Elisabeth Elliot on the Christian Father
Examining the male parent’s role.
Elisabeth Elliot/ JUNE 19, 2015
This article originally appeared in the June 18, 1971, issue of Christianity Today. It was republished June 19, 2015, to commemorate the death of Elisabeth Elliot.
Time was when a gift indicated some degree of thoughtfulness. Nowadays when Father’s Day comes around it is no trick at all—it requires no thoughtfulness, hardly even any thought—to grab a bottle of shaving lotion for dear old dad. The supermarkets have arranged such items close by the checkout counter, for impulse buyers, which most of us are now and then. So we have a gift for father, and he thanks us for it but has no way of knowing whether we actually gave the matter some thought or are merely susceptible to advertising.
Most of us will acknowledge that we are indeed highly susceptible. We are buffeted and bludgeoned every day of our lives, from every side, by advertising that discolors, distorts, and in the end may even completely revise our images. To be a Christian in spite of this, to try to keep on being a Christian, to think in a Christian instead of a pagan way, and to accept ones God-given place in this world as Christians must accept their places, is a relentlessly hard job.
One of the images that has been grossly distorted, I believe, is that of the father. “Father image,” “authority figure,” “the old man,” these phrases are often used derisively or at least patronizingly. Television depicts with ho-hum regularity the baffled father, hopelessly naïve and incompetent, bested at every turn by his cute and clever wife and his brilliant and condescending children. He tries hard to swing with them but ends up stumbling and bumbling, providing little more than the big laughs.
Who is this dolt, this buffoon, this dancing bear? If this is the “role of the father,” who wants it? Men do not, I suppose, object to thinking of themselves as brothers, buddies, lovers, and husbands, but how many are willing to consider, seriously and for more than five minutes, themselves as fathers? When a man has just become a father, surely he thinks about it, tries to get it into his head that he has begotten a son or a daughter and, if the child is a son, that his name is to be carried to another generation. But let him get back to the office and he is at once the object of jibes and jokes. As a feeble defense he passes out cigars.
As a mother with the responsibility of rearing a child whose father had died before she was a year old, I probably did a lot of dreaming about what it would have been like for my daughter, and for me, if he had lived. He was, of course, in those dreams, the perfect father. But in real life I watched other fathers, many of them Christians, and it seemed to me that too few of them understood, fully accepted, or gave thanks for the responsibility that God had given them.
To understand what being a father means we have to remember that God is our Father. We pray to “our Father, who art in heaven.” The Christian creed begins, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” There are those who insist that God is nothing more than an extension of our human notions, but as Christians we take the opposite view—our human notions of fatherhood, of authority, of judgment, of love, reflect Reality. God himself originated them.
A little child’s idea that daddy can do it, daddy can fix it, is not from nowhere. His image of his father starts out with omnipotence. He soon learns that this is not accurate, but how sad it is that the image so often and so rapidly devolves until he sees his father as TV shows him—no matter what it is, the old man will bungle it.
One of my earliest memories of my own father, who was a true Christian father, is of his absence rather than his presence. He went to Palestine, and we children were left with mother. It was the only time I saw her cry when we were young. I remember the feeling of exposure to danger we had one night when there was a terrific electric storm that put the kitchen light out. It was not the storm; it was the knowledge that father was gone. I remember an endless stretch of weeks when he was not there, and then I remember the utter rapture of waking one morning and seeing, in the dim morning light, a little carved olivewood donkey on the chair by my bed. He had come back. The donkey was a kind of epiphany, for it showed me that my father was there and that he loved me.
He was there from then on. He went to the office, of course, every morning, five days a week, but we counted on his coming home just before six every evening, opening the front door, and giving the chickadee call that was his signal to my mother. The family always ate supper together, and my father asked the blessing, served the meat, and talked to my mother of his work (as editor of the Sunday School Times) and of his concerns about Christianity, Philadelphia’s fundamentalists, the depression, and foreign missions (those are the subjects that stick in my mind). He read the Bible when the meal was over, and sometimes in the living room afterwards he would get down on hands and knees and allow us to ride him, or he would walk around with two of us sitting on his size 12 shoes. On Saturdays he often took us for walks along the Wissahickon and miraculously “found” saltines or Hershey bars in the bushes and trees. He managed to do all these things and still remain, in our eyes, a father. I cannot remember ever thinking of him as a pal. I loved him—I am sure of that—and at the same time I always found him a little awesome.
Of his authority we children were never in any doubt. What he said was exactly what he meant. There were no threats or promises to be taken lightly. Mother administered the spankings when he was not there, but occasionally we were required to report a misbehavior thing. He was strict. By today’s standards (if the word standard may be applied at all) he was exceedingly strict. He had a temper that could flare up and make him stamp around and slam doors, for which he sometimes had to apologize. He made mistakes; I can see some of them now. But none was as serious as the one he did not make, that of not being a father.
We knew where we stood. We knew what was required and expected (requirement and expectation were one and the same thing), and to this I attribute our sense of security and stability as a family. We saw in both parents a humble honesty and a daily effort to live by the things they taught us to believe.
O ye fathers—ye young and timorous ones—why a ye so fearful? Is it that ye have no faith?
You have been given a child. You are in loco Dei to that child. Love him. Be to him a father. A man can listen to just so much of the bombardment of talk (a lot of which is pure twaddle) from psychologists about changing roles, about communication, about the child’s identity crises and self-image and—God help us—his “rights as a human being” (for I hear that ten-year-olds are now being encouraged to strike for these). Then a man must close his ears and look into his heart and start being a man and a real father. If he does this, his child will stand a good chance of solving all these “problems” without ever knowing he had them.
The two aspects of Gods dealing with his wayward and obnoxious children are beautifully brought together in Deuteronomy 33:2, 3: “From his right hand went a fiery law for them, Yea, he loved the people.”
Elisabeth Elliot is the author of seven books, including Through Gates of Splendor, The Savage My Kinsman, and No Graven Image. She holds the A. B. from Wheaton College and was formerly a missionary.