The Essence of Fatherhood
I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy.
If I had to reduce this whole book to its essence and express it in a single sentence, I would say: The ultimate call to all men is to sanctify fatherhood through holiness of life. The Apostle Peter in his letter to the "pilgrims of the Dispersion" writes, "As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy for I am holy' " (1 Peter 1: 15, 16).
Don't you find it ironic that the Holy Scriptures themselves call all of us to sainthood, and yet the saints and martyrs of the historic Church have been slighted, shunned, and virtually lost to countless modern Christians?
"To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints" (Romans 1:7, italics added). The call to be saints refers to the purpose and spiritual vocation of all Christians. Throughout the New Testament, all who
are truly "Christian" are called to be saints. But being saintly is not something we just "claim" without having to put forth any effort. It is not some kind of so-called "positional truth," where God sees us as something we really aren't. That's not only confusing, it's doubletalk, and it won't produce holiness. We also are not "tubes" or "channels only," where Christ lives His life in us without our cooperation. That's a denial of our participation in and union with the life of Christ.
Some teachers love to quote, "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). But they bypass the preceding verse: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). We can't effectively live the Christian life of holiness without Christ being "in" us. But we must work, too. It means that we must bring every day's activity into communion with God. Our mind, heart, and soul our whole being every act must be a spiritual act.
Thomas Hopko writes, "Every thought must be spiritual, every word, every deed, every activity of the body, every action of the person. This means that all a person thinks, says and does must be inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit so that the will of God the Father might be accomplished as revealed and taught by Jesus Christ the Son of God."1
St. Paul wrote, "Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). The "doing" is what Christian spirituality for fathers is all about. And there are four specific spiritual disciplines which, though
taught in Scripture and practiced in the ancient Church, are virtually lost or ignored in Western American Christianity. Without these spiritual actions, we will never function as fathers in the way God wants us to do. They are not optional equipment for men who want to take the call to fatherhood seriously. They are essential. We cannot live holy lives without them.
The spiritual disciplines I'm talking about are prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and confession.
Thomas Hopko writes, "All the virtues and powers of God are attained primarily by prayer. Without prayer, there is no spiritual life. A Russian saint has said, 'If you are not successful in your prayer, you will not be successful in anything, for prayer is the root of everything.' "2
Prayer is a must. It is indispensable to the Christian life. We know that Jesus prayed and taught His disciples to pray. If one does not pray, he cannot be called a disciple of Christ. However, American men will never create the habit of daily prayer until they discover the richness and depth of liturgical prayer and discipline themselves to a daily rhythm of praying, especially morning and evening prayers.
The psalmist is speaking of this daily rhythm of prayer when he says, "My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning I will direct it to You, I will look up" (Psalm 5:3). "Evening and morning and at noon I will pray" (Psalm 55:17).
The ancient Church followed the Old Testament practice of praying at certain hours of the day. That's why the Scriptures say that the God-fearing and devout centurion, Cornelius, was praying at the ninth hour of the day (3:00 P.M.). Cornelius was a Gentile. But this was one of the set times when all of Israel prayed. He was keeping his rule of prayer, and God was obviously pleased with his doing so, for He sent an angel, who said, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God" (Acts 10:3, 4).
That's not the end of the story. The next day the angel sent Cornelius to the Apostle Peter, who "went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour [noon]" (Acts 10:9). Peter prayed at noon each day. This was a part of his rule of prayer, as it was for all devout Jews, and Cornelius came to his house and met him at this time.
By the way, early Christians didn't just "make up" their prayers. They knew that spontaneity was not necessarily synonymous with spirituality. Yes, they could make up their prayers, but most of their prayers came from the Psalms and, eventually, the prayers of the Church.
Christians adopted the Psalms, the "prayer book" of Israel, as the prayer book of the Church as well. But Christians also added, throughout their history, what are called the prayers of the Church. We are to make these prayers our own in private and corporate worship. Our Lord taught us how to pray privately. He said, "When you pray, go into your room, and when you
have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly." And He said, "In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven . . ." (Matthew 6:6-9).
