My Story, My Faith: Identitiy Crisis - How Fatherlessness Impacted My Faith
I was standing in the kitchen between my biological mother and my foster mother. I can still feel the weight of that moment. We were trying to come to some sort of agreement about where I would live. I had returned to my foster home two years earlier, not because my mother had relapsed into old addictions. This time, I left of my own accord because my mother’s new boyfriend was physically abusive, and I didn’t want that to be my life.
When I was thirteen, my mom started dating this guy she had met at one of her NA meetings. He was very controlling and verbally abusive toward everyone. My home life with my biological mother wasn’t great before this guy, but he was just awful. I knew my mother was afraid of him, but for whatever reason, I refused to let him scare me. I knew that if he laid a hand on me just once, it was my ticket out.
I missed the boundaries and the care of my foster home. I didn’t have that with my biological mother. She was rarely home, and regular meals just weren’t a thing. I spent most of my time at my best friend’s house across the street. Well, that “once” happened. I called my foster mom, and I asked her if there was room for me to come back. Of course it didn’t matter because she would always make room.
I went to school the following day and headed straight to my guidance counselor’s office. I have no idea where that boldness came from. I was extremely shy and awkward at thirteen. I told him that I was moving and would be transferring to a new school. He looked a bit confused and immediately phoned my mother. I think up until that point my mother thought I was bluffing when I told her that I was moving back to my foster home. After school, I went home and immediately packed everything I had into two black garbage bags. Not much was exchanged between my mother and I other than that she would take me in the morning. There was silence for that forty-five minute car ride, as I sat in the back and my mother and her boyfriend in the front. When we pulled up to my foster home, I felt so much relief, grabbed my bags, and said a quick “good-bye”.
Two years later, the three of us stood there together deciding my future. I knew that I desperately wanted to be adopted, to become fully a part of my foster family. I wanted to have some semblance of a normal, functional family. Had I not been so guilt-ridden at the desire as a fifteen-year-old, that voicing that would be a betrayal to the woman who gave birth to me, then maybe I would have said something. However, I had always been reserved, quiet, and shy. I just wanted that awkward scene to be over. So instead of stating what I wanted, I quietly accepted “the compromise” since my mother refused to give up her parental rights. I told myself that it didn’t matter as long as I could live where I wanted. I was technically deemed a “ward of the state”, an orphan.
My foster mother was given permanent guardianship of me, and to soften the blow of not being adopted, I was granted permission to hyphenate my last name. It was supposed to make me feel like I belonged. In actuality, it made me feel like I didn’t really belong anywhere or to anyone. Forced to live in both worlds, trading off holidays and summer breaks like a child of divorce, yet always feeling like an outsider, like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit. On visits, my biological mother and brothers would make me feel guilty for leaving. We were worlds apart now, yet the guilt of leaving them behind me would fester for years.
My foster mom was great. She has always treated me like one of her own, and my own children call her “Grandma”. She is, in most respects, my mother. Our family is a mish-mash of backgrounds and ethnicities, and she treats all of us as if her own blood flows through our veins. Anyone seeing a family photo might be confused, but that has always amused us. Despite this love, I still felt different. I didn’t really know who I was or where I really belonged. An adolescent problem multiplied by my circumstances. A feeling that would often lead to depression, and on occasion, suicidal thoughts.
Looking back now, I see that it wasn’t I who left my birth family, but God who moved me and preserved me. My life would have taken a completely different path had I stayed. The statistics were not favor of someone with my history. But God.
Father, Where Art Thou?
I would always cringe when asked questions about my family. I would take pause. Which one? “How many siblings do you have?” It’s complicated. “What does your father do?” I hated this question the most. Really? In this day and age, you assume that everyone is privileged to have both of their parents. I wouldn’t say that, of course. I would smile awkwardly, “There’s just my mom.” To which they would respond with an awkward smile or “Oh. I’m sorry.” Ugh. It was so painful. I felt so much shame. Why? Being fatherless wasn’t anything I could control, but still I felt shame.
The mystery of my birth father has been something that had plagued me my whole life. During my senior year in high school, my biological mother surprised me with news that she had found my father. I wasn’t really sure that I could wrap my head around it. She had arranged for us to meet. The entire situation affected me so much that in my last year of high school, on track to becoming valedictorian, my grades dropped. Instead of graduating first, I finished third in my class. It wasn’t the best news for this overachiever.
I met this man the day before graduation, and it was really awkward for both of us. As it turned out, he never believed that I was his child, and he wanted a DNA test. Years later, I ordered the test which revealed that this man was, in fact, NOT my father. I was devastated. I thought I had filled in this blank. It’s like there is a whole part of me that I know nothing about.
