HEALING FROM A FATHER WOUND
By: Paul Anderson
Sixty Minutes once interviewed a murderer in prison. When the host asked him about his father, he said that he was a National Football League star, but he added, “He’s not a star at home.” Then he broke down and cried. The father had not given time for his family and ultimately had deserted them. This prisoner spoke nothing but hate for the man who had withheld his love and had created a giant father wound in a young man who turned into a killer.
We once invited missionary families to come to our house and discuss an upcoming seminar on missionary kids. The next day, one of the mothers, whose children also came, told me that her daughter had said to her, “I didn’t know a father could love his children like Paul did.” All I did was to hold one of them in my lap playfully. Her missionary father had deserted his family while they lived in Africa, and she was feeling the wound.
One time a couple came up for prayer after the morning service. They said they loved each other but were separated. The wife confessed, “I guess I find it hard to trust people or God, because my father was mean to me. Now I can’t trust my husband.” The father wound can affect us our whole life if we don’t find healing.
A lady who struggled with depression once asked for prayer at a conference in Norway. As a child she would often ask, “Daddy, are you fond of me?” He would joke with her, “Let me see, what day is it?” He laughed–and she cried–inside. Thirty years later she still felt the injury and found it hard to receive God’s love.
WOUNDS IN BIBLE CHARACTERS
Jacob grew up with a father wound. One can easily understand why: “Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). God had chosen Jacob, but his father clearly had not, and it didn’t feel good to come in second place. The mama’s boy competed with a more athletic-type brother, scheming for his father’s attention and blessing. He eventually came to a place of healing and maturity, but not before he had made some grievous mistakes that almost cost him his life. Many children have grown up feeling like Jacob, that their father or mother loved a sibling more than them.
When Jacob grew up, he did the same thing with his children. He “loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all the rest of them, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37:3,4). No child wants to come in second with Dad, but being favored produces its liabilities, too. Jacob and Joseph both paid for the favoritism.
King David proved a better fighter than he was a father, and it effected Absalom, his son. When Absalom killed his half-brother in revenge for raping his sister, he fled home. Even after David was comforted in the loss of Amnon, he did not bring about the return of Absalom until Joab urged him to do so. Then when Absalom finally returned, David ignored him as if he didn’t exist. Had David healed the rift by receiving his son back into his heart and home when the fugitive returned, he might have saved his son from death and his own heart from awful grief. But he, like many fathers, seemed immobilized, and he took no action to repair the separation. It almost cost him the throne, and it did mean a bitter end for Absalom, so full of potential, so winsome, so charming, and so full of hatred for a man who loved God and who loved women, but didn’t know how to love his own son. When David heard the news that Absalom was dead, he cried, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). He died of dart wounds, but in his heart he carried a father wound.
Sometimes dads seem paralyzed when it comes to reaching out to their children. It is not that they don’t love them; they just lack the ability, the sensitivity, or the willingness to make the needed connection. If they didn’t receive the kind of love they needed as a child, they sometimes visit upon their children what was visited upon them—unless they receive healing for their own father wound.
As a young pastor I used to exhort moms and dads in their parenting skills. I preached sermons to them on how to more effectively relate to their children. Then I realized that many of them lived with father wounds. Trying to tell crippled parents to do a better job is like telling a wounded soldier to get back on the front lines; he needs critical care first. And that is just what a lot of people (and especially fathers) need.
MANY SUFFER FROM A FATHER WOUND.
Children naturally imitate their parents. My children enjoyed jogging with me in my younger days. Israel used to end up on my shoulders. When I ran, I had a habit of spitting. I didn’t spit at people; I spit into bushes. So when I spit, Israel would spit. But his didn’t travel as far as mine–about to the end of my arm. I would say, “Israel, that’s gross. Don’t do that.” Then a few blocks later I would forget–and spit. And so would Israel.
When I was coaching my son Andrew’s basketball team, we once called a time-out to talk to the players. Joe Lubinski, my assistant, was reviewing our strategy, and I was listening attentively in a crouched position with my hands on my knees. Israel, then two, left the stands, moved close to his dad, and assumed the exact same posture. I didn’t even notice, but his mother grabbed the camera and preserved the moment.
My son wanted to be like his dad in every way. He wanted to run with me; he even wanted to spit like me. God has put it in the heart of children to imitate their parents. They know that Mom is the most beautiful person in the world and that Dad is the strongest. (One little kid said, “My Daddy can beat up your Daddy,” to which the other little fellow said, “That’s nothing, so can my Mom.”)
