In my office there are several articles that reflect the great joy that I find in my family; between them there are two special elements. One is a figurine that one of my sons gave me years ago on Father’s Day. He carries this message: “The World’s Greatest Dad.”
The second item, a plaque given to me by another of my sons on another Father’s Day, reads: “A father is someone you look up to no matter how tall you are.” This gift brought a timely measure of encouragement, coming the year that my oldest son surpassed me in height. (That’s when I decided, unconsciously, of course, to beat him up. And I did.)
These particular parental possessions are very important to me for a reason that I want to share with you here. I know very well that I am not the “best father in the world”. However, the hyperbole expressed in these gifts is very encouraging. You see, I never would have bought such things from my dad. Neither would any of my brothers. And, from what I heard, my father would have been even less likely to have made affirmative gestures to his father. They had a very stormy relationship.
While living at home, my relationship with Dad was characterized by my general (and generally unsuccessful) attempts to please him and gain his approval, always living in fear of his unpredictable outbursts of anger. His outbursts often led to physical and verbal abuse in our home. In my teens, I was often filled with anger (and sometimes intense hatred) towards him. We never had father and son talking about anything that I can remember. We had father to son readings. He taught me little by instruction, but a lot by example. I learned from dad how not to treat a wife and children.
After I left our home in Indiana, the tension in our relationship broke. In fact, we had a very peaceful, if superficial relationship. From the time I left home to the Navy at 18 until he died when I was 39, the only times I saw him was when I went to visit him. It’s possible, although I honestly don’t remember any, that once or twice in all those years Dad called me on the phone. His initiatory investments in our adult-to-adult relationship were minimal.
I share these things not to demean my dad, but to help you see where I come from (and where I come from) in broaching this topic. Based on a biblical principle in Luke 16 where a man in hell begged for the word to be sent to warn his living relatives to avoid his terrible mistake (not that I believe my dad went to hell), I am sure that Dad would want me to share these things to help you claim things he didn’t do. I want you to know that you don’t have to be like the father you had.
Of course, it is much easier said than done. (You expected it, right?)
For many years after leaving home, I operated with an unconscious schedule that I thought would work well. My vision of success in adulthood was simple: “Don’t be like Dad!”
I must warn you: it didn’t work!
That negative view of life was generated from my natural mind in my youth. This is often the case for those who come from unhealthy homes. Fortunately, I discovered that God had a different and better vision of my life. It was a positive view rather than a negative one. Instead of living to “not be like someone”, I discovered that God had really called me “to be like someone”, and that someone is Jesus. And this vision has been driving positive change in me for over 40 years.
Please don’t get it wrong. I do not arrive! I just want you to know that I am moving in the right direction. And I say, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11: 1). No matter how good or bad your dad is, you have a Perfect Heavenly Father who wants to teach you to be a better dad than the dad you had. And on a similar note, no matter how good or bad the marital relationship pattern is in your home, you have a Lord who is a Perfect Husband for the Church, and He wants to teach you to love your wife.
For years I thought he was an excellent husband because he did not yell or curse my wife; and I would never hit it. Likewise, I felt like I would be a model parent, if I just weren’t abusive. But that was my negative view operating. You see, with a negative view you cannot do anything at all and you think you are actually doing something.
If you think the type of transformation I’m talking about comes with your baptism certificate, think again. In fact, it comes through years of serious discipleship. It doesn’t happen instantly or automatically. It occurs when you humble yourself to become someone who can learn, and you are willing to pray for the price and, in some way, to pay the price.
For those who have experienced substantial injuries or deficiencies in child rearing, it generally takes more than the routine “programs” of the local church to find restoration and a reasonable level of integrity.
It would be wonderful if we could achieve that reasonable level of integrity before we get married and have children. For many of us, that is not an option; We have had family for a long time and it is possible that we have only recently recognized our need for restoration.
Don’t give in to discouragement; Ask God to make you the man you should be. So stay humble and willing to learn.
You say, “It is too late; my children have grown up and gone!” No, dear friend, it is not too late! Accept God’s will and continue to become the man He wants you to be, including refining your role as a parent.
We remain dads even after our children become moms or dads. No, they don’t want us to try to run their lives (and neither does God, by the way). But they still need our mature love. And even our adult children can be blessed by the newness brought into our lives through the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God.
Lastly, don’t get caught up in resentment and bitterness toward a parent who abandoned or abused you. Invite God to help you resolve your pain and reach the place of forgiveness. Ask God to reveal the difference between your carnal compensations for your father’s failures and God’s holy will for your life as a father. What do I mean by “carnal compensation for your father’s failures”? Maybe your dad was abusive in his discipline. Carnal compensation could lead you to not use any effective discipline in an attempt to be a good friend to your children rather than a good parent. Maybe your dad didn’t stand up to your mom when she was clearly out of line. Carnal compensation could lead to you being in your wife’s face all the time, making you the one who is clearly out of place.
Finally, invite God to guide you. Commit to follow. Accept all the resources He gives you. So, you can become the father you never had.