The Most Important Spiritual Lessons Dads Learn
Every human relationship reflects something intrinsic to God: the interchange of persons in the Holy Trinity. That’s true for friends, siblings, spouses, and parents. Our human relationships don’t exist for their own sake; God uses all of them to teach us and bring us closer to Himself. In every relationship, the shared love of your friend/spouse/sibling/parent will have ripples on your relationship with God. The love between a husband and wife, for example, shows humanity the complete self-giving love among the persons of the Holy Trinity. The spousal relationship has that special insight into the Holy Trinity, though that isn’t the only one with a unique position.
Dads have the unique opportunity to share a title that belongs to God: Father. St. Paul tells the Ephesians that every member of every family has its origin from God (Eph 3:15). This isn’t a case of man usurping a title reserved for God the Father. Rather, God bestows great dignity on man by allowing us to share in His title.
In sharing a part of Himself, God opens up many lessons to dads. Here are five spiritual lessons that I’ve learned as a dad of two young children.
There's so much to learn and I’ve made so many mistakes. I hadn’t been around small children much as a caregiver; this was my first shot. My wife has been amazing in helping me learn what to do, what to watch out for, and what babies and toddlers need. And every time that I thought I had it figured out, some new issue would pop up to test my patience. It has been a lesson in humility to accept correction when I did something incorrectly and especially to accept it well. On top of that, parenting stresses can easily turn into spousal stresses. Early morning diaper changes and weariness with tantrums don’t make it easy for spouses to say the right thing to each other. It may sound odd, but I believe all fathers/husbands have to learn to apologize. No marriage can survive without humility, and unfortunately, there’s usually only one way to learn it.
The virtue of humility is worth cultivating in every aspect of our lives, but especially in our relationship with God. Does your child rebel? Does he ignore what you say, even if it keeps him from harm? Humanity has done that to God since the very beginning. There’s no better starting point in the spiritual life than being honest with ourselves.
Doing things with my two year old son has been getting more fun as time goes on. He learns so much every week and he’s the cutest little guy I could imagine. There are days that I see him play, run, etc. that I feel my heart overloading with love. I knew I would love my children, but never knew I could love this much. And our heavenly Father loves me more?
It’s one thing to intellectually know that God is love, He loves everyone, and I’m part of “everyone”… so He must love me, too. Men sometimes have difficulty standing before God the Father as a beloved son and accepting His love. Listen to these amazing words God spoke through Isaiah. God says the same thing to every one of us, as a loving Father to His children:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (43:1-4).
Considering work, being a husband, a father, and the slings & arrows of life, there’s plenty of anxiety to go around. In the very first papal encyclical, St. Peter points to God as a refuge with any anxiety we have. The reason? He loves us. The creator and sustainer of the universe cares about our daily needs!
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)
Part of loving God is trusting Him to care for us. It’s fine to trust God when times are good; it doesn’t take much of a leap. But when the rug has been pulled out from under us? Or if you’re in a financially difficult situation? God doesn’t promise us wealth, but He promises to never abandon us.
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never fail you nor forsake you.’” (Heb 13:5)
There are many more verses in the Bible that describe the Father’s love for us. The following is a good close; nothing in the universe can separate us from God’s love. Sin, mistakes, errors? None of the above. The only thing that can separate me from God is… me.
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39)
Dads, cast yourselves at the feet of the perfect fatherhood of God. No matter how good or bad your father was, you have a perfect Father in heaven. As you love and care for your children, God loves and cares for you infinitely more.
The theological virtue of faith is related to all of the above topics. Faith requires humility to get off the ground, and its fuel is love. The biggest challenge to my faith as a dad has been time more than belief. Maintaining a faith that’s robust enough to sustain an adult requires an investment of time and energy… two things not in abundance for parents.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught that we should value heavenly things above all. And if we needed a litmus test? “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21). For the purposes of measuring, substitute “treasure” for “time.”
It’s simply insane to think that 60 minutes a week at Sunday Mass is enough to sustain us spiritually throughout the week. The Eucharist, the bread of life, is like the seed scattered by the sower (see Matt 13:1-23). If the seed falls on fertile ground, it grows abundantly. If the seed falls on rocky or shallow soil—read here: temptation, trials, difficult times—our faith, like the seed, doesn’t have roots built for endurance. We need to till the soil of our own hearts to prepare it for the seed.
It’s the hardest thing to do in the face of lots of demands on our time: make time for prayer, reading, and building up. I’ve found two solutions to this: first, waking up earlier in the morning to read the Bible, say my prayers, and try to get centered in Christ. There really is no other time that belongs just to me! Second, I really recommend praying the rosary with your spouse/girlfriend. Praying together does wonders for a relationship, and the rosary is a beautiful contemplative prayer hidden inside a string of beads.
You need good male friends—to vent about work, catch a game, or try the newest microbrewery in town. This is something that I notice when I do hang out with my friends, but I notice it more when I don’t. I always come back refreshed whenever I hang out with my friends. I miss my wife and kids more, and I’m anxious to get back to them.
There’s a scriptural basis for this general point, most famously in First Corinthians. St. Paul spoke at length to the Corinthians about needing each other. He compared the Body of Christ to the human body: “for the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body” (1 Cor 12:14-15). He takes up most of chapter 12 driving home his point further. St. Paul writes the same teaching to the Romans (12:4-8). Why go to such great lengths to prove a point? As members of the Church, need each other. God arranged it that way, so that the Church would be united in one body with Christ as its head (see Col 1:18, Eph 5:29-30).
On top of St. Paul’s urging for union within the Body of Christ, there’s an underlying reason why. I think this applies perfectly to the friendships dads need:
“His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-12)
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up.” (1 Thes 5:11)
“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:13)
In an analogous way, fathers need other fathers. I can talk to my wife about my experiences being a dad, and she can listen and help to some degree. The reverse is the same, that she can talk to me about being a mother and I can listen and help some. Having a solid relationship with your spouse is so important—but I cannot come from a position of experience when my wife talks about being a mother. Nor can my wife speak about fatherhood from experience! There are certain things (childbirth is an obvious one) where knowing about it and experiencing it are very different things. Life-giving friendships enrich a marriage, and every dad needs them.
When I was a new parent, more experienced parents warned me about what I’d say and do. Kids are extremely observant, pick up on your habits, and then copy them. That lesson didn’t hit home until my son became very adept at repeating what my wife and I said. Just in case I didn’t think it was a big deal to do this or that, it occurred to me that I needed a different perspective. Did I want my son or daughter picking up that bad habit? And if not, then why was I doing that in the first place?
It can be easy to slip into the mode of thinking that what we do doesn’t actually matter. The secular world pushes that very message of relativism. No accountability sounds attractive, but it’s thoroughly un-biblical and completely at odds with what the Catholic Church teaches. Having my son mimic things that I do has driven home the point: I need to teach my children by word and by action.
I’m sure the lessons will continue as time goes on. Dads that have teenagers and adult children would still need the same concepts—learning humility, growing in love, needing their faith, needing community with other friends, and setting a good moral example—though the actual experience would look much different.
St. Joseph, patron of fathers, pray for us!