My father worked a full-time job, and at the same time, he pastored a church. I learned much about the Bible from my father’s sermons and my mother’s Sunday school lessons. However, I had no knowledge of God’s love. Although a pastor, my father did and said many cruel things to me and other family members. Beatings and hateful words were commonplace, and I hated him for that.

My father never had a good example of how to discipline his children—his father had been abusive as well. Thus, he disciplined us out of anger, not love. He had little time to reflect on the effects his words and actions had on us.

He preached three times a week and taught a Bible lesson before the Sunday morning service. All of this required preparation. Each church attendance required a round trip of 70 miles. On top of that, he visited congregation members and often gave rides to those who did not drive. This was in addition to the 40+ hours a week he worked at a chemical plant. As an adult, I realize he was pulled in many directions and was under great pressure. But he took it out on us.

Although I heard about God frequently, I doubted His existence. Family meals began with a blessing using the words, “Our Lord and heavenly Father.” For me, anything that had to do with a father was to be avoided, just as I avoided my father’s fists in the car. 

If God was anything like my father, I didn’t want any part of Him.

Yet, despite my negative impressions about God, I was still drawn to Him. I remember listening to a youth evangelist at another church in town. When he gave an invitation for people to surrender their lives to Christ, something inside me stirred. I knew I needed to go to the altar. I knew I needed God. But I couldn’t go. 

My father was sitting at the end of the bench, and I would have to squeeze past him in order to go forward. I was afraid he would grab me or belittle me as he had done in the past. So I stayed in my seat and let the fear of my earthly father keep me from my heavenly Father who could give me what I longed for and needed—love and acceptance.

Years later, my father stopped pastoring, and we began attending a church near our home. There, I finally learned John 3:16, the verse about God’s love for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV). I learned that God loved me so much, He had given up what was most precious to Him—His Son, Jesus (Romans 8:32). I learned that God’s love was patient and kind. It wasn’t abusive or hurtful. I learned that Jesus had laid down His own life for me and that He thought wonderful things about me. 

This God intrigued me. I wanted His love.

One evening after church, the pastor and his wife invited our family to their house. For the first time, I witnessed love displayed in a family. I saw it in the way the pastor and his wife interacted with each other. I felt it in the way they treated us. It felt so good! And I saw what a family should be like.

Not long after, I went to the front of their church, surrendered my life to the Lord, and received His love. God became the loving father I’d never had. In time, He took the hate and bitterness I had toward my earthly father from my heart and replaced it with His love. Through God’s eyes, I began to see situations differently. Amazingly, He even enabled me to pray for my father.

And father did, indeed, need prayer. No longer pastoring, he spent many hours in front of the television. A work injury brought excruciating sciatica pain. Surgery made things worse. To treat his now chronic pain, a doctor prescribed Demerol, a narcotic similar to heroin. Later, another doctor prescribed Valium. My father developed an addiction to these medications that continued for the rest of his life and caused us all much pain.

I left home to attend college, but I continued to pray for my father. Upset about how he acted when I visited, I sought the advice of my pastor. He told me to share Bible verses with him. So I wrote Bible verses in greeting cards and mailed them to him. Mother said he checked the mail frequently to see if I had sent him a card.

One day I felt God telling me to set aside time to pray for my father. That day I cried, thinking about my father’s condition and our continued fear of him. A week later, Mother called me at five in the morning. Father had taken his life. God knew the battle my father was in, an internal battle we had not understood.

It was difficult to grieve his death. I needed to talk, but people avoided the subject of suicide like the plague. Not being able to speak to others about my father’s death added to my sorrow. I could, however, talk to my heavenly Father about the loss of my earthly father, and He brought healing to my broken heart. My relationship with God comforts and sustains me to this day.

My life would have been so different had I not allowed God to unshackle me from the bondage of unforgiveness. That choice freed me to grow in His love. Had I remained in bitterness all those years and despised my father, it would not have gone well for me (Ephesians 6:2–3). Bitterness would have defiled my life and the lives of those around me (Hebrews 12:15). Further, Satan would have had an opening into my life to destroy it (Ephesians 4:26–27).

I could have been consumed with bitterness over my experience, but God’s love and His strength has given me the freedom I needed to enjoy a purpose-filled life.