byFaith | 6.18.15
By Alan Dowd

Our culture increasingly views fathers as unnecessary. Consider a study conducted by the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), which found that TV fathers are eight times more likely to be shown in a negative light than TV mothers, and that 65 percent of Hollywood’s depictions of fatherhood provide either ambiguous or negative portrayals. Yet there are other numbers that tell the story of how important dads are for kids—and how destructive the decline of fatherhood is for society.

Out-of-wedlock births hovered in the 5-percent range in the 1950s. Today, a staggering 40.6 percentof births in America are to unmarried women. The consequences are far-reaching:

  • NFI reportsthat 12 percent of children in married-couple families live in poverty, compared to 44 percent of children in mother-only families.
  • More than 70 percent of high-school dropouts come from fatherless homes.
  • Daughters of single mothers are 111 percent more likely to have children as teenagers—and 164 percent more likely to have a baby outside of marriage.
  • A Department of Justice study of some 14,000 women in prison found that more than half grew up in fatherless homes.
  • A fatherless young male is twice as likely to engage in criminal activity and end up in jail.

In short, the numbers tell us what God has always said: Kids need moms and dads. This shouldn’t be taken as an attack on single moms, who are among the most courageous people in America. Often working multiple jobs outside the home, they face the most important job of all inside the home—alone.  Many of their children grow up to be productive members of society. But the odds are against them. Nor is this an endorsement of the misguided notion that any father—regardless of his behavior—is preferable to no father at all. The health and safety of a family should never be sacrificed for the sake of a marriage.

However, what was true in the beginning remains true today: God intends for children to grow up with a mother and a father. The importance of both to God’s plan is underscored by His visionfor the family unit, by the Ten Commandments and by the fill-in father He chose for His son. Joseph doesn’t get much attention, but what better time than Father’s Day to shine a little light on this unsung hero of the Bible.

While the mentions of Joseph are few, they paint a picture of a man of faith, a man who trusted God, a man who protected and sacrificed for his family, a man of duty. What little we know about him tells us a lot about what it takes to be a good man and a good dad.
Matthew 1 tells us that Joseph “was faithful to the law.” In Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary did “everything required by the law of the Lord” in relation to Jesus.

In short, Joseph walked the walk. Even before he became part of the most famous blended family in history, he lived a life that caught the attention of heaven.

The Message translation of Matthew 1 calls Joseph “noble.” And he certainly was that. Think about it: When confronted with news that his fiancée was pregnant, he didn’t ridicule her or subject her to public humiliation. Instead, the gentlemanly Joseph tried to do the very opposite. Matthew tells us that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” and planned “to divorce her quietly.”

That’s an honorable, noble thing to do. But God had other ideas, and God knew that Joseph would be open to those ideas.

That brings us to another of Joseph’s good-dad/good-man traits, perhaps the most important trait of all. Joseph listened for God. And just as important, he accepted God’s answers. For Joseph, like his Old Testament namesake, those answers often came in the form of dreams.

As Joseph wrestled with how to end his engagement to Mary, “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”

When Joseph awoke, Matthew’s account tells us, “He did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” That’s no small matter. After the angel explained all that God was putting on his shoulders—an instant family, a wife with a special connection to heaven, a child with a world-changing mission—Joseph said yes. He didn’t have to.

It wouldn’t be the last time God spoke to Joseph through dreams. Matthew 2 recounts another time, just after the Magi had visited Jesus, when the angel brought word of great danger. “Get up,” the angel said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” Joseph dutifully followed the angel’s instructions.

Later, God communicated to Joseph in another dream to leave Egypt. “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,” the angel said, “for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” Again, Joseph did as God instructed. In yet another dream, he was warned about where to settle the family. He chose a town called Nazareth.

Because he was in tune with God and willing to accept what he heard from God, Joseph played a part in the fulfillment of the greatest prophecy God ever revealed to man: “Out of Egypt I called my son” and “he would be called a Nazarene.” And because Joseph followed his dreams, dreams shaped by God, he kept his family safe and found the strength to stand by his wife. Again, that’s no small matter.

Mary comes to Joseph with news that she is pregnant and then tells him that the child is, quite literally, heaven-sent. It takes a special man to accept that. It takes a special man to stand by the woman he loves when her future is turned upside down, when the promise of love is put to the test of life. But that’s what Joseph did. That’s what good men do.

When a husband stands by his wife, when she knows he is on her side no matter what, when she feels loved and supported, when he lifts her up instead of putting her down, he is giving her a precious gift and showing her a powerful expression of God’s faithfulness. It may not come naturally. It may be a sacrifice. But Joseph shows us how a husband supports his wife.

Like all good dads, like all good husbands, Joseph put his family first. He sacrificed for them in big and small ways. For one thing, it would have been a lot easier on Joseph to quietly end the betrothal than to start a family with all the baggage and questions that surely came with Mary. It’s not hard to imagine the gossip that floated around the neighborhood when Mary arrived, with child but without a husband. 

It also would have been a lot easier on Joseph to travel to Bethlehem alone for the census. I love how the film “The Nativity Story” depicts this. In one scene, as Joseph, a very-pregnant Mary and a donkey are limping their way to Bethlehem, Joseph pretends that he has already eaten so that Mary and the donkey have enough food.  

Good dads do this in literal and figurative ways—I know because mine did—skipping lunches so their kids can get new shoes, going without seconds at dinnertime so a growing family can get its fill, taking on a second job to make sure there’s something under the Christmas tree, making do with bald tires so the family car can have new ones, putting away the golf clubs and putting the savings toward the college fund. Good dads always sacrifice and never complain about it.

Luke 2 tells us that under Joseph’s care, Jesus “grew and became strong.” Sure, heaven kept a close eye on Jesus as He grew up, but the Father and the Spirit were comfortable entrusting the Son to this good man. Joseph literally lived out one of the most beautiful passages in the Gospel. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,” Jesus declared. “And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” I wonder if happy memories of Joseph came to Jesus’ mind as He said those words.

With so many kids unwelcomed and unloved, we all are called to play the role of fill-in father at times. In David’s poignant words, God is “the helper of the fatherless,” the one who “sustains the fatherless” (Psalm 146, Psalm 68). He does this through us: coaches who encourage and care, neighbors who provide a measure of stability for someone else’s teenager, pastors and youth-group leaders who offer a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear, teachers and Scout leaders who go the extra mile, friends who shuttle someone else’s kids around town, Big Brothers and Big Sisters who inspire kids to see beyond their circumstances, good Samaritans who give their treasure, talents and time to at-risk kids.

Regardless of your gender, you may be one of these fill-in fathers. When you feel empty and exhausted, remember that you are doing nothing less than the Father’s work. As James explained, religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans in need.

Not enough of us are like Joseph. Not enough of us are faithful to God’s law. Not enough of us are gentle and noble. Not enough of us listen for God and then trust His answers. Not enough of us stand by our families and help our neighbors. Not enough of us accept the role of supporting actor. Not enough of us make room for Jesus. The good news is we can change. We can become what God wants us to be. Joseph shows us how.

Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.