A Father’s 5-to-9

The Holy Ambition of Godly Dads

Some years ago, a professor told our class about a brief word from his wife that lodged itself like an arrow in his chest.

A new semester was approaching, and he had labored to develop syllabi that would serve his students. He chose the books, outlined the assignments, scheduled the essays and exams, and charted a careful academic course from August to December. Then his wife, noticing such thorough professorial planning, asked her honest question: “Why don’t you give the same kind of thought and planning to our family?”

Though a single man at the time, I could still understand the sting. Now a husband and father myself, however, I can feel it. I know many men can. All too easily, we can devote tremendous effort and creativity to career or ministry, perhaps not even thinking of doing the same for family. We can show far more ambition — more thought, more planning, more intentionality, more eagerness — toward work or church than toward fatherhood. We can be passionate employees or ministry leaders, but comparatively passive dads.

Surely kids need to see a dad whose eyes look upward and outward, ambitious about serving God in work, church, the neighborhood, and beyond. But with equal surety, kids need to see a dad ambitious about being dad.

A Father’s 5-to-9

God’s own descriptions of fatherhood in Scripture show us a man who yearns to do good in the world, yes, but who also gives vast energy to the world of his family. He has not only a 9-to-5 job but a 5-to-9 job, a calling just as demanding, and often more so, than his career (and one that includes mornings and weekends as well).

The Bible’s most extended portrayal of fatherhood comes to us in the book of Proverbs, which records a father’s words to his maturing son. Much in the book reminds us that God made men for outward dominion: the call to work hard, the instructions about business and farming, the picture of the father sitting “in the gates . . . among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23). But the very structure of Proverbs — affectionate, earnest, persistent counsel from a father to his son — reminds us that a man’s dominion includes being dad.

Proverbs portrays fatherhood as an all-of-life affair. The book’s dad is a Deuteronomy 6:7 kind of man, one who disciples his son at home and abroad, from morning till night. He teaches a course called “Life” in a classroom as broad as the world. We can perhaps imagine him talking to his son as they walk past the forbidden woman’s street (“Do not go near the door of her house,” 5:8), as they nearly step on an anthill (“Go to the ant,” 6:6), or as they sit down for a meal (“Eat honey, for it is good,” 24:13).

His teaching covers topics both spiritual and practical, both eternal and everyday. Across the book’s 22 instances of the phrase “my son . . .” he speaks to his son’s head, heart, hands, feet, eyes, soul, mouth, and more. He knows his boy’s particular strengths and follies. He spends enough unhurried time around him to say, “Let your eyes observe my ways” (Proverbs 23:26). And though this father has ambitions beyond his boy, he can hardly imagine himself glad apart from this young man’s lasting good (Proverbs 10:1; 17:25; 23:15, 24). He is, in a word, ambitious to be dad.

Home for Ambition

Such a broad, demanding vision of fatherhood suggests at least one reason why men can find outward ambition easier or more natural. In the end, being a godly father may prove harder than starting a company, building a career, or even becoming a pastor.

I for one feel that I have entered a more difficult job when I walk through the doorway after work. Children do not simply ask us to be good accountants or teachers or engineers or project managers: they ask us to be good men. And they do not simply require eight hours of our attention, but in some sense, all of it. If we want to be able to say, “My son, give me your heart” (Proverbs 23:26), then we will need to give them our very selves.

We need some good reasons, then, to put our passivity away and devote ourselves to being better dads. Alongside the simple fact that Scripture gives us our pattern for godly fatherhood (and all God’s patterns are good), consider three other reasons our ambition needs not only an office or a pulpit but a home: for our own soul, for the world, and for our kids.

Honest Ambition

First, ambition at home serves a man’s own soul, particularly by keeping his other ambitions honest.

An elder “must manage his own household well,” Paul writes, “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5). A man who struggles to lead the little fellowship inside his home will struggle to lead a larger fellowship outside it, at least in a way that pleases God. Paul’s principle holds in part because leadership skill carries over from sphere to sphere, but also for another reason: home trains a man for the specific leadership required of a Christian.

“In large part, our job as dads is to offer a faithful image of the Father who delights in his Son.”

Truly Christian leaders do not despise humble acts of hidden service (Mark 10:43), and home provides such opportunities in spades. Christian leaders gladly associate with the lowly (Romans 12:16), and children are a knee-high society. Christian leaders patiently invest in people slow to change (1 Thessalonians 5:14), and family gives daily (often hourly) practice for that kind of patience. And Christian leaders wisely apply God’s word to each person’s needs (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12), and kids come with strikingly diverse personalities and temptations.

Like Peter or John hurrying past the children, I sometimes imagine Christian ambition in terms far larger than these little ones. But then I look back and notice my Lord lingering there among them, his own ambition large enough to include kids. And I remember that unless my ambition includes the same, I am not yet fit to lead well elsewhere.

Archer’s Arrows

Second, and counterintuitively, ambition at home serves the world, at least when blessed by God.

Negatively, we might consider the sad examples of passive dads whose kids grew up to dismantle much of their work in the world. David was a mighty king, but his lack of attention at home caused chaos in his kingdom (2 Samuel 13:20–22; 1 Kings 1:5–6). And Eli lost his priesthood for letting his sons run amok (1 Samuel 2:29).

Positively, however, Scripture gives us an image of children that is anything but insular and homebound: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth,” Solomon writes (Psalm 127:4). When a father raises children with godly ambition, he is not excusing himself from God’s mission in the world. He is an archer bent beneath the wall, sharpening his arrows. And in a world of warring spiritual kingdoms, it is no waste of time to sharpen arrows.

As with all discipleship, one paradox of fatherhood is that we often serve the world best when we focus on a few. Jesus changed the world through a few ordinary men. Fathers seek to go on changing the world through a few ordinary children. Such children may divide a man in the moment, taking his time away from good pursuits elsewhere. But with God’s favor, they do not leave him divided, but multiplied. A father’s faithful children are that man made many.

Godly men will seek to make disciples beyond their families, of course. At the same time, they will not see fatherhood as something different from making disciples. All this time at home, all these moments saying, “My son,” “My daughter,” all those days retreating from the rush of the world, all the daily dying to self — these are like a man drawing his bow, aiming to die with arrows in the air.

Dad’s Delight

Finally, ambition at home serves the eternal souls of children.

The image of arrows is helpful as far as it goes. We do well to remember, however, that children are not simply tools or weapons to be wielded — and many children have come to resent a dad who treated them as such. No, children are also gifts to be embraced. They are treasures to be cherished. They are endlessly interesting persons to be known. And in a Christian family especially, they ought to know themselves beloved.

That word beloved strikes close to the heart of good fatherhood, the kind that comes from the Father above (Ephesians 5:1). Hear this first Father’s benediction over his dear Son:

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17)

In large part, our job as dads is to offer a faithful image of the Father who delights in his Son. And in a world that often twists fatherhood into something utterly unlike the true Father, one of the best things we can do for our kids is to give God’s pleasure a bodily presence in our big laughter and bright eyes and strong arms — to love them so manifestly that they fall asleep feeling, My dad delights in me.

That kind of love and delight draws out generous amounts of our time and attention. It warrants creative thought and planning. It calls for the kind of initiative we often give to our career or our ministry, such that when our children look at us, they see a dad ambitious to be dad.