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Becoming a Man

We need to admit our incompetence and grow in competence.


What is the most powerful word in the English language? Is it "honor," or "love," or "country?" Maybe it's "sacrifice." Stu Weber, who has written the book called Tender Warrior, says, "How about the word 'dad?'" Just walk through what you know about life. When it comes to power in a youngster's world, I'll put my money on the word "dad." As words go, "hope," "vision," and "sacrifice" don't mean a whole lot to little ones, but the power of the word "dad" reaches far beyond a youngster's childhood. In fact, it spans generations.

There are two ways to recognize power. One is to see it at work. The other is to measure what happens when it is gone. Either way, the word "dad" is pretty potent. Present or absent, positive or negative, the power of the father is incredible.

In Ramsey County, Minnesota, ninth and tenth graders were interviewed recently about their dads. They were asked this question: "What comes to mind when you think of the word 'dad?'" Answers came immediately from both ends of the spectrum. One end of the spectrum said, "I think of the word 'jerk.'" Others thought of the words "angry," "mad," and "absent."  On the other hand, some of the young people said, "I think of 'wholeness,' 'kindness,' 'security,' 'safety.'"

"Dad" is an immensely powerful word. The father leaves an indelible mark on the life of the soul, the life of children and grandchildren. It may be damaging; it may be enabling; it might be powerful. But it is incredible that this most powerful human position is conferred upon men who are fathers.

If you were a piece of paper held up to the light, we would see a watermark on your soul that has the name of your dad on it. Listen to T. Berry Brazelton, former chief of child development at Children's Hospital in Boston: "Of all human relationships, the bond between father and child is one of the most powerful and complex. We may look to our mothers for unconditional love. But be we men or women, we often seek to validate our existence through the approval of our fathers. If our father dies or in some way is absent before we earn that approval, we live the rest of our lives feeling cheated." 

It is not that the love of the mother is unimportant. It is vitally important. But, in a way, the dad represents to the child what the outside world thinks of him or her—and I believe it's imprinted on the heart and the responsibility of a dad. When the dad says to the child: "You can do it. You are special. I believe in you. I'm here with you, and I'm here to help you," then the child believes that the world is a place where a living can be made and where progress can be had. When the father says, "You do nothing right. Live in my house. Sit here and shut up," the child believes that the outside world believes that he or she is a failure.

Listen to Sophia Loren, a woman who has all the beauty, riches, and notoriety a woman would ever want. She saw her father only six times in her life. She says, "He shaped me as a person more than any other man. It was the dream of my life to have a father. And that is why I sought him everywhere. I spent most of my life looking for substitutes for him. I still wonder what he was thinking as he saw me up there on the movie screen. With all the grandiose gifts I have received in my life, my most treasured possession is the only toy my father ever gave to me—a little blue car with my name on it." 

Today mine is a message of challenge to all of us men. It's a message to challenge us and to give us hope. Being a male might have given you children. But becoming a dad is the project we all have ahead of us. We are not born good fathers. Today, I want to point to a young man named Timothy. You'll find his story in and around those sentences in the letters of 1 and 2 Timothy. We're going to look at him today as a paradigm of a young man who did not have a strong father figure in his life.

We know nothing about his father except that he was a Greek. Timothy was raised by his mother and his grandmother. And his spiritual formation was due to these godly women whom Paul affirms in their ministry to Timothy. But Timothy, as he grew into young manhood, was timid. He was physically unfit for many things. He was weak in some ways. And he needed a spiritual mentor. He was easily intimidated. And along came Paul, an older, spiritual man. He took on Timothy as a disciple, and later their relationship would flower. Paul really re-parented, re-fathered Timothy. In Philippians 2, Paul says, "As a son with his father has Timothy been with me." When Paul wants to send the best emissary from himself, he sends Timothy: "I have no one else like him. For he has a genuine interest in your welfare. He has proven himself." 

Here we have the story of a young man who didn't have a strong spiritual father image. There was a vacuum in his life. But we see him a few years later, and his life has been transformed. He has become the man. That's what I want in my life. And that's what God wants in your lives, men, no matter how old you are, no matter what family you have come from.

