A Spiritual Struggle of Fatherhood

As I write this, my children are asleep, though they have not been asleep for very long. My oldest child, Jude, is sick with a cold or allergies or something of the sort that plagues young kids 364 days of the year. So when he asked me to play Minecraft with him for a few minutes before bedtime––ignoring the fact that bedtime was supposed to be twenty minutes before he even asked me about Minecraft––I felt that I had to say “yes.”

After all, he has been sick. And, truthfully, playing Minecraft is easier than wrangling two young boys into bed.

So, for a few minutes, I played Minecraft with my five-year-old son, after his real bedtime, while he was sick.

I’ve been a father for over five years now, and moments like these are special. But I expected that fatherhood would be much like this.

What I didn’t expect were the spiritual struggles of fatherhood.


Learning the Sacrifice of Faith

Though I grew up going to church, I never thought of my faith as a sacrificial, cross-bearing faith. I had learned the “right” answers to the questions we thought important. But my Christianity was not much more than that.

But when I went to college, I got involved in a campus ministry, and my faith was transformed through it. The campus minister spent a year teaching through the Gospel of Mark. Though I’m sure he discussed many other topics in those dozens of weeks, most of my memories are of the way he showed us the radical faith that Jesus called his disciples to.

Mark 8:34 (NIV) says:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Jesus’s call for us to carry a cross never sounds appealing. The self-denial involved goes against the deep-rooted pride in our hearts. God will call me to sacrifice things that I don’t want to sacrifice, even good things. (Mary, the mother of Jesus, was called to sacrifice her reputation as a good, godly Jewish girl. You can read more about that here.)

But I have been willing to make these sacrifices. I don’t perfectly put God’s will above my own––I often fail spectacularly at it–and there are times when God calls me to sacrifice things that I’d rather clutch to. But I have accepted, though, that sacrifice is the contour of the Christian faith. And I’m okay denying myself and carrying my cross, even though I do it poorly –– and even though am often repelled by the demands.

Fatherhood and a Spiritual Struggle

Back to my kids. How do my kids relate to Jesus’s call to sacrifice?

No. I am not about to confess an Abraham-like calling to sacrifice my own children. But when I think about the years ahead for my kids (my oldest is five, as I said above), I know that they will endure years of childhood insecurities and disappointments. These are normal parts of every kid’s life.

But my kids will be affected by the sacrifices and self-denial to which God calls my wife and me.

There will be toys that their friends’ have that we won’t buy. They will be embarrassed to show up to school in clothes that aren’t namebrand. Their friends will talk about expensive vacations that we they take.

But my kids not only have to bear the consequences of my wife’s and my self-denial in the name of Christ (again, an imperfect self-denial), they are also called to deny themselves as they begin to follow Christ.

There will be bullies who they need to forgive rather than to seek revenge. Comfortable careers that they will forego to serve others. They might even be despised and persecuted because of Christ.

But I don’t want my kids to have to deny themselves and make sacrifices for Christ, nor do I want my sacrifices to affect them.

What father doesn’t want his kids to have their wants and needs met? What father doesn’t want their kid to have a comfortable life?

But if my kids are going to follow Christ, then they will often be called to sacrifice their wants and comforts (even, at times, their needs) out of their love for others and for God.

And I find this difficult to accept.

Why Is This So?

I imagine most parents feel this way. Parents feel this way about many hardships: we are prepared to endure them if we need to, but we don’t want our children to endure them.

Though it is normal, that doesn’t mean it is okay.

I think it reveals something about our faith.

Despite all of our talk about being radical and sacrificing for God, we still assume (often unknowingly) that sacrifice is not the way to true joy. The good life, we assume, excludes the type of deep sacrifice that God often calls us to. So when we picture our children having a joyous life, we picture that life as one without sacrifice––as one without a cross.

But Jesus endured the cross because of the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2), and our path to Christian joy is through daily carrying our crosses. As C. S. Lewis famously said in The Weight of Glory:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. (p. 25-26)

As a parent, then, I should not see sacrifice and self-denial as horrors that I should protect my kid from. (And, yes, I am only talking about sacrifices and self-denial that come from their faith, not from my desire to impose a set of draconian rules on them.) I should see it as a way to great joy. I should model Christian sacrifice for them; I should encourage it in their lives.

In a fallen world, true joy is found in deep sacrifice. For me. And for my kids.

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