I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was the voice of my stern, disapproving father saying the words I had longed to hear for so many years.
“Son, I love you. Everything is going to be all right.” It was 1972. Because of an LSD overdose, I lay in a semi-comatose state in a hospital bed in Daytona Beach, Florida. My dad was cradling me in his arms and running his fingers through my shoulder-length hair, telling me— his rebellious, misfit son—that he really loved me.
This can’t be happening, I thought to myself as I listened to the faint beeping of medical equipment. My dad was telling me he loved me! This was the same overpowering dad who months earlier had shoved me to the floor in our home, grabbed a pair of scissors, and violently cut off my hippie-style hair after telling me I was a disgrace to the family. Now he was tenderly whispering to me about love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Even though I was in a drug-induced fog, his words sank deep into my soul.“Son, I love you.”
As a boy, I had longed for Dad’s approval and affection. I just wanted him to smile at me or to say that he was proud to be my dad.Yet when I opened my heart to receive his love, I was always left empty and disappointed. At 19 years old, I could not remember one time in my life when my dad had held me close or said those words. As a result of the rejection I felt, I had ceased being my father’s son and never wanted to see him again. Like so many men from his generation, Dad didn’t know how to express affection. He was a good man and would have died for me. But to him, showing emotion was a sign of weakness. Because he had grown up during the Great Depression and lived in a fatherless home, he built a fortress around his heart to protect himself from pain. Then he went to war and learned even more survival skills. Later, he expressed his love simply by providing for his family financially and by teaching his two sons to survive in a merciless world. He always told me, “Never be weak by showing emotions or tears! Be tough! Be a man!”
For years I had tried unsuccessfully to be the tough man that my father wanted me to be. Yet as I lay in that hospital bed at a time of ultimate failure, Dad was holding me in his arms and expressing love for me. He was not aware that I could hear his voice or that I could feel his arms around me. I had been willing to stop being my father’s son, but my father was not willing to stop being my father. His commitment to me was greater than my commitment to him.
That was perhaps my first glimpse of Father God’s unconditional love—and of His desire to express His affection to me, even though I had failed miserably. It would be several more years before I would take the first step to receive that amazing love.
Dad was a respected man in our community, and his athletic abilities—particularly his skills as a professional tennis instructor—won him plenty of honors in Daytona Beach. I tried to meet my dad’s expectations in sports and to perform well enough to earn his approval, but I was awkward with a tennis racquet and never seemed to impress him. Dad regularly reminded me—in harsh words—that I wasn’t good enough.
He would scream at me like a drill sergeant when we practiced on Saturday mornings:“Put your arm into it! Be a monster! Don’t be such a wimp!”
These ordeals would leave me in tears. I felt like such a failure, yet I wanted Dad’s approval so much I kept striving to perform for him. If only I can hit the ball right, I told myself, then Dad will be proud of me. I did not realize that an ungodly belief (stronghold) was growing stronger and stronger in me. I was slowly being consumed by a deep fear of failure and rejection, a fear that caused me to feel worthless unless I performed well enough to win my father’s approval.
This ungodly belief produced unhealthy results in my 20s when I became a commercial snapper and grouper fishing boat captain. Driven by a relentless desire to prove myself, I aspired to become the best fisherman on the Southeastern coast of the United States. Every- thing I did in life began to revolve around my dream to become what people in the fishing business call “top hook.”
Like my father, I had to be the toughest and the best. And like my father, I developed a fierce temper. Any member of my crew who caused us to lose fish or who disappointed me in any way faced the brunt of my anger. I became known as Captain Bligh of the Carolina coast. I was a screamer and a tyrant. People did not want to mess with Jack Frost in those days.
I would often risk the lives of the crew by spending a week or more off the Carolina coast in the winter, riding out 40 to 60 mph gales and 20 to 30-foot seas in a 44-foot boat so we could claim the coveted prize—top hook. I was driven by my fear of failure and by a cruel ambition that left no room for compassion for anyone. I had to be the winner at all costs. In my warped way of thinking, I was nobody if I did not out-fish everybody. I did not realize that deep inside, I was consumed by an unconscious desire to win my father’s approval. That nagging void had become a cancer that was eating me alive.
But everything changed in 1980. That’s when God’s overwhelming love finally broke through. I was 27 years old at the time, and my life was in shambles. I had been addicted to drugs, alcohol, and pornography for more than ten years because I was constantly seeking a way to escape the pain caused by the fear of failure. My anger was out of control, and as a result I constantly wounded my wife, my son, and others with my condescending words and demeaning looks.
