In the film “Men Don’t Leave” (1990), Beth Macauley (Jessica Lange) is widowed when an accident kills her husband John (Tom Mason), the family breadwinner. Forced to move from her suburban home to downtown Chicago, she learns to raise two sons alone – one a pre-teen bent on getting in trouble to support the family financially, the other a teenager (Chris O’Donnell) infatuated with an older woman named Jody (Joan Cusack). Beth and her younger son are filled with grief because of John’s untimely death and their sudden move. Yet with Jody’s help, they learn to cope – to choose life and survive. The family also returns to their suburban home.
John was a good husband and father. He “left” the family through death, a fact beyond everyone’s control. However, other men choose to leave family duties, the vital roles of husband and father, simply by walking away. Some never even bother to get married. These men aren’t “good.” They don’t die to themselves and put their wives and children first. Instead, they reject the godly identities of husband and father. They choose themselves and lose their heritage.
Marriage is the first divine institution. Children are our heritage and God’s reward (Psalm 127:3). God created male and female and brought them together as one in Eden. Then He told them to “be fruitful and multiply,” to live together as a family and have children (Genesis 1:28). That’s just what Adam and Eve did. After they were forced from Eden the couple lived, worked, and reared many children (three named) together. This is the biblical pattern and norm.
If a man is engaged, married, or a father (whether the child is born or unborn), then marriage and family come first. God himself puts them first on his “to do” list – before work, war, or evangelism. “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Harriet “Moses” Tubman (1820-1913), an African-American public speaker, nurse, and Underground Railroad conductor, met and married John Tubman. She came from a large family in Maryland and was reared by a good father whenever she worked on the plantation. Unfortunately, John was nothing like Harriet’s father. He wasn’t interested in obtaining her freedom. He didn’t try to protect and defend her either. When Harriet suggested running away, John threatened to tell the plantation owner. She finally left on her own in 1849 and eventually became a conductor, helping other slaves to freedom in the North.
Two years later, Harriet returned to the home she had shared with John. She was still in love with him. However, Harriet learned that he had married another woman, one younger and prettier, and he wasn’t interested in going north. Harriet’s dream of family life was shattered. She never remarried and had no children. Still, Harriet lived a rich and full life helping others, while John was murdered after the Civil War.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), an African-American teacher, college founder and president, and social activist, met and married Albertus Bethune (1870-1918) in 1898. They had a son one year later, whom they named Albert. Although educated, Mary’s life was like Harriet’s in the family sphere. She came from a large and supportive family, worked hard on the farm, and tried to be a good wife and mother. Yet Albertus left Mary and Albert in Florida and returned to South Carolina when his son was still young. Mary never remarried, rearing Albert alone.
Like Harriet, Mary lived a rich and full life helping others. What became of Albertus is unknown. Yet his son needed a father’s influence. Albert was a college dropout and could not hold a steady job. His own son did not repeat his father’s mistakes, receiving a master’s degree and working as a librarian at the college his famous grandmother founded.
Little has changed. Jon Gosselin married Kate Kreider in 1999. They eventually had eight children, a set of twins and sextuplets. “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” (2007-11) was one of my favorite reality shows on TLC. It eventually failed. Four years ago Jon left his family, his wife and eight children, for the single life – alcohol and women. In his heart, this man who claimed to be a Christian and wore Bible message shirts was selfish. Jon chose himself over the duties of his family. Now Kate, divorced, is rearing their eight children alone. She needs help.
Unlike Jon, the Mormon Josh Weed says he is gay. Eleven years ago he selflessly chose the happiness of his best friend Laurel over his own. The couple lives in Utah with their three children. Josh has received criticism from the “gay community” over his decision. His soul is in danger because of his sexuality. But he still chose family over self.
Boys play. Men work. Boys think of themselves. Men think of others, especially their wives and children. No married man or father should be a play boy!
