The Spirituality of Fatherhood: Gentleness

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I picked up my three-day-old daughter from her bassinet, but I couldn’t make her stop screeching. I bounced, rocked, and swayed. Twenty squats later, I began to question my competency as a parent. One of our visitors noticed my panic, disguised by confidence, and asked me to hand her over. In an attempt to reassure me, she observed, “Maybe you’re not soft enough.” Wait, was that supposed to be a compliment?

For a time, I assumed that I was biologically ill-equipped for gentleness. My daughter latched on to her mother’s body for sustenance, rendering me glorified waitstaff. I’m also prone to anger; I lose my temper and find it when it’s too late. I can play too rough and throw the kids too high in the air. But the first time my beard stubble gave my daughter goosebumps, I knew that gentleness and strength could be complementary.

Parenthood has been a crash course in gentleness—with myself, with the children, with the world. Bottoms must be wiped, breakfast is to be eaten, books are to be read, fears have to be calmed. And that’s just for my own self-care. For the kids, I speak in an obnoxious falsetto, jump over lava pits, and fight off pirates or evil magicians.

It’s difficult to define gentleness, but here’s a start: gentleness is responding to a three-year-old with kindness, patience, and playfulness after she’s asked fifty questions about how a plant emerges from a seed. It’s flipping off CNN’s latest “breaking news” to put together a Lego castle for princesses. None of this is innate or biological; it’s practiced and acquired. Paul calls gentleness a fruit of the Spirit, and he tells the Ephesians to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (4:2). It takes a lot of watering and pruning to grow a strong, plump fruit.

And yet, there is no greater virtue needed for parenting. Children are tyrants. Better yet, children are tyrants with mood rings that change color with no reason or warning. The best way to tame a tyrant is with a strong display of power, but that power must be shaped with kindness instead of violence.

Not long ago my daughter threw her ice cream on the ground because it was too cold. Ungrateful. My first instinct was to pop her on the mouth, but anger doesn’t diffuse anger. Nor does bitterness or condemnation. Another instinct is to slip into well-reasoned arguments about, for instance, dairy’s freezing point of 0°C. That doesn’t work, either. And it also won’t work with adults.

Other days, or hours, or minutes, when I become aware of her emotional state, I opt for hugs or invite both of us to take three deep breaths. This often brings greater success. Other strategies include reassurance, listening, affirmation—in other words, gentleness. A psychologist taught my wife and I to raise our voices in empathy and commiseration when our child raises hers. The next time she threw a fit about bedtime, we all screamed over the injustice of needing twelve hours of sleep.

Fatherhood has taught me a more beautiful way of being in the world—listening deeply, reading emotions, and refusing hostile defense mechanisms. When I get enough sleep, I’m less angry and more spontaneous. I’m not perfect, but if I err as a parent, I hope to err on the side of gentleness.

God is this way with us—neither forceful nor coercive. Instead, God puts a little pressure on the clay, but not enough to warp the shape or make it wonky. God waters and prunes the garden and waits patiently for growth. God stoops down low, lifts up the limping sheep, and tosses it over God’s neck. This is the work of Jesus. And one thing’s clear: Jesus wasn’t a pushover, nor was he spineless. Jesus showed us a strength that drove money changers out of the temple and demons out of bodies. But he also picked up calloused and dirt-stained feet to wash them. Those people were his children.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is often called El Shaddai, which has been rendered “all powerful” since Saint Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin. Some have questioned this translation, though not universally. Other rabbis have maintained that the phrase might be better rendered as “breasted one.” It’s possible that the two translations are complementary. What if God’s strength is like that of a half-awake mother who’s rocking a child attached to her chest?

Salvation is God’s slow, patient work of making the world gentle, which includes all of us. We’re not much different than toddlers, after all. Our world is violent, changing rapidly, and we’re a people who fear darkness. We throw tantrums when we don’t get our way. We know best, but we also need to nap. We’re hungry and need to hold a hand. On the other hand, we don’t really know what we need. Will someone please acknowledge my emotions?

Insofar as God is like a father, God must be the kind who drops to his knees when he sees us. His rough face presses up against us and makes us giggle. This is the God who is patient with our mistakes, gentle with our tantrums, and obstinate in love. At the end of a long day, this Father will scoop us up into his rough hands and listen to our songs of praise, thanksgiving, lament, and terror.

John writes in hisletter,“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2-3).

May we come to see God as God is so that we may become what we were meant to be all along: gentle. This is the work of salvation. At the very least, it may result in less long-term psychoanalytic therapy.

Ryan Snider is a United Methodist pastor in Candler, North Carolina. He and his wife, Danielle, have a three-year-old who was once lovingly described as a “live wire,” and a one-year-old who is currently balancing out the former. He writes at ryancsnider.com.

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