FamilyLife Today® Podcast

What is a Man?

with Donald Miller | April 13, 2012
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Dennis Rainey talks with well-known author and speaker, Donald Miller, about the meaning of manhood.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dennis Rainey talks with well-known author and speaker, Donald Miller, about the meaning of manhood.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Dennis Rainey talks with well-known author and speaker, Donald Miller, about the meaning of manhood.

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What is a Man?

With Donald Miller
April 13, 2012
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Bob:  What’s the difference between being a man and being a real man?  Donald Miller wonders if we really ought to make that distinction.

Don:  The sort of language that we use in Christian circles is, “A real man loves Jesus.” 

We tend to say, “A man is ‘something.’”  Then, we put conditions upon that.  If you grew up without a father—if you have this subconscious doubt that you’re “one of these guys”, included in these clubs; and somebody comes to you with a conditional definition of manhood—as a guy, who grew up without a father, I automatically assume, “I am not included in this club.”

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, April 13th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  How does a guy who grew up without a father learn to embrace authentic, biblical masculinity?  We’ll find out.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  I’ve been sitting here, scratching my head, trying to think, “What kinds of things did I learn from my dad?”  I mean, you learned how to throw a—did you ever learn how to throw a curve ball from your dad?

Dennis:  Well, what kind of question is that?

Bob:  Well, he had a pretty mean curve ball; didn’t he?

Dennis:  He had a mean curve ball.  You didn’t ask me if I was able to throw one as crooked as his.

Bob:  That’s what I wanted to know.

Dennis:  That’s where he got the nickname “Hook.”

Bob:  Did it sink at all—yours?  Did yours go down at all?

Dennis:  Bob, it was a curve ball.

Bob:  Well, I know, but did yours drop at all?

Dennis:  It did.

Don:  Did it make it to the plate?  That’s the question!  (Laughter)

Dennis:  Even our guest is joining in on the mockery.  It helped pay for my first two years in junior college.  That’s how good my curve ball was.

Bob:  Throwing that curve ball?

Dennis:  That’s right.

Bob:  What was your record in junior college?

Dennis:  Let’s not talk about that.  By college standards, I was very marginal.  I did not get Hook Rainey’s genes.

Bob:  You didn’t get the hook.

Dennis:  I didn’t get the hook.  I got the Rainey genes, but not the hook.

Bob:  I guess learning to throw a curve ball—in the greater scheme of things, there are more important life issues that you learn from a dad; aren’t there?

Dennis:  I had a great work ethic from my dad.  I think a few lessons on integrity, lessons on respecting a woman, caring for a woman, taking care of your parents when they are elderly.  My dad was a noble man, a man of character, and a man of enterprise who didn’t quit, even though he grew up in and through the Depression. 

Bob:  Would you say you learned more from how he instructed you or what he modeled for you? 

Dennis:  I don’t know if it’s possible to sort the two out.  I think his life and what he taught were linked together, inseparably.  Frankly, there is hardly a day goes by that—well, I’ll just tell you this—I’ve changed my password, now, so I can tell you this—but I put my password on my computer—my dad’s name and the year of his death, for a number of months, just because I wanted to be reminded of his life and his many contributions to mine. 

We have a guest in our studio today who—well, who comes at the father figure through a little different lens and a different angle.  Don Miller joins us, again, on FamilyLife Today.  Don, welcome back.

Don:  It’s good to be back.

Dennis:  I’ll try not to hold it against you that you laughed with Bob about my curve ball.  Don is a writer.  He has written many books, including Blue Like Jazz, which is subtitled Non-religious Thoughts on Christian Spiritually.  Bob’s read it—I haven’t—but Bob said, “Yes, those are non-religious thoughts.”  (Laughter)   You did throw a few stones at some institutional issues. 

Don:  Oh, now, did I? 

Bob:  It’s interesting you were writing that book at a time that you were at—

Dennis:  I have a good curve ball.  It just hit Don right between the eyes.  (Laughter)

Bob:  You wrote Blue Like Jazz

Don:  Swung and a miss.

Bob:  You were working on or studying on a very liberal, secular college campus; right?

