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My father-in-law had a great impact on my life. A father to four daughters, he always considered me the son he never had. In one of our farewell conversations before he died in 2005, I'll never forget a particular word he used, a noble four-letter word that epitomized his own life: duty.
When the Second World War began, my father-in-law dutifully enlisted to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator. He navigated brilliantly by the stars. He served his country and a cause for the world with duty and honor at a perilous time in history. As he faced death, duty came up again. He worried that he had not left his finances in better shape for his wife. The truth is he had provided for her, but with his sudden diagnosis, he suddenly felt uncertain. I said to him, "Please don't worry about it, Dad. We'll be there to take care of her." He paused, overwhelmed by the weight of his limited time, and said in somber tones, "But it was my duty to do so," and the tears ran down his face.
Again, there was that word: duty. I almost never heard him speak publicly without him somehow bringing it up. He would often quote Lord Nelson's famous call to his countrymen before the battle of Trafalgar: "England expects every man to do his duty." So prone was my father-in-law to quote that line that when he wrote his first book, I asked him with an amused expression, "Where in the book is Nelson's line?" I opened the book, and there it was: the opening line of the first chapter.
Society's two extremes toward the call of duty both miss the mark. Materially-minded people don't like the word because they think it somehow handcuffs us. Why place a burden of compliance that is self-made and mere convention?, they insinuate. The spiritually-minded don't like the word very much either. They think it diminishes a greater demand, the demand of love. In his conclusion to the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon said that "the whole duty of man is to fear God and to keep his commandments." Jesus positioned two commandments as the greatest: to love God and to love our fellow human beings. Making the love of God and of man our duty is surely not making them opposite sentiments.
Whatever the reasons, we are discomfited by people around us who fail to fulfill their duties, from political leadership to academic responsibility, and so often in the place of the arts. Offices of responsibility are more often sought for the power they bring, rather than for love of duty. In the home, the situation is dire. I know of those who have walked away from wives and children, even grandchildren, to pursue selfish ambition. I find that heart-wrenching. Those who walk away with such callousness see duty and love as at odds, because they often subsume love under their own personal need, ignoring the greater commitment of duty. That misreading has cost our society, and others', so much.
Even to address the need for a father is to run the risk of being accused of making a veiled attack on the culture of progressive thinking. That is not my point. Many men over the years have opted for selfishness over duty, for professional accolades over nurture, for image rather than substance, for temporal gain over an eternally defined profit, for sitting in the board room rather than standing by a crib. There is the old saying that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Now, that the cradle is ruling the world as we rock ourselves into the arrogant belief that not only is an earthly father unnecessary, there is no need for a heavenly Father, either.
Duty is the handmaiden of love and honor. Duty recognizes a cause greater than one's self; it is choosing the right thing rather than the convenient thing. As men and as fathers we have a duty before God and others to do what is right, honorable, and sacrificial.
Contrast these two stories: Some years ago, a fire broke out during an Air Canada flight from Dallas to Toronto. The pilot began a dramatic and sudden descent, knowing he had but a few moments to land if any were to survive. As soon as they opened the door for rescue, the whole aircraft, sucking in the oxygen, turned into an inferno. There were some fatalities and some suffered burns, but because of his skill and the crew's commitment, many were rescued. The captain was the last one to leave the burning airplane. He was pulled through the window with his uniform afire. He deserved the tearful and heart-filled commendation he received as someone who had done his duty.
In April, a ferry in Seoul, South Korea, capsized, killing hundreds. Most of the passengers were high school students who ultimately drowned while waiting for instructions to abandon ship. The captain himself had fled the sinking ship and made sure he was safe on dry ground, prompting a chorus of condemnation from the loved ones of those lost. The teacher who had organized the trip took his own life, feeling that he had no right to be alive while most of his students perished. Even the prime minister of South Korea offered to resign because of the tragedy. No celebration here, no commendation of a brave man; just a series of wrong decisions that resulted in the ultimate wrong decision of a man who put himself first and failed to do his duty.
This Father's Day, I call upon every man to do his duty to those who are in his care and toward whatever task is in his trust, regardless of the personal cost. I pause, myself, to reflect upon ways in which I could have served my family better. I wish I had done that in more ways than I did. Watching our children live out their lives for God is a thrill that cannot be gainsaid.
The hymn writer put it well: "Put on the Gospel armor / and watching unto prayer, / When duty calls, or danger, / be never wanting there" (Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus). My father-in-law was that kind of man, and that's why his last words at the end of his life were incredible. Looking toward the heavens he said, "Amazing, just amazing!" before telling his wife, "I love you." Love had at last wedded beauty to duty, the enrichment of the here and the enchantment of the hereafter. It was the finest and the most soul-affirming of farewells. Doing your duty before God and man is ultimately welcomed in the embrace of love and commendation from whom it really matters. What more could a wife and children have asked for?
God places before us a call to the most rewarding service: to love that knows its responsibility and will reap the fitting reward of children who honor their parents. Out of such homes society can build a better future. The path to that end is fraught with obstacles, perils, disappointments, and heartaches, but we cannot fail in our duty. It begins by knowing the God who sent his Son who, in turn, fulfilled his duty and laid down his life so that you and I might know the love of our heavenly Father. Duty and love came from heaven to earth so that earth might reflect that splendor.
Happy Father's Day, gentlemen. And to families that are missing their father today, my prayers are especially for you. May God our heavenly Father be your strength.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), a global ministry focused on evangelism, apologetics, spiritual disciplines, training, and humanitarian support. An itinerant speaker for 42 years, Zacharias is presently Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University's Wycliffe Hall and his weekly radio program, "Let My People Think," airs on over 2,000 outlets worldwide. Dr. Zacharias and his wife, Margie, have three grown children and reside in Atlanta.