For some, Father’s Day is a happy occasion. It’s a day to remember fondly times playing catch in the backyard or times out on the lake; it’s a time to remember getting advice that only later became wisdom or a big hug when it was needed most; it’s a day to remember a father’s love and concern or his faithful example. But for others, Father’s Day is painful. It’s a difficult day with broken memories of broken times or of absence – physical or emotional. It’s a day that is dreaded or ignored.
Whether we recognize it or not, each of us has what one author has called a “father hunger”. It is a longing we have for our father’s assurance and approval to comfort us and affirm us. Many will do almost anything to find it because of the deep validation it brings. When we do not find it from our earthly father’s, we will seek it somewhere else. A father’s love, a father’s acceptance and approval is “more important than that of any other man, and of a completely different quality than the affirmation of a woman. Until and unless we get it, every male relationship will somehow be our unmet father, for good or ill.” When we do not find love and affirmation from our fathers, the father hunger becomes a father wound.
Let me pause to affirm the importance of a mother’s love. Without question it is possible for us to experience a mother wound if a mother’s love is for whatever reason withheld. It can be even more devastating than a father wound. But the reality is that it is more common for a father to be absent physically, emotionally, or spiritually in relationship to his children. Generally speaking, a mother’s love is a constant from birth. There is something instinctive and constant about it. A mother’s love seems so often to “go without saying”. There is a natural bond between mother and child. But, while many fathers find it very natural to love their children from birth, there is a sense in which a father chooses to love his child; chooses to show love and affirmation in a way that is decidedly different from that of a mother.
This is a far bigger issue than I understand or have answers to offer. The father hunger and father wound affect both men and women but it does seem more devastating, in many ways, for men (which is my focus here). Without a father to guide direct them from boyhood to manhood many men feel insecure and that they have to prove their manhood all their lives because they did not have a father, or some other male, who told them they had what it takes.
One author suggests that “even though there are no guarantees in life, we (fathers) can help our own sons by sharing our inner lives with them, our thoughts, feelings, dreams and hurts.” He suggests that what most men require is respect and as a boy growing up he longs for his father to be proud of him with that pride growing over time to respect and honest admiration. “If dad waits until junior’s a teenager, it’s too late. That honoring of the man in the boy is what invites the boy to join the club of men” (emphasis his).
Some men overcome the father wound by pursuing the visions and ideals of men they meet along the way. They may become the best men a society knows because they are driven to overcome the father hunger they may not even know they have. “They sometimes learn to seek, to desire and to trust that God is that loving and compassionate Daddy they always wanted.”
Too often it seems, the hunger festers and becomes a wound that is passed on in a myriad of ways. Let me suggest just a few things we can do as fathers to help prevent the father hunger from becoming a father wound in our children, but especially our sons. I realize what I offer may seem like common sense, but perhaps a reminder is just what we need.
1. Affirmation – Our sons long to know we are proud of them. They long to hear, “Well done,” or “I’m so proud of you!” We also show our affirmation by being at their games or concerts…by making them a priority over our work or ministry…by letting them know that they are important and matter. But even if we go to every event, we still need to say the words: I love you! I believe in you! You have what it takes! Well done!
2. Affection – At some point as my boys grew up, I started feeling a bit uncomfortable with physical affection. At times Angie has to remind me that it’s something they both need. Hugging our boys is an important way we show love and affirmation. Wrestling and rough housing and horsing around is good too. It is a way for us to communicate to them our respect; our love; our acceptance. It may not always feel comfortable or natural, but it’s an important element in helping our boys become men.
3. Acceptance – Over time, we need to welcome our boys to manhood. In non-western cultures there are rites of passage that help in that process. In recent years groups have tried to provide something like that in the US (like the Boys Scouts, Ransomed Heart Ministries, and Raising a Modern Day Night for example) One of the things I’ve tried to do with my sons, but know I could have done better, is to plan a year for each of them in which we intentionally read and discuss important books or watch and discuss meaningful movies. I planned hikes and road trips that added opportunities for them to plan and execute their plan. We had fun, but we also had purpose. My intention has been to discuss what it means to be a man and to affirm that they have what it takes. I’m in the middle of Jonathan’s year, but with both of them I see how it helps in transitioning to more than a father-son relationship; we become friends/peers.
I am thankful for my father who was an incredible example of each of these things. I heard many times that he loved me and was proud of me. He was always ready to give me a hug or a pat on the back. And I’ll never forget the day he first invited me to join his friends to complete their foursome to play golf…in one small act, my Dad communicated acceptance and that he believed I was ready to be considered one of the men.