Our Lord not only tells us to pray, but gives us the prayers to pray through His Church. The Apostle Paul directed the Ephesian church to be "praying always with all prayer" (Ephesians 6:18, italics added). Why did he not just tell them to pray? Why did he say to pray "with all prayer"? Frankly, he was telling them to pray with the psalms and the liturgical prayers of the Church.
In over forty years as a Protestant, I watched men struggle with tremendous guilt and failure at prayer. We were trying to build a life of prayer without the blueprints of the ancient Church. We might have gotten pumped up at conferences and seminars, but only went back home to fail again. I have known many, including missionaries and church leaders, who ultimately gave up on prayer, but never told anyone.
All of us who grew up in non-liturgical traditions grew up with a lot of well-meaning talk about prayer. But let's not kid ourselves. Not only have most of us never experienced that "sweet hour of prayer" in our daily life, we never spent that much time praying in an entire week.
The greatest hindrance for most of us is our arrogant insistence on spontaneous prayer and the accompanying resistance to written prayers. But written prayers are no more "dead" than the written words of psalms or
the Gospels or hymns. Written words are not dead or alive. Only the people who pray them are dead or alive.
If we don't get past this resistance to using any kind of written prayers, we can count on one thing for sure. We will continue to struggle with having any consistent, meaningful life of prayer before God.
If we want to have a substantial prayer life, we must find the way the Fathers of the Church prayed. We find that they prayed regularly in the morning and in the evening and at meals, with a goal to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). One can only learn to do this by receiving the liturgical prayers of the historic Church and by establishing a personal daily "rule of prayer" with the help of a spiritual father. (See the Appendix for books with specific advice on prayer.)
One look at the waistlines of most Americans tells us that fasting is no longer a cherished discipline. We are the fattest nation on Planet Earth. However, fasting in the Church's teaching has very little to do with weight control and everything to do with spirituality.
Jesus, who Himself fasted, taught His disciples to fast by saying, "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:17-18, italics added).
The purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to
liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It is to give power to the soul so that it will not yield to temptation and sin. According to one spiritual father, fasting is an "indispensable means" of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one's life,3 and Jesus Himself taught that some forms of evil cannot be conquered without it (Matthew 17:21).
Man does not fast because it pleases God if His servants do not eat, for "the devil also never eats." Neither do men fast in order to afflict themselves with suffering and pain, for God has no pleasure in the discomfort of His people. Neither do men fast with the idea that their hunger and thirst can somehow serve as a "reparation" for their sins. Such an understanding is never given in the Scriptures or the writings of the saints, which claim that there is no "reparation" for man's sin but the crucifixion of Christ. Salvation is a "free gift of God" which no "works" of man can accomplish or merit (Romans 5:15-17; Ephesians 2:8-9).
Men fast, therefore, and must fast, only to be delivered from carnal passions so that the free gift of salvation in Christ might produce great fruit in their lives. Men fast so that they might more effectively serve God, who loves them and has saved them in Christ.
Fasting without effort in virtue is wholly in vain. "Fasting in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin." This is the Church's song in the Lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints. St. John Chrysostom wrote:
In fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one's brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things . . . not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.4
Abba Dorotheus taught, "When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great..... A man who fasts wisely . . . wins purity and comes to humility . . . and proves himself a skillful builder."5
The spiritual fathers, as strictly ascetic as they were, are very clear in their teaching about fasting. They insist, with the Lord and the Scriptures, that men must fast in order to be free from passions and lust. But they insist as well that the most critical thing is to be free from sin including the pride, vanity, and hypocrisy which come through foolish and sinful fasting. St. Gregory of Sinai wrote, "Eating beyond the point of being satisfied is the door of madness through which lust enters, for the belly is the queen of passions which man serves as a slave."6
St. Isaac of Syria says, "Meager food at the table of the pure cleanses the soul of those who partake from all passion . . . for the work of fasting and vigil is the
beginning of every effort against sin and lust . . . . Almost all passionate drives decrease through fasting."7
Monks Callistus and Ignatius taught, "For the holy fathers taught us to be killers of passions and not killers of the body. Partake of everything that is permissible with thanksgiving, to the glory of God and to avoid boastful arrogance; but refrain from every excess."8
How many fathers have destroyed their homes because of a life filled with uncontrolled passion! Whether the problem is lust, anger, gluttony, or any of what we call today "obsessive compulsive" disorders nothing will bring about self-control like fasting and prayer. That is why, historically, the Church has always kept seasons of fasting within its yearly liturgical cycle, as well as fasting on most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year.
