The Passive Husband/Father

The family and I were traveling on U.S. Highway 45 some miles below Meridian, Mississippi, returning home to Columbus from a week at the Alabama beaches.

My wife was driving and I was to her right, reading the newspaper.

I looked up occasionally at the highway in front of us. It occurred to me our car was inching too close to the right edge. The shoulder of the road did not join with the highway, but where the concrete ended, there was a dropoff of at least six inches.

I should have been alarmed and should have alerted Margaret.

You would have thought this was happening to someone else. I sat there watching the highway, thinking, “The car’s wheels are getting uncomfortably close to the edge.”

Our three children were in the back seat. All our lives were at risk. And I did nothing.

Suddenly, the wheels dipped over the edge.

The car went into a spin on that two-lane highway while we were traveling at 60 miles per hour. That right front tire blew out. We spun around several times, and came to a rest in our lane, facing the opposite direction.

I can still hear our youngest son, about 10, calling out, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” as the car went into the whirlwind.

A man ran out of a house across the road to check on us. What he said scared me even worse than the experience.


He said, “While you were in that tailspin, an 18-wheeler passed on the other side. You came that close to all being dead now.”

We pushed the car off the highway and changed to the spare, then drove into Meridian–I drove!–and bought a new tire, and went on our way.

Later, as we discussed what had happened, two strong realities emerged.

One. My wife, who had battled problems with poor vision since childhood, had very little depth perception. She confessed to having almost no awareness of where the front tires were on the pavement at any given time. Over the next few weeks, she went through a retraining process as a driver.

Two. I had been far too passive in safeguarding my family. I should have spoken up and alerted my wife to the danger in front of us. Not doing so almost cost my loved ones their lives.

I have a suspicion that my passivity on that occasion was symptomatic of how I was leading–or not giving leadership at all–to this family whom I loved with all my heart.

Not long after, I resigned from some of the denominational activities that had occupied too much of my time so I could stay at home with my family and provide my church with a full-time pastor. I canceled an overseas mission trip and began to be more hands-on with the people I loved.

You fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

The first part of Paul’s admonition is to remind dads not to overdo the leadership bit. John MacArthur writes, “In the pagan world of Paul’s day, and even in many Jewish households, most fathers ruled their families with rigid and domineering authority. The desire and welfare of wives and children were seldom considered. The apostle makes it clear that a Christian father’s authority over his children does not allow for unreasonable demands and strictures that might drive his children to anger, despair, and resentment.”

The second part of this verse points out the right path: proper discipline and instruction.

If the truth (the right amount of discipline and instruction) is a narrow ridge, then on one side looms the chasm of domineering dads and on the other side the chasm of indifferent and passive fathers.

Which would you guess is more prevalent in American society today?

My vote goes to the latter. We will hear the occasional story of fathers emulating “The Great Santini,” the character in Pat Conroy’s novel who was modeled after his own browbeating father. But they are a minority.

Far more prevalent are the absentee fathers, those unresponsive dads who–like me in the car that day–see the dangers and know full well what’s at stake, but do nothing about it.

I think of Eli, the high priest in the days when Samuel was a child. The old man was nearly blind and incapacitated by health problems, so he turned over the operations of the tabernacle to his two sorry sons, Hophni and Phinehas. We’re told in scripture that these two men stole parts of the offerings brought to the Lord’s house and had sexual relations with some of the women coming to worship. When Eli found out about it, he went into action. Or maybe, went into inaction.

“He said to them, ‘Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil doings from all the people. No, my sons. It is not a good report I hear. You make the Lord’s people transgress.” (I Samuel 2:23-24)

What he should have done was to fire those two renegades on the spot. Instead, Eli left them in place to continue their abuse. His failure to deal with rebellion had dire consequences, as they were soon to take the ark of the covenant into battle against the Philistines and end up losing the ark, losing their lives, and losing the battle. When Eli heard about the disaster, he died of a heart attack.

It occurred to me as a young minister studying God’s word that most of the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament were failures as fathers. David was, as was Samuel. If there are great role models in the Old Testament, we’re not told who they were.

God give us men who will take the lead in caring for and teaching their families, who will be strong husbands and faithful fathers.

Taking my experience as a metaphor for fathers, we have four suggestions:

1. If you see a danger, tell the people you love most.

Idle teenage boys are hanging around the street corner. Young people are congregating near a local hangout and getting into trouble. You read something in the newspaper about a new type of drug being sold on the streets. A child molester who has been released from prison moves into your block.

You monitor the television programs available to your family and install safeguards. I’m recalling how I used to sit down with the TV Guide and our three children to plan what they would watch on television for the coming week. I’ve long forgotten how much they were allowed to watch–and I expect that it varied over the years–but I seem to recall it was 30 minutes or an hour a day at the most.

2. If you make someone angry, it’s worth it.

The primary reason I kept my mouth shut that day was that my wife did not take criticism of her driving well. As the old joke goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.” Any husband learns fairly quickly what sets his wife off. So, rather than upsetting her, I put our family at great risk. Not real smart.

There is such a thing as tough love. We show tough love when we are willing to make someone mad if it means benefiting them or even saving their life.

3. But if you make them angry and they change their ways, you did well.

That day, had I called my wife’s attention to what she was doing, she might have been upset with me. Even so, she would have moved the car into the middle of the lane, which was what I wanted. It would have been worth the trouble it caused if it prevented an accident.

I expect one reason a lot of fathers do not provide the hands-on leadership for their family is that they and their wives are not on the same page. Rather than cause a row, dad sits back and lets the family come apart at the seams. He makes jokes about having no role in anything except to pay the bills, but this is no joke.

I’ve been a husband for nearly 49 years and a father for that-many-years-minus-one. I have learned a few things. One of the most important is not to spring anything on my wife. Before instituting a new pattern or rule of law (call it what you will) for the family, it’s best for mom and dad to talk these things out and have a meeting of the minds. Then, they will stand united before the children.

No child can long withstand parents who stand together.

4. If you love your family, lead them, dad.

God calls you the head of the family. Not the lord, not the God, and not the dictator. But the head.

Think about that.

My head has the best interest of all the parts of my body at heart. If it sees a danger for one part of the body–my head sees that the right hand is about to brush against a hot stove–it sends a message to that body part with an urgent command to get out of there.

The body is a unit, like the family.

A passive head–one that sees dangers and does nothing, one that knows trouble is just ahead and goes back to sleep–is the enemy of his body.

Dad, I suggest you draw your life up close to the Lord Jesus Christ in a personal rededication. Begin spending time in His word and in prayer every day, interceding for these you love. If there is hypocrisy in your life, get it out.

Then you are ready to step up and exert positive, active leadership for your family.

Take them to Sunday School and to church. Take them on picnics and to ball games and concerts and movies.

Go to the park with the family and play ball. Take them to the walking path and walk the circuit with them, and see if they don’t talk your ear off.

Turn off the television and cut back on the computer time.

Listen to the family. They will want to have input into these activities and restrictions. But once they know you are only interested in their welfare, they’ll come on board.

My guess is they might even gripe a little. But deep inside, they’re glad to have a father who is on the job. There is no better feeling for a child than security.

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