Problems with fathers are nothing new. They go back to the beginning. Genesis alone is a vast catalog of fathers’ sins, whether those of Adam, Noah, and Lot, or the patriarchs themselves.

What about good fathers, though? Here is C. S. Lewis, writing in the 1940s:

We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

I first read these words in my teens, when a youth minister—a spiritual father in his own way—began putting Lewis and G. K. Chesterton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my hands. This excerpt comes from the opening page of a MacDonald anthology Lewis edited. The Scottish pastor, preacher, and novelist’s writings were crucial to Lewis’s conversion, so much so that Lewis called him “my master.”

Lewis writes that MacDonald had “an almost perfect relationship with his father.” This is remarkable on its face. But is it unique?

I don’t think so. Fatherlessness is a real problem, but reports of the death of fatherhood have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the reason Lewis’s comment resonated when I was in high school was that it named my own experience. True, few of us would reach for the phrase almost perfect to talk about our dads. But good, loving, and faithful all fit the bill. Some of us actually want to be like our dads when we grow up—even once we have, technically speaking, already grown up and become husbands and fathers ourselves.

You might not know this from how we tend to mark Father’s Day. Sometimes it takes the form of shaming fathers for their failures, real and imagined. In May, no one can say enough about the glories of motherhood. But once June rolls around, we overflow about the shortcomings of the modern father. Other times, in our (understandable) eagerness to praise God as the perfect father, our talk of fatherhood drifts into abstraction and out-of-reach ideals. Flesh-and-blood dads in the pews never quite measure up; who could?

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For this Father’s Day, then, here’s my proposal: Rather than focusing on fatherhood in general, let’s talk about particular fathers. None of us has an abstract dad. The only dads around are three-dimensional. Some of them, true, are guilty of the many paternal crimes with which we are so familiar. But far from all. So what are the particular virtues of particular fathers, yours or mine?

When I think of my own father, three virtues come immediately to mind.

The first has to do with blessing. Fathers are agents of blessing. Children wither away without it; with it, they venture into the world as if cloaked by an impenetrable shield. Think of the tragedy of the Von Erich family, as portrayed in the film The Iron Claw: a father with six sons, five of whom preceded him in death, three by suicide.

My colleague Randy Harris (incidentally, another spiritual father of mine) recently spoke about the so-called Von Erich “curse”:

The movie would have us think that that’s not quite right. It’s not quite a curse. What it is, is what happens when sons chase an elusive blessing from their father that never really comes. And maybe I’m taken a bit with that reading because I’ve worked with students and ministers long enough to see what happens when a son or daughter doesn’t have the blessing of their father. … If you’re a father and you haven’t given your child that blessing recently, you might think about doing that. It’s one of the most important things.

We know from Scripture that a father’s blessing bears enormous significance. But what is it, exactly? It’s not approval or affirmation. Nor is it friendship or commonality. No, a father’s blessing is his favor—his unconditional, unapologetic, unquenchable yes to one’s whole being. It’s his love in the form of a lifelong gift, impervious to threat of loss. It’s the public declaration: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

The biblical patriarchs’ blessings are one-time affairs, and are all the more vulnerable for that. In our lives, paternal blessing is less a single moment than a posture stretched out across childhood and beyond. A father’s blessing says, I am for you, come what may—even if what comes, as in the parable of the prodigal, is a son who spurns him.

I have never known a day in my life without my father’s blessing. It’s a security without measure, a gift without earthly rival. Besides faith in Christ, it’s the thing I most hope I am imparting to my own young children—more than happiness, more than health, more than a successful future. Thomas à Kempis calls life without Christ “a relentless hell.” I won’t say the same for a life without a father’s blessing, but our culture is awash in stories that don’t share my reticence.

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This brings to mind my father’s second virtue: the will to break destructive cycles and the resolve to protect life-giving ones.

My father didn’t grow up wanting to be like his father, who was mean and distant and drank too much. By God’s grace, my dad entered college an atheist and left a married Christian. Meeting Christ meant a revolution for his trajectory as a man, above all as a husband and father. With the Spirit’s help, he would be faithful: to Christ, to his wife, and eventually to his three sons.

“Success” for him wasn’t measured by the standards of the world—pleasure, money, image, or other external marks. It was measured by fidelity. Not perfection, not sinlessness, but faithfulness. A faithfulness that included repentance, which is the only kind on offer for Christians.

There is a famous quote attributed to Frank Clark: “A father is a man who expects his son to be as good a man as he meant to be.” A pessimistic interpretation would see this line as an elegy for all the ways fathers fail to be all they ought (or sought) to be. A more hopeful reading would see it as a vision of fatherhood that is both realistic—I will fail—and self-giving—I will succeed if my son surpasses me. If, in other words, my son becomes a better father than I was, and his son a better father than he was, and so on, forever. That is what my own father wanted.

Fatherhood as an aspirational, incremental, generational improvement—ensuring steps backward never surpass steps forward—requires a powerful resolve in two directions. On one hand, it means fiercely repudiating all the history, circumstances, and temptations that would make fidelity less likely. On the other, it means protecting, renewing, and handing on all the good we have received from others or built ourselves. This kind of fatherhood requires an indomitable will: the will to love, the will to sacrifice, the will to be faithful no matter the cost.

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Third and finally, a dad is a teacher. Mine certainly was. Like it or not, all fathers instruct, and not only through example.

My catechesis came in the car. Little did I know that our minivan was not a means of transporting me to basketball tournaments around Texas. It was a devious device, somehow legal, designed to trap me for hours of undesired conversation: about God, about girls, about work ethic. About anything and everything I didn’t want to talk about. But what could I do? Even if I didn’t speak, I was forced to listen.

These conversations were seeds that, in some cases, took a long time to sprout, much less to blossom. And no doubt they sometimes were as painful for my dad as they were for me. But they were far more important than the usual lessons, some of which took (how to ride a bike or shoot a free throw) and some of which did not (how to fix a car or work a spreadsheet).

“You will know them by their fruit,” Jesus said of his disciples (Matt. 7:16, NASB). The same goes for fathers.

Last December, my brothers and our wives gathered in the back room of an Austin restaurant with a few dozen of my parents’ friends (and by “friends” I mean sisters and brothers in Christ with whom they have lived, led, rejoiced, wept, worshiped, and served since I was in diapers). We were there to celebrate my father’s retirement from the company where he had worked for more than 40 years.

My brothers and I each spoke, trying to explain what made our dad so good—as a mentor, as a teacher, as a faithful follower of Christ. For us, the question answered itself: This man lived a good life because he lived the good life. He knew what mattered and committed himself entirely to it.

Fathers live well not when their lives go well, but when they live as God wills regardless how life goes. Their children see it. I saw it. Such a life is itself all the blessing a child needs; it opens every right door and closes all the wrong ones.

My kids call him Pop-E. The eldest son, I raised my glass and told the room, I want to be like Pop-E when I grow up.

Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of four books, including The Church: A Guide to the People of God and Letters to a Future Saint: Foundations of Faith for the Spiritually Hungry.

[ This article is also available in Português. ]