Going to Work
In the British TV series “Lark Rise to Candleford” (2008-11), Robert Timmins (Brendan Coyle) was a traveling artist when he met Emma (Claudia Blakley) in her native village of Lark Rise. They married and had six children. Yet with his oldest daughter Laura (Olivia Hallihan) nearly grown, throughout the series Robert seems to resent his family duties. He even tells one of Laura’s suitors to leave town; he believes it’s better for an artist to travel and work on his craft than to be shackled in one place to a wife and children. Robert refuses to humble himself and selflessly choose someone else’s happiness over his own, whether that of his wife or his daughter. He’s a poor example of leadership and fatherhood. So is the man who plays him. Brendan Coyle is fifty and single. He’s had a few girlfriends, none of marriage quality, but he refuses to settle down.
In the family film “Smitty” (2012), Jack (Peter Fonda) played guitar and had a promising music career. He was offered a contract with a studio. That night, however, Jack met and fell in love with a woman. He turned down the contract, choosing to marry and have a family. Jack’s friend Smitty (Lou Gossett Jr) says, “He chose family over himself.”
Twenty years later, Jack’s daughter Amanda (Mira Sorvino) also met a musician. But this man, who never appears on screen, walked away from her when she was pregnant with their son Ben (Brandon Tyler Russell), now thirteen. Smitty bluntly tells Ben, “He chose himself.” The cost of the father’s selfishness is evident in the teenage boy’s life. Constantly getting into legal and moral trouble because of his surly attitude and defiance, Ben needs a strong male hand to discipline him. Thanks to a court order, he spends three months with his grandfather Jack on an Iowa farm. It is from this man that Ben learns personal responsibility, self-discipline, respect, and hard work.
History isn’t much different. James McCauley, the father of African-American social activist Rosa Parks (1913-2005), preferred to live and work on the road building houses. When his wife Leona asked him to find a steady job near their home in Tuskegee, Alabama, after his son Sylvester was born, James refused – abandoning the family. So Rosa’s mother moved in with her parents near Montgomery. The strong, peaceful presence of her grandfather was the only reason Rosa had a safe childhood. She didn’t see her father again until she became an adult.
Supporting the Family
All these men hated family duty. They saw wives and children as a burden, keeping them from what they really loved – their work or craft. If they saw a chance to escape, they took it. However, other men see work as an avenue to providing for and spending time with their families, not an end in itself. Still others are unemployed, yet they faithfully take care of their families while seeking work. These men have integrity. They don’t leave.
Rosa Parks eventually met and married a good man – a barber and social activist named Raymond Parks (1903-77). Albeit ten years her senior, the couple matched one another perfectly in self-taught education and social interests. They married in 1932. Raymond and Rosa experienced
an exceptionally happy marriage of love and mutual respect. These two people, possessed with tremendous character and integrity, held each other in very high regard. For the rest of her life, Rosa would sing Parks’s praises at every opportunity. He remained quietly supportive of everything Rosa did, insisting … she get her high school diploma even though he did not have one himself.
~ Callie Smith Grant, Free Indeed: African-American Christians and the Struggle for Equality, (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing), 2003, 184.
Although she never had children, Rosa experienced something Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Kate Gosselin did not – a godly marriage to a good, loving, and humble man. Perhaps one reason was that Raymond was willing to die for his NAACP work – finding white lawyers willing to give black men a fair trial in the South. John Tubman and Albertus Bethune were not so willing. Neither is Jon Gosselin. All three men could have loved, supported, protected, and defended their wives like Raymond did. But they chose not to.
Going to Work
“The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) tells the true story of Chris Gardner (Will Smith). His wife Linda (Thandie Newton) leaves him and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) in San Francisco to find work in New York. She abandons the family. Chris doesn’t. Although unemployed, he puts his son in daycare and looks earnestly for a job. When he finally finds an unpaid internship with Dean Witter, Chris works hard all day without complaint – hoping for the paid position offered to successful interns. In the meantime, he and his son are kicked out of their apartment for unpaid rent, so they sleep in homeless shelters at night. Chris still manages to leave Christopher in daycare. At the end of the film, Chris hugs his son. He has been offered the paid position.
Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya) in the fictional film “Courageous” (2011) is a temporarily unemployed carpenter. Like Chris, he also has integrity. Javier seeks work as provision for his family rather than as a craft or calling, and therefore a reason to escape his duty. When let go from his job, he walks the streets looking for work. Javier even shows up on a construction site one morning with the promise of a job, but he learns he is too late. Walking home, Javier gets down on his knees in the middle of the street and prays. At that moment, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick) calls him over, thinking Javier is the man he hired to complete construction work on a tool shed. Later, thanks to Adam’s recommendation, Javier begins a paid position at a factory and earns a promotion – all because of personal integrity. He learns that God is faithful and will help him provide for his family.
