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Ambition. Perfectionism. Insecurity. Overeating. Compulsive spending, alcoholism, and extreme exercise. The addictive pursuit of wealth, power, and fame. According to authors Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima in their book, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, these are just some of the common signs that find their roots in the lack of affirmation received from a father.
Throughout the book, McIntosh and Rima provide a number of case studies to show how addiction and drivenness can be the result of a failure of a father to validate their son or daughter. In addition to athletes, businessmen, and preachers, some of the people profiled include Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton.
The Presidential Dark Side
By historic accounts, Abraham Lincoln is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest U.S. President of all time. His mother died when Abe was only nine, followed by his sister. He was teased as a child for being awkward, gangly, and unattractive. Lincoln’s father remarried a woman with three other children, forcing the family into very tight quarters in a small log cabin.
Add to those stressors the fact that Abe’s father practically ignored his son, you have someone who wanted to get out and show them. Most specifically, Abe would show him. The rift between Abraham Lincoln and his father was so deep that the son did not even attend his father’s funeral. McIntosh and Rima write, “His sense of inferiority and lack of self-worth drove Abraham Lincoln to achieve a level of success and influence that would provide the salve for his painful childhood wounds.” (142)
John Kennedy, often compared to Lincoln as one of most memorialized of the Presidents, grew up with a desperate desire for his father’s hard-earned approval. His father, Joseph, had worked hard to gain a foothold in the elite society of Boston in the early 20th century. As biographer Ralph G. Marin states, “What mattered most to the four sons, in their early years, was their competition for the love and applause of the father.” (Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons, 4)
Joe wanted more than for his sons to compete for his affection. He wanted them to rise to a position of power and influence in order to secure his own legacy. With his eldest son dying in WWII, the mantle of responsibility fell upon his second son, Jack. We know him today as JFK—the president who saved the world from nuclear disaster and ruined his marriage with the same serial infidelity that characterized his father. Political greatness was all forged in the same darkness that produced moral arrogance and self-destruction. Sadly, Jack, the adulterous President, is known for the same legacy as his father.
Bill Clinton is another product of family dysfunction, having a father die before he was born, and a stepfather who was known for physical spousal abuse, along with heavy drinking, gambling, and womanizing, young Bill grew up in a violent home, insecure and fearful. The eldest son eventually testified against his stepfather in court at the divorce proceedings. It was an emotionally devastating experience that catapulted Bill into the role of a family savior. In view of his new role, he set his mind on overachieving to counter his stepfather’s underachieving. He would find his path of success through academics and politics—a route that would be paved by the dark side.
What all of these men have in common is a life of ambition fueled by a need for validation—the affirmation only a father can sear into the soul of a man. Much of their drive to achieve finds its source in a desire for approval. To hear a father say, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.”
In the mid-1990s I was having lunch with a friend at Houston’s Restaurant in Memphis, TN. He asked about my childhood and how my relationship was with my father. I hadn’t thought much about that.
I explained that my parents had split up before I was born and that in kindergarten my mother remarried. If my memory serves, he was going to adopt me. I called him dad and everything.
Then one day, he was gone. Like mist that evaporates. But the next morning, the mist had not returned. And it never did. I was in fourth grade at the time and didn’t know what had happened.
I told my friend that it was no big deal and that those experiences hadn’t really affected me very much. Yeah, it was a little dysfunctional but nothing extraordinary. It was my normal.
“McKay, you are either lying or in denial.”
It was denial. I really didn’t think that it was a big deal that I had not grown up with a father. Although I had visited my biological father’s home a few times down in southern Mississippi, I didn’t really know him. I guess that isn’t normal. And if it is normal, it isn’t the way it is supposed to be. That is why we use the word dysfunctional to describe something that is broken and no longer operates the way it was designed.
At the time of that lunch meeting, I was twenty-seven. An ordained pastor. Married with a one-year-old daughter. Life was full and fast. There really had not been time to stop, sit, and reflect on how the lack of a father’s validation in my own life had negatively affected me.
“I’m Proud of You”
I’m not sure why he called but, in the summer of 2003, I told my uncle that I had just accepted a call to serve as senior pastor for a Presbyterian congregation in Greenwood, MS. His words were simple and sincere. And powerful.
“I’m really proud of you.”
We didn’t talk long and I’m not sure I could have spoken much more anyway, because after we hung up, I broke down weeping. It was as if I’d been crawling across the desert all my life looking for an elusive oasis of validation. “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Until that moment, I had not even realized how malnourished my sense of self had been. Without a father’s affirmation, I had been filling the void with all kinds of idols that would give me the applause I craved from a dad.
Now, I am in my early fifties and I am still processing the impact of my fatherlessness. When I consider my internal sense of a need to achieve, whether academically or professionally, it is not hard to trace it back to a deep desire for approval—to hear a father say, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.” In my honest moments, I admit that I struggle with insecurity and fear of rejection.
Just like Abraham Lincoln wanted to show him, maybe I’ve been doing the same thing. But I haven’t ever thought about my biological father as the one I have been trying to please. It could be anyone and everyone. Or just someone.
I feel like for my entire life, my heart has been crying out, “Will somebody please accept me?” I get that from my wife and kids and a few select friends. But they were not meant to carry the weight of validation. That is not the role of a spouse or child.
If nurture has been given to the mother as her unique gift to her children, validation—affirmation—is the father’s blessing to grant. What I need is a father. What I am slowly coming to realize is that this is exactly what the gospel provides.
The Timing of the Father’s Affirmation
In Mark 1:9-13, we read about the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry at his baptism, which was essentially a Messianic, priestly ordination service. He was just about to face a forty-day fast and be tempted by Satan in a most vulnerable condition. What did he need? He needed what I need—what we all need. A father’s affirmation, validation, and approval.
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Did you hear that?! “A voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The Father knew exactly what Jesus needed to hear—a declaration of affection and affirmation. Notice that this was stated before Jesus began his ministry, not after. The Son would not have to earn either the Father’s love or approval. It was a blessing that would be the foundation of Jesus’ calling. If there is one thing he could count on as a suffering servant, rejected by men, it was that he was dearly loved and valued by his Father.
It was as a validated Son that Jesus was able to fulfill his calling all the way to the cross, where Jesus absorbed into his own flesh all the sin that would keep us from believing that we could be beloved and accepted by the Father. He also grants to us his own record of righteousness for us to wear and in which to boast, knowing that the Father looks upon us with the same affection that he feels for Jesus. As we come to Jesus as Savior and Lord, we receive his Father as our Father—our Abba.
Jesus faced temptation. So will I. Whose voice will I hear? The condemning voice of the enemy? The ridicule of those who reject me? Or the validating voice of the Father that tells me I am his, and that he is proud of me?
Now, having received the affection and affirmation of the Father, we are empowered to do the same with our sons and daughters, knowing that a father’s validation is the power that tempers and channels ambition, grants confidence to the insecure, covers the fearful with peace, and emboldens the weak with strength. To say, “I am for you,” before the journey begins is the mark of a father’s blessing. It is not a reward but is a gift that that mirrors the grace that empowers the spirit and transforms the heart so that we influence the world not with our dark side but with the light of the gospel.
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