God wants us to love our parents with all our heart and trust them completely, because according to His plan, parents will be the first to introduce children to a kind heavenly Father. When parents, whom we have every reason to trust, violate that love, it creates confusion and pain. When your heart has been open the most, it creates the deepest and most hurtful wound if torn. When a child concludes that work trumps them for importance, or another woman, or a hobby; or when promises are broken, when relationships are severed, when love is denied, when common courtesy is not extended, or when time is not given–a father wound can afflict the heart and remain for years. We all crave love, belonging, acceptance. It is meant to come first in the family. When we receive rejection instead, in whatever form, like teasing, harsh words, unfair demands, or avoidance, we wonder if we are worthy of love. And even sadder, we may wonder if God is worthy of love or if we are worthy of God’s love.
I am calling it a “father wound.” It may be a mother wound, a pastor wound, or a sibling wound. One lady, with a brother-wound, once came for ministry after a service. She and her brother worked together in business, but he had somehow managed to take it away from her.
The evidence of the wound varies. For the killer on Sixty Minutes it was anger. For the lady in Norway it was depression–anger turned in. For the woman in a struggling marriage it was distrust. Other symptoms include inferiority, fear of manhood or womanhood, unexplainable anxiety, an overly critical attitude, or an inability to receive God’s love. Wounds make it hard for us to say “yes” to God’s grace.
Why do you suppose that when St. Paul addresses parents for the first time in his letter to the Ephesians, he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians. 6:4). Because fathers who don’t make caring for their children a top priority will do just that, and their children’s anger won’t go away quickly. Paul told the Colossian fathers, “Do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (3:21). I’ve seen a lot of discouraged children (of all ages) since I’ve been sharing this message, and sometimes the discouragement has lasted for decades. Not a happy picture.
One father played ball often with his boy. He would tell him, “Catch the ball ten times in a row, and I’ll buy you something.” He’d throw the ball to him nine times, then on the tenth throw he’d make it impossible for the boy to catch it. He thought he was teaching his son to try harder. He was, in fact, training him for failure. He was saying, in effect, “No matter how hard you try, it won’t be good enough.” He was creating anger rather than incentive, an anger which left the boy feeling as if he’d never make it.
Another father rejoiced when a son was born after two daughters, because he wanted to raise an athlete. This boy, however, was not athletic. At the age of twelve, the dad took him to a softball game and yelled, “Watch them! Learn!” After the game he asked his boy, “When are you going to grow up and become a man?” He really meant, “…grow up and become an athlete.” The boy felt his father’s rejection and hated him for it.
One son had hoped his father would some day ask forgiveness for the times he had hurt him. On his deathbed, the father said, “Jim, remember all times I disciplined you and you didn’t deserve it?” Jim leaned in, waiting to hear what he had longed to hear for many years. ‘Finally,’ he thought, ‘Dad is going to make it right.’ The dad went on, “Well, there were times I didn’t spank you when I’m sure you deserved it.” He died moments later and with him the hopes for the mending of a broken heart.
It’s not just the “bad” fathers that can stir up anger. When I served as principal of a Christian school, a junior high boy whose parents were solid Christians told me through his tears that they teased him about liking girls and that it didn’t feel good at all. He was hoping for support but received ridicule instead.
Parents, do whatever you can to connect with your children in a positive way. Listen to them, find out what they are thinking about, ask them questions, take them along with you when you go to the store. Reach out to them, play games with them, pray with them before they go to bed and when they get up, communicate, communicate, communicate. You’ll be glad you did when they thank you years later for loving them, even if they don’t always thank you at the moment.
America responds to this serious problem by saying, “We don’t need dads.” Fathers are mocked and made the brunt of jokes on sit-coms. When I was growing up, it was more often the women in the home who were the target of the jokes, “the dumb blond, the scatterbrain broad,” Lucy, Gracie and the rest. That’s all changed. Today it is Dad. Father no longer knows best; in fact, he’s a jerk. When it comes to family matters, Dad doesn’t have a clue. Even the good fathers, the Bill Cosby types, are laughed at, and both caricatures are damaging.
