|NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- I once did an interview for an online publication, and one of the questions was: "Who has been the greatest leadership influence in your life?" Without hesitation, I wrote: "My three sons: Sam, Art, and Jess."
Fatherhood has been an educational journey that no school could provide. I have learned so much. And even to this day, I listen to my sons. They may think that I am offering them words of wisdom, but I am learning from them as well.
I do not see myself as the great expert on fatherhood. I hope I have been transparent and honest in my self-assessment, especially with the weaknesses and faults that I have.
I also realize that the far superior parent in our family is my wife, Nellie Jo. I have never seen such sacrificial and unconditional love flow from one human to another. She is the true instrument of God who raised our three sons so well.
But this is a column about fatherhood. At the end of the day, I have several lessons that I have learned about the great challenge of being a dad. Thank you for allowing this fellow struggler the opportunity to share these lessons.
-- Lesson 1: Children are precious gifts from God.
If we parents ever fully recognize the incredible gift we have been given in our children, our attitude about them will be one of unceasing praise. I realize that not every couple has been given children. And I realize that I do not deserve my sons any more than husbands and wives who have not been blessed with children. They are gifts of grace. Undeserved and unmerited.
Have you ever assessed a situation and realized how completely blessed you are? That is how I feel about my boys. One of the reasons that I have not failed completely as a father is that my sons know how much I treasure them. They have a confidence and assurance that they are wanted. They know that I see them as precious gifts from God. They know that I feel like I am the most blessed man in the world to have them as my sons.
On those occasions where I have been weary and irritable, I often remind myself of this gift. Such thinking really puts minor issues in perspective. Children are gifts. Never, ever forget that truth.
-- Lesson 2: We must love our children unconditionally, and they must know it.
A child who grows up with unconditional love is more secure and more joyous. He or she does not have to earn the love of a parent. It is there no matter what.
The analogy of the heavenly Father's love for us through Christ is a fit comparison. We did not earn His love. We did not merit His love. But we can be secure in His love. The Apostle Paul said it clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God's gift -- not from works, so that no one can boast." Paul spoke of the security of Christ's love in Romans 8:38-39: "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!"
Our children can take a lot from this world if they know that Mom and Dad are there for them no matter what. The love of Christ is the greatest security. And the unconditional love of a parent is a child's greatest earthly security.
-- Lesson 3: Love your children's mother.
I am not a perfect father. Not close. And I am not a perfect husband. Far from it. But do you know what Art, Sam and Jess know? Despite my imperfections as a husband, despite my stupid anger, despite my self-centeredness, I love their mother. I am with her until death do us part. My sons can live in the assurance and the confidence that, not only do I love them, I love and adore my wife, their mother.
Nellie Jo and I are blessed with three daughters-in-law. God gave Art a wife named Sarah, Sam a wife named Erin, and Jess a wife named Rachel. These three young ladies are the answers to our prayers. They are beautiful physically but, more importantly, they are beautiful spiritually. And they love our sons. And we love them for that. I pray that my boys will show their children what it is like to love and adore their mothers.
Lesson 4: Time can never be recaptured.
Art often tells a story of his baseball team when he was 7 years old. One day I was coaching at third base when Art hit the ball into the infield. Seeing that he was a certain out at first base, he did not run all the way to the base, a cardinal sin in baseball. The coach gave him several sentences of reprimand, which irked me. I was about to say something to the coach when Art came running across the field, holding back tears. He looked at me with hurt all over his face and said, "Daddy, that coach hurt my feelings."
I swept my son into my arms. He already knew that he had made a baseball mistake, so I did not dwell on that issue. After a few minutes, Art was fine, having fun again with his teammates.
Why did I tell that story? I simply remember how good I felt when I held my son. And I remember how great it was to be able to soothe hurt feelings with a hug and a few sentences. I also remember how much fun I had coaching the team with both Sam and Art on it.
That was yesterday ... or so it seems. Actually it was nearly 20 years ago. Where has the time gone? The time that we have our children at home is so incredibly brief. Make the most of it. Enjoy each year of their lives. Celebrate each moment. It will be over before you know it.
Lesson 5: Discipline is a sign of love.
Neither Nellie Jo nor I enjoyed disciplining our sons, but we did so anyway. To do less was to tell our boys that we didn't care what they did, that we had no boundaries. They did not like the discipline when they were children, but now they tell us how much they appreciate it.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that discipline is a sign of love, and he points to God's love as a disciplining love in Hebrews 12:5-11: "My son, do not take the Lord's discipline lightly, or faint when you are reproved by Him; for the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and punishes every son whom He receives. Endure it as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there whom a father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline -- which all receive -- then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn't we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it."
There were times when I was tempted to avoid the hassle and pain of disciplining Art, Jess and Sam. I am glad that I avoided that temptation.
Lesson 6: Encouragement builds up a child.
Sam was driving his truck one day, and I was in the passenger seat. "Dad, what one piece of advice would you give me on being a father?" Now that question really hit me for a couple reasons. First, my son was really asking for my advice. Second, I love this adult-son age where they really listen to me.
I can't say that I thought through the answer with any great depth, but the answer that came most quickly to my mind was: "Encourage your kids. Let them know how proud you are of them. Many children go through their entire lives seeking and not getting their parents' approval."
Sam responded, "Yeah, Dad, that's what you have done with Art, Jess and me. And it has worked!"
The blessing. That's what a parent's approval is. And for whatever reasons, fathers seem to withhold such encouragement and approval more than mothers do. I thank God that I learned the lesson of the blessing.
Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. This column first appeared on his website, www.ThomRainer.com. It was adapted from the book "Raising Dad" (B&H Publishing Group, 2007). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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