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To Be a Good Provider

June 15, 2008

I Timothy 5:8; I Thessalonians 2:6-12

Today is Father’s Day. My message is directed to fathers, although I must say that between services a number of women came to me and said, “That sermon was for me, too.” Maybe the message contains something for everyone. I want to speak to fathers, especially, about what it means to be a good provider.

When Clare and I were dating each other, we attended a gathering at Furman, a reception for seniors. A prominent man in the Greenville community, a banker I knew because of several activities I was involved in, also attended. I introduced Clare to him as my fiancée. He looked at her and remarked, “My dear, I hope he will be a good provider.”

I started shaking in my boots. Thinking about trying to be a good provider when I was just about to graduate from college was overwhelming. That is exactly the task before all of us who are husbands and fathers. We salute the many women who also assume this role and handle that responsibility so well.

The Bible instructs us to be a good provider. Turn with me to I Timothy 5:8, a verse I have pondered long and often: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This verse will in some ways strike as much fear in your heart as having a very successful man say to your fiancée, “I hope he will be a good provider.”

Whenever I speak to groups on family matters, Clare always suggests that I enter a disclaimer. She wants everyone to know that the two of us are in the trenches with everyone else and that we are no experts. I do not stand before you as an expert on what it means to be a good provider, but I stand before you as one who has faced this issue now for a long time.

When our children were much younger, when they were all still at home, I was asked to speak to a group of parents. Our oldest child was a seventh grader at that time. We were seated around the supper table together, and I was speaking in about an hour and a half. I decided to ask my children what I should say about being a good parent, and I started with the youngest.

I turned to Betsy and asked, “What do you think I should say to these parents about being a good parent?”

“Dad, tell them to love their children.”

To our second youngest, Kris, I asked, “What should I say to these parents?”

“Dad, tell them to teach their children to obey.”

I then turned to Scott with the same question, “Scott, what do you think I should tell this group about good parenting?”

“Dad, just tell them to teach their children to do the right thing.”

Erik, a little older, suggested, “Tell them to never give up on their children.”

Finally, to our child in junior high, I posed the same question, “Mike, what do you think I ought to tell these parents?”

He answered, “Dad, I just think you ought to send somebody else.”

His answer sounds right. I asked him to go with me, and he addressed the topic of good parenting from a junior high perspective. He actually did a wonderful job.

You perhaps remember the old Prudential Insurance Company advertisements that showed a father in various circumstances. Once when the lights had gone out in the house and everyone was frightened, the father flipped the circuit breaker. When the lights came back on, he looked into the camera and said, “They need me.” Another time the family car had stalled, and the father arrived in his car and used jumper cables to get the stalled car started. Afterwards, he looked into the camera and said, “They need me.” In yet another advertisement, the family was on vacation when somebody ran out of money. The father pulled out cash he had in reserve, looked at the camera, and again said, “They need me.”

So often, we identify the role of a father as the person who steps in, fixes whatever is broken, completes repairs, and most of all, provides financial means for the family. We sometimes call his job, “bringing home the bacon” or “putting bread on the table.” Certainly being a good provider means all of that, but it means so much more.

We know very little about the apostle Paul’s family. At least, we learn very few details from the Scriptures. By thinking about what we know about Paul, however, we can make some assumptions about his family. He was a well educated man from Tarsus who spoke at least three languages. He was a devout Jew with an inquiring mind, and he carried his heritage as a part of the tribe of Benjamin. We could say of Paul that he did not have a problem with low self-esteem. He was very opinionated and aggressive at times. Just looking at that information about Paul, we can see that his family seemed to have been very devout in their Jewish faith. They certainly encouraged him to obtain a good education. Tarsus would have been a wonderful place to do that. His family taught him how to work with his hands as evident in his side occupation of tent making. Somebody taught him that skill, that craft. Paul certainly was a devout Jew with a deep faith, a man of his convictions. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, he did a 180 degree turn in terms of what he believed. He was an unchanged man though in terms of his aggression and steadfast way in which he held to his convictions.

In I Timothy 5:8, Paul gives a stern warning, imploring us to be good providers for all of our relatives, but especially for our immediate family.

Think about that imperative a minute as we look at a few verses from one of Paul’s earliest letters, I Thessalonians. In some ways, these verses serve as a kind of commentary on I Timothy 5:8. I Thessalonians 2, beginning halfway through Verse 6:

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believe. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

People have a variety of experiences with their father. When we talk about fathers, we need to know that not everyone has a good relationship. Father’s Day is a mixed blessing for some, perhaps. I understand that. Some fathers here today are grieving the loss of a child. Others are grieving the loss of a father.

