From: The Case for Grace
Someday You’ll Understand
Psychoanalysis daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down. (Sigmund Freud)
It wasn’t until my mother was on her deathbed that she confirmed what years of therapy had only suggested to me: I was a mistake, at least in the eyes of my father.
My parents started with three children – first a girl, then two boys – and my dad threw himself into fatherhood. He coached his sons in Little League, led a Cub Scout troop, headed the high school boosters club, went on family vacations, and attended gymnastics meets and graduations.
Then after a lengthy time gap came the unexpected news that my mother was pregnant with me.
“Your dad was, well, let’s just say he was surprised,” my mom told me in the waning weeks of her life, when we would chat for hours as she was bedridden with cancer. We had never broached this topic before, but we were in the midst of wonderfully candid conversations about our family’s history, and I wanted to seize the opportunity to get some answers.
She paused. “Not in a good way,” she said, her eyes empathic.
“He was – what? Angry?”
“I don’t want to say angry. Frustrated, yes. Upset by the circumstances. This just wasn’t in his plans. And then I talked him into having another baby so you’d have a playmate.” That was my younger sister.
This made sense to me. Years earlier, when I told my therapist about my relationship with my father – the emotional distance, the lack of engagement, the ongoing strife and flares of anger – he speculated that my inconvenient arrival in the family had interrupted my dad’s plans for his future.
I could imagine my dad feeling that he had earned a respite after raising three kids. He was doing well financially, and I’m sure he wanted to travel and enjoy more freedom. Now at last was confirmation from my mother.
Our family lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood northwest of Chicago. My dad worked hard to build his business, and he provided everything we needed – and more – materially. He was a faithful husband, well regarded in the community, and a committed friend to others.
Still, my relationship with him was always frosty. Maybe I needed more affirmation than the other kids, I don’t know. But by the time I came along, there would be no Cub Scouts, no cheering at my Little League games, no watching my speech tournaments or attending my graduations. I can’t think of a single in-depth conversation we ever had. I never heard the words I needed most.
Over time, I learned that the only way to gain his attention was through achievement. So I strived for good grades, was elected president of my junior high school, served as editor of the high school newspaper, and even wrote a column for the community paper. Still, none of the accolades satisfied. I don’t remember any words of affection coming from my dad. Not one.
My parents were members of a Lutheran church; as a lawyer, my dad sat on the board of directors to offer free legal advice, although he was generally on the golf course on Sunday mornings.
I remember once when I was a youngster the entire family went to church together. After the service, my dad drove everyone home – but he forgot to bring me. I can still remember my panic as I searched frantically around the church, looking in vain for my father, my heart pounding.
It was an inadvertent mistake on his part, of course – but it was difficult for me not to see it as symbolic of how our relationship was developing.
Fathers and Faith
One evening when I was about twelve, my father and I clashed over something. I walked away feeling shame and guilt, and I went to bed vowing to try to behave better, to be more obedient, to somehow make myself more acceptable to my dad. I can’t recall the details of what caused our conflict that evening, but what happened next is still vivid in my mind fifty years later.
I dreamed I was making myself a sandwich in the kitchen when a luminous angel suddenly appeared and started telling me about how wonderful and glorious Heaven is. I listened for a while, then said matter-of-factly, “I’m going there” – meaning, of course, at the end of my life.
The angel’s reply stunned me. “How do you know?”
How do I know? What kind of question is that? “Well, uh, I’ve tried to be a good kid,” I stammered. “I’ve tried to do what my parents say. I’ve tried to behave. I’ve been to church.”
Said the angel, “That doesn’t matter.”
Now I was staggered. How could it not matter – all my efforts to be compliant, to be dutiful, to live up to the demands of my parents and teachers. Panic rose in me. Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth.
The angel let me stew for a few moments. Then he said, “Someday you’ll understand.” Instantly, he was gone – and I woke up in a sweat. It’s the only dream I remember from my childhood. Periodically through the years it would come to mind, and yet I would always shake it off. It was just a dream.
As I got older, I found myself getting more confused about spiritual matters. When I became a teenager, my parents insisted that I attend confirmation classes at the church. “But I’m not sure I even believe that stuff,” I told my dad. His response was stern: “Go. You can ask questions there.”
The classes were built around rote memorization of the catechism; questions were only reluctantly tolerated and dealt with in a perfunctory way. I actually emerged with more doubts than when I started. I endured the process because when I was finally confirmed, the decision about whether to continue going to church would be mine – and I knew what the answer would be.
At the time I was oblivious to the fact that a young person’s relationship with his father can greatly color his attitude toward God. I wasn’t aware that many well-known atheists through history – including Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Baron d’Holbach, Voltaire, H. G. Wells, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and others – had felt abandoned by or deeply disappointed with their fathers, making it less likely they would want to know a Heavenly Father.
I saw this illustrated later in life when I became friends with Josh McDowell, whose father was a violent alcoholic. “I grew up believing fathers hurt,” Josh said. “People would tell me there’s a Heavenly Father who loves you. That didn’t bring joy. It brought pain because I could not discern the difference between a Heavenly Father and an earthly father.” Josh became a self-described “ornery agnostic” until his investigation of Christianity convinced him it was true.
Growing up, I just knew that as doubts festered inside and as my teachers insisted that science has eclipsed the need for God, I was being increasingly pulled toward skepticism. Something was missing – in my family and in my soul – that created a gnawing need I couldn’t even describe at the time.
Years later I was driving down Northwest Highway in Palatine, Illinois – I can still recall the exact location, the time of day, the sunny weather – when I flipped the radio dial and heard something that flooded my eyes with tears.
I didn’t catch it all, but it was about fathers and faith and God and hope. The voice belonged to someone who was born about the same time I was and yet whose life, in its astonishing horror and brutality, was the polar opposite of my own. Still, there was an instant connection, a bridge between us.
I had to track her down. I had to sit down and hear her story, one-on-one. I had to ask her my questions. Somehow I knew she held a piece to the puzzle of grace.