By Alan W. Dowd
The statistics tell us that 27 percent of all children in America live absent their biological father.[i] That’s a staggering 20 million kids, and sadly this number is growing: More than a third of all births are to unmarried women, 68 percent of African-American babies are born to unmarried women and fully 62 percent of African-American households are headed by a single parent.
That’s the sad, hard truth. But for every sad truth, there is good news. And the good news is that God is a father to us all. He offers to adopt the loved and unloved, wanted and unwanted, abandoned and embraced, as His own. And He calls on us to help.
A Heart for the Fatherless
This plague of fatherless homes may seem irrelevant to those of us blessed to grow up in two-parent families or who already have raised their children, but it isn’t. To look at these numbers is to glimpse the root cause of some of society’s most intractable problems:
-A Department of Justice study of almost 14,000 women in prison found that more than half grew up in fatherless homes.
-A study conducted in the 1990s concluded that every percentage-point increase in births to single mothers translates into a 1.7-percent increase in the violent crime rate.
-Drug use and alcohol use are more common among fatherless kids.
-Fatherless children are two times more likely to drop out of school.
-The Census Bureau has found that “children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor.”
-Children from single-parent families are at 77 percent greater risk of being physically abused.
-And not surprisingly, teen girls without fathers are seven times more likely than teens from two-parent homes to become pregnant in their adolescent years.[ii]
In short, the numbers tell us what God has said all along: Kids need moms and dads.
This should not be misconstrued as an attack on single moms, who are among the most creative and courageous people in America today. Working multiple jobs outside the home, they face the toughest job on earth inside the home—alone. Many of their children grow up to be productive members of society. But the odds are against them. Most of their children will be forever scarred by the absence of a father and will pass the cycle of brokenness on to the next generation. The old saying “Like father, like son” is all too true.
Nor is this an endorsement of the misguided notion that any father—regardless of his behavior—is preferable to no father at all. The health and safety of a child or mother should never be sacrificed for the sake of a marriage. But what was true at creation remains true today: God intends for children to grow up with both a mother and a father.
With so many kids abandoned and forgotten, unloved and unguided, it is comforting to know that no matter where or how kids grow up, God has a heart for the fatherless. In David’s poignant words, “God sets the lonely in families.” He is “the helper of the fatherless,” the one who “sustains the fatherless.”[iii]
Consider the people He chose to call His own. Scripture reminds us that they were not good warriors, or wealthy, or powerful, or remarkable in any way. In fact, it seems the distinctions that separated Abram’s descendants from other peoples were neediness, homelessness, helplessness—the very things that the fatherless know all too well. But what the world overlooked, God would call “my firstborn son.”[iv] Because Abram reached up to the God of creation, he was given a new name and a promise that breathed life into him and his offspring.
But the story doesn’t end there. Indeed, Abraham was just the beginning. Consider Moses, who was orphaned by his birth mother—even if out of love—and sent away to pharaoh’s family. Of course, it was all part of heaven’s plan. From pharaoh’s courts, Moses would one day lead his people—God’s children—out of captivity.
Likewise, Esther, perhaps the greatest heroine of the Old Testament, “had neither father nor mother” and was raised by an older cousin.[v] Yet, guided by God, she found her way to the king’s house. And from there, she would rescue her people—God’s children—from a holocaust.
In a faint echo of Moses’ journey to the foreign family of pharaoh, Jesus was sent away from His home. As with Moses, it happened out of love. And as with Moses, Jesus would free His people—God’s children—from a half-life of crushing worry and empty ritual so that they might live an abundant life.
In other words, God did not make us to be alone, to fend for ourselves, to figure things out by trial and error. We need a safe place, a place where we are welcomed, a place where we can learn from those who know the way.
