I am a failed father. The son of one, also. It’s not entirely my fault, but in a way it also is.
I don’t mean this metaphorically—this is not a shocker statement attempting to grab your attention. I mean it quite literally. Those closest to me know that my experience as a parent, like those of many people in and from broken homes, was less than idyllic. Like the many who experience the searing pain of a colossally failed marriage, I found that that failed relationship had an immeasurable effect on my relationship with my children. As did my experience in my own broken (and physically and emotionally abusive) home when I was a child. A solid year of intensive counseling with a very good counselor helped me connect the dots between the way I learned to respond to the way my father treated me and how the central assumptions those experiences gave me had set me up to choose and live in a dysfunctional marriage and to fail as a parent.
As a result of not understanding my own pain or knowing how to respond to it, I was not up to the task of teaching my own children how to understand and respond to theirs. That, coupled with the fact that my co-parent had and still has very different views on parenting than I and was, by far, the stronger personality in the marriage, sealed my fate as a failed father.
Truth is, I knew as a young adult that my experiences as a child had not adequately prepared me to be a parent. I’d go so far as to say that my whole concept of parenthood was skewed. In fact I felt, and still sometimes feel, that the very notion of bringing new lives into such a broken and painful place may actually constitute some kind of moral breach. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through some of the things I have—and they weren’t nearly as bad as some of the things others have endured. I always wondered if people thought about the potential for disaster when they decided to have a child. For this reason, prior to being married, I had no intention of being a parent. Both of my children were unexpected.
(I suppose I should say, here, that I can’t honestly say that having a child is a moral breach just that I have sometimes felt like it is.)
Of course, that did not mean that I did not love my children. In fact, quite the opposite. I adored my children and still love them with all of my heart. And we do have a relationship, though not the relationship I wanted to have with them. From the moment I knew they were each on the way, I loved them. Yet, I think inside I also began preparing myself for what I feared would come to them. The pain of a dysfunctional family that I’m not sure wasn’t inevitable.
My experiences with my father and as a father are not unique. It’s no secret that many people express concern that “God” as father is understood in the context of our fathers. This, to me, hasn’t ever made a ton of sense. I’ve never thought that because one father is not a good father that must mean that all fathers are somehow bad fathers just because they fall under the category of “fathers.” Yet it seems to be a given that we assume those of us with “bad” experiences with our fathers will have a tendency to project those negative feelings on God as father. Perhaps there is something to it. I always just told myself that God was a better father than my father or me.
However, one thing I have noticed is that children (both young children and adult children), in not understanding their fathers or where they have come from, often respond with anger toward their fathers and blame them for things which are not their failures. As a father, I have experienced my own children being told something untrue about me and have had to accept that they have believed something about me that I cannot change. Through time, they came to understand what was true in that situation, but for a time it was like dying.
It caused me to think about how unfair it is that we do this with God as well. When we have anger against God for the things that happen to us (as if he chooses which evils we will endure), we are pretty much blaming him for things which are not his failures.
That said, my moral question about having children at all might be leveled at God, too. I suppose most people will simply dismiss my feeling about this. Yet, I think as many people as might tell me that I’m overreacting about the morality of purposefully bringing a life to this earth as a parent, there are many more who have questioned God about the same issue. How could a God who loves be willing to bring people to existence in such a place where the potential for sin and suffering is as great as it is in our world?
This, to me, is one of the biggest questions I wrestle with about God, especially when I reflect on my experiences as a parent. Knowing what I knew about the world and the situation I was bringing my own children into was one thing. Knowing what God knew about the potential for our world when he created it seems all the more relevant.
I’ve discovered, though, that part of the problem with my thinking has had to do with my assumptions about the nature of children as being “other than” their parents. I think we all have a tendency, on some level, to project our own consciousness and experiences on our children. In a way, this means that we often see them as mere extensions of ourselves and not as true others. Ergo, when I feel sorry for my children because of their situation, I think in a way I’m really feeling sorry for myself and my own pain rather than for them. They are their own persons, with their own experiences and their own pains. That they live in a situation in which there is pain, really, makes them little different from anyone else in history. We are all here in this world. Pain is universal to life.
Therefore, that my children will experience the pain of life means only that they have shared in the human experience. And this means that the only pain I am responsible for is that which I’ve caused them myself (for which I must answer to them and to God). But even this truth does not come without grace. God loves and forgives and reconciles all of our mistakes. And so the fact that my children will experience the pain of life means also that they have the potential to experience the reconciliation of God, whose kingdom will, eventually, restore all of God’s good creation—including me, my father, and all of the problems of this world.
To me, this is the solution to “God as a failure father” as well. I don’t believe I can say it any better than N.T. Wright has:
Think about it this way. God made a world that is other than himself; this, already, is a striking idea that has puzzled great thinkers down the years. If God is perfectly good, why would he make something that, by definition, is less than perfectly good? That question has more of the quirky philosopher about it than the devout worshiper, but let it stand for the moment. The answer must be that God creates not out of need but out of love—out of the generous love that takes delight in his creatures, and especially his human, image-bearing creatures, to whom he has given such responsibility in his world.
It is not God’s ultimate intention that the world he has made be always and forever other than himself. He intends that it will be ‘all in all’: that the earth will be full of his knowledge and glory as waters cover the sea. But the route to that goal—this, of course, is seen with the hindsight of the gospel story—is through the outpouring of his love in Jesus and in the Spirit. The good news of what happened in Jesus is the central moment in the revelation of the good news that the one true God is the God of utter, self-giving love.[i]
I suppose, in one way, I was and am a failure father. But no more so, and to no greater degree, than I’ve been a failure at anything else in life. And, if that were the end, I suppose we might say that God, too, is a failure father.
But, that simply is not the end. God has brought restoration of his created order to his created order in the life, death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus. And in doing so he has redeemed the lives and situations of all those who have sought his redemption—he has begun the restoration of his good creation and the lives he created in it.
I suppose that means that it is OK to be a failure father.
[i] N. T. Wright. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. Harper Collins. New York. 138-139. Emphasis is the author’s.