I still remember the first time I suspected that, contrary to my early conceits, I might actually be a terrible father. When our oldest child was 2, I was clipping her fingernails and snipped her pinkie instead of the nail. As I saw the pinpoint of blood ooze from her tiny fingertip, I made a strange wailing sound, snatched her up, and ran her to the bathroom. I apologized profusely as I wrapped her finger in a complex set of bandages that effectively quadrupled the size of her pinkie. (Any parent will tell you that, if there's anything more difficult than clipping the nails of a toddler, it's trying to find a bandage that will fit her fingertip.)
She returned my apologies with a look of confusion. Truthfully, I don't think she was aware that anything was wrong.
As a young man, I had imagined myself ideal father material, mainly because I loved holding cute babies at church and had served as a youth pastor for three years. So I was ready. Then my wife and I had our first child, and it became clear to me that I was anything but.
Since the finger-clipping mishap, I have doubted my parenting skills on several occasions. There were the times I should have been paying attention to my four children, but was preoccupied with something of profound importance, like checking my Facebook news feed for the tenth time that day. I would hear the sound of Thunk, thunk, thunk, THUNK, followed by crying, which every bad parent knows is the sound of your kid tumbling down the stairs, her head hitting each and every step along the way. There were the times when I got upset at my children for being cranky, disobedient, or otherwise unpleasant, and tried to browbeat them into having a better attitude instead of checking to see whether they had a fever of 103. They almost always did.
What was more revealing than my technical incompetency was my attitude, which could have been described charitably as "impatient" but was often something closer to "mean spirited." Instead of correcting my children, I criticized. Instead of disciplining, I punished. I treated them as if they were short adults, not little children who were still learning. And each time I acted that way, I became more convinced that I was indeed a terrible dad. To this day, I don't think that assessment is altogether wrong.
Where I was wrong was in assuming that I had to remain that way.
I had always been of the opinion that the best fathers were born as such. Whether through some function of genetics, upbringing, or a combination of the two, fatherhood was a skill that a man either possessed from the start or did not. And if a man did not have that gift, there was no hope of sizable growth, only marginal adjustment.
I felt this way for several reasons. First, we increasingly discover that so many aspects of our lives are dictated by genetics: our features, our predispositions to certain diseases, even elements of our personalities. It is not difficult to imagine that parenting skills might function in the same way. Second, when it comes to careers—which for men are often cast as the central feature of identity—there is a strong emphasis on aptitude: we should pursue careers for which we possess an intrinsic skill. It's little wonder that men take that mentality and apply it to their parenting as well.
The belief was further reinforced whenever I observed a father in action at the playground or in the school hallway. I would watch these men as they communicated with their children, keeping their emotions in check and their smartphones in their pockets, unfazed amid the most epic of toddler meltdowns. And like a man who has just watched someone slam dunk while he has trouble dribbling, I concluded that these fathers must have been born with something that I lacked from the beginning. Nothing else could adequately explain the yawning gulf between us.
What most undermined any thought I had as to improving myself were the stereotypes of fathers I had witnessed growing up. On television, I watched Al Bundy from Married with Children, Homer from The Simpsons, and Peter Griffin from Family Guy. These fathers were bungling and lazy, oblivious and indifferent to the needs of their family. They normalized mediocre fatherhood, creating the impression that these types of fathers were, by their nature, irrevocably incompetent. Not only was there little possibility of improving as a father, but there was little need because nothing more was expected from a dad than to sit on the couch all day, a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other.
These thoughts undercut any of my inclinations to grow as a father. Every failure served only as incontrovertible evidence that I was simply not cut out to be a good dad, and never would be—and there were more than a few failures. My daily intake of cartoonish stereotypes only diminished my motivation. And so I resigned myself to my fate: that I would always be, at best, a mediocre dad. If I wasn't born the perfect father, what was the point of trying?
But a question we could ask ourselves at this point is, "Was Jesus born the perfect Savior?" Hebrews 2:10 says that Jesus himself, the pioneer of salvation, was made perfect through what he suffered. Such a statement might raise our theological hackles because it seems to imply that Jesus was somehow imperfect, or even that he was sinful in some way. However, that is not what this passage implies. The word used for "perfect" here does not refer to moral perfection, which the writer makes clear in the fourth chapter, stating that although Jesus was tempted in every way, he was forever and always without sin. So what then does it mean that Jesus was made perfect, if not in a moral sense?