Recently, I checked out of the public library a book by Rick Bragg, The Prince of Frogtown. It is a story of Bragg’s problems with his father, an abusive alcoholic, and the resentment he felt toward his father. Bragg writes about returning to the textile mill area in Alabama where he lived as a child. There, he interviewed people who knew his father as a boy and those who knew him in high school. This journey brought a healing of Bragg’s memories.

Several years ago, Tim Russert wrote Big Russ and Me, the story about his admiration for his father. Tim died the week, and his father is now grieving the loss of a son. Last night about midnight, Gail Boney’s father went to heaven. The Boney family – Gail, her sister, and her mother – are grieving the loss of a dad on this Father’s Day.

All of us need understanding about what it means to be a good provider. In these six verses from I Thessalonians 2, Paul identifies twenty characteristics that we might call characteristics of a good provider. Listen to the verb forms he used in this passage: serves as a good model; acts with gentleness; cares for and loves others; takes delight; shares; gives of himself; faces hardship; works hard; teaches the gospel; behaves in a holy, righteous, and blameless manner; offers discipline; possesses courage; offers comfort and encouragement; and has faith.

Paul talks about his relationship to the church at Thessalonica in various ways. He talks about being like a mother to them, a brother to them, and finally a father to them. Look at the characteristics he identifies specifically with being a father in Verses 11-12: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God.”

First, being a good provider means being a person of encouragement. The very first way we encourage our children is by giving them a good name. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,” Proverbs 22:1 says. We establish a name that our children can be proud to bear, simply by the way we live. Having a good name is a gift that is more important than a wonderful inheritance. In fact, it is a wonderful inheritance.

Encouragement comes in more ways than that. A part of the father’s role is to help children venture out and try new things like learning how to ride a bicycle, swim, or drive a car. I remember the times I followed behind my children, holding onto the seat of a bicycle while they tried to gain their balance. I was like a set of human training wheels. I would encourage them, “Pedal, pedal, keep pedaling! As long as you pedal, you can keep your balance.” Sooner or later I let go of the seat and watched them wobble a little bit. Before long, they learned to ride by themselves. I remember watching them learn to swim, which was easier for some than it was for others. I had a go with all of them at learning to drive a car, but we finally decided that driver education was the best option. I would highly recommend that route. It was cheaper than psychiatric care for them and for me. My children did learn to drive, and I must say they learned far better than they would have if they had learned how from me.

All of our children took piano lessons, at least for a short while. Betsy took for much longer. During that first year of piano, all of the children were assigned a recital piece. I do not remember the title of that particular piece, but we called it the “recital piece from hell” because it sounded horrible to us. It was hard to listen to and hard to play. I got so tired of hearing all four boys practice that piece for the recital through the years. It pretty much did in our boys. Betsy got through the piece pretty easily and moved on to other pieces of music.

At one of Betsy’s recitals, a young boy had to play this “piece from hell.” He started playing but completely lost his way. The teacher told him to start over, which he did. He started again and started again and started again and started again. When he finally muddled through and finished, he came over and plopped down in the chair next to his dad who was sitting on the row in front of us. The boy sighed, “Whew!” and shook his head. His father put an arm around his son, hugged him, and whispered, “I am really proud of you for sticking with it.” That father is an encourager.

It does not matter how hard or how bad a situation gets, a good father gives encouragement. That is a very important way of providing for our children. If our children do not get that encouragement from us, where are they going to get it? It is one of the ways we really do provide for them.

The Olympic Games will soon be played again. I will never forget a scene from the 1992 games. Derrick Redman was running the 400-meter race in hopes of winning a medal. He was actually doing very well; but as he made the final turn, he pulled his right hamstring and fell to the track in agony. Out of the stands came a man who picked him up off the track, immediately disqualifying Redman. The man put Derrick’s arm around his own shoulder, and the two hobbled together across the finish line.

Just after they crossed the line, reporters scolded the man, “You shouldn’t have touched him. That disqualified him.”

The man answered, “I am Derrick’s father. He came here, not to fall down but to finish the race. Disqualification or not, I was going to help him finish the race.” That father has the gift of encouragement.

A good father provides comfort for his children. The word comfort comes from two good Latin words, cum, fortis, which, when combined, mean “with courage.” Comfort is not pabulum and milk toast. Comfort is not an attempt to make things easy. Comfort is availability. A good father is present when his children need him. A good father provides a sense of security. When children are young, they become afraid of the dark. They skin their knees and get their feelings hurt. A father comes alongside them and provides the strength and comfort of his presence. Sometimes in the difficulties of life, children become irrational. A comforting father remains the calm in the midst of the storm, even when everyone else seems to be going crazy.