Don:  Yes, I was auditing classes at Reed College, which that year, was the most godless campus in the country, according to The Princeton Review®.  I wrote the book to that demographic, from within that demographic.  It turns out that’s not the wider demographic, especially in the church.

Bob:  You were writing on your observations.  In fact, as they read the book, it seemed very conservative for them.  There are some Christians who have read it and thought, “Boy, he’s kind of living out there on the fringes;” right?

Don:  Right, but to the people I was with—it was on their fringes, not on the church’s fringes.

Dennis:  Well, you’ve gone on to write another book talking about young men growing up without dads.  Don, I do appreciate your authenticity.  I wanted to ask you this because you begin the book saying that you had Bill Cosby as a model of what a father should be, growing up.

Don:  Yes, when I sat down to write the book, I wanted to look back.  I started by looking back and thinking, “Okay, what are my early perceptions?”  One of them was, literally, The Cosby Show™

I used to watch The Cosby Show religiously.  I would sit in front of the TV and watch that show.  I loved it!  I mean, I loved that program and wasn’t sure why.  Of course, now that I’m older, I know that it was the presence of a father—that there was a working family—that any sort of dysfunction in the family was really just comedy.  It wasn’t anything hyper-serious.  I say in the book, “I wanted to be Theo Huxtable.”  That’s who I wanted to be. 

Bob:  Over the last two decades, you’ve had a handful of men who have stepped into your life and served as mentors—almost as surrogate fathers.  They’ve come along, realized what some of the deficits are—and not intentionally—but just, again, by their modeling and by your interaction with them, they’ve helped fill in some of the blanks that were left as a result of you not having a dad.

I want you to think ahead and imagine that it’s 15 years from now.  You’re married with a son.  What blanks have been filled in by these mentors for you that you’re going to be intentional about as you’re raising a boy—do you think?

Don:  There are a number of them.  The first is that the things that I want to teach my son is that God is his Father.  This is something John McMurray, one of the guys who mentored me, taught me.  He said—made a passing comment one day that sort of stuck with me.  He said, “You know, the kids”—Terri, John’s wife—he said, “Terri and I don’t see the kids as our kids.”  I thought, “Well, that’s a weird thing to say.”  I said, “John, you’ve got to explain that.”

He said, “Well, of course, they’re our children; but our job is to introduce them to their real Father.”  I just thought, “Boy, what an incredible paradigm to say, ‘Of course, these are my children.  I love these children.  God has given me these children, but my job is to say, “This is your Dad.”’” 

There was a Lifesaver’s® commercial on, years ago, that you guys might remember.  It was a father and a son.  They’re sitting on the side of the hill.  They’re watching the sun go down.  The father and son are silhouetted.  The sunset is taking place in front of them, and the father is saying to the son—the son is probably eight or nine years old—saying, “Going, going, going.”  Then, as the sun dips below the horizon, the father says, “Gone.”  The kid says, “Do it again, Dad.”

You know?  I just thought, “That’s a beautiful picture of us—as men, as fathers—being able to say to our sons, “Let me tell you Who is doing this.”  John would make the connection of throwing his son in the air—Chris, when he was a kid, or taking Chris down to the river and showing him all the tadpoles and things that are swimming around—and the delight that John takes in living vicariously through his son to the delight God is taking and making the sun rise and set every day.  That’s the primary lesson—is to introduce them to their Father, which we can do, as mentors, too.  It doesn’t have to be our kids.

Then, I want to teach them what a man is, and what a man does, and the way that a man provides security, and strength, and love for his home so that he can grow up and do that.

Bob:  There are a lot of guys who are confused about that definition of what a man is and what a man does, even as adults today.  The thought of passing it on to the next generation—we’re not really sure.  I mean, you’ve lived through the Promise Keepers® phenomenon of the last 15, 20 years.  Do you think men understand what it means to be a man today?

Don:  No.  No; not at all.  I only know that because I didn’t understand that.  Growing up, without a father, there is never somebody there to say, “Hey, you’re a man.”  Even the sort of language that we use in Christian circles is, “A real man”—you know, you see these bumper stickers that say, “Real Men Love Jesus,” and these sorts of things. 