And what might it mean for our own imperfect parenting?
Developing Our Role
When we hear the word perfect, we think of it in its adjectival form: "flawless," as in a perfect diamond or a perfect performance. But the word used for "perfect" in that passage in Hebrews is the Greek verb teleioo, which carries the meaning of making something complete and whole, needing nothing further. When understood in this way, what that verse indicates is not that Jesus was morally incomplete in any way, but that his ministry to us was made more complete, or perfected, through suffering experiences.
How can that be, that Jesus' ministry became more complete? Consider for a moment the events of Jesus' life. He lived for years as a child in the household of Joseph and Mary, something that we can relate to. He then went into the desert to face his Enemy, and was tempted with the same things we are—glory, wealth, comfort—but Jesus resisted and overcame those temptations. He mourned for his loved ones and suffered rejection and betrayal, as we all do. And then Jesus faced the ultimate icon of human brokenness and separation from the Father: death itself.
The result of all of these experiences shows that Jesus is not just a spiritual Savior who restores our relationship with our heavenly Father, as incredible as that accomplishment on the cross is. He is also our Friend who understands, our Encourager who sympathizes, and our Advocate who stands by our side. All of these roles developed and strengthened over the course of Jesus' human life. As hard as it is for us to believe, Jesus' ministry to us became richer and deeper over time, through experience and through suffering, so that by the end, we might call him not just Savior but Friend as well.
This helps us to understand Christ more clearly and to appreciate the fullness of his ministry to us. But it also serves to remind us about our own sanctification and growth: If Christ's ministry to us was perfected over time through hardship, then there must be room for all people to grow and mature in the same way, even fathers in their ministry to their children. This was a truth I learned firsthand.
A Better Dad
Seven years into our marriage, my wife, Carol, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an especially aggressive form of cancer that didn't respond to modern therapies. She needed to have a mastectomy, followed by physical therapy, then months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. When we discovered this plan, I despaired on many levels, not least of all for our children. My wife was the one who stayed at home with the kids and took care of most of their daily needs. Since she would be overwhelmed by her treatments, those tasks would fall to me. I shuddered as I imagined what the next year would be like, not just for my wife but for our two daughters as well.
To my amazement, and contrary to what I had always believed, I began to steadily grow and mature as a father. For instance, the washer and dryer used to intimidate me with all of their dials, buttons, and settings. What does delicates mean again?
Yet during that season of Carol's cancer battle, I learned how to do the laundry, and even how to tell my daughters' socks apart (no small task). I did the dishes and cleaned the house daily. I cooked my daughters' breakfast and packed their lunches, picked them up from school in the afternoon and put them to sleep every night. I learned how to be more competent around the house.
My attitude improved as well. As I spent more time with my daughters, I learned more about their personalities and idiosyncrasies—how my eldest daughter was so eager to please, and my younger daughter was so eager to imitate her sister. I treasured them like I never had before. They were beautiful and precious, and that beauty and worth demanded that I treat them with respect and grace, not with impatience and annoyance, as I had done before Carol's diagnosis. In those nine months, I went from being a terrible father to a good one, or at least a better one. And it didn't take all that much for this to happen, only my wife falling gravely ill. Frankly, I'm not sure anything less would have gotten the job done.
Forged and Refined
What I took away from that season is this: Far too often, men are wrongly fixated on the fact that we aren't the fathers we want to be, which very well may be the truth. And because we lack those inborn skills and characteristics, we despair and resign ourselves to mediocrity, or worse. However, the truth is that good fathers are not born, but made as they are forged and refined through difficult circumstances. The best fathers learned how to be the fathers that their families needed and God called them to be. And because of this, even though a man very well might have been born a quite terrible father, there is still hope he might become a better one in time.
Don't get me wrong: I still have innumerable moments of epic parental stupidity. And I still check Facebook far more often than anyone should. My fourth child fell down the stairs just last month.
It is okay that I'm not a perfect father, because flawlessness is for God alone. The goal of fatherhood is not that we might never make a mistake ever again, but instead that we might persevere and so mature in our calling. Our ministry to our children is to be made more complete with every season and experience. And by the end, our children will look to us and be encouraged to know that they too can grow into whatever role God calls them to, no matter how unattainable they once thought that role to be.
Peter Chin lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and four children. His first book, Blindsided by God (Bethany House), comes out in 2015. You can follow his work at peterwchin.com or on Twitter @peterwchin.
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