A Christian Father: The Artful Dodger

By Keith Miller | September 14, 2009

Keith, how it happened, I don’t know, but in my gratitude to God for a new chance at life, I seem to have forgotten how to live the human everyday life with my family. I am so into self justification that it is hard for me to hear that I’m being selfish. Have you faced this?

I received this question years ago when I was a relatively new “Christian writer” and I responded:

Oh yes, one of the most subtle problems I have uncovered as a “committed and active” Christian is this: when I begin to minister to others I sometimes start gradually to take on a sort of “holy immunity” from some of the normal responsibilities of family life, because of my “high calling.” For instance, any normal husband would be in big trouble if he were gone from home in the evenings as much as the average minister is. Although it is true that I have often been as upset as my wife about having to be away from our family so much, it is also true that when the children were small, there was often a great relief in bypassing the thousands of details and questions with which our little girls plagued us in that rather frantic twilight period near the end of the day. And often when I was at home physically, I was absent emotionally.

Because of the lack of dependability of my presence with the girls when they were still quite young, my wife was forced to assume the underlying responsibility for their growth and development. But the thing about this responsibility that seems to be particularly frustrating to wives is that it is only felt by the one who accepts it. So I did not even realize that there was such a burden, much less that I was not bearing my part of it. My ignorance of this problem led to no small amount of resentment in our family life. My wife felt that to bring up my continual absence “for the Lord’s work” would make her look like a lazy or nagging wife and a poor Christian. When she would bring it up, her tone was so loaded with resentment that I sort of felt she was those things.

But at a pastors and wives conference at about that time I counseled with a number of women, most of whom were married to prominent ministers. Several of them felt emotionally deserted with their children. And the husband, if confronted, had been irritated that the wife couldn’t “do her part.” Or he had retreated behind the ministerial shield with the guilt-provoking insinuation that however much he wishes it were different, “The Lord’s work must come first.” Some have even referred to the passage where Jesus’ family came to get Him while He was speaking to a group, and He refused to come out (Mark 3:31-35).

But as I began to see that these women were genuinely hurt, bewildered, and felt terribly alone with the emotional responsibility for their children, I started looking into it—especially since it seemed to be so common. That was when it occurred to me that I was doing the same thing to my own family.

Later, at home, I re-read Mark 3:31-35 and discovered one thing immediately that would blast a legalist: When Jesus would not leave the group to whom He was ministering to go out to His family, He was talking about His parental family (mother and siblings). But He was not talking about leaving His wife and children in order to stay with the group to whom he was preaching.

I realize this may sound like scriptural nit-picking, but there is a great deal of difference in my mind between responsibility for the marital family one instigates and the parental family he or she is supposed to leave to fulfill his or her vocation. In other places the Scriptures say that a man is to give second place to his parental family and give his first attention to the family represented by his marriage (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31). And of course the New Testament Epistles are pretty clear about a male Christian (particularly an ordained minister) bearing his responsibilities to his wife and children (Ephesians 5:5; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 Timothy 3:4, 12; Titus 1:6).

If this were true, I had a reorientation job on my hands . . . with my own life. I began to realize that my unconscious avoidance of a good bit of the constant nitty-gritty of family living had made me hesitant to preach or teach about intimate life in the home. And yet so much of the distress of new Christians seemed to center in bruised family relations. But how could I speak about problems I still had? So what I often did was to avoid this issue and talk about “more important matters” . . . like prayer or social involvement. And this way I avoided facing the true nature of my holy immunity.

But as I continued to read about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I saw One who refused to witness or preach from a favored position. Although He was evidently never married, He lived and witnessed out of an authentic life in which He was as vulnerable as the people to whom He ministered. I began to see that unless I could try to be a genuine, participating father and husband, sharing the emotional responsibilities for my family’s growth and happiness, I had nothing to say about an authentic life in Christ to the families around us.

How did I find a balance in all this when I did have to be away from home more than some men? And yet I had to find a way to include every member of my family in the shifting circle of my inner emotional horizon. How did I build each one of them into a calendar already filled with important and even necessary dates? I did not know how I could, but only that I had to try. (In future devotionals I will talk about some things I have tried if any of you are interested.)

The “great” commitment all too easily obscures the “little” ones. But without the humility and warmth which you have to develop in your relations to the few with whom you are personally involved, you will never be able to do anything for the many. Without them, you will live in a world of abstractions, where the solipsism, your greed for power, and your death with lack the one opponent which is stronger than they—love.  Dag Hammarskjold, Markings

Lord, help me not to take myself and my work so seriously that I fail to be a husband, father, and grandfather to those special people you have given to me alone, to love and care for in your name. If I fail with my mission as a witness to the community, you can raise others; but if I fail to listen for the needs of those in my own family, there are no others to fill the void. This frightens me, Lord, because I don’t know how to be a good husband and father, and I realize now that my own father didn’t know either. So often I have let my own dreams and resentments keep me from facing my inadequacies. Help me to begin again to learn how to be genuinely and unselfishly loving with my own family. And when I fail, help me to have the courage to face my failures and get up and try again. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8

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