"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies." - 2 Corinthians 4:8-10
Every person has a primal craving, to long for a "father's approval, affection, and attention," writes Louie Giglio in his new book Not Forsaken. But to various degrees for each of us, for people who grew up in dysfunctional families or didn't grow up with fathers at all, a great portion of humanity has not had that yearning satisfied.
About a week ago, a friend of mine recommended I watch a sermon from Pastor Louie Giglio, the pastor of Passion City Church, which explores the topic.
A couple weeks ago, I saw a lame Christian movie called The Case for Christ that seized upon the trope of psychological daddy issues and religious atheism. A psychologist calls out atheist and religious skeptic protagonist, Lee Stroebel, and asks him if he had an absent father, and Stroebel predictably affirms her hypothesis that atheism tends to be linked with shoddy fathering. According to Catholic psychologist Paul C. Vitz, intense atheists such as Nietzsche and Voltaire had absent fathers that "damaged their ability to form a relationship with a heavenly father." Even as an ex-atheist and now Christian who probably has seen some of those same trends in my own life, I found the scene poorly delivered and an oversimplification: not all atheists have daddy issues, and exceptions range far and wide.
However, the trend does undeniably interest me. I doubt there will ever be a study that goes around to Christians asking how many of them had absent or dysfunctional fathers, but I wonder this question all the time: how do Christians navigate the terrain of accepting a perfect father when their relationships with an Earthly father was so imperfect?
On the cross, Jesus says "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is something Jesus never experienced before, but for the three hours of darkness before his death, he experiences being separated from his father before finishing and fulfilling the Scripture. The crucifixion is a part of the Bible when Jesus is utterly forsaken, when his father walked away from him, the moment when Jesus needed his father more than ever and didn't get what he needed in ways we have never personally experienced.
We now know the answer for why he died on the cross: Jesus became the bridge between sin and holiness. He took the weight of our sins and experienced what we should have experienced, which is God not being able to have fellowship with us when we are so imperfect. That's why Jesus went through what he did on the cross, and why God forsook his son: because Jesus saved us. The wages of sin in the Old Testament are death, and Jesus paid those wages for humanity.
"Because Jesus was forsaken on the cross, God will never forsake those who put their faith in him," Giglio says. We know that God will never leave us because he gave up his son for us.
In the seasons of life when we question and doubt whether God was even there in the first place, but then in hindsight we survive and look back and we see that "God was with me the whole time." The circumstances might have been crazy, but God let us survive those seasons and grow stronger from them for a reason.
We cannot shake what's been intrinsically instilled into us at birth. Giglio cites a psychological study by Dr. Peggy Drexler where highly successful people have a connection to evaluating their success through the lenses of their fathers' success. Everyone somehow is either fighting for or against the approval of their fathers. Everyone wants to hear their fathers say "You're doing a good job, and I believe in you," no matter who they are.
In Giglio's own life, when he was at a standstill moment not knowing what he was going to do at 18, he felt he had a calling to preach. He went to his pastor and told him his life mission, and the pastor told him that he was going to announce that Giglio wanted to preach. Giglio later went to his father, who was Catholic and not practicing. He had to get his dad to church Sunday, and 45 minutes before the service, Giglio doesn't know how to start the conversation, granted that he and his father have no common ground around Jesus. He goes to him and says,
"Dad, the Lord has called me to be a preacher...I'm going to tell the church tonight, and I'd love for you to come."
"That's great, Ace," he said. But the look on his father's face was different: it was a face of shock and surprise that said: "wow, my son is going to be a Baptist preacher." Recently, Giglio's father told him about one of his friend's sons getting a scholarship to play football at Auburn, which was the gold standard for him. Another one of his friend's sons was going to be a lawyer, another one was going to be an investment banker. At the Poker games with his friends, Giglio's father would have to tell his friends, in a disappointing fashion, that "my son thinks he's going to be a Baptist preacher."
His dad didn't show up to the church that night. And his father never asked him about that night, and never explained why he didn't go. The two never talked about it, as if his father had no interest in Giglio's vocation.
Although Giglio is alive to the fact that he is a beloved son of a Heavenly Father, a gap was there about the fact that his father was simply absent and didn't care much about his vocation.
"The Gospel story is not simply about Heaven," Giglio said. "It's about getting you to a Heavenly Father."
A Heavenly Father is there to close that gap. Although the sermon itself is idealistic, what Giglio says next is realistic: some of our Earthly relationships just won't get fixed. All the pain we feel will not just go away.
But we can get fixed, even if our relationships don't change. There's a saying I like from people who seem to have transcended horrible circumstance: life didn't change, but God changed me. Our story has not ended with whatever tragedy and poor circumstance has had in our lives, and for many of us that means whatever problems we've had with our Earthly fathers.
When Giglio was 29, his father had a viral infection in his brain and went into a coma, and his whole life changed in an instant. His dad was never the same. During his second brain injury, Giglio went to his father's side for a great portion of his illness, trying to pour blessing on him and telling him "Jesus loves you, and God cares about you. It changed my life and it can change your life." His dad looked at him from the hospital bed and said "nobody ever loved me, son. Nobody ever cared about me, and I don't believe God loves me either."
Barely able to breathe, he realized it's not just his father in his hospital bed: that was someone's son. Giglio's father never talked about his grandfather to him. His father never got the message that said: "my dad believes in me." For Giglio, it was the reminder that his father is also someone's son was an awakening. For everything his father was carrying, he was a good father to Giglio. God changed Giglio, and he stood by the bed and loved his father.
The cross tells us that God is not moving on without us, and God nailed his son on the cross so we know we have to face our relationship with our fathers. All we are doing when we complain about our fathers is telling the world that there is a gap. Believing in God, for Christians, fills that gap.
When Giglio preached for the first time in the First Baptist Church, it was Father's Day. He preached a message with his mom in the audience and his dad in a wheelchair right next to her. Freaking out because he was preaching in front of his mentor, Charles Stanley, and his father for the first time, he didn't look at his father the whole time. The message ends and audience members give him their praises, and when people start to leave, he walks to his parents, and on his dad's face was a grin that lit the whole world up. His dad reached his hand at him and told him "that was the best thing I've ever heard in my life."
Giglio knew that this was his dad being proud of his son in a way he never was before. He knew about there were gaps in his relationships but he also saw God restore those gaps in his life, knowing that his father knew his son was a great communicator and servant of God.
"I say this not because God can bring your dad back - maybe that's not possible. I say this not because God can rewire the divorce - maybe that's not possible...but God can turn stories around, and in the midst of whatever, there is a waterfall coming from a perfect Father in Heaven that has loved you this whole time."
Our Heavenly Father has paid for and searched after our existence. We are the loved sons and daughters of our perfect Heavenly Fathers, and going towards that God and believing that we are something special to God, that we are not forsaken, well, that is how we turn our stories around.