I want to tell you about a progression that was described to me by a friend. He mentioned it in an offhanded way, but it stuck in my mind. I warn you, though, the first two steps do not sound like progress. You have to hang in there for the final two steps to see how this all works. Let me give you, then, the four stages of progress toward true manhood.

Recognize that you are unconsciously incompetent.

The first stage is this: to recognize that I am unconsciously incompetent. That's a little hard to swallow. The place I start is with the recognition that I am born unconsciously incompetent. I don't know, and I don't even know that I don't know. To be unconsciously incompetent is far from blissful ignorance. In fact, when I think about areas of my life where I don't know and don't know that I don't know, it sends a chill down my spine. This is maleness at its most dangerous, nuclear-holocaust level. This is maleness that damages and doesn't even know it. This is maleness that is abusive and violent and arrogant and fallen.

The rude awakening, men, is this: This is what we come by naturally. Paul says that. He has no skeletons to hide. In 1 Timothy 1:13-15, he says, "But even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief." He was incompetent and he didn't know it. He was ignorant of it.

"The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst." 

Paul says to his young disciple Timothy, "I was at one time unconscious of my incompetence." Paul was no dummy. He was the Harvard Rhodes scholar of his family. He was the boy wonder. He was a prodigy. He was a patriot. He carried the flag. But he didn't understand the first thing about God. Therefore he didn't understand the first thing about gracing the lives of anyone else. He didn't know anything about grace and mercy. He was unrelated and unsubmitted to the heavenly Father.

He says in Titus 3:3, "We were foolish, disobedient, enslaved by passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Paul is saying, "I was self-centered, self-gratifying, self-absorbed. I didn't know what I was doing. And I didn't even know that I didn't know." 

Men, this is the story of the human race—the habitual blindness to the ravages of male pride. If we look around the world today, where do we see the violence, the genocide, the injustice, the abuse, the racism being committed? And who is doing it? By and large, it is males. It is men run amuck, fallen, unconsciously incompetent.

The picture that comes to my mind is of a strong man, self-confident, well-trained, muscles all over. He's at the end of a four-inch, high-pressure fire hose. Confident and proud that he can handle this thing, he signals to the man at the hydrant to turn it on. The man turns it on, and the water comes rushing down that high-pressure hose, and that man, in his self-absorbed pride, finds himself being waved through the air as if he's at the end of a cat's tail. That's what happens when he grabs life by the throat; it is so powerful that he finds—not only is he not rescuing those he's there to rescue—he is also damaging himself and everyone who clings to him.

Life is too important to waste and too precious to guess about. We need someone else. Paul said, "I signed over the deed. I gave my life. I submitted to the lordship, the mastery, the wisdom, the power, and the purposes of God. Now all I do is what the Master tells me to do." That's where manhood begins. Many of you have made that decision. We call that conversion. We call that surrender. We call that brokenness. And if you've made that decision, I praise the Lord for that decision.

But let me ask you: Are you conscious of making growth in your life take place?  My dad has been graced by God. I grew up in a Christian family due to the fact that God came into his life. Yet I've heard my dad tell a story about his younger brother, my uncle Don. My uncle Don was a clumsy kid. If you handed him a tool, he would drop it. If you gave him something, he would lose it. If he got under the truck, it would fall on him! He didn't have aptitude when it came to physical things. But that's what he was supposed to have according to his dad.

So Don grew up with this failure syndrome. When the uncles and aunts were over for Thanksgiving or gatherings, and Donny would walk into the room, his dad would say, "Here's my son, Donny. He can't do anything right." In their ignorance, they laughed at that. And they repeatedly laughed at that. Donny laughed at that. But that literally became the prophecy of his life. He never did anything right. He has quit more jobs than most of you have imagined having. He has never settled down. He's never married—never had any children—never made an impact on a life. He's been a human tumbleweed, and the impact of an unconsciously incompetent father started that trail for him.

Many of us have been raised in homes where our fathers did many competent things. I'm one of those. But, men, we were all little boys one time, and even the best of fathers can't screen how we perceive the world. Proverbs 22 says that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. We might see things, but we don't interpret them correctly.