For true Christians, fasting is not optional. It is essential in our struggle for holiness and self-control. This has been true for Christian men of all ages. But it is even more true for us who live in a hedonistic, sex-crazed, passion-filled society like contemporary America.
Jesus fasted. He told His disciples to fast. If we do not fast and pray, we will not only suffer countless defeats that come from a passion-filled life, we will also never achieve the purity of heart and holiness of life that our brief journey on earth is all about.
The Giving of Alms
In Christ's teaching, almsgiving goes together with fasting and prayer. When one prays and fasts, one
must show love through active generosity to others.
The Lord said, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men, in order to be noticed by them, otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When, therefore, you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do ... that they may be honored by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you" (Matthew 6:1-4, NASB).
As with fasting and prayer, the gifts of help to the poor must be done strictly in secret, so much so that one should, as it were, even hide from himself what he is giving to others, not letting one hand know what the other is doing. Every effort must be made, if the gift is to be pleasing to God, to avoid all ostentation and boastfulness in its giving.
From God's perspective, there is no real love if one does not share what he has with the poor. "Whoever has the world's good, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). Our motivation for giving is our love for God and for those in need.
According to St. John Chrysostom, no one can be saved without giving alms and caring for the poor. St. Basil the Great says that a man who has two coats or two pairs of shoes, when his neighbor has none, is a thief.
All earthly things are the possessions of God. "The earth is the LORD'S, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). Men are but stewards of what belongs to the Lord, and should share the gifts of His creation with one another as much as they can. To store up earthly possessions, according to Christ, is the epitome of foolishness, and a rich man shall hardly be saved (see Luke 12:15-21). "It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven . . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24).
The reason a rich man can hardly be saved, according to Jesus, is that when one has possessions, he wants to keep them, and gather still more. The delight in riches chokes the word of God, and so it proves unfruitful in man's heart (Matthew 13:22).
The spiritual person must share what he has with the poor. He must do so cheerfully and not reluctantly, secretly and not for the praise of men. He also must do so, as did the poor widow in the Gospel, not out of his abundance, but out of his need.
Giving alms, therefore, must be a sacrificial act if it is to have any spiritual value. One cannot give merely what is left over when all his own needs are satisfied. One must take from oneself and give to others. In the spiritual tradition of the Church, it is the teaching that what one saves (on meals, etc.) through fasting and abstinence, for example during the special Lenten seasons, should not be kept for
other times, but should be given away to the poor.
We should, without judging the intentions or the status of a man, give "something" to everyone who asks, even it it's just a blessing and a prayer. We never know who that person may be. "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels" (Hebrews 13:2).
Our Lord, in His teaching about those who did not clothe, feed, and give drink to the needy, said, "Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me" (Matthew 25:45).
The giving of alms, which should be above the tithe we give to our churches, is a spiritual discipline that overcomes and controls avarice and greed and it helps the ever-present poor in this world. "You have the poor with you always . . . but Me you do not have always" (Mark 14:7). "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matthew 19:21, italics added).
The one who is truly perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect is the one who gives all for the sake of others, in the name of Christ, with Him, and for His sake. The teaching of the Church is that our need to give is greater than the poor man's need to receive. You'll never live the life of holiness you desire unless you give alms. Remember Lazarus the beggar was comforted in Abraham's bosom; the rich man suffered eternal torment (Luke 16).
We are witnessing on daytime television a sickening perversion of confession which has created a billion-dollar industry called "talk shows." People are so desperate to be known by others that they have an obsession with public confession, through which the overflow of everything imaginable and unimaginable is being piped into the living rooms of America. And the the audience is growing as this American phenomenon goes worldwide.
In 1995, the world witnessed Britain's Princess Diana's confession of adultery. John Leo writes, "What we are seeing here is the dawning globalization of the American confessional culture. Now that Britain has been conquered by the psychotherapeutic talk-show ethic, no doubt prominent and semi-prominent people in Rio, Singapore, and Beijing will all soon be lining up to announce their affairs, confess their low self-esteem and reveal stories of abuse or dysfunction."9 The situation has become so desperate that the most perverse and unnatural sins of man are being portrayed as part of normal, everyday life in the minds of all who watch and listen.