I love history, and I’m fascinated by genealogy. I have tried to trace my ancestry with the limited knowledge I had on my family. I hit the slavery wall when tracing back my African- American roots on my mother’s side. I can only go back five generations. It’s a devastatingly beautiful and rich history, amazingly, with strong Christian women in my grandmother, who was a pastor, and my great-grandmother, who was very devout. As frustrating as it was to not be able to reach further back into that history, the gaping hole that was my father’s side was almost unbearable. I had no starting point, no clues. I was a product of a night of hard partying. It was the Seventies after all. But that blank space had been torture for someone with my curiosity.
Of course, it was more than the lack of history. It was not knowing what it was like to call someone “Dad”. I would often catch myself watching my daughter and my husband as they’re bonding. She tags along with him as he works on some project around the house or in the garage, watching carefully as he teaches her which tools do what. They have a very special relationship that is peculiar to fathers and daughters. He’s her whole world, and I am so thankful that she has that, that she gets to experience that. She won’t have to battle with the empty space I sometimes feel.
As a teenager, I would often imagine that my father lived in a big house in the suburbs, in some cool location, like Minnesota (don’t ask!), and one day he would find out about me and take me to live with him. Somehow, my life would be far less complicated and confusing. He would come and rescue me, and I would finally feel like I belonged to someone. It wasn’t really a hope, but it was a place I would escape to if I was feeling particularly lonely. This figment of my imagination would never disappoint me.
It is said that we get our first ideas of what God is like from our father. According to John Bishop, in his book God Distorted: How Your Earthly Father Affects Your Perception of God and Why It Matters, says, “The ways your father behaved toward you—what he said to you, how he treated you, everything he did and didn’t do—had an impact on you in some way. Depending on how you were treated, mistreated, or just plain ignored, you have come up with your own ideas of what a father is like. Because of this, I am quite certain that how you see and perceive your heavenly Father, God, has also been impacted—distorted even—by your relationship with your earthly dad.” (p. 7). So if you had an overbearing, authoritative father, that is also your perspective of God. If you had a gentle, loving father, then it is a lot easier to accept that God is like that. But, who is God to those of us who did not have a father? There is so much of the character of God that I learned when I got married, and then when I had children, but the concept of “Abba” was so very difficult for me to understand.
I believe that the second greatest influence that shapes our view of God is the church we attend. The same rules apply. If you were raised in a church that emphasized rules and behavior modification over grace and sanctification, then you will believe that God does the same.
If I was confused over my earthly identity, my spiritual identity suffered as well. Because I grew up without a father, I saw God as someone who existed, but He was distant. I knew in my head that He loved me, but I could not comprehend or even really receive that love. He was distant, in part, because I kept Him at a distance. I didn’t want to risk being disappointed by Him. Instead, I just tried to “be good”.
I was raised in a church that ,though it taught solid, biblical truth, I felt that there was such an emphasis on rules. I believed that God would only be pleased with me, or He would only love me if I followed the rules. I’m good at following rules. However, I didn’t realize that being a “rule follower” kept me from experiencing the full grace and love of my heavenly Father. When there are rules, there is no intimacy. There is no freedom. There is no “knowing” God. There is no relationship. You obey out of obligation or fear, not out of love. The two are worlds apart.
It wasn’t until I saw myself as someone so in need of His amazing grace, that I was able to experience the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness. Not only was there nothing that I could do to earn God’s favor, but that He accepts me just as I am, even knowing the things that I had tried to hide from the rest of the world, He still loves me.
Jesus died to free us from “rule following”. After all, it is humanly impossible to follow all the rules all of the time. What happens when we break the rules? Guilt. Guilt happens. Shame. God must be so disappointed. Doubt. Doubt that God could actually love us. But the Bible says,
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:1-2 NASB)
If the devil can keep you from taking your rightful place as an heir of the High King of Heaven, as the chosen child of our Heavenly Father, and if he can keep you from that intimacy that allows us to call God, “Abba” or “Daddy”, then he can keep you from being an effective servant of Jesus Christ here on earth. God calls you and I “child” through the blood of Jesus, who brought us back into that right relationship with Him. He also brought us into the family business of searching for, rescuing, and reconciling our brothers and sisters.
Through Jesus Christ, I was adopted. I am completely and fully a part of the family of God. A chosen child of the King. The blood of Christ sealed my adoption papers. Through the Holy Spirit, I bear His name on my heart and have access to His power. I am not an orphan. I am not fatherless. Through Jesus Christ, I can call God, “Daddy”. My Father is the King of Heaven, and He will never disappoint me. He has made a place for me forever with Him.
If you want to be an effective, purposeful Christ-follower, you have to begin with your identity. The world and the devil will try to steal your identity from you, or try to confuse you, so that you live fearful and fail to take your place in the Kingdom. You need to know who you are in Christ, and what that means for you. When you know who you are, you can live confidently and boldly in the purpose that God has called you to.
To read the next post in the “My Story, My Faith” series, click here.