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Reclaiming The Family

A Father's Long Shadow

Erwin W. Lutzer | May 15, 2005

Selected highlights from this sermon

Our fathers can bless us, encourage us, diminish us, or curse us. They have it all within their power—whether they’re an active part of the family or not.

Children look to their fathers to find out how valuable they are, so above all, make sure your children know they are highly prized.

The role of the father is so critical that God holds the father accountable for his wife and children. So be the mentor in humility, patience and love. Model Jesus to your family. Lay down any bitterness you may have at the foot of the cross and call upon your Father in heaven.

Break the cycle of any negative impact that may have been passed down from generation to generation.

Today I want you to hear the cry of 20 million children who are living without a father in the home. I would like to read the lyrics of a song by David Meese about his fatherless home. “Sometimes at night I lie awake longing inside for my father’s embrace. Sometimes at night I wander downstairs and pray he’ll return, but no one was there. Oh how I cried, a child all alone waiting for him to come home. My father’s chair sat in an empty room, my father’s chair covered with sheets of gloom, my father’s chair through all the years and all the tears I cried in vain, no one was there in my father’s chair.”

Today I am going to preach a message which I wish could be heard throughout the world. It is called, “A Father’s Long Shadow.” You and I are impacted by our fathers much more than we realize. Fathers can bless us, fathers can encourage us, fathers can diminish us and fathers can curse us. They have it all within their power.

Today my text is taken from the book of Malachi. Malachi was an Old Testament prophet and it is the last book of the Old Testament. Find the place where the Old and the New Testament meet and there is Malachi. Because this message is so serious and so necessary and so life-transforming, before we read the text I would like to pray one more time and ask God to do what no man can.

Would you join me as we pray? “Our Father, we ask in Jesus name that this for many will be a transforming moment. For fathers that are listening we ask that you will open their hearts. Go where no man can, deep within their souls. We pray that all of the children might be reconciled to their fathers, to break the impasse and the curses of fathers who have done harm and not good. We pray today that as we speak about reclaiming the family that this will be a powerful step in that direction for everyone who is listening. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.”

Malachi chapter four, verse five says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Some translations put it, “Unless I come and strike the land with a curse.”

When God ends the Old Testament He ends with a warning. The warning is that if the hearts of fathers are not turned toward the children and the children toward the fathers, if there is not reconciliation within the home then judgment is coming. That’s God’s last word to fathers in the Old Testament.

You open up the New Testament and you find that in Luke chapter one when John the Baptist is born the prophecy says that, “He will go forth in the power and the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children.” The Old Testament closes with an emphasis on reconciliation within the home and the New Testament opens with an emphasis in the same direction. God says it is important to have reconciliation and restoration within the home.

Why is the role of the father so critical? Yes, of course mothers have a great influence. But God holds the father accountable for his wife and for his children. First of all, the father is the mirror of the home. Children try to find out who in the world they really are and they try to find out their identity. They try to find out whether they are valuable or valueless, to find out whether they are worth anything, and they look to the father to find out how valuable they are.

That’s why fathers can diminish their children. By belittling them, by criticizing them, by telling them things they should never be told, by striking at their hearts they are diminished. Like the father who told his adoptive son in a moment of anger, “You’re nothing but the product of a one night stand.” The father knew that to kill the boy would mean that he would go to jail. So he wouldn’t do that. What he wanted to do is to destroy the boy’s soul and he did it through terrible, terrifying words.

So, who are you? You are growing up and you are trying to figure that out. It’s dad who reflects back to you who you are because you see yourself through his eyes. He’s not only the mirror in the home but he is also the thermostat in the home. He’s the one that is going to set the temperature. Are we going to have a home with harmony and with respect among the siblings? Is that what we are going to have? Or are we going to have a home where everyone can say whatever they like, they can swear, they can cut others down and they can do practically anything in disrespect to one another. The father determines that.

