Dear Fathers: This is an open letter from my heart to yours. Being on the Resource Team, I have had a unique opportunity to hear from hundreds of your voices over the last couple of years. The sound is like a weighted wind in the trees: a lonesome and, at times, angry cry that bends the branches and leaves a keening afternote of sadness. Out of this cry I have isolated several commonalities. The most common, and perhaps the most alarming, is this: the lack of connection between fathers and sons.
We all have a father wound that only God can fill. I am one with you. I have a precious son. I also have a father who means the world to me. But I have experienced some of the same disconnections, as did my dad before me; and I’ve likely been the cause of the same in my own son. Our earthly fathers will never be perfect and will never completely fill the need that can only be filled through soul-completion in the Fatherhood of God.
The wounds we speak of here are more profound; the deep, jagged-edged wounds of verbal abuse, emotional neglect and abandonment, criticalness, and the lack of true connection. Interestingly enough, the majority of wounded men who contact us come from intact Christian homes with no obvious pathology. Most had no overt physical abuse but rather suffer from the lack of father-son connection at an emotional and physical level. Most wounds of this sort are generational and have been passed from father to son and so on. A heritage of disconnect.
The results of this disconnection are men who struggle with and suffer from same-sex attraction, a variety of addictions (pornography being the most common), and problems surrounding relationships (marriage being the most obvious). Anger, isolation, and depression all layer into this as secondary maladies. A young boy yearns for his father’s approval, appreciation, and affection. When these values are lacking or absent, a young man will seek them in unhealthy ways. A boy brought up in a church leader’s home runs some unique risks: a father pre-occupied with a spiritual calling, combined with a keen sense of appearance and an exacting standard, produces a young man who often becomes cynical and feels like he is required to maintain a façade.
Why are we surprised that so many men struggle with faith in God and struggle against authority? That so many men feel disconnected from a loving heavenly Father? A large part of the answer is that they see God through the lenses they were given as a child. If dad was aloof and remote, the little boy’s developing brain was shaped to see and imagine an invisible God in exactly this way. If dad was critical and hardline and portrayed the church and authority as rules to follow “or else,” why would we be surprised if his son imagines God the holy Father in the same way? Mothers can sometimes offset this picture, but this is rather rare and has its own set of pitfalls and negative emotional sequelae. If a boy can never live up to Dad’s expectations, he sees God as someone difficult to please, one for whom his best is not enough. If Dad did not show love, his son will have a difficult time imagining God as someone who actually loves him.
You may argue that the majority of men in our circles have a good connection with God and are good fathers. I agree with this and rejoice for it. But as Christians we are instructed to search out and save the 1%. The ninety-nine may be safe and secure, providing for their sons, connecting, and giving their developing brains a healthy perception of God. We wish to raise awareness of the 1%, as they and their wives and children deserve their voice to be heard, the voices of those crying in the wilderness, the wilderness of lonely isolation and disconnect. Furthermore, the fact that there may be more than 1% is substantiated by Scripture: We may have ten thousand instructors in Christ, but few fathers (1 Corinthians 4:15, paraphrased).
One reason fathers run the risk of becoming a mere instructor and eschewing true, connected fatherhood, is self-loathing. A father who has never accepted himself and has a negative self-perception can subconsciously see his son as an extension of himself. The unfortunate son then suffers the fallout of his father’s unfinished emotional business. This is reiterated by the addictions expert Dr. Gabor Mate: “Children swim in their parent’s unconscious like fish swim in the sea.” Thus a negative, pathological cycle continues, passing on a further heritage of disconnect.
What does it take then to raise emotionally healthy and secure men? Here are a few thoughts, taken not so much from personal experience, unfortunately, but from observance and research.
A good dad is not perfect, but he is present. A good dad can and will make many mistakes. However, hurt does not come from the mistakes but from being unwilling to admit he is wrong. A successful and connected dad must have a well-oiled reverse. Turbulent father-son relationships are common, but according to research, if the positive to negative aspect is at least 5:1, relationship and connection is maintained.
It has been said that successful fathering comes down to one word. That word is delight. If a dad delights in his son, that answers most questions. There is one example straight from heaven on this score, as God speaks to His own begotten: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” A boy needs to hear from his father that he has what it takes, that he is enough. He needs to receive affirmation and be appreciated for who he is. He needs to hear the answer to his constant question: Am I enough? Am I ok? A boy will do all kinds of things to hear his father say, “Good job, son!”
You, Father, are the most powerful person in the lives of your children, and in particular your sons. Give them what they so badly need—physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. A deliberate and intentional effort will ensure that a heritage of connection is passed on and will bless your life, the lives of your children, and your children’s children.