I pray this Father’s Day would be a day of happiness and fond memories for you…but if it isn’t, I pray you would find in your Heavenly Father the affirmation, affection, and acceptance your heart longs for and the healing of your father wound. For those of us who are fathers, may we endeavor to love our children well. May we equip our sons with what they need to become men after the Father’s heart.
The story is told of a group of tourists who were getting off their tour bus to walk through an beautiful, old village. As they began walking down the street they saw an old man sitting near a fence. One of the tourists asked in a patronizing way, “Were there any great men or women born in this village?” The man answered, “Nope, only babies.”
Everyone enters the world in pretty much the same way, but what happens after that can vary dramatically. So much depends on our parents and the communities we are born into. But the truth is, great men and women are forged over time as they experience life’s joys and challenges and continue to make choices and establish habits and priorities that help them grow and mature and eventual become “great”. One trait I’ve read over and over from highly successful people is that they live life with purpose and intentionality and never settle for mediocrity.
The same is true for us as followers of Jesus. If you look at those most worthy of emulation in Scripture – people like Jesus or Paul – one thing that stands out from their lives is that they lived on purpose and were always moving forward (Consider Mark 1:35-39; Luke 9:51ff; Hebrews 12:2b; Philippians 3 (especially verse12). Even as an apostle who had accomplished so much for Jesus Paul says he had not yet reached the goal, he pressed on for more of what Jesus had to offer.
Here is my take on the stages of spiritual maturity in most believers’ lives and why it is important to keep moving forward in our relationship with Jesus at each one.
1. Infant stage – Newborn babies are cared for and loved. There isn’t much they can do on their own. After birth their bodies grow and they begin to learn muscle coordination so they can crawl, walk, feed themselves, etc. Initially they do not have words to voice their needs. Crying is their way of communication eventually moving on to grunts and motions.
Spiritually this is where we are new believers in Jesus. We are infants craving “spiritual milk”, learning about God and how to relate to him. During this time we learn to “feed ourselves” by beginning to read the Bible; we learn to communicate with God through prayer and worship; we learn how to relate to other believers through service and ministry. This is a period where we are especially dependent on others to mentor and disciple us.
As we begin to discover the riches of God’s Word and become part of God’s family, there is normally a desire to serve. We learn that the Spirit inside us is not intended to be just for us, but to flow through us to be a blessing to others…
2. Child Stage – In life, when we move from the infant stage to the child stage, we begin to act independently and care for ourselves. We learn to better communicate and ask for what we want; to voice pleasure and displeasure. We learn we sometimes have to do things even when we don’t feel like it and to separate imagination from reality.
As we follow Jesus, we need to move beyond dependence on others for our spiritual sustenance and begin to walk with confidence. We pursue Christ in our Bible reading and in more fervent prayer. We begin to explore our spiritual gifts and opportunities to serve. We discover that our faith is intended to be given away in words and actions. We also discover that things don’t automatically go well just because we love Jesus. We have to endure challenges and tough times. Our faith is put to the test and we have the opportunity to press in and walk with Jesus and his people.
3. Adolescent Stage – As children grown, they begin to take on more responsibility for themselves and others. They learn to act independently and to form more and more their own values and opinions. There is a growing desire for independence and autonomy and when that is restricted there can be rebellion. Adolescents often learn to manipulate the system to get their own way. At this stage the consequences of one’s actions become more serious and yet there are often adults to help cushion the blow when things go badly. It is also important that adolescents learn the value of delayed gratification. This is a stage where many get stuck in their emotional maturation – in so many ways an adult and yet still a child. Good parenting and guidance are incredibly important.
In our growth in Jesus, we also face a time very much the same. We are mature in many ways and give evidence of growth and yet have a long way to go. The temptation is to pull away from mentors and to feel like we have things under control. We’ve experienced some wonderful things with Jesus, maybe even weathered some storms…and we’re content. We end up settling into a pattern that keeps us steady and doesn’t rock the boat. We’ve got enough Jesus to bless what we’re doing, but not so much we have to really change. We know the lingo and we can talk the talk even when we aren’t walking the walk.
At this point we need good mentors more than ever. We need friends and companions on the journey who will spur us on toward deeper relationship with Jesus. We need people whose very lives inspire us to want more. Unfortunately we often have friends who are spiritually at the same place we are or even a bit behind us which serves to feed our ego but not encourage us to press on for more.
4. Adult Stage – When adolescents become adults, they enter a world where they must become responsible for themselves and their choices. They are independent but can choose to be interdependent – whether in a work environment, among friends, or in a marital relationship. They begin to think more selflessly as they become responsible for others – a spouse or children, for example. A mature adult understands the world is not a fair place; one person can’t do it all; saying no to one thing is a yes to another; and I am not the center of the universe! In the adult stage, people often have their own children and get the privilege of guiding them through life.