Why is this weird phenomenon of public confession taking place in our nation today? I believe it is taking place because the sacrament of confession (penance) in the historic Church was never practiced among American Protestants. One of the most important sacraments for healing was taken away from the guidance of the Church and relegated to the individual
mumbling hopelessly alone into his pillow. But most of us instinctively feel the need for more than this.
Confession was never meant to be just a private affair between an individual and God. That is why God designed a proper place for confession in His church. St. James writes: "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him . . . . And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven . . . . Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:14-16).
The ancient practice of the Church was to confess sins before the whole assembly as an act of repentance. As the Christians grew out of strict discipline and piety of the persecuted catacomb Church, visitors began to appear in great numbers. The pressure on public confession within the Church became so great that the priests alone began receiving the confessions of the people. The priest represented the Church, and at the same time was able to provide a place of safety and trust for each Christian to confess "one to another." What is not taught in Scripture is a private confession only to God, which is the refusal to acknowledge sin to the Church community. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9).
Confession in the historic Church is also called the sacrament of penance. It is our formal act of
reconciliation with God in the Church when sin has severed us from the Church's life.
Not every sin requires formal penance through the sacramental ritual. This is obvious, because Christians are never completely without sin. However, certain grave sins or prolonged separation from Holy Communion call for the act of sacramental penance. Also, all Christians living in communion with Christ are expected to make use of this sacrament periodically in order to humble themselves consciously before God and to receive guidance in the Christian life from their pastor or spiritual father in the Church.
The sacrament of penance exists to allow for the repentance and reconversion of Christians who have fallen away from the life of faith. There are three main elements to the act of formal penance. The first is a sincere sorrow for sins and for the breaking of communion with God. The second is an open and heartfelt confession of sins. The third element of penance is the formal prayer of absolution, through which the forgiveness of God through Christ is sacramentally bestowed upon the repentant sinner.
This relationship between the pastor and his people came from the Lord Himself when He was instructing His Apostles on church discipline. "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
The grace given by God to those in the Church to pronounce God's forgiveness is one thing that makes
confession different from a session in the counselor's office. One of the most famous Protestant psychologists of our day once said that if he had his life to live over again, he would choose to be a priest. Why? "As a counselor, I could never give (with any spiritual authority) those beautiful and necessary words of absolution, 'you are forgiven, go in peace.' "
I've known many people who have heard countless sermons on forgiveness, but never were able to get rid of their own guilt until, in the sacrament of penance, they confessed their specific sins and heard another human being, ordained by God in His Church, declare that their sins were forgiven.
The historic Church strictly adheres to the teaching of the Bible that only God can forgive sins. He does so through Christ in the Church, and His conditions are genuine repentance and the promise of change, which are witnessed in confession. If this is not part of our experience, Church discipline becomes meaningless and the acquisition of true and lasting godliness is impossible.
How many homes, marriages, and relationships would be healed and restored if this sacrament of penance were practiced among the fathers of America! And how many men could be encouraged and strengthened in their will to press on and not lose heart, if they could receive more than counseling if they could know for sure the forgiveness of sins in Christ's Holy Church.
This does take some courage and humility, because confession, when
it's done as it's supposed to be done, involves the presence of another. Some of us won't confess before men because we are more afraid of men than we are of a righteous God. However, we don't baptize ourselves, we don't marry ourselves, we don't bury ourselves, and we do not absolve ourselves of sin. This involves the presence of another human being. And that person isn't your favorite talk show host.
Good counseling can be helpful. But it can never replace confession. American men need to take confession away from the talk shows, therapy couches, and pillows of this land and bring it back to the Church, where it belongs.
What to Do
If we modern Christians are serious about our role in fatherhood, we can no longer afford to be ignorant of the historic Church and our relationship to it. Life is too serious and the return to true fatherhood is too essential to settle for anything less than what the early Church Fathers preached, taught, and fleshed out in the ancient traditions the fullness of the life of the Church in all her worship and beauty. A Christian father who ignores the two-thousand-year history of the historic Church is like a man with amnesia trying to explain the family's genealogy to his son.
