The Father’s love is deep and unconditional enough to overcome the failings of our earthly fathers.
Christmas in Iowa was like Siberia, with six-foot snow drifts and lots of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Growing up in suburbia, my sister and I had a stable, carefree childhood. We had good friendships, we never moved, and our parents stayed married for life. And even though our dad was out-of-town two or three days a week, he was an engaged parent.
I still remember the smell of his aftershave, his booming laughter, extreme thriftiness and how he always lit up our house like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. He wanted so much more for his own kids than what he had had growing up.
Never truly loved, and kicked out of his home when he was 16, my dad was forced to fend for himself by working for the railroad. At 18 he joined the Navy and eventually earned a business degree, leading to a job with the Union Pacific Railroad. There were a few perks. For example, one Christmas, our family took a train to California, and I remember waking up early and peering out the window of our sleeper compartment in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Had the giant saguaro cacti been lit up like Christmas trees, it couldn’t have been more magical for a 5-year-old.
Over time, however, like a slowly rotting apple, my idyllic childhood gave way to the harsher realities of life. My dad had his demons—festering wounds from his past—that began to poison his self-identity and alienate family members. His work became more and more stressful, and many times I remember him at the end of his rope, desiring to quit. Much of his job required him to entertain clients, which always involved hard liquor. This gradually developed into an alcoholism that fueled caustic verbal and emotional abuse that turned our home toxic. The soft carpet upon which our family once trod was now nothing but eggshells, and from my junior-high years onward, we suffered under his erratic, irrational anger as he alternated between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
There were precious few “tidings of comfort and joy.” Even Christmases—which according to the 37 Hallmark Christmas movies this year should have sappy, happy endings—became dreaded stress-bombs filled with profane shouting, slamming doors and guilt-complexes. (Think Grinch, only a more self-centered, bitter and intoxicated version.) Our father didn’t just make others miserable, however, he was clearly miserable himself (thought he tried hard to hide it).
Desperate to alleviate the pain he was inflicting on my mom, I confronted him, only to be met with the callused words, “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do.” To this day, I have a hard time not associating that sinful, fatherly response with my heavenly Father, whenever I consider his absolute sovereignty over all things. The key difference, of course, is God’s absolute goodness in all his sovereignty.
In retrospect, I’m convinced that this intolerable environment was instrumental in driving me toward the Lord and my own need for salvation. In God, I was able to find a perfect Father figure—a Dad who was not plagued by insecurity or enslaved to his own ego. And the more I grew in my knowledge of God, the more he began to turn my anger toward my earthly father to compassion, and compassion to pity.
A quote I recently read says it well: “When you finally learn that a person’s behavior has more to do with their own internal struggle than it ever did with you…you learn grace.” That grace in me began to be more and more visible to my dad. And after years of lapsed church attendance, my parents agreed to check out a new church that I had recommended. There, they heard the gospel weekly for the next two decades. God also brought other Christians into their lives, and they began praying and reading the Bible. Dad even went on some mission trips to Bogota, Columbia.
There was a new softness after he claimed to have a faith in Christ, and there were glimmers of vulnerability, teachability and even godly remorse. But old habits die hard. Not much ever changed regarding my dad’s drinking habits, abusive speech and controlling nature. In fact, one of the last Christmases we visited before he died, we had to pack up and leave almost as soon as we arrived, because of his tirades and tantrums in front of our kids.
Much of my own fathering has been an attempt to be the very antithesis of him. And yet, I still catch myself saying and doing things that he did—good and bad. Through the gospel, God has redeemed my pain. He has also removed my hate and taught me to forgive. Downstream, my children have learned to forgive the pain I have caused them. Dad passed away in 2005, but despite his lifetime of brokenness, I believe he has finally found healing in the presence of his true Father.
The Christmas season is notorious for its stress-inducing traditions, extended-family tensions, dashed expectations and post-holiday depression. That may not change. But praise God that among us who are believers in Christ, even our most strained and dysfunctional relationships will be perfect, yes perfect, one day, in heaven.
Grace is the shining star on top of the Tree upon which our Savior died, that eventually conquers all. And our Father’s love is the wondrous gift from under that Tree, that keeps giving, and giving and giving…to us, who deserve it the least.