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My dad took his first drink of alcohol when he was twenty-one years old. He had his last drink twenty-one years later. Between his first and last, 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 one of his five boys. 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 tutors. To experience reciprocating love was something that normal families did.
Our family was not normal by any standard. I never called my dad “dad” or “father” while he was alive. Ever. Those words were as absent as love. It was ten years after he died before I used the word dad while referencing him. Even as I type the letters d-a-d, it reminds me how it still seems odd. From my first birth (Job 5:7) to my second birth (John 3:7), life was one ongoing, uninterrupted dysfunctional stream of pain and disappointment. My life’s goal as a teenager was to get out of our home and away from my father.
I accomplished my goal during my fifteenth year when I moved in with my grandmother. Though I never looked back, anger came with me; it was my constant companion. I do not blame my dad any longer for my turbulent teen years or the bad things I chose to do during that season. I made all the choices, though there is no denying he was an instrumental and adverse shaping influence. Mercifully, the Lord gave me another perspective, as only He could: what my dad meant for evil, God would flip the narrative by using the horror show of my childhood as a redemptive masterpiece.
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 4:1-2).
The year was 1978. Dad 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.
When I was twelve years old, I stopped attending church. My mother had long lost her ability to make us attend the local Baptist church. The church was never relevant to us anyhow. It was just another place to find good weed from some of the deacons’ children. Not knowing Christ or His purposes for the church, finding good weed in the Lord’s house did not seem unusual. All five of us eventually unhooked from the religious scene because there was better grass in greener pastures, where tie-dyes and flip-flops were the norms.
The word cloud that hovered over my childhood had anger, fear, hate, rebellion, discouragement, and discontentment in it. There were a few highs (pun intended) and even more lows. Shortly after leaving home, the police arrested me for “breaking and entering.” It is incredible to think how a kid could be so messed up and angry in such a short period. The focal point of my hate was my father. He was the most likely target for the pain. He was a mean man 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. It was not supposed to happen this way—he was only forty-two years old. He was not supposed to die, not yet. I still “had some hating to do.” Up to that point, my life was one big joke wrapped in anger, and he had the last laugh by playing one final trick on me. He died. I remember his death and succeeding funeral like it was yesterday.
It was at his funeral that motivated me to say something I had never uttered before—something that had never occurred to me. I mumbled I love you, as I stood over his casket in McEwen Funeral Home in Monroe, North Carolina. I walked up to his coffin and looked over into his dead face. When you are mad at someone, you do not think about them dying. It was that moment when I snapped out of my angry stupor. That is when I realized I had held on to my anger too long. The hurt and what he did had so captured me that it never occurred to me that he would die.
I was 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 natural course. We were at the end of the road. My daddy hurt me. He abused me verbally and physically. Each day in our home was a replay 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 for the rest of my life.
I have sinned. I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake (1 Samuel 26:21).
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. Even though dad’s death was more profound than my anger, his death did not remove it or the accompanying bitterness. It’s stunning how the instigator can long leave the scene, but the bitter effects linger like an unwelcome and oppressive companion. I lived in regret for many years for being so stubbornly proud, only complicating matters because I realized I had played the fool.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit (Matthew 27:50).
Six years later, someone introduced me to another man who died too soon. 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 full of fallen people. And I was one of them. 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 became clear. 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 the wrong path. The sin that Adam gave to him came 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 to where the stratification of sin that I envisioned—that kept me perched in the air of superiority—collapsed to where I could only see a level playing field with a cross in the middle of it. 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 somebody has hurt you. Perhaps you can make as strong a case against that person who hurt you as I did against my mean 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 ongoing, unabated anger. The truth is I am no different from my dad. There are no gradations of sinners when you stare at the Savior on a cross.
Typically, when there is relational brokenness between a child and parent, the child is the one articulating how his sinful parent has hurt him. It is a necessary discussion, but it’s not the only one that must happen. In almost every case, his thinking will be more about what someone did to him than what he has done to the Lord. I have made that mistake. I spent more time thinking about what my dad did wrong to me than what I did to God. It was unwitting, self-induced poisoning of my soul. As I began to come to terms with the gospel, I began to see with new eyes as it applied to my choices.
The angry fog began to lift. I was a self-righteous victim. A self-righteous victim is more aware of and irritated by someone else’s sins than being more conscious of and grieved by their sin against a holy God. As the gospel began to come into view, I realized 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 freedom, gospel-centered freedom.
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).
Nothing has ever happened to you or me that is eviler than our sin 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, I began to get my dad; I understood him. His life and choices made sense because I was just like him. It takes one to know one, right? It was only by accepting how I was like him that I could be free from him. The more I resisted him as a fallen sinner, the more I resisted the truth about myself. 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.
If there is a fraction of unforgiveness in your heart for what someone did to you, it is impossible to be entirely free from their actions. It no longer mattered who sinned the most. The real issue was whether I would humble my heart before Almighty God and plead for His forgiveness for my crimes against Him. It is possible my dad did more sinning than I did. I don’t know. Only God knows. Of course, I’m not through producing evil yet. Maybe after I am dead, we can tally up our sins, categorize them, and see who was more guilty. But before we go there, 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 my dad 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, you will be humble and honest enough to own your sin and seek to do what is correct regarding that relationship. If you can make peace with an adversary today, please do it. Please don’t wait until it is impossible. (See Romans 12:16-22.) Let the power of the gospel rule your attitude and your actions. The gospel released me from the hatred I had for my father. It was the gospel that motivated me to stop hating him.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).