God wants to provide that place. And when a father isn’t around, He often does so in the form of church leadership and lay volunteers—pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday-school teachers, ministry organizers, coaches, VBS coordinators and youth-group leaders who take on the role of surrogate father at churches all across America. They counsel abandoned kids (and moms); they teach life lessons; and sometimes they even provide the sort of financial and emotional support that, in a better world, would be provided by a dad.
If you’re thinking, We don’t have that sort of problem at our church, you might be surprised. Steve Kendall thought that way until he became involved in teen ministry at his church on the New Jersey outskirts of New York City 11 years ago. “As many as 25 percent of the kids who have participated in our youth group over the years have come from fatherless homes,” he says.
Plus, it pays to recall that appearances can be deceiving. “Initially, it may be hard to tell if a teen comes from a broken home,” he explains. “But the more you get to know them, the easier it is to figure it out. Kids without dads are usually less confident. They stay on the periphery of the group—literally and figuratively. And they are desperately hungry for father figures.”
Barbara Rush, who is a youth leader for middle-school and high-school kids at her church in suburban Indianapolis, agrees, especially when it comes to young women in fatherless homes. “What I notice is that the girls have low self-esteem,” she sighs. (That may help explain the increased likelihood of pregnancy among teen girls who don’t have fathers—and crave the affection and love of a man as a result.)
Rush sees her service to young people as a way to give back to God. “Youth programs were very important to my own spiritual growth as a teenager, and when I heard there was a need for youth leaders in my church, it was as if God was saying, ‘Now it’s your turn to serve.’”
Kendall was drawn to youth ministry for similar reasons. “I had a dad through most of college,” he explains, “and I just can’t imagine what it is like not having that role model as a teen. Jesus was a model for His disciples. He showed them how to pray, how to help others, how to minister. And that’s what fathers do. They serve as role models to their kids. That’s what we try to do in our youth ministry.” He admits that it can be a burden. But like Rush, he says it’s a burden he feels called to bear.
Whether we know it or not, we all know someone who is shouldering this extra burden created by absentee fathers—someone who quietly teaches and tutors someone else’s children, who shuttles someone else’s kids around town, who provides a measure of order and stability for someone else’s teenager, who offers a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear.
Pulled in every direction by other church commitments, work and their own family responsibilities, these fill-in father figures are stretched thin. As Rush concedes, “The expectations are sometimes too high.”
Regardless of your gender, you may be one of these special someones. When you feel empty and exhausted, remember that you are doing nothing less than the Father’s work. As James explained, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”[vi]
Like Abraham, you are pointing God’s children in the direction of hope. Like Moses, you are leading God’s children toward a new home. Like Esther, you are protecting God’s children from unseen dangers. And like Jesus, you are showing the way toward a new life.
All Shapes and Sizes
Fill-in father figures recognize that fatherless kids—regardless of age or color or economic background—need our help. As Rush puts it, “The Church has a responsibility to serve anyone who experiences a loss of wholeness, anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional model.” After all, that’s what Jesus did.
Paul’s admonition in Romans 2 takes on new meaning in this context: “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?”
You who condemn abortion, do you help the unwed mother abandoned by her boyfriend and parents? You who gossip about the single mom who sporadically attends church and arrives late on those rare occasions when she actually makes it, do you offer to help her with yard work in the summer or shoveling snow in the winter? You who roll your eyes at unruly children on Sunday morning, do you volunteer at youth group on Wednesday night?
You who pass judgment on those who continue the cycle of fatherlessness, have you ever tried to break the cycle by befriending a young man on the verge of repeating his father’s mistakes? You who scorn deadbeat dads that never commit to their families, do you neglect your parental duties by never being home for your children, by missing dinners and recitals and ballgames and teacher conferences? As my dad once observed, “Absentee fathers come in all shapes and sizes.”
And so do fill-in fathers.
Mordecai, for instance, was Esther’s cousin. Yet he counseled her with wisdom and emboldened her with truth that saved an entire race.
Paul found the time between writing half the New Testament, defending his faith before the Roman Empire and spreading the Good News all around the Mediterranean to mentor Timothy.