As I was growing up in, I think, a functional family with a godly and good dad, I still took in foolishness. For instance, my dad raised me on hustle. I mean, he loved to see me run. He loved to see me hustle. He would send me to the hardware store, which was down the alley two blocks, and he would time me. He'd say, "Rog, see if you can get down there, get a National, three-eighths, fine, case-hardened bolt, nut, and lock washer in three-and-a-half minutes."

"Okay, Dad."

My Keds were smoking down that alley. I used to love to get approval from my dad. We had fun. It was just a neat game. I felt honored to be his teammate. But my foolish heart recorded something about maleness, and here's what it is: a real man, a better man, does it faster, and makes it look easier. Everything is competition. It's good if you can do it, but it's great if you can do it faster and never let them see you sweat.

That works if you're building a railroad across Nevada and you're on a quota. But let me tell you, it doesn't work on a quiet, romantic weekend! It doesn't work on a family vacation. It doesn't work when you're trying to listen for the Holy Spirit. It doesn't work in genuine spiritual leadership.

I've spent 15 years trying to offload that disk, a disk I was unconsciously incompetent about. Every single one of us men has something in there, and the Spirit of God needs to show us where we're consciously incompetent.

Become consciously incompetent.

That brings us to step two, but let me warn you again: This doesn't sound like progress. The next step is to become consciously incompetent. You're standing on the driving range, and you're driving balls out there—and every one of them hooks into the trees. You're conscious that you are not doing this right, and everybody is watching. We need to become conscious that, in some areas of our life, we are incompetent.

It says in Exodus that the sins of the father will be visited upon the children to the third and the fourth generation. I do not think that is an absolute, ironclad prophecy that will always be fulfilled. I think, though, that it is fulfilled when men refuse to become conscious of the deficits in our lives. It will certainly be fulfilled if men don't break the silence, if we refuse to see what God is trying to tell us.

The problem with most men, and I include myself, is that we are not easily coached. It's frustrating. We feel humiliated. It feels awful to do something wrong and have someone say, "I could help you with that."  We don't want to look at the map. We don't want the instructions. We don't think we need counseling. So, men, we walk away. We renege. We quit. When something comes onto our radar screen that we think threatens us, the heart of a sinful male says, "I'm out of here." 

I can't tell you how many men I have talked to who know that something is wrong, and they aren't doing anything about it. The picture comes to mind of the wife who is raising the decibel level of her voice. She's saying, "Honey, something's wrong here. Honey, something is wrong here. Honey, something is wrong here."  Finally she's standing on the kitchen table. She's waving her arms with pots and pans in each hand. She's saying, "There is something wrong in our home!" And he doesn't get it. Then one day he wakes up to somebody delivering a piece of paper to his house, and the paper says the marriage is over. And he says, "What's wrong with her?" 

Men, it is usually not because you are unaware. It's because there is a character issue in this step of progress. The character issue is: The man has got to walk toward the fire. The number one concern in all leadership is to name the real issue. There is no leadership if you are chasing rainbows or avoiding issues. Becoming conscious of your incompetence is the second step. Men, the most obvious act of courage in your life is to keep asking the question, "If what I believe and what I am doing is wrong, do I want to know?" And then, by God's grace, become conscious of his wisdom.

Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:15, "Timothy, be diligent. Give yourself wholly to these matters so that everyone may see your progress." If there's progress, it's obvious that there was a deficit. We as men have taken on male role models that somehow imprint us with the message, "Don't make mistakes; don't let them see you sweat. Whatever you do, never back off and never apologize." That gets translated into this foolish sentence: It's not okay for a man to learn. Guys, there's no such thing as a prepackaged-and-delivered husband or father. Let's face it. We're in kit form, and we're being put together piece by piece. Let's find the instructions. Let's follow them. Let's admit there are some places in our lives that need fixing.

Become conscious in your competence.

You will become the pride of your wife and the crown of your children when you recognize what they already see, and when you go before God and take the third step. Which is this: We become conscious in our competence.

It's like throwing a ball with your left hand if you're naturally right-handed. It's like learning a new language. It's like being willing to learn how to walk over and over again. It's like going through physical therapy for your emotions or habits. To become consciously competent is not comfortable in the beginning. It takes practice; it takes learning. But if Kirby Puckett, one of the best baseball players in the world, can take batting practice every day—men, you can stand in there, take the pitches of life, take your cuts, and learn. Become consciously competent.

