On Father’s Day my pastor used the term “father famine” to describe the lack of fathers and fathering in our culture right now. Even though the truths bound up in this term are familiar to me as a watcher of culture, the term slapped me in the face—it was that shocking. Our culture is truly in the midst of a father famine. And it is not simply that we lack headship in families. No, the problem is much deeper: we don’t even understand what good headship is. We—all of us, the whole culture—have little vision for fathers or fathering.

The problem is at least two-fold even in its simplest form. On the one hand, some families are completely fatherless because of divorce or abandonment or in some cases even death. There are many single moms out there doing the best they can with what they have. Theirs is a labor of love, and we should thank God for them. The complete absence of a father in the family is a serious and deep rooted cultural malady. I do not mean to just wave my hand at that malady as if to dismiss it as a problem that won’t go away, but that is not the issue I want to address here in this limited space. I want to explore the other hand.

On the other hand, even when a father is physically present in the home, often times little or no actual fathering is going on. We have cultural amnesia and have all together lost our understanding of what it means to father. Jesus, during His Sermon on the Mount, said, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt. 7:9). At first read Jesus seems to mean that a good father would not trick his hungry son by replacing his bread with a rock, and we would certainly see the good fathering in that, but there’s more going on here.

Jesus is also saying that a good father knows what his children need and gives that to them instead of something else. He is not saying that a good father knows what will make his children immediately happy and gives that to them in spite of their need. Immediate happiness and fulfilling a need don’t always go hand in hand. Herein lies one of the gravest of the fathering issues in our culture, and one that has contributed greatly to the famine. So many fathers have become convinced that they should be friends with their children, so they give their children popular gifts and do things to make themselves appear cool or hip to their children in order to win their friendship. These fathers are convinced that children made happy in this way will like them, respect them, even obey them. This is not the kind of fathering Jesus had in mind and is, in fact, no kind of fathering at all—it is bribery. The role of father is much greater than that of friend when it comes to training up children in the way they should go, which is our task.

So very often what our children need is not necessarily the thing that will make them immediately happy. Few fathers would give their children chocolate cake for breakfast, in spite of the outrageously funny skit the now infamous comic Bill Cosby performed on that very subject. Chocolate cake is not good for children to eat for breakfast; instead, they need nutritious food that might not be as exciting or might not gratify the sense of taste so fully as chocolate cake. Chocolate cake for breakfast would make them happy, but not fulfill their need. This is a case of knowing what children need and giving it to them even if they protest. They want cake, but they need oatmeal; so sensible fathers give them oatmeal.

This chocolate cake vs. oatmeal analogy may seem to oversimplify the problem. I definitely do not want to do that, but I think the analogy works when we extend it. An important aspect of fathering is knowing what our children need. An even more important aspect of fathering is being man enough to give it to them when they would prefer immediate gratification. God, our own Heavenly Father, must be our model father in this and all fathering issues. When the children of Israel would not trust God and go in to possess the land He had given them, He did not cave in and do something different to make them happy. He did not give them chocolate cake for breakfast. There would have been no gain in that. He gave them nourishing oatmeal instead. For their good, fulfilling their need, He led them into the wilderness where they spent forty years learning how to trust Him. That is fathering, and in the long run it led to a deeper happiness, even joy, for the children of Israel.

At some point the chocolate cake vs. oatmeal analogy runs out of gas. It can’t describe all of our culture’s fathering shortcomings because there are so many issues to discuss. This much seems plain though: as Christian fathers we can make a dent in the father famine if we will look to God as the model father and if we will meet our children’s needs even if that doesn’t make them happy in the short term. Happiness is superficial and fleeting; joy in a Father who meets all our needs is deep rooted and everlasting, and it is just the kind of thing that ends famines.