Joseph raised Jesus as his own son. Without judging or shaming, he supported Mary and sacrificed much more than we know for his foster son, the Son of God. He literally lived out one of the most beautiful passages in the Gospel. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,” Jesus explained. “And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
I wonder if happy memories of Joseph came to Jesus’ mind as He said those words.
Adopted into His Family
Of course, even the best fill-in fathers, even men like Mordecai, Paul and Joseph, offer only a shadow of what God can offer. As the psalmist explained, the God of the universe desires to be a “father to the fatherless.”[vii] In other words, He isn’t some cosmic social worker entrusting orphans to the care of well-meaning strangers, and He doesn’t want foster children. Instead, He wants to adopt all of us into His family.[viii]
As Jesus promised His first disciples—and us—“I will not leave you as orphans.” Christ’s promise is made even clearer in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, “You will be my sons and daughters.”
Those left in the wake of absentee fathers need to hear this good news. In our actions and words, we need to remind them of this beautiful truth—and what it means:
-The man known as your father may have ignored you, but your Father yearns for that moment when you finally reach out for Him and call out to Him by name.
-The man known as your father may have abandoned you, but your Father loves you. He even died for you.
-The man known as your father may have been too busy to teach you about life, but your Father wants to share the wisdom and mysteries of eternity with you.
-The man known as your father may have hurt you, but your Father wants to bind up your wounds and make you whole.
-The man known as your father may be embarrassed about you, but your Father is proud of you beyond words.
-The man known as your father may have kept his name from you, but your Father wants to share His name, His kingdom and His life’s work—the rescue of Eden’s other orphans.
Deity and Daddy
If that’s the good news, the great news is that we have more than an eternal father in heaven. We have a daddy. “By him,” as Paul reminds and reassures us, “we cry, ‘Abba’”—Daddy. And that makes all the difference.
A great dad like mine can calm a child’s fears and offer his best advice as life offers its worst worries and burdens, but Daddy “knows everything.”[ix] He knows exactly where His child is going. And He offers far more than advice: He gives the peace that transcends all understanding—peace that doesn’t make any sense.[x]
A distracted dad can believe in his child and hope for her as she races toward her goals, but Daddy can empower and equip her to do what she never thought possible. He clothes her with “power from on high.” He helps her “run and not grow weary.” As Peter, who knew the difference between humanly weakness and heavenly power, puts it, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life.”[xi]
A mediocre father can empathize with a son’s failures and sympathize with his mistakes. He may even try to fix them. But Daddy promises to take away those sins and forget about them.[xii]
Even an absentee father can be proud of his child, but we will never have a bigger fan than Daddy. He rejoices over us, delights in us, throws parties and banquets for us in heaven, and lifts us up to soar like an eagle.[xiii]
A fill-in father can point a child toward our eternal home in heaven, but Daddy is actually preparing a piece of Paradise for us. And He promises to come back for us when it’s ready.[xiv]
No matter what the statistics say, no matter what some people think, we are more than orphans. And God is so much more than a father.
[i] Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, http://www.childstats.gov/.
[ii] All bullet points in this section, except for the second bullet point, are from National Fatherhood Initiative, “The Father Factor,” www.fatherhood.org. Bullet Point Two is from William A. Niskanen, “Crime, Police, and Root Causes,” Cato Policy Analysis No. 218, November 14, 1994.
[iii] See Psalm 10; Psalm 146; Psalm 68
[iv] Exodus 4:22
[v] Esther 2
[vi] See James 1.
[vii] Psalm 68
[viii] Ephesians 1
[ix] I John 3:20
[x] Philippians 4:7
[xi] 2 Peter 1:3; Luke 24:49; Isaiah 40:31
[xii] Jeremiah 31: 34
[xiii] See Psalm 18:19; Luke 15:22-25; Isaiah 62: 5; Isaiah 40:31
[xiv] John 14:2