In our spiritual walk, if we press on through the adolescent stage we come to a place where we discover the joy of serving, the beauty of interdependence, the significance of living within our limitations. We enjoy the Lord and our deepening relationship with him, but we also know there’s much more to come. We have a sense of purpose and a desire to serve but also to empower and encourage others to use their gifts too. It isn’t about us, and there is joy seeing others experience a deepening relationship with Jesus.
5. Elder Stage – The truth is that people don’t reach this stage often enough. Perhaps it’s because we rarely think we’ve done well at the adult stage; perhaps it’s because no one did it for us; perhaps we’re just worn out from life…but too few of us actually choose to become mentors and sages for those who are younger and at earlier stages in the journey. There comes a time when we have the opportunity to mentor others in their stages of maturing. As parents we might do this haphazardly with our own children, but this is an opportunity to guide others who are in the adult stage. We have the privilege to walk alongside them and share with them the things we learned along the way. The reality is we learn by trial and error, but it is an incredible blessing to have a mentor who can help prepare us before things happen and debrief with us afterward as we try to make sense of it all.
Where would you place yourself on these stages? You might ask a close friend what he/she thinks if you aren’t sure. If you don’t have anyone close enough to be able to say or if you are afraid of what a friend might say, that might tell you a lot!
Where would you like to be? If you aren’t where you’d like to be, what kinds of things could you do to move forward?
Let’s not be complacent with our spiritual maturity. Let’s be like Paul who wrote, “…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13b-14).
This past weekend I had the opportunity to take my youngest son and attend a men’s retreat in northern Georgia, just over the Tennessee border. We stopped on our way down and visited the Chickamauga battlefield the nation’s oldest memorial of the Civil War. It contains incredible history. We learned so much walking the field, seeing Union and Confederate positions, imagining the bloody conflict. It is easy to measure a battle by the number of lives lost, but as we walked the battlefield we realized the cost of losing that war would have been so much more than the cost that went into winning it. There was so much at stake – most importantly the freedom of hundreds of thousands of people.
The retreat itself was called “Follow Me”. It was a call to stop being “fans” of Jesus and to become followers. It was a call to go “all in” to follow Jesus with everything we are and have. Each of the teaching times was excellent. In the third session, we were challenged from Luke 9:57-62 to count the cost of following Jesus. Our speaker said, “Following Jesus comes with a high cost I must be willing to pay.” He said it will be difficult and that we must be willing to lose in this world as we pursue Jesus and put him first. He challenged us to “consider the call…count the cost…and commit to follow.”
While I agree with most of what he said, as I reflected on this talk I couldn’t help but think that the cost of following Jesus is not seen in what I give up to follow him. The real cost of following Jesus should be seen in what I lose if I don’t choose to follow him! Not following Jesus offers the hope of all this world has to offer. But, in the end, I gain this world and (Jesus says) I lose my soul. The cost of not following Jesus is far, far more than what I give up to follow him.
Dallas Willard writes, “the only real bargain in life is surrendering…to Jesus…The cost of (not following Jesus) is…unbearable” (from Revolution of Character: Discovering Christ’s Pattern for Spiritual Transformation, p 60). Just as the costs of the Civil War – as enormous as they were – were much, much smaller than the costs of not fighting or losing, so the costs of dying to self and following Jesus are nothing compared to the prices of not following!
Yes, we need to consider the call; count the cost; and then make a commitment – to follow or not. But we need to hear the words of Jesus and let them sink in: 23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a person if he/she gains the whole world and loses or forfeits him/herself?
We can save our lives in this world; we can gain everything this world has to offer; we can be the ultimate success story…but when all is said and done the cost of all these things is our very selves. The cost of following Jesus is not really a cost at all. What we give up is worthless compared to all we gain. As Jim Elliot – a missionary who would die serving Jesus – once wrote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he can never lose.”
Following Jesus is not easy. Following Jesus entails loss. But, following Jesus brings hope and joy and peace and life that is full. It brings transformation and love and forgiveness and so, so much that we long for deep in our souls and which is always just out of our grasp when we pursue it in the things the world offers.
I am grateful for people like my great-great-great-grandfather who fought for the freedom of all men and women in the Civil War. I’m grateful that the cost of not winning was deemed too steep and the hard course of fighting was chosen. And I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to count the cost and to choose to follow Jesus knowing that there will be a cost but it’s a bargain compared to the alternative!