The last topic we addressed was discipline. Children need to learn an attitude. They need to learn humility more than they need to learn rules. Rules change as we grow older. The humble attitude remains. Love does not exalt itself. It is not puffed up. It does not preen and posture. It humbles itself before others.
Jesus exercised authority by washing his disciples’ feet. (John 13) Peter said no. Jesus said yes. Peter said never. Jesus said if Peter didn’t let him wash his feet he would have nothing to do with him. Strong language! Jesus insists on serving us. This is how he exercises his authority over us. He submits to his Father with all humility and bears away the sin of the world. His authority over us is grounded in his authority to forgive us our sins. The government that rests upon his shoulders is the authority to forgive sins here on earth where we sorely need it.
Jesus does not need our forgiveness. We need his. The father of the home is to represent God. God doesn’t come to us for forgiveness. So the father should not come to his children for forgiveness, either. Should he?
But he should! The authority of a Christian father does not rest in his own personal worthiness. It is from God. God established paternal authority in the beginning, when he blessed Adam and Eve with children. It is the very nature of fatherhood to have dominion in God’s name and by God’s authority. God’s command to be fruitful (Genesis 1:28) is a command to exercise lordship. We don’t have to wait until the Law given on Sinai to see God himself represented in the relationship of a father to his children. The most fundamental civil authority is that of the father of the children. On Sinai God simply codified for his chosen people that law that he placed into creation and that exists until the end of time. Fathers exercise divine authority in their homes.
But the father is as much of a sinner as his children are! He sees the wrong they do and is obligated to discipline them and he thinks he must set an example, stand up for what is right, protect the dignity of the paternal office, and so he begins to think that he cannot humble himself before his children and admit that he was wrong and did wrong and needs their forgiveness. He should think again!
The dignity we have as God’s representatives is never a personal achievement. It is a gift. God gives it to us when he makes us fathers. We don’t earn it. We can’t make it what it is. We certainly don’t lose it by humbling ourselves before our children and admitting that we were wrong when we were wrong. St. James writes, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) He writes this as he speaks of the efficacy of prayer. Confessing our sins to one another and forgiving one another is at the heart of a Christian family. No Christian father dare place himself above the need for forgiveness. For that is placing himself outside of God’s grace.
Now don’t misunderstand. Most of our sins are none of our children’s business and we do them no favor by pouring out our guts to them. But admitting to our children when we have been unfair or unkind to them and asking for their forgiveness by no means denigrates the office of father. This is what Christians do. And we are always first and foremost Christians.
Years ago, I was visiting with a parishioner at the request of his father. The parishioner was a teenage boy. His father was a very successful businessman who had just about everything a man could ask for in life, but he lacked one thing: his son’s respect. I’ll never forget the conversation. The boy resented and despised his dad. I told him that he needed to look at his dad not just as his dad but as a Christian brother who needed his forgiveness. It was like a light went on in the boys eyes! I don’t think he ever thought of his dad as his brother. It’s likely that his dad didn’t think of their relationship that way either.
The forgiveness we receive from God is the forgiveness we give to one another. We ask and we give. We give and we ask. It is the most precious exchange of our lives. And it sets us free from our failures. A steadfast dad makes mistakes. He lives under grace. He teaches his children so to live. God strengthens the family bond through the forgiveness of sins. In this way divine authority is always centered where it belongs and the father can be confident to be a father.