Paul says to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7, "Train yourself to be godly." It doesn't come instantaneously. Train yourself. Set for yourself a rigorous regime of exercise, accept what wisdom tells you, even if it's awkward, and pursue the truth.

In the book Tender Warrior, Dr. Willard Harley is quoted as saying, "A man can have the best intentions to meet his wife's needs, but if he thinks her needs are similar to his own, he will fail miserably."

A man's emotional world is like a tackle box. It has 500 little compartments in it, with all kinds of little nifty lures and hooks, and old junk that's been saved and new things that nobody knows about. And he's got all sorts of strategies. He goes from one compartment to the next, to the next, to the next. Most of the men I know, including myself, can jump from one little compartment to the next a hundred times in a day, and our jobs often demand that of us. So we think it's neat to live in all these little compartments.

But a wife's emotional structure is totally different. It's more like a river—it flows, and it flows, and it flows. What we need to learn how to do, men, is to close the tackle box, with all its neat little compartments—full of stuff that will probably never really be appreciated by our wives—close it up. Take off the waders, and get into the river. We spend all this time fishing out of the river and keeping dry—we need to get into the river.

You're driving along, and your wife says to you, "What are you thinking about?"  You're caught, because you're in one of those little rusty spots in your tackle box. You were debugging a program at work. You really weren't with her.

You say, "I just thought of how I can paint the corner of the house without using an extension ladder," or some other really stupid, unspiritual thing. And you realize: I haven't been in the river; my wife is thinking about something she mentioned a week ago Thursday, that her mother's going to have some medical tests. That went into her current, and she's been thinking about it every hour of every day since then. I've been in my tackle box. And that's okay. But, men, we've got to get out of our tackle boxes now and then and get in the river and become consciously competent, even in a strange environment, because that honors the wife that God has given us.

Listen to this writer whose article appeared in the Arkansas Democrat: "Woman are very touchy about certain gifts, as I discovered years ago after buying my girlfriend a catcher's mitt for her birthday. It seemed to me to be a particularly thoughtful gift, especially since she claimed not to be getting enough physical exercise. But apparently she didn't see it that way. The minute she unwrapped it, she ran sobbing from the room.

"At first, I thought those were tears of joy streaming down her face. I figured she was overwhelmed at being the first in her crowd to have a catcher's mitt—that sort of thing. Or I figured she was so excited she couldn't wait to get outside and work on her throws to second base. But when she didn't return after a few hours, I got the hint.

"Here I'd spent all that time running around from one sporting goods store to the next trying to find the perfect gift. I mean, we're talking the Johnny Bench model here; top of the line. And she calls me insensitive. I mean, you'd think I'd given her a year's subscription to Field and Stream or a box of shotgun shells, which everybody knows should be saved for Christmas stocking stuffers. Personally, I think she just had a lot of anger in her and took it out on me. Not that I'm trying to play amateur psychologist or anything." 

There's a guy who doesn't get it. We need to get it. And then, we need to work at it and, even when it's awkward, become consciously competent.

Become unconsciously competent.

The fourth stage is one of sheer joy: By God's grace, and as a byproduct of being the man in the first three stages, we become unconsciously competent.

The Fruit of the Spirit of God, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and that hard work of changing habits, learning how to communicate, and learning how to bless and honor, begins to spill over in our lives. Paul writes to Timothy that we do not achieve these things in life by going at them directly. He says in 2 Timothy 2:4, "No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs. He wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hard working farmer should be the first to receive the share of the crops. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all of this." 

One of those insights is this: When you have your eye on the purpose of God, when you know that you have received Jesus Christ as Savior, and grace has flooded your life, you've been re-fathered and re-parented at the foot of the Cross; you've been filled with the majestic purpose for you and your family. As you begin to take these baby steps toward obedience, the Spirit of God will reflect to you that you have done some things you weren't even aware of, things that have blessed the lives of your children and you're children's children.

And then we live out the words of Paul to Timothy: "Then you, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." 

© Roger Thompson
Preaching Today Tape #140
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Recognize that you are unconsciously incompetent

II. Become consciously incompetent

III. Become conscious in your competence

IV. We need to become unconsciously competent