This past week my wife and I were talking to a couple about a home that they were acquainted with. They said that every disagreement ended in an argument and every argument ended in a fight. They were going to duke it out. The father determines whether it is going to be that kind of a home or a home where there is optimism, encouragement, strength, belief and joy. Dad, it’s up to you.

He’s also the compass in the home. He determines what direction the home is going to go. Are we just going to keep going year after year the way things are and never try to better ourselves, never try to improve ourselves? We sit around and watch television, maybe read a newspaper, living from paycheck to paycheck with no goals or initiative? It’s the dad who sets that tone and that direction.

What happens when there isn’t a dad in the home? Well, the power of the father extends over the family whether he is there or not. When he is not there his power is limitless. Girls growing up without a dad don’t know whether they are sexually attractive. They don’t know whether or not they have value. They need the affirmation of a man and dad isn’t there. So they begin to test the waters and they begin to find others with whom they can have a relationship. Pretty soon they fall into the arms of young men who abuse them, use them and then toss them away and tell them they’re worthless. The cycle begins all over again.

Young boys wrestle in their spirits between being aggressive, as young men are, and also the need for self restraint. They don’t know where the boundaries are. So what they are going to do is to look to other men to try to affirm them and to find out about masculinity. Almost inevitably they will choose those who will use them and mistreat them, doing them harm at the latter end.

Mike Singletary, whose name is known here in Chicago because of the fame that he achieved playing on the Chicago Bears football team, said that he grew up without a father. When he goes to prisons he always asks the men as he speaks to them, “How many of you have had a good relationship with your father? Please raise your hand.” Singletary said up until now not a single hand has ever been raised. It is the curse of fatherlessness.

My outline today is rather simple. First of all, we are going to learn how a father can turn his heart toward his child in order to win his child’s heart. Then we are going to talk about making peace with our fathers, whether they are dead or alive. That is the agenda.

First of all, how does a father take a child who is turned off, a child whose heart is closed, how does he get the child to open his heart? The child has a clenched fist, as it were, and you can pry his fingers open but they will always go back. Or you can win the child’s heart so that he will open his hand on his own.

How do you win a child’s heart? There are four requirements. Fathers, do you know that you are God to your child? That’s why so many people who struggle with fatherlessness and their relationship with their father end up having so many problems with God as their father. You represent Him, like it or not. Good father, bad father or indifferent father, you represent God and He will hold you personally and individually accountable.

First, we as fathers need to initiate communication. We need to connect and we can only do that by making sure that the lines of communication are open. For some that means that you have to go to your children and ask their forgiveness. You have to say, “Please, please forgive me for my harshness, for my indifference, for my inconsistent discipline.”

I love to tell the story of the man who attended a church service. He came in on a Saturday morning after playing golf and there were 200 men in the church on their knees repenting of their sins. He sat in the back of the auditorium and took his fist and put it into his hand and said, “God, you will never get me.” But I always like to point out that God got him. Why was he so stubborn? It’s because he had five children and a hot temper. He had rules in his house. He’d say, “We’ve got rules here and if you violate the rules…” You know how that goes! He had turned his children off and he knew he had to humble himself and go ask their forgiveness if communication was to be restored.

But if you’re a young father and your children are young and still in the home, how do you establish that communication? By the questions that you ask! Find out what is going on in their lives. Enter into their world! So you don’t like the music that they listen to! What parent has ever liked the music that his teenagers have listened to? Try to find out why he likes it. Ask him questions about school.

At the end what you and I must do is to make sure our children know one thing: that they are highly prized. “Jesus prizes you and says, ‘Of such are the kingdom of heaven,’ and I prize you as a gift from Jesus to me.” You establish communication. Dad, talk! Say something good, something helpful. That is the first thing we as fathers need to do. It is something that we are not very good at, actually. Start doing it!