I remember my second year at Furman University well. I was a sophomore, a word that comes from the Greek root words, sophos and moros. Sophomore means “wise fool.” It is a strange combination of words. That is exactly what I was. I came home and got out of the automobile that my dad had provided, smoking a Doctor Graybow pipe with cherry-blend tobacco. You cannot imagine how distinguished that made this nineteen-year-old look. I walked across the lawn my dad had been cutting and unloaded about how I was going to be my own man and make my own decisions.

After I blasted away for about ten minutes, my father looked at me and calmly asked, “Now that you have that out of your system, would you like to go fishing?”

I mumbled, “Well, yea.”

Dad caught quite a few fish, but I could not catch anything and became really flustered.

Years later, I asked, “Dad, do you remember that day that I came home from Furman and just unloaded on you right there in the front yard?”

“Yes, I think I remember something about that.”

“Tell me why you hardly even reacted.”

“Kirk, I knew all along that sooner or later, you would have to take me on. I had to take on my dad, too. Children have to challenge their parents, especially their dad. I had always prayed that God would give me the grace to be calm when that day came.”

I told him, “He surely gave it to you.”

That is a characteristic of a comforting father.

Adolescents go through many difficult situations that result in broken dreams. During a state championship ballgame, one half of the crowd will be very sad when the game has ended. The dream of winning a state championship is going to be lost for half of them. I was working with street-hardened juvenile delinquents when Mohammed Ali lost his fight against Joe Frazier. I saw those kids cry because their hero – Mohammed Ali, from the slums of Louisville – had been defeated. He represented their way out of the ghetto. Adolescents experience great loss over a broken relationship or courtship. They grieve deeply at the death of a peer. What is a good provider to do? It is not so much what fathers say. It is simply being there, being available.

My sister Jeslyn, eight months pregnant at the time, was at the beach with her family. She was walking across a grocery store parking lot when an automobile struck her and rolled over her pelvic area. She was taken to the hospital in Conway where her child was delivered by C-section. We learned that little Catherine had suffered brain damage from this accident. We thought she was going to die soon, but she hung on for about six months.

Finally, Jeslyn and Catherine were moved back to Spartanburg, and little Catherine was placed in the Neo-natal unit at the hospital. When Dad and I visited with Terry, Jeslyn, and Catherine there, we offered an informal prayer of dedication. Driving back home, I looked over at my dad and saw one tear rolling down his face.

I asked, “Dad, it is never over, is it?”

He said, “No, it is never over. Once you become a parent, it is for life. You love your children so much and they grow, go away, get married, have babies, and there are just more and more to love. When something like this happens, you just wish you could take the pain away from them, but you cannot do it. You just have to be there.”

Third, Paul says that a good provider must offer guidance. We do this primarily by the way we live. It does not work to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We should set the example, living life so that our children can see in us the kind of example they need. We must teach them to pray by example. Teach them to read, especially the Bible, by example. Teach them to think for themselves and think creatively by example. Teach them to make good moral decisions by example.

I will never forget the Louisville Courier Journal interview one Father’s Day weekend with Dr. Henley Barnett, a father of two sons. One of his sons served as an Air Force pilot, flying bombing missions over North Vietnam during the war. The other became a draft dodger and fled to Canada.

The newspaper reporter asked, “How do you make sense out of one son being so patriotic while the other is a draft dodger?”

Dr. Barnet replied, “Let me tell you something. I am proud of both of my sons because each of them has followed his convictions to its logical conclusion.”

Teaching children to make good moral judgments does not mean they will always decide as you would decide. It means that they are going to think through their decisions and act on the basis of their own convictions.

Most of all, a good provider must provide guidance by teaching our children who their Father really is. God made an unbelievable request when He asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on the top of a mountain. Of course, God had a plan and provided a substitute. When Abraham came down the mountain with his son, he knew for sure that Isaac did not belong to him. Our children do not belong to us. Our children belong to God. We can do everything we know to do, but we have no guarantee that everything will turn out as it should.

Timothy McVeigh, a decorated soldier in the United States Army, decided to blow up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. His trial was the week before Father’s Day in 1997. On June 11, his father, William McVeigh, was put on the stand. He said, “My son is not the monster that some of you think he is. He has been a good boy all of his life, but he has made a bad mistake.” I wonder what kind of Father’s Day William McVeigh had that year. Four years later to the day on June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh died by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana. I wonder what kind of Father’s Day William McVeigh had that year.

Our children do not belong to us. They belong to God. I love the poem that puts it this way: “Your children are not your children. They are like arrows in the hand of the Great Archer, and you are the bow. You are bent and drawn taut to release them in the direction the Archer wants them to go.” God has a plan. Part of that plan was to allow His own Son to die. His Son was innocent. We are guilty. He allowed His Son to die so that we might have life. Being a good provider means teaching our children that gospel truth, pointing them beyond ourselves to their Father in heaven. That decision to acknowledge Christ as Savior is where we begin the Christian life.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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