by Ken R. Canfield, Ph.D.
More and more men are reporting that fatherhood is a spiritual experience, and it’s coming from more than just pastors and churchgoing dads. Nationally recognized writers have commented on the deeply spiritual dimension of being a father.
Your children are spiritual beings. They can no more decide whether to have a spirit than they can decide whether to be human or not. So the question is not whether your children will develop spiritually, but rather how well or how poorly their spiritual life will be developed.
Perhaps we all feel it from time to time, but then we ask ourselves, What do we do with it? At fathers.com, one of the most common questions we hear from dads is: “How can I connect with my children spiritually?”
Some years ago, Cynthia Clark studied firstborn, early adolescent sons to determine how their parents influenced their religious beliefs. She found that mothers had more influence on their sons’ practical application of spirituality, the day-to-day moments where faith comes alive. What do you suppose the fathers influenced? Church attendance. It makes sense, because many of us tend to focus more on our comfort zone, which is outer religious activity. The areas we tend to neglect, possibly because we feel inadequate, are the more practical aspects of a deep, everyday commitment. And that’s the type of spiritual leadership that our children need most.
Here are four ideas to help you move in that direction:
Reach Them Through Their Hearts
The heart is a very tender thing. It’s the place where spirituality is most genuinely experienced and most ardently expressed, and many of us may be inadvertently stifling our kids’ hearts when it comes to spiritual matters. It’s so easy to turn faith into a set of rules, focusing primarily on our children’s outward behavior, rather than viewing faith as a passionate way of life, emphasizing matters of the mind, soul and spirit. Religion becomes empty of meaning, devoid of spontaneity and enthusiasm. Or when we do get enthusiastic, we end up preaching at our children rather than actively listening to their heartfelt needs and desires.
Equipping your child spiritually may seem uncomfortable—and it does take courage—but engaging his heart can release supernatural power in his life and enable him to carve out his own unique expression of faith. That kind of spirituality will be more likely to “stick” as a daily, dynamic experience in his life.
Prepare the Soil and Pray for the Harvest
In a farmer’s field, if the fertilizer, moisture and seed all work together with proper sunshine, there’s a good chance for a plentiful harvest. In the same way, you can proactively cultivate your children for a spiritual harvest. You don’t have the final say when it comes to your child’s faith—that’s between him and God. But you can certainly play a leading role in introducing him to God and providing an atmosphere of spiritual growth.
Maybe you’ll start by reading scriptures as a family on holidays and special events, and then gradually work into a regular, consistent practice. Pretty soon you’ll be looking for creative ways to bring Bible stories to life for your kids. As they grow, you can encourage them to discover and express their spiritual gifts and take a more active part in family worship and prayer times.
Of course, be sure to also link your children into the larger context of faith youth groups and activities. One of the best things you can do in that regard is to hold your child’s spiritual leaders in high esteem. These men and women have in many cases dedicated their livelihood to nurturing people and children in their faith, and we should all speak approvingly and respectfully about them in our homes. We should also be faithful in praying for them and supporting their efforts to get through to our kids, whether they be evangelists, student pastors, or children’s volunteers. Your spiritual co-workers at church can bring fresh rain to nurture the seed of a child’s heart.
Model Spiritual Strength and Weakness
Several studies have concluded that every child’s ideas about God are deeply influenced by his relationship with his father. What a risk God is taking! We could just as easily choose to be bad models of God’s fatherliness, and our children might then reject both their earthly father and their heavenly Father. But God gave us the Scriptures as a guide, and he trusts us to be good models here on earth.
When you stoop down to tie your son’s shoe, you communicate something about God. When you buy your daughter clothes for school, you’re telling her more about him. The fact that you own a Bible communicates something powerful. Of course, if you never open it, that also communicates something powerful. If you seldom extend forgiveness and mercy to your kids, then they may get the same ideas about God. If you’re able to ask for their forgiveness when you’ve wronged them, you’ll be demonstrating what strong, Godly manhood is all about.
We want to be good models for our children. We want them to aspire to be like us in many ways, including our spiritual commitment. It’s a natural desire, but it often leads us to put on false fronts of strength, or even perfection. We should also show our kids through word and deed that we need God; we depend on him for everything.
If you feel inadequate before God, it’s only because you are—we all are. But that inadequacy makes you adequate to the task of leading your children spiritually. They may seem young and innocent now, but someday they’ll have to face life’s questions and adversities without your help. Your transparency allows them to watch you struggling to live a holy life, succeeding in some ways, failing in others, but always calling out to God for his protection and guidance, his mercy and grace.
Tell them about occasions when you faced challenges that called for trust in God. Tell them how you’ve been given mercy in the midst of failure, how you’ve found comfort in suffering. They’ll see that the same divine care and protection is available to them.
In Everything, Give Thanks
Your children won’t always choose the path you hoped they would. Give thanks anyway. They’ll mess up; they’ll get into trouble. Thank God for them and don’t close yourself off from them. Make thanksgiving an attitude that you carry throughout your life as a father—no matter what. Job said, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (2:10); and the Paul urges us in 1 Thessalonians to: “give thanks in all circumsances” (5:18). You’ll be showing your children that life is worth celebrating, and demonstrating what real faith is all about.
By the way you live, you’ll be saying, “I’ve done my best to be a reliable reference point as you find your place in the world, but I’m going to make mistakes. If you choose me as the center of your universe, you’ll eventually find yourself lost. My most important duty is to introduce you to a more stable, more reliable reference. I have been your earthly father, but now I want you to accept a heavenly Father and map out your life according to Him.”
A large part of influencing your child toward faith, dad, is up to you.
What would you add? What routines have worked for you in nurturing your children’s faith? Please connect with us and other dads and share your insights on our Facebook page.