John Smithbaker on Forgiveness, Fatherless Boys, and What That Has to Do With the Fate of the Nation

May 27, 2020 Updated: June 2, 2020

Being abandoned by a father leaves a soul-deep impression.

For John Smithbaker, he sought to mask the wound with perfectionism and achievement, grappling with a mental balance sheet that would prove he was worthy of recognition and affection. His sister went the other way, fleeing from and numbing the pain by running away from home, shirking responsibility, and turning to drugs and alcohol.

It can also be a combination of these coping mechanisms.

One of the biggest lies society tells these children—about 20 million of them—is that they’re fine, and don’t need a father to provide the things they think they’re missing. Smithbaker says that often even comes from very well-meaning adults. They don’t realize that children hear this and think they need to suppress the hurt, which festers and manifests itself in myriad ways anyway.

“When you’re young, you don’t know how to define it or describe it but you’re aware of it,” said Smithbaker, co-founder of the Colorado-based ministry Fathers in the Field. “You have a deep sense of hurt and longing and blaming yourself for being fatherless, and you know that the cards are stacked against you because you’re trying to navigate boyhood into manhood on your own.

“And the boiling point typically comes when adolescence happens, when all the hormones collide with being an adult.”

It took Smithbaker 40 years to forgive his father.

John Smithbaker
John Smithbaker is co-founder of the Colorado-based ministry Fathers in the Field. (Courtesy of John Smithbaker)

A Dark Road to Forgiveness

Smithbaker says those who cope like he did end up overprioritizing worldly success such as making money, and earning fame and glory. He’s a successful Wyoming-based businessman and CEO of his own company, and adds that you can look at the great men of history and almost pick out the ones who didn’t have a father and had everything to prove. But that tends to come at the cost of any healthy personal life, Smithbaker says, and the statistics back him up.

Without forgiveness, the wound continues to fester into adulthood, ending marriages and begetting more fatherlessness.

Smithbaker says his own marriage was on the road to divorce. Married with children and wondering whether he would end up abandoning his family as well, Smithbaker said he didn’t even realize he was looking for forgiveness until it found him.

He had been driving alone in the dark on a dirt road near home, when the anguish he felt caught up to him.

Smithbaker turned to God.

“I know how to describe it now, but I didn’t at the time,” Smithbaker said. “But when I was on my hands and knees begging for forgiveness and seeing all my other horrible sins flash before me, me desiring forgiveness, I thought I was done. But then I heard my heavenly Father say to me, ‘No, now you need to forgive your earthly father for leaving you.'”

He had gone through life refusing to forgive his father—every single day, and multiple times a day, because each time that hurt manifested itself, it was a sign of him refusing to forgive. And when Smithbaker had that spiritual epiphany, he realized that his refusal to forgive was his deepest sin, and that God can’t forgive one who doesn’t forgive.

Knowing just how much he had been forgiven in the eyes of God, how could he not forgive?

“There’s no way I could not forgive,” he said.

That moment flipped the script in his head, sending him on a completely different path, and completely changing his relationship with his wife and children. He hadn’t been particularly religious before then, but once he accepted God into his life, he wanted to start doing the right things.

Soon, the right people and know-how were swiftly brought into his life.

“The forgiveness of your father for leaving you and your family is really at the center, at the core of healing this deep festering wound,” Smithbaker said.

His experience also taught him that it’s a spiritual wound, and that’s how it must be addressed.

“It’s not an issue of manning up and being strong enough,” he said. “It’s about understanding how much you have been forgiven.”

Healing, Not Fixing

A few years later, Smithbaker started the ministry Fathers in the Field with co-founder Scott MacNaughton, who met him while seeking to embark on a similar mission. The organization works with local churches to reach out to single mothers—almost unilaterally too busy for church—and also train men in good standing to become mentors to boys who need good role models, to demonstrate what commitment looks like.

The mentors are asked to make a three-year commitment because for the first year, the boys in the program won’t even hear you, Smithbaker says.

“Most men, we have a fix-it mentality,” he said. They want to sit the boy down across from them and teach them the principles of character a good man should have—things they’ve heard from other adults a million times already, he said. Smithbaker says the role of the mentors isn’t to be an instructor, but to share God’s word in a language that the boys will understand.

boy and men hunting
John Smithbaker (L) with mentor father Steve and field buddy Garren, showing off Garren’s first turkey. (Courtesy of John Smithbaker)

That means for more or less the whole first year, the best advice is to “open your ears and shut your mouth,” Smithbaker said. Because most fatherless boys haven’t just experienced one big abandonment, they’ve been let down multiple times. Perhaps, it’s that their father came back and left again, or their mother started dating again and remarried; but 70 percent of marriages with children end in divorce, so many of these boys end up feeling abandoned not once but several times, Smithbaker said.

“These boys have this hurt and calloused heart around this issue,” he said.

“Your field buddy believes everything that you say is a lie, and they are intentionally trying not to hear you,” Smithbaker said. “Fatherless boys are trained to believe what we see in action, not what people tell us. It doesn’t matter what people tell us anymore because all that has been proven lies by people who are supposed to honor their word.”

The mentors and boys meet four times a month for an outdoor activity, and it isn’t until halfway through the second year that forgiveness is mentioned. There are sample scripts to help mentors broach the topic, and Smithbaker says by that point, the boys universally have pretty much the same response: they’re listening.

When the mentor brings up forgiveness, they’re taken aback because that’s the one thing they’ve told themselves they will never do, but they’re listening, and they want to hear why, even if they’re not ready to forgive at that point.

By the end of the third year, the boys are encouraged to write a forgiveness letter to their biological fathers, even if it may be years before they actually write it, and they only ever deliver it to their church.

“Now, he knows the escape hatch to his fatherless prison,” Smithbaker said. “And how not to be held bondage by this soul wound that controls every aspect of his life.”

The whole purpose of Smithbaker’s organization is to heal that father-wound, he said. “It’s not to make good citizens—God will take care of that when the rest happens,” Smithbaker said. “It does us no good to make productive citizens if their soul perishes in hell.”

Fathers in the Field
John Smithbaker with field buddy Justin after speaking to a group of men at a church in Mississippi.
(Courtesy of John Smithbaker)

The Greatest Underutilized Asset

Essentially every social ill can be linked to fatherless homes and the breakdown of the family, as Smithbaker learned when he started to do research in starting Fathers in the Field. The more he read, the more he found everything from crime and addiction to joblessness and promiscuity had the same root problem.

It’s why Smithbaker thinks of the ministry as the “Great American Rescue Mission.”

“If we can solve this we can turn our country around and put it on better footing again,” Smithbaker said. “I always say we’re at the front end of the tsunami, but it’s coming down hard and we’re starting the second generation of fatherlessness, because fatherlessness begets more fatherlessness, so we’re going to really feel it this next generation.”

Despite the statistics Smithbaker grapples with, he’s optimistic that things will change. He has seen the tremendous impact of a one-on-one relationship on individual souls, and in the past 12 years, the organization has grown to work with almost 500 churches in 36 states, and has heard countless testimonials from boys and single mothers.

“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the impact on the hearts and souls,” Smithbaker said. Some churches have mentored one boy and others close to 100, and in the process, there are men realizing this is something they can do to have a tremendous impact.

“The greatest underutilized asset in our country are godly men sitting the church wondering how they should be deployed,” Smithbaker says. “They want to use God-given gifts to impact the soul, and use the passion God gave him, whatever it is: automotive, hunting, fishing, woodworking, photography, sports, whatever to invest in the life of another.

“It’s just a really powerful dynamic that’s going on in our country and really what’s going to, I believe, make or break our country.”