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My dad took his first drink when he was 21-years old. He had his last drink 21-years later. Between his first and last drink, he never stopped drinking. He was a mean, uncaring drunk.
When he drank, he got angry, and if dad was not sulking in a chair, he was yelling at his children. I do not recall hearing the word “love” in our home unless it was blaring from one of our classic rock albums. Television and rock songs were my “love tutors.” To be genuinely loved by someone or to love someone was something ordinary families did.
I never called my dad, “dad” or “father.” Ever. Those words were as absent as love. Even as I type the letters d-a-d, it reminds me how it still seems odd to me. It was ten years after he died before I would ever use the word dad while referencing him.
From my first birth (Job 5:7) to my second birth (John 3:7), life was one ongoing, uninterrupted stream of dysfunction. My life’s goal as a teenager was to get out of our home and away from him. I accomplished my goal during my fifteenth year. Though I never looked back, anger remained.
I do not blame him for my turbulent teen years and the bad things I chose to do during that season of life, though there is no denying I was shaped and influenced by him. My alcoholic father was only part of the story.
The year was 1978.
He died in his sleep. He was forty-two years old. The layman’s diagnosis was that he drank himself to death. That was probably true. He had kidney, liver, heart, and a few other known and unknown complications.
Amazingly, he was a healthy and athletic policeman before he started drinking. At the end of his life, he was a barely employable third shift production worker who went from job to job. I was nineteen years old when he died.
By the time I was twelve years old, I had stopped attending church. My mother had long lost the ability to make us attend church meetings. The church was never relevant to us. It was just another place to find weed.
Not knowing Christ or His purposes for the church, it did not seem unusual to find good weed in the Lord’s house, but because the grass was greener in other places, we all eventually unhooked from the religious scene.
Anger, fear, hate, rebellion, discouragement, and discontentment made up my childhood. I had many highs (pun intended) and even more lows. Shortly after leaving home, the police arrested me for “breaking and entering.” It’s called B & E.
It is amazing how a kid could be so messed up and so angry in such a short period. The focal point of my hate was my father. He was the most likely target for the pain I endured. He was a mean man right up until he fell asleep that last time in 1978.
I arrived at my parent’s home just in time to see the EMS take him out, covered by a white sheet, on a gurney. Though the person I hated the most in life died, it did not remove my anger or make me sorry.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. – James 4:1-3
It was not supposed to happen this way. I mean, he was only forty-two years old. He was not supposed to die. I mean, I was not done hating him. My life, up to that point, was one big joke wrapped in anger and he had the last laugh by playing one final trick on me.
I remember his death like it was yesterday. It was that event that motivated me to say something I had never said before–something that had never occurred to me.
It was at his funeral when I mumbled these words: I love you. I was standing over his casket in McEwen Funeral Home in Monroe, North Carolina. I walked up to his coffin and looked over the side.
At that moment, I snapped out of my angry stupor. That is when I realized I had held on to my anger too long. When you are mad at someone, you do not think about the individual dying.
I was so wrapped up in how I was hurt and what was done to me, that it never occurred to me that he would die.
I had not finished with my anger.
I had more hating to do.
This thing was not over.
Our hostile relationship was not complete.
But it was over. Our relationship had finished its course. We were at the end of the road.
My daddy hurt me. He abused me verbally and physically. Each day in my home was a reiteration of the previous day’s infliction of pain and disappointment. He dealt out the punishment, and I counted the days until I could get away from him and the rest of my family.
Hate controlled my heart. Though I rarely said anything to my father, my soul was ablaze with fear and anger. Then he died. Death is the great equalizer that puts all sin into perspective.
I lived in regret for many years for being so stubbornly proud. Even though dad’s death was more profound than my anger, his death did not remove my bitterness. It only complicated matters because I realized I had played the fool.
I have sinned … I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake. – 1 Samuel 26:21
It was six years later when someone introduced me to another man who died too soon.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. – Matthew 27:50
When the Father opened my eyes to the death of His Son, everything changed. I became acutely aware of how we live in a fallen world that is full of fallen people. I began to understand the universality (Romans 5:12) and nature of sin (John 10:10).
