Legs aching, I convinced myself I could make it around the next bend in the trail before stopping to rest. Just as I mustered up the resolve, my son bounded past me with all the exuberance you would expect from an eleven-year-old. We were halfway through our hike along the rim of a beautiful canyon and, despite my fatigue, I had to smile and thank the Lord. This was turning out to be one of the best weekends of this kid’s life.
I had proposed the weekend expedition into the mountains a few weeks before in order to build up some anticipation. It almost backfired. The prospect of a father/son camping trip was enough to ignite his imagination into dreams of pioneering grandeur—he was so excited that I began to worry the reality could never live up to his expectations. But we planned and schemed and prepped and were soon ready for our adventure. To be clear, I did not bill this trip as mere vacation. I had bigger plans in mind. I was aiming for a trip that would have lasting spiritual impact.
Soul-Work to Do
My son and I talk about God often. Ranging from informal chats at the ballpark to intentional time in the Word, these discussions represent one part of my attempt to raise him in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Over the past several years, our conversations have gained traction and we’ve seen wonderful evidences of God’s grace in his life. Recognizing that he has now reached an age when he will begin to face trials and temptations in new (to him) ways, I wanted to carry those conversations forward into a concentrated discussion about biblical manhood. Our trip would have plenty of fun and adventure, but that wouldn’t be all.
We set out into the mountains with soul-work to do.
We have decent camping where we live, but I chose a place a couple hours north just to give us a road trip feel. I ducked out of work a bit early on a Friday afternoon and we hit the road. On the drive over, we set the stage for our weekend discussions by listening to a sermon called The Cross and Christian Manhood (a Father’s Day message delivered a few years ago by our friend and former pastor, David Platt). I’ve had this particular sermon tucked away, thinking it would be a good roadmap for the conversation I wanted to have with my son one day. Its basic outline covers God’s good design for men, sin’s distortion of manliness, our redemption in Christ, and Christ’s model for true manhood. The plan was to listen to it on the way over and then slowly work through the Scriptures cited (in small chunks) between all of our other weekend activities.
After arriving at the state park, my son’s first steps on the road to manhood involved carrying half his bodyweight in gear on the mile-long hike to our backcountry campsite. A switchback off the trail led to a small clearing on a ledge as the mountainside gently sloped down into a ravine—our home for the next few days. He eyed the surrounding expanse of wilderness with wonder and I knew we were off to a good start.
He had already wandered off to explore the ravine when I called him back to give him the gift my wife and I had bought him to commemorate the trip: a Leatherman multi-tool. Judging by his vice grip hug, I think he liked it. Now that he was armed, I assigned him his first task to complete while I hiked back to the car to get a second load of gear (rookie mistake, packing more than we could carry in one trip). I asked him to set up our tent. Having given him no instruction on how to do such a thing, I expected I’d need to help him with it when I returned but by the time I got back the tent was done and he was off exploring again.
Always Remember That
By dusk we had settled in and started a fire. While grilling steaks in the skillet, our conversation meandered from one topic to the next in that stream-of-consciousness way that comes so naturally to an eleven-year-old. We ended up talking about how his mother and I met and, by the time we were finishing our dinner, I had told him the complete history of our family. He listened and laughed through stories about younger versions of his parents trying to figure out life, dating, marriage, and parenting. It was as if, having known us his whole life, he was now meeting another side of us for the first time. He seemed to get a kick out of these new acquaintances.
We cleaned up after dinner and dove into our first sermon discussion by the light of our lantern, tracing themes and passages concerning God’s design for men all throughout Scripture. As we contrasted the world’s definition of manhood with God’s, it was encouraging to hear him come to the simple conclusion that when the two differ, God’s definition is the one that is true. Yes. Always remember that, buddy.
After a good night’s sleep (no critters!) we were up at sunrise cooking pancakes, sausage, and eggs. Our small skillet necessitated the one-at-a-time pancake technique, which led to a slow morning with plenty of time to eat and laze about in hammocks. The conversation continued to flow as we simply enjoyed hanging out. Mid-morning, we set out for a hike that took us from our campsite to the edge of a forested canyon and back—a trek of about 4 miles round trip. We got back to camp exhausted, hungry, and extremely satisfied with our day so far. After a quick lunch we unwound with some good books (he with The Boys in the Boat and me with a favorite from Walt Wangerin Jr).
Rested up, we pulled out our Bibles and studied the next section of the sermon, this time walking through some very practical descriptions of sin’s corrupting influence on us as men. We talked plainly about how sin can lead to harmful distortions of manhood, whether it’s our tendency to overstep and abuse our role (aggressive distortions of manhood) or to cower away from our responsibilities (passive distortions of manhood). Seeing so many of these traits in our own lives, we shared a time of confession in which we both acknowledged ways in which we are prone to fall short of God’s calling. As a father, I want to take seriously the challenge to be the chief repenter in my home. My children need to see that I am broken by my sin, yet joyfully confident in Christ’s righteousness on my behalf. My son and I shared a taste of that in the woods that afternoon.
