leader or a rogue school buddy. Maybe it will be the police officer or a judge in a legal proceeding.
Fathers, it is a great mercy to teach your children. You have their best interests at heart. You want what is truly good (not merely apparently good) for them. Their lives will be much simpler and more productive if you insist that they do what is right from an early age. Otherwise, hardships and painful lessons await them. Show them mercy. Instruct them in the ways of the Lord.
Scripture says, Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). He who raises a fool does so to his sorrow, And the father of a fool has no joy (Prov 17:21). A foolish son brings grief to his father and bitterness to the mother who bore him (Prov 17:25).
When a father brings up his children in the discipline of the Lord, it is mercy not only to them, but to others as well!
VI. The merciful father praises and punishes.
Children are delighted to get their father’s esteem and approval. They love to be praised, especially when they believe they have done well.
A paradoxical form of mercy is for a father to punish his children. The purpose of punishment is to allow the child to experience in a small way the consequences of his transgression so that he does not experience the full and more painful consequences later. Scripture says,
My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son … For what children are not disciplined by their father? … We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).
And thus punishment, properly understood, is a great mercy, because it saves children from great woes later on. Clearly, punishment cannot simply be a father venting his anger or exacting revenge. Punishment is not for the benefit of the father; it is for his children’s sake.
VII. The merciful father uses his authority and has his children’s long term interests in mind.
The cultural revolution of the late 1960s was not just about sexuality, drugs, and feminism; it also ushered in a wide-scale rejection of authority from which we are still reeling. And it is not just that those under authority reject it, but that those who have authority have become reluctant to use it. Too many clergy and too many parents do not make necessary decisions, enforce important policies, or punish when appropriate. Too many who have lawful authority are more concerned with being popular; they do not want to risk being questioned or resisted.
Authority involves a lot of effort and brings with it a great deal of stress. Many seek to avoid all this and thus those who need leadership and guidance often do not get it. Scripture says, And indeed if the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? (1 Cor 4:18)
Whether they like to admit it or not, children need their father to be strong and to lead. And when he does this it is a great mercy. It may not always be appreciated in the moment, but most children eventually recognize with gratitude the leadership of their parents, of their father.
Every leader needs to know that he will sometimes take some heat for his decisions, and he must be willing and courageous enough to make those decisions anyway. A father must remember that he has to be more concerned with his children’s long-term interests than with their current, short-term happiness. Their anger or discontent in the present moment will usually be replaced gratitude and relief in the future.
A good father will mercifully hold the tension of the moment and keep his children’s best interests at heart. He will serve their true good (not merely their apparent good) through the use of his authority and through his decisions on their behalf. And this is a very great mercy!
These are some of my thoughts on mercy and fatherhood.