We tend to say, “A man is ‘something.’”  Then, we put conditions upon that.  If you grew up without a father—if you have this subconscious doubt that you’re “one of these guys”, included in these clubs; and somebody comes to you with a conditional definition of manhood—as a guy, who grew up without a father, I automatically assume, “I am not included in this club.  I’m just not, because there’s a condition upon it.”

It was really important for me to realize—and I talk about this in the book—to realize that God created me as a man.  There are no conditions about it.  However, you know there are certainly conditions whether you’re a good man, whether you’re a strong man, whether you’re acting like a man. 

Dennis:  If you had a son, and he came to you one day, and he asked you, “Dad, what does it mean to be a man and not a woman?” besides the obvious biological equipment, how would you answer him?  

Don:  Well, I would point back to God.  I would say, “You know the perfect vision of manhood is who God is.”  What does He do?  What does God do?  God provides.  God sustains—this is emotional, physical, and spiritual.  It’s a very, very beautiful picture.

It’s a controversial thing, especially in the circles that I run in, to say that there is a difference between manhood and womanhood.  I have a friend who is extremely liberal, and we were having this conversation.  It became heated.  She said to me, “I would not want you to treat me any differently than you treat a man.”

Dennis:  Really?

Don:  She said this to me.

Dennis:  Really?

Don:  I said to her—

Dennis:  Does she know what she’s saying at that point?

Don:  No, not a clue.  I said, “Laura, really, do you want me to talk to you the way I talk to my buddies?  Do you really want me to do that?”  She just sort of looked at me; and about three seconds went, and she said, “No.”  (Laughter)  Because we’re rough with each other—you know—we love each other, and care for each other; but we’re not very gentle with each other.  There’s a difference.  I think a woman’s strength is very different than a man’s strength.  We just can’t allow that system to break down. 

Dennis:  Okay, beyond introducing your son to the Father, and helping him define his life around that relationship, what would be some basic components of helping him grow up into the man that you’re talking about that he needs to become? 

One of the things you talk about in your book is the work ethic.  You mention it over, and over, and over again.  That’s something you missed getting from a man, growing up; yet, you believe it is important today.

Don:  Yes, I’ve grown into it.  John McMurray is the guy who really counseled me about that.  John is a landscape photographer, who was supposed to—I think you guys invited him to come on, but I think he’s in Sweden or Switzerland—somewhere, shooting pictures.

John gets up, sometimes, three in the morning to hike for several hours to the top of a mountain, hoping that he might get a good sunrise to be able to take a picture of it.  Seventy-five percent of the time he does not.  I learned from him—doing these hikes with him—that you have to work very, very, very hard in order to do good work.  John is the one who sat me down and really taught me that we do our work as unto the Lord.  So, that everything we do, whether we’re sweeping a floor, or whether we’re taking a landscape photograph, or whether we’re writing a book, we do it excellently because God is our boss. 

It’s an act of praise; and this makes work make sense.  It doesn’t make sense, really, if we’re just doing it to get money to buy a big-screen television.  We’re going to burn out on that system; but if we’re in this relationship with God, and we’re saying, “God, I want to do this work excellently,” “I want this book to be a great book.  I want to work very hard at chipping away at this book because, in doing that, I get a similar feeling to the one He had when He created the universe.”  I understand Him a little bit more. 

Bob:  What was your view of work—what was your work ethic pre-John McMurray? 

Don:  Bob, you’re asking me about the awful years when I’d sleep ‘til ten probably?  (Laughter) 

Bob:  I’m asking about—

Dennis:  He’s trying to cover—

Bob:  —I’m asking about a little reality here.  I mean, your first book was basically about a broke guy, driving around in a VW® bus; right? 

Don:  Right, right, right.

Bob:  With no intent to get a job—just kind of living off whatever. 

Don:  That was my mentality about work—is that you work in order to get enough money for peanut butter.  That’s the point of work.  It’s a necessary punishment that God has given to man—because of the fall of man—he is going to have to work. 

I had this system kind of figured and would sleep as late as possible.  Of course, you know, a couple of nights without a tent in the rain; and you figure out, “Maybe I should just go get a job.” 

Bob:  Yes, “Maybe, I ought to do something here.”

