I have never been particularly shy about talking about my dad’s brokenness and the impact it had on my life. I want to be respectful of him, but I also want to tell my story, a story in which his brokenness plays a significant role.
My dad was an alcoholic when I was little but, when given the ultimatum between alcohol or his family, he chose his family. A choice I am very grateful that he made. Because he never dealt with the issues that drove him to alcohol he was emotionally distant and often angry.
In my twenties I became aware that my view of God was pervasively shaped by my view of my dad. When asked to describe God I would give a good, technical answer, “All-powerful, all-knowing, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all life.” And, almost as an afterthought, “Love. God is love.” These things are all true. But, with the exception of love, they do not reveal a highly relational view of God. They show an academic view of God. Additionally, I worked really hard not to disappoint him and tried to avoid doing things that would annoy him. I didn’t want to bother him with my problems. Something like how I interacted with my dad. I knew God was generous, so was my dad, and this generosity shaped me as well. I also knew God has a lot of grace for sinners, as did my dad, but I wasn’t sure if he would putting up with his children who kept messing up.
As I realized that my view of God was insufficient, I longed more and more to experience God as what I knew a father could be. A God who was gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. I wanted to feel like a prize. I wanted to know that I had been accepted, that God delighted in me. But as much as I know these things are true in my head, I seem categorically unable to experience them in my heart.
This longing for acceptance and approval impacts my life profoundly. In my last job, as a Resident Director in a dorm full of college girls, I was almost always available to them. I truly loved them and wanted to be with them and minister to and with them, but I also struggled to maintain any type of boundaries and would often put the needs of the students over my own health or the needs of my family. A good thing in me, compassion, was compromised by my unmet need for approval, an approval that I got when I knew I was making a difference in the lives of my students. I suffered. My family suffered. My ministry suffered.
As I have processed this deficit in my life, I have come to believe that if I had a healthier dad who had made me feel loved and accepted, I wouldn’t have had the deficit that I have been trying to fill my whole life. I came to this conclusion, in part, because there seemed to be a pretty clear correlation, in my interaction with college girls, between the girls who perceived their homes as loving and the girls who made relatively good choices and the a correlation between the girls who came from broken homes and made bad choices.
Recently, as I had a chance to listen to other women share about their dads and their dads’ impact on their lives I realized that I had developed a victim mentality in relation to my dad. “If only he had loved me better, then I would be healthier.” It was his fault that I was the way that I am. And, because I was handicapped in this way, it wasn’t my fault. While this is, to some extent, true, our pasts do shape and sometimes handicap us, we have to move beyond that and take responsibility for our own actions. I had been playing the victim card for too long and knew I needed to stop.
Then, as I heard one woman talk about the godliness of her dad and the deep love he had for her, I found myself very jealous of her experience. She talked about the tears that welled up in his eyes when she shared her story of abuse with her dad and how it broke his heart to see his daughter hurt at the hands of another. I found myself welling up with empathetic tears and very distinctly felt the Holy Spirit impress two things on my heart 1) “make this the image of a father in your head” and 2) “the empathy you feel now is the empathy you inherited from your (heavenly) father.” The way I feel with broken people is something that comes from my heavenly dad. I may have my earthly fathers blue eyes and intellect, but I have my heavenly father’s heart. For the first time, I felt a kinship with my heavenly father. Part of his DNA was in me.
I suspect our relationship is opening up in a whole new direction. And, as I look forward to getting to know my heavenly father better, I will be forever grateful for what my earthly father taught me and that he did mirror so many positive godly characteristics so that, despite the fact that my image of God is incomplete, it is there. He got me started thinking about God and talking about God; he just wasn’t able to show me a full picture of God because he didn’t have the full picture himself.
My dad’s 60th birthday would be in a week and a half if he hadn’t passed away nearly six years ago. I cannot express how glad I am that he is now in the presence of Jesus and that he now see God for all of who God is. My dad now knows as he is fully known. And, someday, he and I will stand before our heavenly father, in perfect relationship. All of us together. All of us seeing clearly. All of us whole