Struggle well: Fatherhood, love, and grace

Written by Aaron Sharp
Published on June 18, 2021

Fatherhood is a struggle. 

Don’t get me wrong. It is glorious, exhausting, worthwhile, exasperating, a blessing, and painful.  It is all of those things and a struggle all at the same time. 

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by struggle. I don’t necessarily mean struggle in the sense of “I just can’t do this”—although that feeling is certainly part of it. 

What I have in mind is the idea that fatherhood is striving, it is work, it is the expenditure of mental and physical effort. To put it in more of an athletic frame of reference, fatherhood is a struggle in the sense that it is a max-effort endeavor.  

Being a father, whether you have one child or seven, will require you to push yourself beyond your limits. There will be moments of rest for sure, but the job itself, if you are going to do it well, requires you to show up with your best effort, and to do it over and over again. 

If I could paraphrase actor Robert Strauss, fatherhood is like wrestling a gorilla—you don’t quit when you get tired; you quit when it gets tired. That is what I mean when I say that fatherhood is a struggle. 

Compete, strive, or struggle

There is a fantastic phrase in 1 Timothy 6:12 that captures this idea well: “Compete well for the faith and lay hold of that eternal life you were called for and made your good confession for in the presence of many witnesses” (NET). 

Most Bible translations begin the verse with the English phrase “fight the good fight,” just like it appears in 1 Timothy 1:18, but I chose the NET translation because it brings up an important distinction. 

In 1 Timothy 1:18, the Apostle Paul uses military terms, but here in 1 Timothy 6:12 he switches to Greek terms, which were used primarily in athletic competitions. The Greek word used is agōnízomai—it’s where we get the English word “to agonize” from. 

It is defined by one dictionary as, “to struggle, literally (to compete for a prize), figuratively (to contend with an adversary), or generally (to endeavor to accomplish something): – fight, labor fervently, strive.”

The idea here is to compete, strive, or struggle, and do it well. 

A timeless truth for all

The point isn’t about winning victories so much as about the process of playing the game the right way. You can almost see the Apostle Paul, who was no stranger to either struggle or athletics, picturing in his mind the preparations undergone by the athletes of his day. 

The effort, the attention to detail, the willingness to push farther and farther past his previous endurance and abilities are all wrapped up in this concept of competing or struggling well.

What Paul is talking about here is a timeless truth for all Christians, but, as a father of four, I see a couple of specific ways the command to struggle well can be applied to fatherhood. 

What it means to love

First, fathers must struggle well to show their children what it means to love. 

Our priorities reveal our loves, and we must show our children who and what to love, and how to prioritize those things. 

I have a favorite baseball team, and it is great getting to watch a game with the kids and regale them with tales of my favorite players from when I was a kid, but from the bottom of my heart I hope my kids never confuse my “love” for my favorite team with the love I have for God, for their mother, and for them. 

As a dad, I need my kids to see me love in a way that shows them what I take seriously. On Sunday morning, our family should know what we are doing, not because I feel obliged to take the family to church, but because they see in me an expression of a love for God that I hope one day they’ll emulate.  

I should love God because he loved me, and that motivates me to act in ways that honor him. Struggling well in love means that I should speak about and act toward their mom in ways that honor her, even when we aren’t on the same page. 

Struggling well to love my kids may involve me humbling myself to say, “I blew it.” We’ve all been influenced by the messages of the world around us that love is easy and primarily a feeling, but the truth is that a committed, sustaining love looks and feels a lot like work. 

The idea of struggling and striving is at the heart of love. Anyone can love their children when they are peacefully and adorably sleeping in their beds, but the true test comes when loving children means dealing with anger, disrespect, and disobedience (both yours and theirs). 

What it means to show grace

Second, fathers must struggle well to show their children grace in action. 

It is easy, and at times certainly appropriate, to be hard on kids. They are growing up in a world that is demonstrably tougher and more complicated than anything we dealt with growing up. 

The challenges for a kid who seeks after God will be incredible in the years to come. We must prepare them for those challenges, and sometimes that means teaching some tough lessons in a tough way—but tough lessons divorced from grace aren’t being taught well and they aren’t really worth learning. 

We have to do what we can to instill discipline and discernment in our kids, but the arms that point out the error of their ways have to always be open for the hug as well. Our kids have to deal with their own sin natures while learning to navigate a world that is increasingly unfriendly to ideas we are teaching them. 

Dedication to struggle well

At times, we may resemble the coach demanding that his team learns not to fumble the ball, but if we don’t also teach them about God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, the message they should be receiving falls incomplete. 

We are all going to have good days and bad days as fathers. 

Through it all, let’s dedicate ourselves to struggling well.

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Aaron Sharp

Aaron E. Sharp is the author of three books, including You Got This, Dad: The Expectant Father’s Guide to Surviving Pregnancy, and a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in In Touch Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and as a columnist for the Odessa American newspaper. He and his wife, Elaina, live near Dallas, Texas, with a zoologist, a ballerina, a fashionista, and a Jedi – their four young children.

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