For the first time in my life, a better answer for my childhood dysfunction began to become clear to me. My father was a sinner who sinned—for all have sinned (Romans 3:23). He chose an unrighteous path (Psalm 23:3) and all those in his path experienced his darkness.
I was in his path.
But he was not the only unrighteous person in our family. I, too, chose a wrong path. The sin that was passed down to him was passed down to me. I was just like my father—there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10-12).
I had no right standing before God. I was similar to my father. The death of Christ began to take my perspective off what he did to me and placed it on what I had done to God.
Maybe you have been hurt by someone. Perhaps you can make as strong a case against that person who hurt you as I made against my father.
According to my godless calculating, my dad was a worse sinner than me (2 Corinthians 10:12). At some level of my awareness, I knew I was sinful, but it was easy to compare tit for tat, and when I did that, I could hold on to my anger while playing the victim card.
It’s a victim mindset that fuels anger. The truth is I am no different from my dad. There are no gradations of sinners in the Lord’s view.
Typically, when there is relational brokenness between a child and parent, the child is the one articulating how his sinful parent has hurt him. In almost every case his thinking will be more about what was done to him rather than what he has done to the Lord. It is a necessary discussion, but it’s not the only one.
I have made that mistake. For many years I spent more time thinking about what my dad did wrong to me than what I did to God. It was self-induced poisoning of the soul.
As I began to come to terms with the gospel, as it applied to my dysfunctional childhood, I began to see. The angry fog began to lift. I was a self-righteous victim. That’s a deadly duo. A self-righteous victim is more aware of and irritated by the sins of someone else, rather than being more conscious of and more grieved by their sin.
As the gospel began to come into view, I began to realize my dad was not the biggest sinner I knew (1 Timothy 1:15). Like Paul, my opinion of myself began to plummet.
The incremental lowering of my self-esteem freed me from the anger that poured out of my entitled heart. After I took my position with Paul, my dad, Hitler, and all the other evil people in the world, I began to experience gospel freedom.
There is nothing that has ever happened to you or me that is eviler than the sin we have committed against God. The gospel levels the playing field. It eventually released me from the anger and the hurt of my past.
But more than that.
The gospel gave me understanding. For the first time in my life, I began to get my dad. His life and his choices made sense to me because I am just like him. It takes one to know one.
It was only by accepting how I was like him that I could be free from him. The more I resisted him, the more I resisted the truth about me. The more I tried to set myself apart from him, the further I was distancing myself from the truth of God’s Word and the power of the gospel.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. – Mark 2:17
It no longer mattered who sinned the most. The real issue for me was whether I would humble my heart before Almighty God and plead for His forgiveness for the crimes I had committed against Him. If there is a fraction of unforgiveness in your heart for what someone did to you, it is not possible to be entirely free from their actions.
It is possible my dad did more sinning than I did. I don’t know. Only God knows. Of course, I’m not through with my evil deeds yet. Maybe after I am dead, we can tally up our sins, categorize them, and see who was more guilty.
Here is the gospel truth: My dad was just like me. He was a sinner in need of a great God. He was hopeless, spiritually bankrupt, desperate, and entangled in sin. And so was I. That truth released me from my anger.
The only remaining sadness for me is I cannot tell him about the redemptive and transformative power of the gospel.
Because I had more hating to do, there was no room in my heart for the restorative power of Jesus. My appeal to you is that if you have anger in your heart toward someone that you will be humble and honest enough to own your sin and seek to do what is right regarding that relationship.
If you can make peace with an adversary today, please do it. Don’t wait until it is impossible. (See Romans 12:16-22) Let the power of the gospel rule your attitude and your actions. It was the gospel that released me from the hatred I had for my father. It was the gospel that motivated me to stop hating him.
Whatever they have done to you does matter, but you do not have to be controlled by what they have done. Hanging on to past hurts will enslave you to bitterness.
They may be in the grave, but their sin will still bind you. It might not be possible to reconcile with them, but you can be free from what they did to you (Genesis 50:20).