How do I honor my father, respect him, and bless him, while also being honest with my struggles stemming from my relationship with him? His story is his own to tell, but where do the lines of ownership begin and end? When does the granting of permission to speak freely and openly occur? Years after his death, years after my own, long after anyone may care to spare a thought and offer an opinion of him, or my mother, or any of his children, long after there is anyone who may take offense?
I only know to do my best to emphasize the lessons I have learned, and the good that has come of life, and not complain of misfortune and hurt and the mistakes of my parents. This life is personal, but not private. My father issues are, more or less, somewhat universal in regards to being loved, and, as a believer in God, being loved specifically by God the Father.
When I became a Christian at the age of 17, I was told that my relationship with my father, or lack thereof, would affect how I viewed God as my father. I did not think very highly of my father, but I also did not think I was harboring any unforgiveness or bitterness towards him, either. I genuinely did not see any influence of earthly to spiritual understanding of what it meant to have a father, what it meant to be a daughter, and how that affected my identity.
My father grew up in Shanghai, taught himself English, and became a U.S. citizen as a young man in his twenties. After my parents’ divorce, he remarried, had two more children, divorced, and remarried again. He has overcome many obstacles, and as the only English-speaking adult in his family, has much responsibility in caring for his parents, children, siblings, and nephews. Last year, he had lymphoma that had gone untreated for years, and I thought he was going to die. He is getting older, growing weaker, but continues to do the best he can.
During this past month, God has shown me what I had never seen before:
LIE: I am just one of many children.
TRUTH: God loves me individually and personally. I am important and worth loving.
Among my father’s four children, I am not special. I am the eldest, but I am not an eldest son. Growing up, I was not cute like my round-faced little sister, I was not gentle or kind like a good mild-mannered Asian girl. Byron (the youngest, fattest, and most spoiled), is the only boy, and therefore, as in traditional Chinese culture, the most important. I remember doing well on a test in elementary school, and my father telling me it was pretty good for a girl. I know he was proud of me, but even when I was valedictorian in high school, my father could not help but compare me to other Chinese boys he knew, and other Chinese girls who could play violin and do calculus at the same time.
I want to believe that God loves little ole me, even though I am not the smartest, nor the most talented, nor the best at anything. I want to be the best Bethany Yin-to-Brown-to-Goodson that God created and intended for me to be, to believe that I have purpose, that I am needed, that I am unique and special and loved.
LIE: Fathers give gifts to prove their love, as a substitute for spending time with and listening to their children.
TRUTH: Giving can prove love, but it doesn’t always. Giving can be motivated by love, but it is not the only measurement of it. God gives gifts just because he wants to. He always has time for his children, and always wants to be with them.
As a child, during visitation, my sister and I would ask to go shopping. It was routine at the check-out counter for my father to turn to us and say, “See? Daddy spent [x amount of dollars]. Daddy loves you. Next time, Daddy will spend [x²]. I promise.” After the first few years, I stopped trying to convince him I wanted to receive love in other ways, namely, being listened to. It was easier to avoid an exhausting discussion that would inevitably end in misunderstanding, and instead respond to his purchases as he expected, and continue to get more stuff. But at the “next time,” he wouldn’t spend the promised amount; his words meant nothing, his promises meant nothing, and his so-called love meant nothing.
Sometimes I don’t want to ask God for help because I don’t think my problems are big enough. At other times, I don’t want God to just bless me for no reason because I have a skewed understanding of what it means when a father gives a gift. God doesn’t give gifts as a replacement for spending time with his children. God gives good gifts as an act of grace: I can’t earn his gifts, and he doesn’t give them to try to buy my love.
LIE: My father will never understand how to love me. He will never change.
TRUTH: God does not change, but my relationship with him grows and changes. I believe now that he can and wants to speak to me, and my heart is receptive to how he wants to interact with me.
He won’t remain silent. He does understand.
Conversations with my father are always one-sided. I do not remember a single time that I felt heard, let alone understood. He loves me how he knows to love, but I wish he loved me the way I wanted to be loved, the way I need to be loved.
My father recognizes he has an anger problem, but says there are some things that will never change. He says I got my temper from him, who in turn got it from his mother. He says there are bad habits that won’t leave the family, that especially cannot leave an adult.
When I first learned about God, I was told that God does not speak to people anymore, that direct revelation no longer exists, that the tangible Bible is all one needs to hear from the Lord. Sometimes I forget that God will change in the sense that he will change how he communicates with me.
LIE: I don’t have a great relationship with my father, but at least it’s something.
TRUTH: There is more.