Most of my childhood and teenage years, I grew up without a father. My dad left our family a handful of times, and even when he was home, he usually had a job as a truck driver, which meant he was on the road most of the time.
Over the years, I felt my father’s absence like a dull, rusted knife bearing into my heart. Its corrosive poison infected me, but I didn’t know it. I was too busy striving — striving to be the man he never taught me to be, striving to prove that I was like all the other boys whose fathers were there, striving to show God that I was worth saving.
My mother was there for me — was she ever — but as the Chuck Mangione song, “Lullabye,” says, “I love Mommy very much, but mommies can’t be daddies.” And mommies aren’t supposed to be. They’re supposed to nurture, to teach, to encourage; they’re supposed to do a lot of things. But dads, they do something for a boy that nobody else can: They give a distinct sense of identity.
From a very early age, a little boy looks to his dad, needing him to answer the nagging question: Have I got what it takes to be a man? Do I, Dad? Are you there, Dad?
When the boy only hears his echo in response, he does what he has to do: He overcompensates; he lowers his voice, toughens the tone, and barks into the darkness, “Yeah, I’ve got what it takes.” The sound of his own voice bounces back and almost assures him, but it’s never enough — never quite deep enough, tough enough, manly enough. He needs his dad, but his dad is gone, or too busy, or dead, or too clueless to know that a little boy’s ears are dying for his affirmation.
So the boy grows up and puts on grown-man clothes, gets a grown-man education, has grown-man sexual experiences, makes grown-man money, and has grown-man success. It’s all part of becoming an adult, yes; but for him, it’s another way of yelling more loudly into the darkness, asking the question again and again, “Have I got what it takes, Dad? Do I?” And when he has yelled himself hoarse and he’s left standing in the terrifying silence, he hears a voice that answers the question.
“Yes,” it says.
“Dad?” he hoarsely whispers.
“Yes,” says the voice. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3, NKJV).
“You’ve drawn me through all this pain?” the grown boy asks.
“Through all this insecurity and sin?” he asks.
The conversation continues this way for years as the boy cautiously inches forward, learning to trust each assurance from the one who calls the boy “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). And as that boy grows into a man, he finds himself more curious about the identity of his invisible Savior and eventually asks, “What’s your name, sir?”
And from the darkness, he hears one word: “Father.”