In a desperate attempt to escape this pain, I took my fishing boat out to sea one day in February 1980. After I was 40 miles off the North Carolina coast, I cried out to God for three days, asking Him to make Himself real to me.
“O God,” I said,“please do something. I’ve hurt everyone around me. I’m miserable. I don’t know why I feel so driven. It’s like something inside me is pushing me to the edge of insanity. I don’t know why I am so harsh. I feel like I am being poisoned from the inside. Please help me.”
It was then, when I was at the lowest place in my life, that I encountered the unconditional love of God for the first time. Instantly His presence broke the chains of alcoholism, drug addiction, and pornography. In a moment’s time God gave me a new heart. The burden of sin lifted, and I felt true joy for the first time.
I had tasted God’s goodness. But it would take years for me to find total deliverance from the fear of failure and the aggressive striving that had made me such a driven man.
After my conversion, I became active in church life and quickly learned that my tendency toward performance operated well in a religious environment. I simply transferred my ungodly beliefs, my fear of failure, and my aggressive striving into church work. I thought that the best way to win God’s approval and acceptance was to do things for Him and also to win the favor of the Christians around me.
It seemed to be perfectly natural to express my love for God by building my identity through hyper-religious activity. Many of the Christians around me seemed to think the same way. The more we prayed, fasted, read our Bibles, witnessed to strangers, or attended church meetings, the more acceptance we thought we gained from God.
But this false understanding of God’s character came with a high price. After working so hard to please Him, I had no lasting joy, no peace, no rest, and no energy left to convince my wife and children that I loved them more than ministry.
As I began to pastor a small church in 1984, my childhood filter system for earning love and acceptance translated ministry into an aggressive zeal to win souls and build the fastest-growing church in our denominational district. Just as I had been willing to do anything to be the best fisherman in the Southeastern United States, now—as a Christian leader—I wanted to achieve my spiritual goals so I would receive the praises of men. Unconsciously, I was driven by a need to be needed. I wanted to look good to everybody. But underneath the veneer of success, I was an unhappy man with a miserable family. My commitment to “the ministry” was far greater than my commitment to my wife, my children, or any other loving relationships. When I was at home, I was irritable and impossible to get along with. Everything I did was tainted with a passive anger. My countenance became stern and serious, and my preaching became legalistic and demanding. I focused on biblical truth, but my heart was empty of love. I knew the theology of God’s love, but I had not experienced it in my relationships. I could quote verses in Scripture about His unconditional acceptance of us, but it was a foreign concept to me.
As a result, I began comparing myself to others in ministry, thinking they were more blessed or more gifted than I was. This fostered a competitive attitude, rooted in jealousy, that made it almost impossible for me to relate to other ministers or to anyone in spiritual authority in a healthy way. I became a master of disguises. I would sit at ministers’ conferences with a smile on my face. But underneath my clever religious mask, I viewed successful church leaders with an attitude of rivalry and judgmentalism. I couldn’t stand the thought that they might be successful. If they were blessed, I felt deprived. If they experienced some form of failure, I secretly rejoiced. My heart was sick with pride.
Finally in 1986 I acknowledged my need for healing and went through some deep, healing prayer ministry to uncover the roots of anger, drivenness, and lack of intimacy. This experience impacted so many areas of my life that by 1988, my wife, Trisha, and I spent the next seven years teaching seminars about emotional healing in many churches throughout the country. I thought I was free! Trisha and I were effective in ministering to pastors and other church leaders as we helped them find healing in their marriages and families. But I soon realized that my own deep struggle with performance orientation was not resolved. Even after we began the healing prayer ministry, I would often fall back into my old habit patterns of aggressive striving. I kept giving my wife those demeaning looks and speaking to her in stern and condescending tones. In this cycle, I couldn’t see that I was the one at fault.
Outwardly, I was a Christian of moral integrity and godly character. I never had a moral failure and I was an aggressive pursuer of God, praying and reading the Bible for two or three hours a day and doing all the right religious things. But inwardly I lacked the ability to express love at home. I was joyless. I had no inner peace. I was driven by spiritual ambition because I had built my identity and value systems on position, power, and performance. My faithfulness, duty, and service were not a response of true love to God; they flowed instead from a desire for personal gain and reward.
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