Seeing the end of his earthly life draw near, the great eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards spoke to his daughter Lucy, who attended him during his last days, the best last words I have ever seen come from a dying father. Edwards, who dedicated his life to studying and teaching about a God who is sovereign over all things, knew he could entrust his family to this same God as their heavenly father. A child may learn nothing else from his father (or mother!) but to love God and walk in his ways, but this is more valuable than the greatest earthly inheritance any parent can hope to leave his children. This is the best thing a father or mother can do for their children, and it’s sweet to see the great theologian of the Great Awakening be that kind of father. From John Piper’s God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2006):
“Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you.”
I absolutely loved this description of Jonathan Edwards as a devoted, generous, and tender father, and the lasting effects this attention had on his children. From Owen Strachan’s Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Once the day began, Edwards took up his pen and dove into the life of the mind, writing sermons and treatises and reading books. He frequently interrupted his work, though, for interaction with his children, ‘to treat with them in his Study, singly and particularly about their…Soul’s Concerns,’ always being ‘careful and thorough in the Government of his Children.’ In response, his children ‘reverenced, esteemed and loved him.’ Edwards was not a perfect father, but the record of his family life shows that he did not selfishly shut himself off from his loved ones. As important as his work was to the pastor, it seems that his children took first priority. Their later flowering testifies to this. The girls married well and had numerous children who became Christian leaders and important social figures. The boys distinguished themselves as pillars of their communities and the broader New England region. The lives of successive generations suggest that the Lord blessed the Edwards home for its fidelity to Him” (70).
What does it look like for a father to wisely and lovingly instruct his children in the realities of life? It looks like James Garfield (1831-1881), twentieth president of the United States, turning to books – those reliable and patient teachers – to teach his children a lesson in the difficulties of life, from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard (given to me by my dear parents-in-law):
“Searching for a way to teach his children this hard truth [the inevitability of death], to prepare them for what lay ahead, Garfield had often turned to what he knew best – books. After dinner one evening, he pulled a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello off the shelf and began to read the tragedy aloud. ‘The children were not pleased with the way the story came out,’ he admitted in his diary, but he hoped that they would come to ‘appreciate stories that [do not] come out well, for they are very much like a good deal of life'” (19).
Yesterday, on Christmas, my wife gave me more evidence for why marrying her was the best decision of my life: she gave me the book Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013), written by Eric Metaxas, the same man who gave us the excellent Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I’ve already thrown myself into this delightful book, meaning there are more posts about it to come, but I wanted to waste no time in sharing this wonderful insight about fatherhood and the calling of true manhood. As someone whose biological father went missing in action early on in my life but who has received a hundred-fold and more in my heavenly Father and good men who have modeled true, servant manliness to me, this passage resonated with particular force:
“There is something vital in the idea of fatherhood and it gives us a clue to the secret of a great man. But we have to point out that a man needn’t be an actual father to bear the traits of every good father. Two of the men in this book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Paul II, never married or had children. Even George Washington, who married, never had children of his own. And yet we Americans call him the father of our country. And in the case of Pope John Paul II, the root word from which we get ‘pope’ is papa – father. Being a father is not a biological thing. If we think of the fatherhood of God, we get a picture of someone who is strong and loving and who sacrifices himself for those he loves. That’s a picture of real fatherhood and real manhood” (from the introduction, xviii).