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Our Fathers

Derek Caldwell

Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? … Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, Fight Club[1]

My father
Was a demon of frustrated dreams,
Was a breaker of trust,
Was a poor, thin boy with bad luck.
He followed God, there being no one else
he could talk to;
he swaggered before God, there being no one else
who would listen.
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.

Mary Oliver[2]

From the moment we are born, we learn lessons about the world we’ve entered. We learn about creation from the land we’re born in. We learn about violence depending on how oppressed or oppressive our people are. And we learn about our self-worth based on how our family cares for us. These interpersonal lessons always point out to larger truths about the world and our place in it. And even more than that, they teach us about worlds beyond this one. Many of us received our first lessons about God through our fathers. And those lessons were not always good.

As for me, I won the lottery. My father hugged me, told me he was proud of me, fed me, and forgave me. For many people, however, they didn’t learn of the kind, loving, nurturing, merciful God I did through my father. They learned something else, something dark. Tyler Durden was right: our fathers are meant to model God for us. When they do so poorly, the die is cast. God is known only as absent when most needed and cruel when available.

My own father had a difficult and emotionally absent father. Grandpa Wayne was at one time a happy and hopeful young man. While his own father had been rather severe, Wayne was light and lively. We still have a photo of him as an older teenager, standing next to his Model-A Ford with a pencil-thin mustache. He was the epitome of late 1930s cool.

After the war, he tried to be a good father, but he had been deeply wounded by life. He returned stateside from the Pacific theater in 1945 (“I shot at people and watched them fall” was about all he ever said about his experiences). His young wife, Mary “Tiny” Clementine, gave birth to their first son, my uncle John, in 1946. But in 1948, their infant son, Robert, died just a day after being born. Just a few months later, Mary was found dead, something to do with her heart. They had known it was weak, and perhaps with the loss of her son, it finally broke. Grandpa Wayne’s sister later remarked that he was never the same after this tragic period, the former light in his eyes now barely a flicker. In 1949 Wayne got remarried to another Mary, and then in 1950 came my father, Ted, followed by my aunt Marcia in 1952.

Fairly early in my father’s life, he recalls the fishing trips stopping and his dad becoming more and more consumed with financial gain. By this time, my grandfather’s mood could sour quickly, to put it lightly. My father used to tell the story about Grandpa Wayne lining the children up on the living room couch and threatening to end them all, pointing his rifle as proof he was not bluffing. Sometimes the threats of physical harm were more than mere threats. Yet my father also recalls moments of tenderness, such as when Grandpa sat down to weep with him after his teenage heart had been shattered by his first love.

Wayne struggled with his emotions. There was much too much to feel, and so he went numb for much of the rest of his life. My father needed his dad, and sometimes he had him. But most of the time he didn’t.

I missed out on Grandpa Wayne. He passed away in 1984 when I was not yet two years old. Apparently, he used to call me Rooster and tug on the bunch of red hair that stood straight up from the crown of my head. I wish I could remember that. All the stories I’ve heard of his later years tell me of a man suffering profound pain, a man who was surrounded by people yet utterly alone. He was, in many ways, an emotionally-broken yet passionate rascal. He was full of the Karamazov spirit, in many ways a man after Fyodor Karamazov’s heart. Enough time has passed now that some of the old stories make us laugh instead of something else.  

The Father Wound

Psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold referred to the aftermath of childhood neglect and abuse as “soul murder.”[3] These early messages our fathers send can separate us from the love of God, or from the ability to recognize it. Those with father wounds—the absence of a father’s love or the presence of his hatred—have a father-shaped hole in their hearts and a lack of trust toward anyone who tries to fill it, including God Himself. Why did God abandon them, they might ask. Why did He not step in when He could have? Is He even real? These are not unfair questions.

Children traumatized by father-wounds grow up living in a story that is very different than the ones many of us grew up in. They don’t feel safe or loved, and they may not even feel worthy of such things. These feelings don’t simply disappear when they get older. They become their world, their reality.

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Deborah van Deusen Hungsinger writes of the necessity, though extreme difficulty, of choosing “life over death, not once but many times, reaching out with the fragile hope that the trauma can be healed or transformed, that the pain will abate, or that some kind of normalcy will return.”[4] The past stalks the traumatized person like a shadow, and healing only begins when one faces the past and tries to bring splintered experiences into a “coherent narrative, creating a web of meaning around unspeakable events while remaining fully connected emotionally both to themselves and to their listener.”[5]

Three things trauma sufferers need to do for recovery, writes theologian Scott Harrower, are to “establish a sense of safety, lament their trauma in the context of a coherent story, and reconnect with their community.”[6] Part of this means reconnecting with God meaningfully and claiming the triumphant Gospel story of victory over the forces of evil and destruction as one’s very own victory over the past. In believing it, it becomes so, not as a placebo but as a matter of ontological fact. When we are grafted into Christ (Romans 11:11-31), His life and lineage become our own.

