Caught, not taught


Caught, not taught


The most valuable lesson I learned from one teacher wasn’t even part of the class.

The seasons of life.

I remember wedding season. As a young adult, I attended wedding after wedding as my peers kept deciding to tie the knot.

It was fun. Cute slideshows. Prime rib dinners. The Macarena.

Then came kids’ birthday party season, as my circle of friends entered the ever-exhausting but always-rewarding world of parenthood. At first, these parties provided a much-needed time to connect with other grownups, but as our children grew, these parties provided a much-needed time to sit down and catch a breather while the kids ran about and played.

Seasons change, and now, I sadly find myself attending a number of memorial services.

Parents. Friends’ parents.


The most recent memorial I attended was for one of my former martial arts instructors.

He was the type of guy you’d want to learn self-defense from: Vietnam veteran, weapons enthusiast, third-degree black belt. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was physically powerful and oozed with presence, yet carried himself with a humble confidence.

I learned so much from him, a gentleman warrior whom I very much admired and respected. But the most important lesson he taught me had nothing to do with fighting.


One day, the instructor’s son, who was about ten years old at the time, was goofing off during class, so his father disciplined him after everyone else had left. I couldn’t help but hear my teacher’s voice booming across the studio as he reprimanded his son.

Standing rigid at attention, the young black belt replied crisply after every point his father made. “Yes, Sir… Yes, Sir… Yes, Sir…”

After addressing his son’s misbehavior, my instructor asked, “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good,” replied my instructor, the edge fading from his voice. “Now come on over here and give me a great big hug.”

His son sprang into his father’s arms, which enveloped him in a loving embrace that I wasn’t expecting to see from the man I knew for his combat skills. Here was this father who could be tough yet tenderhearted, stern but loving, strong but kind.

I wasn’t used to this because no one else had ever modeled it for me before. (No disrespect to my dad, who demonstrates love through self-sacrifice but rarely, if ever, openly showed affection.)

Years later, when I became a father myself, I remembered this moment between my instructor and his little boy. He inspired me to be the kind of dad who is firm but gentle, taking every opportunity to shower my kids with blatant expressions of love while equipping them for the challenges they’ll face in this world.

Of all the things my instructor taught me, this is the one lesson that had the most enduring influence on me– and it wasn’t even part of the formal training I signed up for.

Sometimes, we make the biggest impact not through what we say or teach, but how we live our lives.

My instructor wasn’t trying to teach me tips on being a loving father, but he did, and he wasn’t even aware of it. The lesson flowed out of his being, through a seemingly mundane gesture from the heart, and made a lasting impact not just on me, but on my two children as well.

Who– and how– we are can influence the people around us more than anything we might try to say to them.

The author of 1 Peter 2:12 wrote, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (NLT).

Live properly and others will see your behavior, giving honor to God.

Actions speak louder than words. But even so, actions without love mean nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

We love one another because God first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). It’s this love that will prove to the world that we follow Jesus (Jn. 13:35), and it’s not just a human love – it’s divine love, one that allows us to love, even when it’s painful or difficult. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that… If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?” (Matt. 5:46-47).

As a leader, it’s the love you show to those you serve that will leave the most lasting impression on them.

I once heard a film producer tell a gathering at Biola, “Don’t make Christian movies. Be a Christian, then make good movies.” Who we are matters more than what we do, and what we do is fueled by who we are.

Don’t be a Christian leader. Be a follower of Christ, then lead others and they’ll start following in the same direction.

Don’t be a Christian parent. Be a follower of Christ, then raise your children to follow Him, too.

Don’t be a Christian _____. Be a follower of Christ, and the love between you and Jesus will fuel you and radiate through you, even if you aren’t even aware of it.

I didn’t know until his funeral that my martial arts instructor was a devoted Christian. He never told me that he was.

He didn’t have to.


Stephen Bay is the Newsong Kids Pastor. You can check out more of his writing at