Second, be the law giver. Yes, that is what God is going to hold you accountable for - being the law giver. But also be the grace giver. You make the rules in the home and you put down the law. Your home is not however just a place of laws but also a place of grace. It’s a place where you personally model forgiveness by your attitude.

What you will begin to see is that kind of attitude developing in your children. Children will misbehave. Do you need proof? Jog your memory as to what you did when you were a child. Why are you holding your children to a higher standard then you lived up to, may I ask? I hope that you hold them up to a higher standard then you lived up to. But do so with a sense of humility, knowing that evil is bound up in a child. Always administer grace.

According to Josh McDowell, teenagers were given a survey and they were asked, “Who can you go to when you have a crisis in your life?” “Dad” was number forty-eight on the list. “I can’t talk to my dad because he isn’t going to listen to me.” I wish I could take the time to tell you the stories of kids who say, “If I could change my mom and dad I would…” So many of them say, “I wish that he would listen to me. I might have something important to say.” Or, “I wish that he would spend time with me.”

Yes, there is law but there is also grace. Dads, hear it! Your children will never be kept from sins and crimes because of your rules. They do not have the power to do that. They do not have the power to transform and to keep a child. The rules are necessary, yes. But it isn’t rules that will do it; it is relationships that will do it. That is what is transforming for your children. They need the relationship.

Third, be the protector. The Bible says regarding God, “Lord, you are my refuge and my fortress,” and that’s what children need in today’s world. They need a refuge and a fortress. So you protect them from the enemies of the family - namely drugs, immorality, pornography, crime and sexual predators. You talk to them about these things and you discuss them. Let them express their opinion even if it is different from yours. Hear them out but stand in for them.

A father in this church, a very good father, talked to me the other day about movies that are being shown in the school that show marriage as diverse. Two men or two women is also marriage and also “family.” How old do you think his daughter is who is supposed to look at these movies? She is six years old. There is a father who is standing in for his daughter, keeping tabs on what she sees at school and discussing it and the principal. He is involved in her life.

Fourth, be the mentor. In humility, in patience, in servant love - be a mentor. You don’t have to know a lot about the Bible. That is not what I am talking about, although the more you know the better. It is the modeling of it all. My parents could have taught me a lot about faith, and I’m sure they did. But the greatest lesson of faith was when hail consumed every blade of wheat on their farm. They got on their knees in the old farmhouse and thanked God for His mercies and for all that He meant to them in the midst of their devastation. Children don’t forget that.

You say, “Well there is something in my life that keeps me from being a mentor. I have unconquered sin in my life.” If that’s the case with you, my dear father, would you join a small group? Would you go for help? Would you seek God? Would you do whatever needs to be done to get rid of whatever it is that stands in the way of you entering into your child’s world? That’s the way we can fulfill this admonition. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord, and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.”

Fathers, today turn your heart to your needy, crying children, at great personal cost. It was Seneca who said years ago, “No man can consider himself a success if his children are a failure.”

Now that’s the first part of verse six. “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” But now I want to speak about the second part of this verse, “and the heart of the children to their fathers.” Namely, children reconciled to fathers. All of us have had imperfect fathers. However, we had better make peace with them no matter how imperfect or even abusive they have been.

Before I give you a list of the kinds of fathers with whom you need to make peace, I want to say that there are also some good fathers out there. My father, if you were to test him by many of today’s standards regarding what fathers should do, he would come up short in some respects. But he was a very good father. He prayed for us, he took care of our needs and we knew that we were loved. There were rules in the home and we knew where the lines were to be drawn and that he expected obedience. But he was a good father and how I thank God for my father.

When he was 100 years old I was visiting him up in Canada and my wife gave me a suggestion. By the way, the Lord often leads me through my wife. I hope that’s okay with you, but that’s just the way it is. She gave me this suggestion and said, “You know your dad is 100 years old. Remember in the Old Testament when fathers would give a blessing to their sons? You’re going to be home for a day so why don’t you go to him and say, ‘Dad, give me a blessing just like they did in the Old Testament.’”