The Protective Father

Pope Francis declared 2021 the “Year of St. Joseph,” referring to Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus. In the Catholic Church, Joseph is known as the patron saint of the whole church. In the Bible he is remembered as a just man who followed the will of God in all things (no matter how strange they must have seemed at the time) and a kind man who, before being redirected by an angel, was going to silently end his relationship with Mary when she became mysteriously pregnant. Though he must have thought the worst, he did not wish to punish or publicly shame her. He sought only to protect her reputation (Matthew 1:19).

Later church tradition thought of him as Mary’s senior by many years, a man chosen by God to protect her and her infant son.[7] This is why he is sometimes called “Joseph the Protector.” Like the Old Testament Joseph, he protected Mary and God’s “firstborn Son” in Egypt just as the original Joseph had protected God’s “firstborn son,” Israel, in Egypt from famine (Matthew 2:13-23). According to tradition, Joseph was a good father to Jesus, and Jesus greatly mourned Joseph’s death. He disappears from the biblical record, presumed to have died of old age sometime before Jesus’s public ministry began.

Jesus now welcomes the world into His own story and His own sonship. When we are in Christ, we are adopted children of the Father. We also become adopted children of Abraham through God’s promises (Genesis 17:4, 22:17; Galatians 3:7, 29). Likewise, the early church taught that we become the children of Mary, the “new Eve” and “mother of all the living.”[8] If all of this is true, then it is no stretch to say that, in some way, we also become “children” of the protector, Joseph, for Christ gives us what is His. We enter into this new story, with several good fathers and mothers nurturing us from time immemorial.

New Lessons from a New Father

Pope Francis wrote of St. Joseph,

Often in life, things happen whose meaning we do not understand. Our first reaction is frequently one of disappointment and rebellion. Joseph set aside his own ideas in order to accept the course of events and, mysterious as they seemed, to embrace them, take responsibility for them and make them part of his own history. Unless we are reconciled with our own history, we will be unable to take a single step forward, for we will always remain hostage to our expectations and the disappointments that follow.


While the children of abusive or absent fathers bear no responsibility for that past, Francis has a point here that is relevant for those with some level of father wounds, like my father and his father. We can take all of these strands from the past—our own past and the past of God’s redemptive history—and fuse them together. Our “father” Joseph can show us how. Sometimes before we are ready to receive God as our Father again, we can view Jesus as our trusted “safe person” to enter a better story with Joseph as our father and then, eventually, God as our Father of Fathers.[10]

With God’s help, my own father transformed the pain of childhood in a way that enabled him to carry the burdens of others. My father loved my grandfather, but he wasn’t under the illusion that he was perfect and didn’t accept him as the paradigm of fatherhood. As Marvin Olasky wrote of his own father, “I can tell his story now with appreciation for his sacrifices, and sadness about his sadness.”[11] In love, empathy, and forgiveness for my grandfather, my father was free to move forward in gratitude and accept a higher, Josephian fatherhood.

My father ended up spending most of his life as a firefighter. He was led to a life of rescue, and through rescue understood more of the life of God. I think you learn a lot about God’s grief by seeing suffering, and an awful lot about His heart by participating in rescue and redemption.

This past Christmas, the old man was reminiscing about his career in fire rescue. He witnessed incredible miracles and devastating tragedies. For the first time ever I heard him, a man of admittedly porous memory, rattle off with certainty the names and ages of all of the children he was unable to save through his career. It was almost liturgical, and one could sense a hidden Lord, have mercy after each name. Eventually, he was unable to speak any further, overwhelmed with emotion. This is the heart of a father, for he carries the suffering of all children with him as if they are his own. This is Joseph, who raises the Creator and Redeemer of all children and was one of our savior’s first human models of love, grace, and faithfulness. This kindness and tenderness is true masculinity, the heart of God the Father in the heart of man.

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[1] Fight Club, directed by David Fincher (Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999), 2:19, https://www.amazon.com/Fight-Club-Brad-Pitt/dp/B001H1SVO8.

[2] Mary Oliver, “Flare” in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 229-30.

[3] Leonard Shengold, Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989). Referenced in Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel, and Pastoral Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015),46.

