For a man to have real children is easy enough. For children to have a real father is another matter entirely. Growing up fatherless left gaps in me. It does for everyone.
Whether your dad was steeped in addiction, an absentee, or just ill-equipped, here are 5 key lessons I’ve acquired over the years. They are helping me to father like the father I never had. I’m praying they’ll help you too!
1. Be a courageous leader. I am the son of an absentee, alcoholic, abandoning man full of excuses. I tell my sons sometimes, “My first father was a drill instructor.” The sergeants who shaped me into a Marine weren’t fake tough guys. They were tough. They were exactly what this listless 18 year-old needed.
The drill instructor taught me that excuses don’t matter in combat. That’s what fathering is. It is the spiritual battle of raising our kids in a culture that wants their hearts. Now isn’t the time for excuses. Get into God’s Word. Get in church. Imperfect courage is better than perfect cowardice. Lead the troops. “So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6 NLT)
2. Be a compassionate man. My wife and I have led hundreds of people on mission trips to Haiti. After one trip a father who had recently recommitted his life to Christ told me the trip had a tremendous impact on him. ‘What in particular?’ I asked. ‘Let’s hear it.’ He said something like, ‘You won’t believe it.’ He went on to tell me that watching me debate a customs official about allowing us to bring in shoes for orphans had hit him hard. I said, ‘I’m not sure arguing with that man was my finest moment,’ but he contradicted me. “It was. You were forceful but respectful. You fought for those children and weren’t afraid to do it. You are a real man and care about the kids.”
Wow. I expected it to be a sermon, a prayer, or a hardship that had been overcome. Instead, it was compassion mingled with confidence.
Dad, be a man who is compassionate and understanding. They aren’t opposite ends of a spectrum. They are two sides of the same coin. “The LORD is like a father to His children, tender and compassionate to those who fear Him.” (Psalms 103:13 NLT)
3. Be a champion. We all need inspiration. I’ve never known anyone who did anything worth doing who wasn’t inspired by something or someone. Our kids are looking to us to find the courage to face the world. Do we really need any greater inspiration for finding the champion in us than to know they are emulating us?!
The Apostle Paul writes of his spiritual children (the disciples he had made for Jesus), “I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth.” (3 John 1:4 NLT) You don’t have to be Captain America to be their champion. Just do your best to put Jesus on display in honesty. He’ll do the rest.
4. Be a cheerleader. You know, anytime I talk about learning fatherhood lessons from my drill instructor, folks look at me sideways. But they don’t know the whole story. I met the meanest of my drill instructors later in my military service. He was then a Master Sergeant and I was a Staff Sergeant. It had been years since boot camp but he still made me nervous. That is, until I got to know him and realized how incredibly proud he was of my successes. I saw a different side of him.
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4 NLT) There’s a time for correction but when we’re on track as dads, we’ll build through encouragement and never tear them down.
5. Be a coach. Ken Gangel was an early pastoral mentor of mine. I had the privilege of having him as one of several great pastoral coaches after leaving the military for the pastoral ministry. In the book Fathering Like the Father, which he co-authored with his son Jeffrey, Ken wrote:
“Discipline means training the team. Basketball coaches talk about a player “out of control,” which means he may be extremely fast, a good shot, aggressive on defense, but he does not work with other players in a disciplined game plan. Just as in sports, discipline doesn’t come automatically to children; somebody needs to run them through training camp to get them ready for the season.” (Baker Books, 2003)
We have a joyful obligation to coach our kids. That’s what godly men do. They lead in difficult times in ways consistent with God’s call for manly leadership. Their leadership isn’t squashed or shaped by the conditions of the world. They live a life of growth in terms of their own spiritual maturity and their own capacity to lead.
Men, lets learn to father like the fathers we never had. Let’s imitate godly character where we find it in admirable men. Most importantly, let’s imitate the Father who has always been there for us. “The LORD is like a father to His children, tender and compassionate to those who fear Him.” (Psalms 103:13)