So that evening as my father was sitting in the rocking chair reading his Bible I knelt beside him and told him, “Dad, you know in the Old Testament that fathers gave their sons blessings. Would you do that for me?” I want you to know that he took my head in both of his hands and lifted up a prayer to God that made heaven shake. It was absolutely awesome. When it was finished I was crying and he was crying. We embraced and I embraced my mother.

That was three years ago and he is still living. But when the call comes that dad has died I can tell you that in my heart I have no regrets and no loose ends that have to be made up. There is nothing that I wish I would have told him but it was too late. No, he can die in peace and I can die in peace that I and my father have indeed been reconciled on every issue. Not that we needed reconciliation the way it is generally spoken of, but we die knowing that all is well between us. Some of you have a father like that. Don’t wait until he becomes 100. There is a good chance he won’t live that long.

Well, let me now list some of the fathers that some of you may have to be at peace with. The Bible says that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the generations to come, up until the fourth generation, I think it says. It’s up to you my friend to break the curse of the negative impact that your father may have had.

Some of you need to be reconciled to a workaholic father. You don’t understand why he was a workaholic. The answer is probably because he received very little affirmation from his father and so he needed to prove himself. In order to prove himself so that others would say, “Look what he has accomplished,” he works himself to death. Then there is an added benefit: if he works a lot he can stay out of the home and not deal with all of the emotional issues that he does not want touched in his own life. So you are resentful and angry. You have to be resolved to be reconciled to a father like that.

Second, you have the silent father. He does a tremendous amount of damage not only to your body but to your soul. He is the emotionless father or the passive father, the one who doesn’t care what goes on in the home. Someone can be misusing his child at school and he will not intervene, he will not run interference and he will not be involved. All that he does is sit there and invite others to try and figure out what’s going on in his heart.

Listen to the words of a brother written to another brother about their passive father: “Dear Jim, as for your concerns about dad, that’s a big issue and I’m not sure I know where to start. I can tell you that I’ve spent a long time in therapy dealing with it and just now I’m getting to some kind of closure on it all. It has affected me a great deal. I know this for sure: that dad is not going to change. I’ve had a hard time accepting that and I have spent my entire life setting myself up to receive some little acknowledgement or blessing from him only to be disappointed each time. Somewhere along the way I stopped trying. I will always miss him, though. There will always be a hollow place inside of me where love and acceptance from him should have been. That is something though that I cannot change.” That is a life lived with a passive, emotionless, uninvolved father.

There’s also the alcoholic father. I won’t say much about him. The next message in this series by the way is on abuse in the home. You need to hear it.

The tyrannical father controls everyone through anger and criticism, incapable of compliments. If he does eek out a compliment it is always with a warning or with something negative, something that you didn’t do. No matter how far you kick the ball he always changes the goal post so that you will miss. You get an “A” and he can’t figure out why it isn’t an “A+.” The tyrannical father is never, ever satisfied. “I run my home and there are certain rules in this home. If you’re in this home you are going to obey, blah, blah, blah.”

Then there is the absent father. He may be absent because of immorality or absent because he ran off, shirking his responsibility. So now the daughter mistrusts men, throws herself at men and always comes up short on relationships. She is filled with jealousy and intense insecurity because she cannot trust. The boy has gender insecurity and wonders who he really is while growing up without a dad.

These are the kinds of fathers that some of you need to be reconciled with or you will perpetuate the curse. By the way, having listed all of these it is often said that a girl marries someone who is like her father. That explains why the mother of the bride always cries at weddings. How do you make peace with your father? Whether he is dead or alive, with his cooperation or without his cooperation, let me urge you to listen carefully so that you might be free.

