Hard Fathers, Soft Sons PDF Print E-mail
Written by Douglas Wilson   
Thursday, 17 December 2009 10:09

Whenever we learn something, one of the important lessons to master right after that is the pitfall that awaits us as a result of what we just learned. True, if we never climb the mountain, we will never fall off it. Still, there is something to be said for climbing mountains—which should not be taken as an argument in favor of falling off them.

One of the things our effeminate age has had to learn is the importance of masculine hardness. As I learned from my father, and as I have repeated many times, soft teaching creates hard hearts, and hard teaching creates soft hearts. When the pulpits of our land are occupied by the mealy-mouthed, it is not surprising that congregations are full of the kind of hard-hearted brittleness that sin always brings with it—fractured relationships, divorces, estrangements between parents and children, and all the rest of it. And when the Word of God is declared without flinching, the result is that the people of God are responsive and tender. The jackhammer of the Word breaks up the rock hardness of sin. The Lord’s Word is a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jer. 23:29).

Applying this, we can infer that soft fathers create hard, undisciplined sons, and that hard fathers create tender-hearted sons. And that is quite true, provided the fathers are hard in the right way. But there is a hardness in fathers that creates soft, effeminate sons.

Godly hardness cultivates a tender heart toward God and the things of God. Ungodly hardness creates an invertebrate pile of mush. So what kind of hardness is this latter sort? How can we recognize and avoid it?

In a nutshell, there is a hardness that gives and a hardness that demands and takes. When a father is hard because he wants to prepare his son for the world—and the world is hard—he is giving something crucial to his son. When a father is hard because he is being part of that hard world, he is robbing his son. When a father is hard for the right reasons, the central thing he is giving to his son is that right kind of hardness. When he is hard in the wrong way, he is using that hardness on his son.

The odd thing about this is that two fathers might be hard in opposite ways, given these parameters, and yet be requiring the same physical thing of their sons. The hard requirement could be to keep the grades up, or to work a very difficult summer job, or any other thing that a father might ask of his son. If it is right, then the son knows that everything is being done for his sake. If it is not right, the son knows he is being roughly handled because his father wants to suit himself.

None of this is being said as a form of modern therapy-speak, as though a difficult upbringing justifies an ungodly response. Our duties are established by Scripture, not by our childhoods. And Scripture gives us an example of sons learning a good lesson from fathers who may have provided a less-than-exemplary pattern of discipline (Heb. 12:9), and yet still we respected them. The point here is not that the wrong kind of hardness in a father gives his son a right to be soft—it does not. Rather, it is simply an observation about what frequently happens to sons of this sort of father, a father who may not want to recognize the effect he is actually having.

As a pastor, this is a pattern I have seen multiple times. For everyone at church, the father is a stand-up guy, hard-worker, diligent, and perfectionistic. He is the guy you call when you want the job done right. The son is a waster, limp, lazy, slapdash, and irresponsible. He is not the guy you call when you want it done right. Now, how could someone who grew up under those sorts of paternal standards get away with what this kid is getting away with? This is what might be called a passive-aggressive rebellion—the son does not rebel against the hard father by getting into fist fights with him (although—different problem—that has been known to happen), but rather by playing the edges, working a piecemeal rebellion, doing jobs at 5% off, followed by 7% off, lying, making excuses, and so on. Some rebellions just erupt. Others are rebellions of attrition, which is what we see in this instance. Softness . . . going limp . . . is a very effective way to fight a war of attrition against a father who has been hard in the wrong way.

As with all other problems like this, the first step out is identifying what the problem actually was. The father who has a son like this—a son who shames him—must do more than just experience the shame. He must own it. That means that he needs to see how he contributed to the creation of something that appears to be very much unlike him. But this is just a surface appearance. All these years, the father was being hard, not because this was the way he had to be in order to serve his family. He was hard because he wanted to be, because he simply wanted to suit himself. Instead of seeing the trivial differences between himself and his son (e.g. what time they get up in the morning), he needs to learn to see the deep similarities. He has been hard because he wanted to suit himself. And his son has learned the lesson well—not the one about hardness, but the one about the importance of suiting yourself.

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