By Dane Tyner
In my office are several items that reflect the great joy I find in my family; among them are two special items. One is a little figurine presented to me years ago on Father’s Day by one of my children. It bears this message: “World’s Greatest Dad.”
The second item, a plaque given by another of my children 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 my oldest son surpassed me in height. (That’s when I decided, subconsciously of course, to beat him in girth. And I did.)
These particular paternal possessions are very important to me for a reason I want to share with you here. I know, all too well, that I am not the “world’s greatest dad.” Still, the hyperbole expressed in these gifts greatly encourages me. You see, I would never have bought such things for my dad. Neither would any of my siblings. And, from what I hear, my dad would have been even less likely to have made such affirming gestures to his dad. They had a very stormy relationship.
While I lived at home, my relationship with Dad was characterized by my general (and usually unsuccessful) attempts to please him and get his approval, always living in fear of his unpredictable outbursts of anger. His outbursts often led to verbal and physical abuse in our home. In my teen years, I was often filled with anger (and sometimes intense hatred) toward him. We never had father and son talks about anything that I can remember. We had father-to-son lectures. He taught me little by instruction, but much by example. I learned from Dad how not to treat a wife and children.
After I left our Indiana home, the tension in our relationship broke. We actually had a very peaceful, albeit surface, relationship. From the time I left home for 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 is possible, though I honestly do not 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 minute.
I share these things not to degrade my dad, but to help you see where I am coming from (and where I have come from) as I address this subject. Based on a biblical principle in Luke 16 where a man in hell begged that word be sent to warn his living kin to avoid his awful mistake (not that I think my dad went to hell), I’m sure Dad would want me to share these things to help you claim things he did not. He would want you to know that you don’t have to be like the dad you had.
Of course, this is far easier said than done. (You expected that, right?)
For many years after leaving home, I operated with an unconscious agenda I thought would work well. My vision for success in manhood was simple: “Don’t be like Dad!”
I must warn you: it didn’t work!
That negative vision for life was generated from my natural mind in my youth. Such is often the case in those who come from unhealthy homes. I discovered, thankfully, that God had a different and better vision for my life. It was a positive vision rather than a negative one. Rather than living to “not be like someone”, I found that God had actually called me “to be like Someone” – and that Someone is Jesus. And this vision has been directing positive change in me for over 40 years.
Please, don’t misunderstand. I have not arrived! I simply 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, 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 model of spousal relations was in your home, you have a Lord who is a Perfect Husband to the Church, and He wants to teach you to love your wife.
For years I actually thought I was an excellent husband because I didn’t scream at or curse my wife; and I would never hit her. Likewise, I felt that I would be a model dad, if I was just non-abusive. But that was my negative vision operating. You see, with a negative vision you can do nothing at all and think you are really doing something.
If you think the kind of transformation I am talking about comes with your baptismal certificate, think again. It actually comes through years of serious discipleship. It doesn’t happen instantly or automatically. It happens as you humble yourself to become teachable, become willing to pray the price – and in some ways – pay the price.
For those who have experienced substantial wounds or deficiencies in childhood nurturing, it generally takes more than the routine “programs” of the local church to find restoration and a reasonable level of wholeness.
It would be wonderful if we could reach that level of reasonable wholeness before we got married and had children. For many of us, that is not an option; we have had the family for a long while and may have only recently recognized our need for restoration.
Don’t give in to discouragement; ask God to make you the man you ought to be. Then, stay humble and teachable.
You say, “It’s too late; my kids are grown and gone!” No, dear friend, it’s not too late! Embrace God’s will and keep becoming the man He wants you to be, which includes refinement of your role as a dad.
We’re still dads even after our kids become moms or dads themselves. No, they don’t want us to try to run their lives (and neither does God, by the way). But they do still need our maturing love. And even our adult children can be blessed by the newness brought to our lives via the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit.
Finally, please don’t let yourself get stuck in resentment and bitterness towards a dad who abandoned or abused you. Invite God to help you resolve your hurt and come to the place of forgiveness. Ask God to reveal the difference between your fleshly compensations for your father’s failures and the holy will of God for your life as a father. What do I mean by “fleshly compensations for your father’s failures?” Perhaps your dad was abusive in his discipline. A fleshly compensation could lead you to not use any effective discipline in an attempt to be a good buddy to your kids instead of a good dad. Perhaps your dad didn’t stand up to your mom when she was clearly out of line. A fleshly compensation might lead you to be in your wife’s face all the time, making you the one clearly out of line.
Finally, please invite God to lead you. Pledge to follow. Embrace all the resources He gives you. Then, you can become the dad you never had.