Bill Gaither (1936-) paid a loving tribute to his own father in the music video How Great Thou Art (2007). George Gaither faithfully worked at an auto plant every day for thirty years in order to provide for his family. He and other men did this so their children could flourish like “olive plants around the table” (Psalm 128:3). Bill would not have had the freedom to start a music ministry (since music is usually an unstable career) if it had not been for the daily faithfulness of his father.
Chris Gardner, Javier Martinez, and George Gaither did not see work as an end in itself but as an avenue to providing for their families. Other men could learn something from them.
Going to War
Millions of men have died in war. But God saw this consequence when he created marriage. Knowing Israel would soon experience war in Canaan and men would die, God told new husbands to “cheer” their wives at home for one year before going off to war (Deuteronomy 24:5). He wanted these men to reproduce before it was too late, whether or not they lived to be godly husbands, fathers, and community leaders. Today, whether a man volunteers or is drafted, he should marry and have a honeymoon before he goes off to war – even if for just one night.
Achilles didn’t understand or value this truth. Thanks to ancient Greek culture, he preferred the glory and honor of dying in battle to staying at home and rearing a family. Yet if all the men die, as many did in the battle of Troy, who is left to pass on the cultural heritage? At least Hector of Troy was a family man, with a loving wife and son. Unlike Achilles, he did not die by the warrior’s hand without issue. Someone was left to learn from Hector’s example.
Inman (Jude Law) in “Cold Mountain” (2003) is like Hector. He meets and falls in love with Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) at the beginning of the Civil War. They don’t have a common-law wedding and honeymoon until Inman returns home a few years later from the battle of Petersburg. Somehow, he senses he may die soon and insists on a honeymoon that night. Inman is murdered the next day, leaving Ada with a daughter. In life and in death, he valued family over the glories of war.
Answering the Call of God
God calls many men and women, both single and married, to evangelism – whether a foreign country or nearer home. But if a man is married, his first duty is to his family. If he goes overseas, he should take his family with him. A church staff member, pastor, or evangelist must also “rule his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence, (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Timothy 3:4-5)
Jim Elliott (1927-56) married Elisabeth Howard in 1953. They had one daughter. Yet Jim and four other young men, also with families, decided the call of God was more important. In 1956, they left their families to witness to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador. Murdered, they failed in their mission. The Waodanis eventually received Christ, but God could have accomplished this task without Jim and his friends. Their first duty was to their families.
The evangelist Billy Graham (1918-) married Ruth Bell (1920-2007) in 1943. They had five children: Franklin, Nelson, Gigi, Anne, and Ruth. Yet Bill considered preaching more important than family duty. For twenty years, he saw his wife and children only six months out of the year. The other six months, Ruth was essentially a widow. She reared their children by herself. However, the two boys, especially Franklin, needed the strong, disciplined hand of a godly father. Their teenage years might have been more stable if Billy had been home to rear them.
Male abandonment is a serious generational problem in many families, regardless of race. The causes are varied and complex. However, as the examples above demonstrate, men of old were no different from men today. Rich or poor, religious or irreligious, gay or straight, black or white, employed or on welfare, having a good paternal example or not – none of these things matter. A “good” man won’t leave. He’ll overcome any obstacle and do his duty to his family, even if he’s not a Christian (although that’s preferred). The real problem is internal, in the heart. Some men are selfish, others selfless. Some men put their families first, others themselves first.
True freedom is not living for oneself – whether in war, work, or play. Instead, true freedom is dying to oneself – making sacrifices for the good and happiness of others. Only personal character and integrity will lead a man to perform and love his duty toward his family. Good men understand these truths. They choose the sacred duty of family. They become loving, supportive husbands to their wives and strong, disciplined fathers to their children.
Like Adam Mitchell in the final scene of “Courageous,” we must pray for God to raise up godly men who will shepherd their families in these final days. Such men won’t leave.