Become the Father You Were Meant to Be

Become the Father You Were Meant to Be

It was Dad’s Night in Yucca Valley. It came like clockwork every year to that hot, dusty California town. The Yucca Valley football team would line the field before a game, each player separated by two or three yards of grass. I was a sophomore, and this was my first Dad’s Night.

Normally, I relished standing under those lights. I had always felt pretty comfortable on that field, one of the few places where I ever felt truly at home. But in that moment, on Dad’s Night, the lights felt too bright. I felt exposed, embarrassed. I knew what was coming. I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. I wanted the clock to jump ahead 10 minutes so I could strap on my helmet, grab the football, and do what I knew how to do.

One by one, the announcer called out the name of a father. The dad would run into the lights and onto the field, jogging through the grass to stand by his son—a small celebration, a way to acknowledge the dads who had helped their kids throw a football or taught them how to tackle or made sure they didn’t miss practices. Not everyone had a dad there, of course. But back in 1976, we had a lot more intact families than we do today. And those who didn’t have a father around typically invited someone else to stand in his place—a brother or grandfather or friend.

But that night, I didn’t have anyone. I had forgotten to get someone to play my “Dad,” just for that one night.

“Jim Daly,” the announcer called out over the loudspeaker, and then a pause. “Jim Daly’s father is not present tonight.” Boom, that was it. Down the row it went. I watched as other fathers ran onto the field to hug or shake hands with their sons. And there I stood, alone again.

Want to know how important fathers are? Ask the guy who didn’t have one.

Most of us have moments connected with our fathers—stories that not only helped illustrate what kind of men our own dads were, but may also point to what they should’ve been. And, like it or not, those moments shape how we think about fatherhood itself. Sometimes they can set the bar for us, show us what it means to be a dad. Sometimes they can serve as cautionary tales—Man, I never want to act that way, the way my old man did after a few too many beers. Or maybe, like my Dad’s Night moment, they set themselves apart by their very absence, for the vacuum they left behind.

Every year, I struggled with trying to figure out what to do for Dad’s Night. Every year, I had to scrounge up a substitute “Dad” to fill in for the real fathers who failed me. My biological father essentially drank himself to death. My stepfather left the day we buried my mother, literally taking a taxi out of my family’s life with barely a goodbye. And my foster father … well, for now, let’s just call him a little odd.

If it’s true that men are made, how does a boy learn to grow up to be a man if he didn’t see it modeled at home?

Since becoming a father over two decades ago, I’ve been parenting out of my void. In seeing what my own father lacked, I saw more clearly what a real father should be—or at least what I desperately wanted my father to be. My dad wasn’t around much, so I knew a dad should be present. He was erratic, so I knew a dad should be constant and reliable. My stepfather was all about rules and punishment, so I longed for love and acceptance.

The Bible so often refers to the Lord as “Father” that we sometimes forget how significant the word really is with regard to describing the nature of God. We understand that God is the Father of all creation, “from whom all things came and for whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6). We understand that He’s Jesus’ Father. But we forget that God explicitly asks us to call Him Father. Through both Him and His Son, we can get a pretty good glimpse of what we as earthbound dads should look like.

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), a heart-wrenching yet ultimately heartwarming story of a young man who blew his inheritance on foolish living. As you’ll recall, he returned home broke and humiliated, and feared that his father would at worst disown him or at best hire him as a servant. Instead, his father celebrated his return, rejoicing that his lost son, whom he never stopped loving, was now found. Love was central to this exchange: a benevolent, Christlike bond between a father and his son.

This is the kind of father men are meant to be. We’re to be selfless and sacrificial, tireless in our pursuit of our sons and daughters, and always willing to forgive them when they make a mistake, large or small. This doesn’t come easily, especially when children are careless, reckless and thoughtless.

Despite being taken advantage of by his younger son—and chastised by the older one—the father in the story of the prodigal lavishes his love, care and concern on both of them. He is generous, gracious and grateful. The good father does the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons. ©2024 Jim Daly

The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.

Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family.

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