At a recent funeral, the pastor greeted us with the apostolic benediction, but with one word changed: “Grace and peace be to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” I thought, ‘Where did the Father go?’ What shame causes us to correct the Book to accommodate a social mandate? Many in the church and in society don’t see the connection between the killer and the father wound, the divorce and the dope, the workaholism and the truancy. But recent sociological studies have been making the linkup. When the data are all in, it will say what God said 2500 years ago, that the land without fathers rests under a curse. The last verse of the Old Testament reads that “revival will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). The option—the judgment of God. The nation without strong families and committed fathers lives with a curse. Repentance lifts the curse as fathers return to their greatest assignment—their children. When revival touches down, it affects relationships in the most important institution and building block of society, the home.
HEALING FROM A FATHER WOUND COMES AS…
1. WE ACKNOWLEDGE OUR WOUNDING.
When a pastor friend, Joseph Johnson, came to our church for a mission, he ended his message by inviting anyone who needed a hug to come to the front. These people were met by others who had agreed to give hugs to any who felt the need for comfort. I knew that my assistant had experienced some wounding from his father, but on that day he “went public.” He walked forward and was hugged by one of the leaders at Trinity—for twenty minutes, while he cried and cried. He was acknowledging the pain. Emotional reactions, like anger or depression, often anesthetize the hurt, and we easily deny or ignore wounding in the past. Allowing ourselves to go past the anger to feel the pain starts the healing process.
After speaking to a group of pastors in Norway, I invited those who needed special encouragement to come up for a hug. I stationed leaders in the front to receive them. We waited–and waited. When no one came, I prepared to sit down. I figured it was probably too hard for Norwegians to expose their needs in this way. Finally, an elderly pastor walked to the front. When he got near to my ministry partner, George Johnson, he began to cry and fell into his arms. Then others followed. He told us the next day in broken English: “Tank you for vaiting for us. It vas so difficult for us Norvegians–and so important.”
I once preached at a church in the Midwest on keeping score. The worship leader, a young man with a beautiful singing voice, came up afterwards with tears in his eyes. He said, “I guess I’m still trying to find my father’s approval.” He was acknowledging a wound.
Wounds are created not only by erring parents, but also by life experiences over which people have no control. Some missionary kids speak of the pain at being sent away to a boarding school at an early age. This is the way most missionary societies functioned, but that doesn’t help the ten-year-old girl sort out feelings of loneliness, isolation, and perhaps even betrayal, when she knows she is loved, but yet must say good-bye for another month or two.
A pastor friend of mine was a teenager when his father died of a heart attack. He was an All-Conference wrestling champ, and he toughed out the loss. Twenty years later he acknowledged that he still had a wound when an older minister at a pastors’ retreat said to him, “Come here. Let me give you a hug.” And he wept for the grief he felt at losing a dad.
One way to help us come to terms with our wounds is to finish this sentence: Jesus, I wish my father would have_________________. I have tried this with a variety of groups. Here are some of the responses: Jesus, I wish my father would have spent time with me…hugged me…told me he loved me…not abandoned us…talked to me…shown me respect…prepared me for adult life…cared enough to listen…been there…not put me down.
We’re not bashing dads; we’re taking a step toward restoration. What could have been, should have been, might have been–wasn’t, and it hurts to think about it. We begin the healing process by acknowledging that the wound is there. Time probably doesn’t make it any better, and it may even aggravate it. Too many have lived long years carrying a father wound and have not known how to deal with it. Many people have walked in loneliness or shame for an unknown reason, or have not known why they felt so insecure. It may be that they have a wound that needs to be exposed and healed. They need to know that Christ not only died for our sins; He also died for our sorrows: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4a).
2. WE FORGIVE IMPERFECT PARENTS.
A young man once came forward after a service. As I began to pray, I envisioned in my mind a picture of a boy being dragged through dirt. I asked him if he had been made to feel unimportant, like dirt. He said, “All my life.” I asked him if he wanted to deal with it, and he responded affirmatively, so we went through these steps. I asked him to write down on a piece of paper what he felt his dad owed him but had not given him. A few minutes later he had constructed his list. I told him that the list was like an I.O.U. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). An offense is like a debt owed. I explained to him that when he thought of his father, he would pull out the bill and demand payment, at least in his emotions. That is what it means to carry around unresolved bitterness. We somehow think that we are hurting the people we resent, but, in reality, we are hurting ourselves the most. Anger gone to seed is like a cancer in the soul that grows and poisons our whole life. I told him that forgiveness was often a difficult process and that I would understand if he couldn’t forgive his dad right away, but if he could, I wanted him to tear up the I.O.U. I explained that forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a contract. We are agreeing with God to release the offending person to His justice and mercy rather than taking it into our own hands. We are not saying that the person didn’t hurt us, but rather that we are releasing him from blame. It made sense to him, and the young man tore up the debt. That night he was praying at the altar for others with a new-found peace on his face.