Dennis:  All right, there’s a chapter in your book entitled, “Girls, the Thing Tony Said”.  Did you learn something about girls from one of your mentors?

Don:  Yes, well, Tony is a friend—

Bob:  Is this Tony the Beat Poet?

Don:  Tony the Beat Poet, same guy.  We were having dinner up on Orcas Island, up in the San Juan’s.  Tony and I were up there, working on a writing project.  We went to dinner that night.  I was sort of talking about this girl that I was dating at the time.  Tony just kind of stopped me and said, “Why do you think you deserve this girl?”  I just thought, “Well, that’s a—I don’t know.  What are you getting at?  What are you trying to teach me, Tony?”

He just said—he said, “Don, you know, as I get older, I wake up next to my wife every morning.  I’m just grateful—grateful that this other human being has humbled herself enough to love me.  I think—Tony said this—“looking back on my history and dating before—there was just a lot of arrogance there.”  He just sort of let it sit right there.  Of course, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  (Laughter)

The point that I’m getting to, in the chapter, is that I had kind of seen that whole dynamic as a bit of a game.  As you get older, the game gets more and more lonely.  You just don’t—you really don’t want that anymore.

Bob:  There are a lot of single women who are listening going, “I know guys like you, and you guys make us mad.”

Don:  Yes, that’s true.

Bob:  “Would you grow up, and get married, and get a wife, and get on with it?”

Don:  No, that’s true.  That’s true.  There are also—I have to defend myself—there are also callings to and things that I could not have done—

Bob:  Right. 

Don:  —I would not have had the resources, a lot of those very good things—without having said, “I’m not going to get married.  I’m not going to lead this girl on, but I’m going to wait.”  It’s been the season kind of doing this.

At the same time, you know, it’s a sacrifice that I don’t like, don’t want, and hopefully will come to—

Bob:  —a remedy at some point.

Don:  You can e-mail my assistant.  She sets me up regularly, I think, once a week.

Dennis:  As you look at this observation—that there are 40 million youngsters growing up in homes, without fathers—what do you fear most for that generation?

Don:  I try to be an optimist, as much as possible.  I don’t want to sound accusational or to say, “You guys messed up.”  I also don’t want to be one of these guys, who creates a big fear tactic to motivate people.  At the same time, that said, this does not look good.  I mean—the stuff that you don’t learn when you grow up without a dad—you don’t learn critical, critical information.  I have a lot of fears about what could happen if something isn’t done.

That said—the church is in a strategic place to do a great deal of good in this area.  There is so much hope.  There is more hope than pain in this situation.  You know, it’s just a matter of the church has to see this pandemic that’s happening in our culture—the fatherless crisis.  The church has to see it like a hurricane just hit a city, and we have to send people in.  We have to fix the problem.  That’s what we have to do.

We’re going to have to start—every Sunday school program, at every church in the country—I just would love to have one of those programs be a mentoring foundation—just ten men mentoring ten young men, ages nine to 12, every year, every year.

Dennis:  The manpower is there.

Don:  The manpower is there, and the heart’s there.  You talk to people—the heart’s there.  It’s just a matter of putting together a little bit of strategy, and some resources, and being willing to make mistakes, and knock down doors, and get it done.

Dennis:  There’s been no question, all this week, that your heart has been there as well, as Bob and I have peppered you with a few curve balls and questions—

Don:  —and they actually crossed the plate.

Dennis:  Yes, they did; they did.  That was a real problem when I was a pitcher, by the way; but I have one last question I want to ask you before we’re over here—

Bob:  I’ll tell you what—before you get to your question—I don’t mean to interrupt you, but let me let listeners know how they can get a copy of the book that Don has written.  It is called Father Fiction, and we've got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. 

In this book, you reflect on your own experience of growing up without a father and the culture we live in—where this is something that a lot of guys are growing up—it’s their experience as they grow up.  Again, the book is called Father Fiction.  It’s by Don Miller.  You can go to for more information on how you can get a copy of the book. 

Again, our website,; or call toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY.  Ask about the book, Father Fiction.  1-800-358-6329 is the phone number—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”. 