[4] Hunsinger, 11-12.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Scott Harrower, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 123.

[7] One place we find some of these traditions compiled in written form is The History of Joseph the Carpenter, a written perhaps as early as the fifth century. This apocryphal writing alleges to recount a conversation between Jesus and the disciples (though it tantalizingly and mysteriously remarks, “the holy apostles have preserved this conversation, and have left it written down in the library at Jerusalem.”). A translation is available for viewing at New Advent, accessed June 9, 2022, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0805.htm.

[8] As Irenaeus wrote, “And just as it was through a virgin who disobeyed [namely, Eve] that mankind was stricken and fell and died, so too it was through the virgin [Mary], who obeyed the word of God, that mankind, resuscitated by life, received life.” Adam was restored in Christ, Irenaeus writes, and Eve was restored in Mary. This all takes place through Christ, of course. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 33 (trans. Joseph P. Smith), quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary: Through the Centuries (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1996), 42-43.

[9] Pope Francis, “Patris Corde,” The Holy See, accessed June 9, 2022, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20201208_patris-corde.html.

[10] This is not unlike Paul exhorting the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1 to imitate him as he imitates Christ, almost as a less-daunting stepping stone to Christlikeness (though Paul is still quite a high bar!). One issue some readers might have with this notion is the consideration of viewing someone like Joseph as a spiritual “father,” given Jesus’s admonition in Matthew 23:9 to “not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” While it is quite common for all Christians to refer to the “Apostolic Fathers” and “Early Church Fathers,” there is still concern over this notion. However, if we return to 1 Corinthians 4, we will notice in verse 15 that Paul refers to himself as the Corinthians’ “father through the gospel.” In the Greek, Paul is alluding to the fact that he is one of the few “fathers” (Greek pateras) they have in the faith, going so far to say that he spiritually beget (Greek egennēsa)them through the gospel. Paul uses this same word about his begetting of Onesimus in Philemon 1:10. (This is a common word in the New Testament, with forms of it used in the genealogy of Matthew for biological begetting, Mary’s begetting of the holy child in Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:57, and of those “born again” and “born of the spirit” in John 3.) He clearly has in mind something like an underFather relationship with those in his care. Paul and the other New Testament authors continue to use the term for “father” in various ways, such as for ancestral “fathers” (Luke 16:24, 25; 1 Corinthians 10:1; ) and for biological fathers (Colossians 3:21). Interestingly, it is not the last time Jesus uses the word even in the Gospel of Matthew to speak of non-divine fathers, which is quite confounding given the exhortation that causes this excursus in the first place (see Matthew 23:30, 32). And finally, in the Gospel of John, the last gospel written (and according to ancient Christian historian Eusebius, written in full knowledge of the other three gospels by the Apostle John), this term is used for “fathers” other than God in rather benign ways by John (for example, in John 4:53; or in John 6:42 which refers to Joseph as Jesus’s “father”) and even by Jesus himself in John 6:31 and 6:49 referring to “our fathers” who ate manna in the wilderness. This is sometimes obscured by the fact that “fathers” is rather strangely translated as “ancestors” in some modern English translations. Many other examples exist. So then, what does Jesus mean in Matthew 23:9 about not calling anyone else “father”? We may receive a clue in that the previous verse, Matthew 23:8, has Jesus saying that none are to be called rabbi (a master/instructor/teacher) for there is one true Teacher (Greek didaskalos)and, in 23:10, He says there is only one “master/instructor” (Greek kathēgētēs). On the latter word for “master/instructor,” there is no other usage in the New Testament. However, for “teacher,” the Greek word is used many, many other times in the New Testament. It is a term Luke and Paul use for certain individuals (Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28) and one Paul uses for himself (2 Timothy 1:11). Given all of this, it may seem that rather than a blanket statement about words one can and cannot use, Jesus has a specific message for his disciples about the amount of trust they put in “teachers of the law and the Pharisees” (23:2) who love to be called “rabbis” by others as a sign of respect (23:7). Jesus seems to be saying, then, do not call these particular hypocritical teachers of the law and Pharisees—those who create a heavy yoke for the people of God and reject His Messiah—rabbi, teacher, father, or leader/instructor/master. They love to be called rabbi for the prestige and loyalty that comes along with the revered term. “Feel free to reject them and their teachings without fear of losing out on God’s blessing and rescue,” Jesus seems to be saying, “because they do not deserve their self-appointed titles and your ultimate devotion is to my Father and Me.”

[11] Marvin Olasky, Lament for a Father: The Journey to Understanding and Forgiveness (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2021), 104.