Forgiveness means tearing up these I.O.U.’s we are carrying around. We tell God that those who have hurt us don’t owe us anything. (They probably won’t pay us back anyway). We release them from any obligation to us and into the hands of God. If people aren’t able to forgive, I encourage them to carry the note around as a reminder of what is happening in their hearts. Forgiveness releases us from the negative bond to those who have hurt us so that we can escape from our past and walk into a healthy future.
An older lady almost dragged a girl forward after I had preached on God as our healer. She said, “My friend must get healing.” I asked the girl if she wanted it, and she answered, “I must. I am destroying my life.”
“Who are you hating?” I asked.
“My mother,” she responded. “She’s been so cruel to me.”
We worked through the process, and she tore up the I.O.U. Then I introduced her to a counselor at the church who would continue counseling with her. Forgiveness is often both an event and a process. She took a big step that night by acknowledging the wound, but she would need to keep walking.
One day I was speaking with a woman whose husband had left her and two children for another woman. I explained to her that forgiveness is like tearing up an I.O.U. Then I told her that she had two choices: either to forgive the debt or to continue carrying it around. When I handed her the bill, she didn’t wait for me to explain what to do with it–she ripped it up. As one counselor said, “It is easier to act our way into a new way of feeling than feel our way into a new way of acting.” We may not feel forgiveness when we take the step, but it often comes later.
Parents who realize they have caused a wound can, of course, aid in the process by asking forgiveness of their child.
3. WE RECEIVE FORGIVENESS FOR IMPERFECT RESPONSES.
We are not responsible for what people do to us, but we are responsible for our responses. One can understand why children carry anger toward parents who betray them. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them. So St. Paul writes, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31). When we ask God to forgive us for our wrong responses to the hurts of others, He tenderizes our hearts, making them more open to Him and to others. Unforgiveness blocks us from God’s love. Many of those who struggle with receiving God’s love are carrying unforgiveness, and it locks up the heart. The blood of Jesus brings deep healing to the hurting. God “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). It was prophesied of the Messiah that He would be sent “to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).
He accomplished it at the cross, where He was afflicted with a Father wound: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). His Father wound caused the blood to flow that cleanses guilty sinners and enables them to forgive others. Jesus died for the neglect of the killer’s dad, for the missionary’s desertion, and for our wrong responses. He was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” that the wounds we carry may be healed.
Clearly, we are not addressing the subject of father wounds so we can criticize bad parents; it is just the opposite–we know our own failures. So as we receive God’s grace, we are able to extend it to others who have wounded us. We walk as victors, not victims, when we freely forgive and receive forgiveness.
4. WE RECEIVE THE FATHER’S AFFIRMATION.
The Gospels record two times that the Father spoke affirmation from heaven to or about His Son. The first came before Jesus even began His public ministry. God is so affirming; people often aren’t. Many of the wounded are like flowers that have been stomped on and bruised; they need to be built back up, supported, encouraged. No one does this better than “the God of all encouragement.” As we learn to listen to His voice, not the voice of a guilty conscience, the voice of the accuser, or even the voice of other people, we experience the strength of His affirming love. When we clear away the debris of resentment and unforgiveness, we hear His words of love. He is like a good father who says to his children, “I am really proud of you. I enjoy being with you. You bring me much happiness. I’m glad you are in our family. Your obedience gives me joy.” The Father’s love far surpasses that of any earthly parent. Paul prays that we can come to understand its height, depth, breadth and length. Those being healed of father wounds are able to receive this love, and they grow to live in its daily delight.
Has your sin or sorrow made you distrust God’s love? He forgives, heals, and restores.
5. WE SEEK TO BE LIKE OUR FATHER.
Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). We’ve heard it said before, “Hurt people hurt people.” It’s also true that loved people love people. We are the objects of our Father’s incredible love (literally, His “agapied” children). He is fascinated with us; He can’t get us out of His mind. He is like parents of a new-born, staring down in joy, delighting in each movement.
As we accept this kind of compassion into our wounded hearts, we are healed sufficiently to pass the same kind of love on to others. This pleases our Father, who longs to convince a broken world that He is a healing, saving God. And rather than struggling to make God love us because others don’t, we relax and receive. Then we are empowered by His grace to serve as instruments of His love, the love that wept over our pain and overcame it.