First, face the pain and tell the truth. What happens is God has put this in the life of a child and he views his parents as those who cannot be wrong. That’s why if you were an abused child you probably think it is your fault because mom and dad are always right. Even as an adult it is easy to look back and say, “You know my home wasn’t really an abusive home,” or “my home wasn’t really a dysfunctional home.” You don’t want to admit that your parents were what they were. Well, it’s time you did. You simply say, “Mom and dad did this,” or “my dad was thus and so.” Speak the truth, the whole truth. Of course nothing but the truth, but speak it. Face reality.

Secondly, after you have done that grieve the loss. When parents lose a child of course we expect them to grieve. There would be something wrong with them if they didn’t grieve. They weep and they never really get over it. Now, you’ve not lost a child but you have lost your childhood. That’s something to cry about. The opportunities that were lost, the “what if’s” of life, “what if dad had been different, what if dad had been there?”

What you need to do is grieve over that which you have lost. And in the process of grieving understand that God meets us in the midst of that grief. Be honest and real and feel free to grieve. God gave us tear ducts. They are not a product of evolution. They are there so that we can weep. Some of you today ought to weep. You may be weeping during this message, and that’s perfectly fine. If you can’t weep in church and be accepted and loved, where can you go to cry your eyes out?

Third, you choose to lay down the bitterness and to accept the fact that reality is reality. If your dad is still living you need to accept that he’s just as hard-hearted as ever and he’s not going to change. Don’t hold on to childhood fantasies. He probably will not change. We hope that he will, but don’t count on it. What you do is you choose to bring all of that grief and emptiness that you have felt and all that sense of betrayal, and you lay it at the cross. You say, “Jesus you have forgiven me so much. I now choose to lay it down and to forgive, to take the poison and to spill it out.”

Finally, and this is most important, you now become acquainted with your father in heaven, “Who is a father to the fatherless,” the Bible says. God is there to meet us and He becomes the nurturing father. In fact, in Isaiah it even says in chapter sixty-six that the father says, “I will nurture you like a mother with tenderness, like a mother nurtures her child.”

Sometimes when we think of God the Father we think of the harsh side of God, the judgmental aspects of God. But I invite you to become acquainted with the tenderheartedness of God, the compassion of God, the love of God, and the overreaching pity of God. I say that because I just read this past week Psalm 103 where it says, “Like a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him, for he remembers our frame and knows that we are like dust.” Your father in heaven cares and he can reach out to you. Even the vacuum of your poor relationship with your father can be filled with the love of Christ.

And God in the process may give you a surrogate father, someone who steps in and gives you a hug once in awhile, somebody who becomes to you what you never had. It all happens within God’s family. I urge you today that whatever level you are at, either as a Christian or a seeker, I urge you today to come to the Father.

Remember that story that Jesus told about the prodigal son? He ran and was in the far country, you remember. And when he came back his father saw him when he was yet a great way off. God sees you no matter where the state of your heart may be. Whether you are closed to God or open to God, he sees where you are at. And then the prodigal came who had dishonored his father and had misused his father’s wealth and had shamed the father. The father said, “Bring hither the best robe and put it on him, put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet, and bring hither the fatted calf and kill it. For this my son was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found.”

That’s the way our heavenly Father welcomes us when we come home to him. The robe represents honor, the ring authority and the shoes sonship. And the father says, “Welcome home where you belong.” It is much more important that you have a Father in heaven whom you can call father than that you had a father on earth. Despite all the pain of fatherlessness, there is nothing as terrible as entering into eternity without a father. “Our Father, who art in heaven,” was sung to us. He’s there for you and for me.

Let us pray. What do you have to tell God right now? What’s on your mind? Are you prepared to make peace with your father? Fathers, are you prepared to connect with your children? The message has been altogether too hurried, but I pray that the Holy Spirit may do in your heart what needs to be done. And if you need to talk to God, you talk to him right now, because he is listening. The Father is waiting.

“Lord we ask in Jesus name that the work that you have begun in many hearts shall be completed. Grant all who have listened to this message the grace to step to the plate and to say, “Today I am going to live differently,” as a father, but also those who say that as children. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.”

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