We went on a late afternoon hike that took us several miles down to the base of a waterfall, dried up due to the lack of rainfall. But a dry creek bed offers its own sort of beauty and we had fun jumping our way through the stones. All in all, there was much less talking on this hike because we were too winded from the brutal incline. We did, however, manage to fit in an important discussion about potential plotlines for Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX.
Thoroughly worn out, we landed back at camp and grilled hot dogs on the fire for dinner (we are simple men, after all). Our level of fatigue was at its peak but the conversation ramped up quickly when we dove into the next section of our sermon study. Having considered our own sinful distortions, we now looked to Christ, the perfect model and redeemer of manhood. When confessing our own tendency to fall short of God’s standard, there had been an air of “Who is sufficient for these things?” among us, but now we simply gazed at Christ and rested in His work on our behalf. Conviction of sin gave way to comfort in Christ and there was a palpable sense of relief as we praised Him together for the gift of salvation.
Dwelling on what it means to be united with Christ led naturally into a fruitful after-dinner conversation about what it means to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. “The cross compels us to initiate humble, hard-working leadership in our lives,” Platt had said in the sermon. This statement spurred us on to a great discussion about our desire to strive to be godly men. Guided by Scripture, we talked through several aspects of what this means: growing in the spiritual disciplines, being salt and light in the midst of a shifting culture, honoring women, fleeing sexual immorality (including a candid conversation about God’s design for sex and sexuality, which was built upon ongoing conversations we’ve had over the last few years), protecting and providing for our families and for the vulnerable, and showing selfless, sacrificial love to our wives in particular. It was an interactive and far-reaching discussion but it was evident all along that my son was not hearing these things as checkboxes to mark off in order to be accepted by God. By God’s grace, his heart is inclined to obey these things because, in Christ, he is accepted already.
As the fire died out and we laid our aching bodies down to sleep, my prayer was that the Spirit would shape his heart into one that rests easy in God yet delights in living to His glory. I’m still praying that for myself as well.
With the notable exception of the toad that made a midnight ruckus hopping around our tent, we had another good night’s rest followed by a quiet morning beside the campfire. We slowly packed up and cleaned the site before hauling our gear back to the car. Since he has a quicker recovery time than I do, my son wanted one last hike before we left so we did a loop on the far side of the canyon, ending our trip with some spectacular views. Conversation continued to flow throughout the morning and on the drive home. I was happy to see that our intensified discussions of the past two days seemed to be having a spillover effect—we spoke with a renewed openness that showed deep trust and comfort.
Not that we were distant before, but the weekend seemed to tear down walls we didn’t even know were there. My son sincerely knew he could talk to me about anything. Lord willing, this trust will bear good fruit for many years to come.
Though we were isolated in the woods, our time together actually ended up being a powerful display of biblical community. Friends from our church had their fingerprints all over the trip. They talked it up with my son ahead of time to fuel his excitement, loaned us camping supplies to help me keep expenses down, and gave expert advice about how not to get mauled by bears. More importantly, they prayed for us.
It is a powerful thing for an eleven-year-old boy to know that grown men and women care for him and are praying specifically for him. My wife and I love him with everything we have, and one of the best ways we show that is by surrounding him with church members who love him dearly as well.
I’m not really sure what my expectations were going into the weekend, but whatever they were we exceeded them on multiple levels. For one, it was just plain fun. That shouldn’t be overlooked when planning a heavy trip like this. But, in addition to temporal fun, it was a time of spiritual formation that I am praying will be of enduring value to my son. One of the reasons he received our talks so well is that it wasn’t his first time hearing them. I didn’t sneak attack him with a “birds and bees” talk from out of nowhere. It was a weekend of intense discussion, but it was a natural continuation of the longstanding talks about life and the gospel that we’ve been having since he was little. I think this made it easier for him to track with everything.
It was an incredible weekend and I am filled with gratitude to God for the time we had together. My wife and I are under no delusions that a single camping trip will transform our son into a godly man, but it was a fun and memorable step—a milestone on the road to biblical manhood. It was a milestone rooted in the study of God’s Word, shared within the loving relationship of a family, and cultivated by our local church. I pray to God that these graces will remain beautiful in my son’s eyes as he walks the old roads of faith, knowing that he does not walk them alone.
Scott James serves as an Elder at The Church at Brook Hills. He and his wife, Jaime, have four children and live in Birmingham, AL, where he works as a pediatric physician. He is the author of The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent and Mission Accomplished: A Two-Week Family Easter Devotional.