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Why Good Men Fail As Fathers

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I’d like you to accompany me as we study the corpse of a father who failed. What you learn may help you save the lives of your children and grandchildren.

You’ll find the cadaver in 1 Samuel 2-4.

Name: Eli.

Occupation: High priest in Israel.

Description: Overweight.

Age at death: 98

Cause of death: Broken neck suffered when fainting and falling off chair after hearing bad news.

A Good Man

Please observe that our subject had many excellent character qualities.

Note his morality. In his long life you will not find any record of terrible sin. He did not drink, steal, lie or swear. He never divorced his wife, committed adultery, or abused his children.

Observe his kind treatment of the boy Samuel. Eli knew that Samuel would be his replacement as spiritual leader of Israel. Yet there is no trace of jealousy. Instead, when Samuel revealed God’s judgment against Eli, Eli responded quietly and submissively: “He is the Lord; let Him do what is good in His eyes” (1 Samuel 3:18).

Furthermore, it is clear that the old man had a deep love for the ark of God, which symbolized God’s presence. When the ark was carried into battle, Eli’s heart feared for it (see 1 Samuel 4:13). And when he heard of the capture of the ark of God, he fell off his seat, broke his neck and died (see verse 18). Right to his death, this man was deeply concerned about the things of God.

A Colossal Failure

Yet Eli failed miserably both as a father and as a priest. He knew God, and yet God pronounced judgment upon him and his descendants (see 1 Samuel 2:27-36; 3:14). Why?

Two clues point us to the answer. The first is in 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” Eli despised the Lord.

The second clue is in verse 35: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest.” Eli was unfaithful as a priest. So how did Eli despise the Lord? How was Eli unfaithful as a priest? Both questions find their answer in a common malady: Eli was a passive father.

A Passive Father

Speaking of Eli, God said, “I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:13). In 1 Samuel 2:29, Eli not only tolerated his sons’ sin, but also participated in it by eating the portion of the sacrifices intended for the Lord.

But didn’t Eli correct his sons? Not really. In effect he said, “Now boys, you shouldn’t do these things. People are talking!” (see verses 23-25). Too little, too late!

A good man? Yes, very good. But he did not have enough backbone to stand up to his sons and say, “We aren’t going to tolerate your sin around here.”

It applies today: Passivity as a father toward the things of God will damage you and your family. So that there will be no confusion, let me explain what I mean by “passivity.”

What is “Passive”?

First, passivity means having religion without reality. Eli was immersed in religion. He worked at the tabernacle – he lived there! But the reality of walking with God was not present in Eli’s life.

Eli was tolerant of personal and family sin but harsh on the sins of others. When Eli thought that Hannah was drunk at the door of the tabernacle, he scolded her (see 1:12-17). But when his own sons were committing adultery at the door of the tabernacle, it wasn’t until the worshipers started complaining that Eli came out with his feeble, “Now boys, you shouldn’t do that” (see 2:22-25).

And as for the sons’ corrupt practice of confiscating the sacrifices and eating the best parts (which should have been offered to the Lord), Eli knew he shouldn’t eat those choice pieces, but he loved prime rib (see verse 29)!

Any time a person grows soft on obedience to the Word of God, you know that he’s just playing the religion game. When you are not obeying God, you have lost reality.

Nothing corrupts children more than to see a parent who has the form of religion but who lacks reality with God. Kids know when you are putting on the pious act.

Second, passivity means shirking responsibility for shepherding your family. Eli’s boys were grown men. Perhaps Eli shrugged his shoulders and protested, “What can I do?” But God held him accountable. Instead of drifting with the evil currents of his day, he should have taken the helm and said, “Our family is going to be distinct!” But he let his family drift. Chances are he had acted the same way when the boys were younger.

Men, if you do not assume responsibility for shepherding your own family, God will hold you accountable! If that scares you, it should!

We’ve got to buck the trend. Pastor Charles Swindoll asked a Christian counselor, “What is the number one problem you face?” Without hesitation, the counselor shot back, “Passive males!”

What Should I Do?

Maybe you’re thinking, I’d like to shepherd my family, but I don’t know how. What do I do?

Walk in personal reality with God – don’t play the religion game. And don’t shirk your responsibilities.

Beyond that, our text suggests four aspects of shepherding your family.

First, lead your children to personal faith in Christ. Eli’s sons, “did not know the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12, NASB). You cannot just let your children grow up neutral so that they can decide for themselves about God. They’re growing up in a world that is hostile to God.

Second, teach your children God’s ways. Eli failed to impart to his sons a respect for God’s ways, including the sacrifices and offerings (see 2:13, 27-29). So they disobeyed God and disregarded the rebukes of God’s people (see 2:16).

God’s ways are the principles revealed in His Word. For example, your children need to know that disobedience has consequences. They need to learn the importance of prayer and Bible reading by seeing those things modeled as a way of life in the home. We live to serve others, not indulge ourselves. Our lives are governed by God’s Word.

Third, to shepherd your family you must teach your children to reverence God and the things of God (see 2:16, 17, 29, 30). I never want my children to hear me joking about God or His Word. At the same time, I do want them to know that a Christian home is a fun and happy place to live.

Finally, correct your children when they need it. Eli was in his 90s, so his boys were probably in their 40s or 50s, at least. Parents can’t correct their adult children as if they were first graders, but that doesn’t mean you must be passive. Proverbs 29:17 says, “Correct your son, and he will give you comfort; he will also delight your soul” (NASB).

Perhaps you’ve seen yourself in this postmortem of a passive father. Perhaps you think it’s too late now. Your children may be grown and gone. But, by God’s grace, it’s not too late to seek God’s forgiveness and actively to seek to influence your children – and even grandchildren – from this moment on.

Will you choose to follow the Lord fervently and actively? Then we will not need to gather around your corpse, as we have with Eli’s, and ask, “Why did this good man fail?”

Reprinted by permission from Steven J. Cole, originally printed Confident Living, @ 1988 by the Good News Broadcasting Association, Inc.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Christian Life, Failure, Fathers, Men's Articles, Parenting