For those without fathers or with insufficient fathers

silhouette of man throwing girl in air

Since last fall, I have seen a counselor to deal with some lingering guilt about my mother’s death I still carry with me. 

In the first session, I let her know I grew up as an only child of a single parent, and no, we did not need to deal with my “daddy issues,” as I have done all the reflecting and processing about that throughout my adolescent years. I’m in a good place about it – I’ve forgiven him, I don’t think about him at all, and I have no issues with seeing God as Father. I’m good with where I’m at with this part of my identity, and I feel made new in Christ.

Fast forward six months to a session where I share with her that I think our work in terms of my grief is complete, insofar as it can be in my current life stage. Somehow the topic comes up about my father. Here’s a retelling of the conversation:

“Bailey, I don’t think you’ll like what I’m about to suggest, so feel free to disagree, but do you think you’ve ever intentionally grieved about not having a father?”

“Probably not, and you’re right, I don’t like the idea of doing that.”

If you think this is about to be a transformative story about how I changed my mind and began my 15-years-late grieving process for the lack of having an earthly father in my life, unfortunately, that’s not the case. I write this blog from a place of resistance but also, hopefully, from a place of humility.

A few months ago, Claire published a blog called, “When am I ever going to be good enough?” I wasn’t more than a few paragraphs in before I felt like Claire suddenly was in that counseling session that had happened only a week before she wrote the blog. Let’s fast forward to later in the same above conversation with my counselor:

“Bailey, our parents’ love constitutes a part of our identity. What do you think you’ve replaced the love and approval of your father with?”

My answer came to me in an instant, no sugarcoating: “Everyone else on the planet.”

Ah. Here it is. In every moment I’m approved by any other human being, it’s another reminder how much I don’t need the love of an earthly father. A reminder of what he “missed out on” — a kind of “Gotcha!” moment.

The problem is, of course, this:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Galatians 1:10

It’s very hard to be on a mission to serve Christ and know Christ each day if my primary objective, underneath all the layers, is to win others over. Not only that, it’s exacerbated in that winning others over is in fact my top talent according to the StrengthsFinder assessment. Another person at work, another person at Bible study — anytime I meet someone new and gain their approval or get praise from someone I look up to, it’s another tally mark that I am loved. I wonder if that small voice inside of me seeking approval that’s been saying, “We’ve proved your father wrong; we didn’t need him” has sometimes become louder than the Holy Spirit’s voice in me. Naturally, the problem is that listening to this voice instead of the Holy Spirit creates a “hustling” mentality, one where I’m constantly hustling for more tally marks of approval. There’s no limit to the number of people I’ll take some approval from – the more tally marks, the more correct I am in my belief that this confirms how much I don’t need an earthly father.

I wonder if you, too, whether because of an insufficient or broken father like me, or some other deprivation of love, have heard something similar from a hustler voice inside of you, even though your situation likely looks very different than mine:

“We’ve proved your father wrong – look how many people have accepted me even if he rejected me.”

“We’ve proved your father wrong – look at how much more trustworthy I am in my relationships.”

“We’ve proved your father wrong – I’m not passive-aggressive/invulnerable/fill-in-the-blank like him.”

And so on. 

I resist fully letting go of this hustling; it in fact lays dormant and quiet in me. Even though I really do see God as my Heavenly Father and believe that He is more than enough, there is something that I haven’t let go of in terms of not having a father on earth, and I have yet to figure out what it is. Until I do that, I will still struggle with the hustling.

In the meantime, hopefully these truths will speak to those of you who have a broken relationship, with your father or someone else you love:

Unlike how we might view our earthly father, our Heavenly Father (whose only approval we should be seeking) doesn’t need to be proven wrong about anything. He will never leave us. He will never reject us, as we are each uniquely chosen by Him. In fact, my chosenness by God does not affect any other person’s chosenness (Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen). 

He will never change, even if we do (Hebrews 13:3). 

He will always love us perfectly, even as we love Him imperfectly. (1 John 4:19)

He will always be willing to answer us when we call to Him (Jeremiah 33:3). 

He will always be there when we are at our lowest (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

All of this I nod my head to, yet I still find there’s a piece of my identity that relishes the approval of others. It’s that prideful piece of me that wants to prove how wrong my earthly father was that he wasn’t in my life — that he missed out on me, cause I’m pretty great.

Perhaps this road of grieving my father will be a lifelong one for me, and perhaps it will be for you, too. Maybe you will resist the grieving as I am. Maybe Father’s Day reminds you of these dormant thoughts and feelings each year. 

Yes, fathers will be celebrated and posted about widely this weekend. Yes, it may cause us a small feeling of longing to know we do not want to celebrate our earthly father. Yet we are infinitely blessed to recognize our own chosenness from a perfect Father — one who sent His only son to live a perfect life that we may live forever in our true home with our true Father. 

To that, we as believers can look upward and respond, no matter what kind of father you have or had, and say:

“Thank you, Father, for being everything that no earthly Father ever could be. Thank you that you’re continually using this suffering in my life, year after year, to teach me that nothing on this earth can satisfy — not a parent, a child, a full bank account, a spouse, or anything else. We eagerly await the day where we can be satisfied fully in You.”

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