Congratulations, by the way, on your book being made into a movie.  Blue Like Jazz opens this weekend in theaters all across the county; and I’m curious to see it.  Hope it does well for you.  Dennis?

Dennis:  It’s been great to have Don Miller with us, talking about young men growing up without dads.  Don, I do appreciate your willingness to—well, let us peek into your own drama and your journey.  You’re a great writer, and I’m looking forward to seeing how God uses your giftedness in the future.

There is a very personal thing that occurred to you right before you stepped in the studio.  I wonder if you could just comment about it because I think it will give maybe a dad or two just a glimpse into how important they are in their children’s lives.

Don:  Yes.

Dennis:  You had not heard from your dad in 22 years, and he had just written you back, through your mom.

Don:  Yes.

Dennis:  I want to know what went through your mind as you read that letter—the first words you’ve heard from your earthly father in 22 years.

Don:  Well, and that happened in the foyer, outside the studio, right before we started recording. 

Dennis:  So, it literally came to you on your Blackberry®, just moments before you walked in here?

Don:  It came to me, driving into the parking lot.  I read it once you guys were busy doing some other stuff.  I opened it up and read it.

You know, my feeling—my dominant feeling, that I feel, is that God is working—that God is just doing something—that God is healing a relationship.  It is going be beautiful.  It could be messy—whatever God wants is what's going to happen, but I just want to be able to go there and do my part.

Bob:  I want you to imagine a scene a few months from now when you might be together with your dad and see him for the first time since you were 12.  Will you shake his hand?  Will you hug him?  What will you say?  “Hey, Dad, how are you doing?”

Don:  Man, you guys—these are beyond curve balls.

Dennis:  Well, you mentioned it when—

Don:  No, no. 

Dennis:  No, no.  You mentioned it when—

Don:  No, no.  I mentioned it when I came in. 

Dennis:  Well, but you mentioned it when you were a lad that you enjoyed feeling his scruffy beard. 

Don:  Yes.

Dennis:  Do you think you’ll—

Don:  —feel his beard?  (Laughter)

Dennis:  Well, do you think you'll embrace him?

Don:  Yes.  Yes, I think so.  You know, it’s a weird—it’s such a strange dynamic.  It’s not like having a father who you really loved, and then him disappearing for 20 years, and then being reunited.  This is literally a man that I don’t know.  There’s—the dominant mystery for me is, “Am I accepted?  Am I okay?”  I mean, I hate to be that selfish about it; but that's how I feel, if I’m going to be honest with what's going on.

Those are the dominant questions that I have.  I have no idea.  I’ve read an account where somebody felt nothing, which is kind of how I feel.  I just feel a responsibility and desire to know who this man is—a desire also to let him know, “I’m okay, and I hope you’re okay, too.  Whatever it is that was going on in your life, that made you walk away, maybe it wasn’t okay for you to do that; but I made it, and you should move on,” you know?

There’s some of that.  There’s also—when I found out my dad was still alive, I sent out an e-mail to about 20 close friends that just said, “Please pray because I want my dad to know God.  I want my dad to know God.”  Because God has gotten me through some incredibly difficult times in my life, and I know my dad has been through incredibly different—I just want him to know his Father. 

So, I don’t—guys, I don't know.  Certainly, I’ll shake his hand, I’ll enjoy talking to him, but the reality of it is less “Hallmark®-ish”—

Dennis:  Oh, sure. 

Don:  —than we’d probably desire; but that’s reality. 

You read through Scripture, and that’s what you get.  You get just—“This is reality.  This is what it looks like.”  The end of the whole story, you turn around and you go, “My goodness, that is incredibly beautiful,” you know?  Who knows?  I hope that my father—you know, I get married and have kids—and my father is involved in their lives in some way.  You know, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that could happen—as a new person, as a new creature?  It could happen.

Dennis:  You know, if you think about Christianity, where else would you look for that kind of reconciliation, redemption story?  Life out of death—maybe it will occur with you and your dad.

Don:  I hope so.  I’m praying to that end.

Dennis:  I’d encourage our listeners to just pray for Don and his dad.  Pray that it might begin the journey in which Don could take his father’s hand and place it in his Heavenly Father’s hand.


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