(Editor’s note: In this guest piece, Rachel Massmann reflects on her childhood without a father and how forgiveness paved the way to discover how well loved she has been all along.)
Isaiah 46:4 / “I have made you, I will carry you, I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”
I was 23 years old when my parents finally legally divorced, and it had been 23 years too long. Our family life was filled with hostility, strife, abuse and instability. However, from the outside, most people would have had no reason to believe that our family was not “normal.”
To say that my relationship with my father was volatile would be an understatement—it was a constant explosion causing mass destruction to anything or anyone nearby. He was so good at putting on a show that I would fall for it myself at times. The reality was that this man had long been absent from his role as my father.
There are many roles that fathers may play in the lives of their children, but we could likely agree that they provide security, stability and an example to follow. A father has the opportunity to show his daughter how a man should love her. Maybe he is even her first love. He can shape her view of herself and relationships she enters by the way he leads her.
The absence of my father greatly shaped me during key developmental years. Sure, he was physically present, but in terms of providing leadership, love and acceptance he was just…missing. The things I did learn from our relationship won’t be found on any Hallmark greeting card. The lessons he chose not to teach shaped and changed me in ways that I have had to fight hard to break away from.
I learned over time to guard my heart, but my perspective was far from what the bible instructs:
Proverbs 4:23 / “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
I was guarded from a position of defense, burying emotions deep down and consumed by a fear of commitment. My heart was hard. If I had any control, I would not allow anyone else to hurt me the way this man had.
Psalms 27:10 / “When my father forsakes me, then the Lord will take me up.”
At age seventeen I surrendered my life to the Lord at Minnesota Youth Convention in Rochester. Pastor Reggie Dabbs showed a video uniquely portraying a familiar bible verse:
John 3:16 / “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It told the story of a bridge operator, the close relationship he had with his son and a tragic choice he made to save a train full of people he had never even met. My eyes were opened to the depth of love that God has for us as His children.
It was during this time that I realized the life-changing truth that my dad shaped void was meant to be filled by the perfect love of God. Previously, my view of God’s character had been skewed in such a way that it seemed impossible God could be so good, so loving. Yet, through God’s compassion, I began to recognize my brokenness and desperate need of a Savior. For the first time I found myself wanting to see the bigger picture, to keep my eyes open to what God was orchestrating instead of stubbornly demanding to understand.
I had to abandon the expectations I had created for my earthly father. Instead of looking to a person to fulfill my needs, I had to learn to communicate them to God: “I am hurting. I feel afraid. I am angry. I need affirmation.”
My sophomore year of college I took a sociology class where we were assigned to write a research paper on an issue that American youth face. It was a busy semester, and I quickly defaulted to writing about something I felt I knew about: adult children of addicts. I thought this would be easy. Little did I know God was chuckling at my decision.
I blindly referred to these people as victims throughout my entire paper. After the assignment was submitted I was surprised when our professor, who went by the nickname Tiger, asked if I would stay after class to discuss something. Once everyone had trickled out of the room he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are not a victim; you are a survivor.” He could tell I was confused, so he offered his own story of an abusive childhood and his father’s addiction. He went on to tell me that he knew right away from reading my paper that I was writing about myself.
Tiger knew nothing about my personal life prior to that conversation, but as I left the classroom it was abundantly clear that God was loudly speaking to me. I needed to heal, and I needed to change my mindset. I truly thought that I had forgiven and begun to move forward, but Tiger helped me to see that this was not the case. The unforgiveness I was living with was something that the enemy would use to break me down…to make me a victim.
I have heard it said that forgiveness does not excuse bad behavior, but it does prevent a behavior from causing destruction to your heart. It would be easy to live as a victim of my childhood, to blame my father for the things I do not like about myself or that he should or shouldn’t have done, but there comes a point in time when we have to take responsibility for our own decisions and choices. Do I want to live in the sorrow of my past or do I want to look forward to the healing and wholeness that Jesus died to establish for me? Through much prayer and counsel I have come to understand that my father’s behavior has very little to do with me and much more to do with how he sees himself.
We may not always be able to salvage relationships but learning how to walk away with compassion opens the door to healing.
I can make this choice because I have found restoration and strength in the Lord. He reassures me that I was never alone but that He caught every tear, saw every laugh, rejoiced with me, lifted me up when I fell, cheered me on and protected me even when I was running away from Him. He filled the atmosphere when I committed my life to my husband, and He will be in the room when my children take their first breaths. The lack of an earthly father is not a reflection of who I am; it no longer drives me or pulls me down. I have had a perfect Father all along!
To those daughters that may relate to my story, I have something to remind you: Jesus did not die for the nuclear family! He died for the individual; for the one; for you! He died so that we can freely live in relationship with God the Father who loves and cares more than even the best earthly dad. If Father’s Day hurts for you or someone close to you, please turn to Jesus! Turn to His unfailing grace, love and healing!
Happy Father’s Day to all of the men who are fathers or play the role of one for someone, especially those who play this role for me! Your love, acceptance and wisdom are irreplaceable!