‘In a world where even the words ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ mean radically different things to different people, men are more confused than ever about what it means to be a father, much less a godly father,” Gregory K. Popcak writes in his new book, BeDaditudes: 8 Ways to Be an Awesome Dad. The Beatitudes, which Jesus set down in the Sermon on the Mount, must be “the standard by which the example of our own fathers or the culture’s idea of fatherhood or our own efforts at fathering must stand or fall,” Popcak writes. A psychotherapist and the executive director of Pastoral Solutions Institute, Greg Popcak talks about focusing fathers on the Beatitudes and the difference it can make.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “You don’t have to pretend to know everything. You don’t have to kill yourself to make it all work on your own power. You just have to turn to God in your weakness, ask him to burrow deeper into your heart every day, and allow him to transform you from the inside.” That’s not so simple! How?
Greg Popcak: It isn’t as hard as you might think. It’s actually an invitation to stop working so hard. It involves three steps. First, you begin each day asking God to help you be the man he knows you can be, the husband your wife wants you to be, and the father your children need you be. Second, you do your best to lean in to the vision of that man in the choices you make, the priorities you set, and the goals you establish. Finally, because you’re going to fail more often than not, you work to be serious but not scrupulous, refusing to beat yourself up or hate on yourself, but instead seeing everything as a learning experience and living for the “next time” when, through God’s grace, you’ll do at least a little better.
Lopez: Can a dad really exhibit heroic virtue with all his burdens and duties, worries, and busyness?
Popcak: I think working to be an awesome dad in the face of our burdens, duties, worries, and busyness is a heroic virtue! It’s easy to live inauthentically, to simply go along, swept up by the press of troubles, duties, worries, and busyness. It takes a hero to stand against that tide and, like Joshua of old, say to demanding bosses — and to schedules, and to a culture that is in general unfriendly to family life — “If it is disagreeable for you to serve the Lord, then choose for yourselves which gods you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
To my mind, a father who is willing to say that and, moreover, pay the social or even economic price required to live it is well on his way to being a hero and a saint.
Lopez: What does it mean to have a servant’s heart, and why is that crucial for dads and family life?
Popcak: Having a servant’s heart doesn’t mean running around trying to make everybody happy all the time. It means facilitating a process. Being a servant-leader is a lot like running a board meeting. A good chairman doesn’t just tell the board what he’s going to do, and he doesn’t let the board run roughshod over him. Rather, he facilitates a process in which all the voices get heard, all the concerns get voiced, solutions that meet the needs of all the players are generated, and effective plans are made.
A father who is a servant-leader works together with his wife and kids to find godly ways to meet each person’s needs while respecting the needs of the other family members as well.
A servant-leader listens first and then facilitates the dialogue with his wife and kids. They work together to find godly ways to meet each person’s needs while respecting the needs of the other family members as well. He doesn’t try to talk his family out of their needs because they’re too complicated or inconvenient. He doesn’t mock his wife and kids for having those needs. He doesn’t run away from concerns that are uncomfortable to address. He doesn’t showboat and try to solve everything himself. He listens, he draws people out, and he uses his gifts to help his family think more creatively about how they could work together to help one other seek fulfillment and become the family they were created to be.
Lopez: How do we misunderstand mourning on this front? And what God asks of us in the Beatitudes?
Popcak: We tend to think of “mourning” as a passive and depressing quality, but that’s not what Jesus is saying. In Scripture, there are many examples of God the Father “weeping” or “mourning” for his children. When God mourns, it is never passive. God’s mourning ultimately intimately joins him in compassion to the suffering of his children. It is the very fact of God’s mourning for us poor, fallen children of Eve that resulted in the miracle of his incarnation.
The dad who “mourns” as Jesus calls him to is blessed, because he doesn’t have to live in fear of his wife’s and children’s emotions. He doesn’t have to feel judged or “not enough” just because his wife or children are sad or frustrated about something. This dad is free to be present to his wife and children in their pain and to love them through it instead of becoming defensive or falling into “fixer” mode. He can empty himself and be present in a more meaningful, loving way. There is a perception in some quarters that “men fix stuff. That’s what men do.” And there is something to this — even something good about it. But that isn’t the same as saying that a man is somehow incapable of being in touch with his own emotions or of being empathetic to his wife and children. Jesus was fully man, and I would defy anyone to find a more compassionate person than Christ.
The fact is, being in touch with our emotions and with the feelings of others is the natural state of any healthy human person. Many men are raised in ways that train this humanity out of them. Dads who learn to “mourn” in the sense I am talking about, in the sense the beatitude calls us to, are blessed to rediscover their humanity by learning not to live in fear of feeling.
Lopez: Why is it important to “master your inner voice” and “dwell on God’s mercy”? How to?
Popcak: One thing that all people are good at, especially men, is beating up on themselves. We think that the harder we flog ourselves, the more we’ll produce and the better we’ll be. Recent research reveals that this sort of negative self-talk produces in the brain a chemical reaction that locks down the brain’s ability to change and grow. Beating up on ourselves does keep the need for change in the forefront of our minds, but it makes making effective change infinitely harder than it needs to be.
In the book, I walk through specific steps for getting past this challenge. At the core, the process involves reflecting on God’s mercy. Remember, mercy is treating others in the manner that reminds them of their worth in God’s eyes. Reflecting on God’s mercy doesn’t mean that we can let ourselves off the hook for screwing up. It means recognizing that the need for change is something we can approach as an opportunity for growth instead of evidence of failure.
Lopez: How is hungering and thirsting for righteousness not a recipe for holier-than-thou dads?
Popcak: Hungering and thirsting for righteousness doesn’t mean putting on airs. It means, as Saint John Paul used to put it, “becoming what you are” — that is, the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled person God sees when he looks at you. Just as you see everything your kids can be and encourage them to grow into that vision, God sees us. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness means wanting to do the best you can to live into God’s vision for our life consciously and to inspire your wife and children to want to do the same.