Christ died for the Church. The historic Church is still here. She did not die with the death of the Apostle John. She has survived both persecution and state institution and has come out unscathed. Unlike the
Protestant church, which has disintegrated into 26,000 widely differing sects in America alone, the historic Church has never changed. And that Church has always seen prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and confession as essential spiritual disciplines for every Christian who is serious about living a holy life before his family and his God.
There are a lot of helpful books written to men these days. Some writers are finally beginning to acknowledge the key role of responsible fatherhood in solving the crisis of American masculinity. But fatherhood needs to be sanctified by connectedness and holy living. I want to close this book by offering the following suggestions, which I will put as practically and succinctly as I can.
1) Read. By all means read and study the Scriptures. But keep going! Read the writings of the Church Fathers and the lives of the saints throughout the Church's history as well. Make these saints your heroes and models. Strive to understand their writings, often traced in blood, which laid the groundwork for what we should believe and hold as true today.
2) Investigate. I used to say, "Go to a Bible-believing church." I no longer believe that is enough. Now I say, "Go to a church that embraces the entirety and fullness of the Church's life, doctrine, and worship throughout her two-thousand-year history." Accept no substitutes. Do not stop short of the Church that has stayed faithful to the Blessed Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and the
male priesthood. I would be less than an honest father and pastor if I did not tell you that I believe with all my heart that I have found this fullness in the Orthodox Church.
3) Get connected. In the context of that Church, connect with a spiritual father who represents the Faith of the Fathers. He will guide you on the road to holiness by helping you to incorporate prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and confession into your life. When these spiritual disciplines are motivated by the love of God, we will begin to be the men and fathers we are called to be.
4) Work on your own soul. You don't have to "change the world," you just have to change yourself and that will change the world around you. The nineteenth-century Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who touched the lives of many thousands of Christians around the world, said: "Acquire peace in your soul and thousands around you will find salvation."
Back in the Battle!
Centuries ago, ten years past his hundredth birthday, one of Israel's greatest leaders grouped the people of God together for what turned out to be his farewell address. He presented them to God and rehearsed with them all the things God had done for them.
He talked boldly with them about their tendencies to serve other gods. Then he brought them to a point of decision. It's God or gods, he warned them. And he laid down a challenge that is so powerful in its simplicity
that it still rings through the consciousness of our churches and our homes. It is quoted in sermons and on greeting cards, and it is etched upon gilded plaques. "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve..... As for me and my house," Joshua proclaimed, "we will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15).
Isn't the Lord facing men with that same choice today? God the Father exhorts men to act like men, to take their place as heads of their homes and choose, with their wives and children, to follow Him. The gods of this age passivity, fatigue, indecision, ignorance, feminization beg men to cave in and follow them. But men of God must choose another course.
It is time to act. We cannot be content just to think about it. We must decide for the God of our Fathers. For too long, we have believed the arrogant lies of modernity that newer is better, that a break with tradition is for the best, that patriarchal is passé.
The call is a battle cry. It beckons us to war. Hordes of prejudiced critics will mount an attack, a counter-offensive to stop the return of men to historical and biblical patterns of manhood. We must be committed to the foundational fatherhood upon which all civilizations have been built and must now be reconstructed.
America stands in desperate need of holy men. It is time for the men of our land to struggle to find the path of holy living that results in responsible fatherhood. The time is now. Let us get back to the action, where we belong!
Table of Contents
We invite you to read another excellent online book
1. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol 4: Spirituality, p. 8.
3. St. Seraphim of Sarov, as quoted in Hopko, p. 146.
4. St. John Chrysostom, as quoted in Hopko, p. 147.
5. St. Abba Dorotheus, as quoted in Hopko, p. 148.
6. St. Gregory of Sinai, as quoted in Hopko, p. 149.
7. St. Isaac of Syria, as quoted in Hopko, pp. 149-150.
8. Monks Callistus and Ignatius, as quoted in Hopko, p. 150.
9. John Leo, "A Royal Flush in Hearts," U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 4, 1995, p. 18.
Table of Contents of Missing From Action