Eventually God gave me some helpful insights and I reached a place of relative peace with where my life had come. One of the most helpful, but surprising, realizations I reached had to do with my sense of identity. It dawned on me that a big part of my sadness and sense of being lost was the simple fact that no one called me Dad anymore.
My sons no longer speak to me. Even when my oldest son finally called me to tell me that he was moving away, he made a very intentional point to only call me by my first name, no longer calling me Dad. Maybe this seems like a trivial thing. Who cares what people call you? After all, I am still a father whether anyone calls me that or not. I still have responsibility for my sons and nothing will ever change my feelings for them as my own children. And thankfully, I’m even blessed with the opportunity and joy of being a father figure to my step-daughter, so I still get to fill the role of a father in my daily life with her. But she already has a dad, so quite appropriately, she doesn't call me Dad either.
Taking a step outside of myself now, to look at what this could mean to others, I’ve realized how important our assumed identities can be to us. We take our roles and identities for granted until they’re gone. But when life’s circumstances change who we are to others, how do we react?
For a long time, I was a husband. This identified me to others as a married man. A large part of my purpose in life was to be my wife’s faithful, loving husband. When that role was no longer accepted or even acknowledged, I found myself putting all of my purpose and identity into being a good father. This gave me peace, purpose, and joy even in the midst of a dying marriage. But as my sons were pulled from me too and I no longer live everyday as their dad, this left me drifting and searching at times for who I was supposed to be.
We all go through changes in life and who we are to others changes over time. How you react to these changing roles tells a lot about how you see yourself. How did you or will you react when your parents die and you are no longer a son or daughter? Will you lose some of your purpose in life? When your children move out and don’t seem to need you anymore as their parent, will you be searching for your lost identity as so many “empty nesters” do? If you lose your job and one day you’re no longer an engineer or a sales rep or whatever was under your name on your business cards, will you be searching for what to call yourself when you’re introduced? Ever notice how retired military officers, judges, doctors, and others still carry their titles well into retirement? It’s as if they are trying to hold on to the label that so identified them to the rest of the world, and to themselves, for as long as possible.
I hate to say it, but every title we carry in life, every role that defines who we are, is potentially fleeting and temporary. There is only one name for us, one purpose, one identity that is truly eternal and worthy of putting any confidence into, and that is being a disciple of Christ. Every other role and identity for us is subject to change, but being a Christian is the commitment of a lifetime and beyond. This calling and purpose makes anything else we are seem trivial.
This is what I finally realized which gave me peace in the midst of my ongoing trials. I know who God is and I know who I am in him. I came back to this understanding after losing my children and losing some of my identity as a father. Ironically, I first understood this truth on the very first day I became a father.
When my oldest son was born premature and we weren’t sure if he was going to make it, I was immediately faced with the possibility of losing my child (and my role as a father) before my life with him even began. When I went home after the first day I cried my heart out in the shower, asking God to save my newborn son and to give me the chance to raise him and get to know him. But God also gave me the strength to pray through the possibility of losing him. I remember being overwhelmed with the peace of realizing that no matter what happened, God would still be God, and I would still be his. I would still love God no matter what. My son was not mine to have forever, but a precious gift from God to take care of for whatever time he allowed me the privilege.
I didn’t lose my son that first week. Thankfully, he grew up to be a strong healthy boy, and later, even a big brother to my other precious son. I’ve had many happy years to enjoy being their dad, to teach them and play with them, to provide and care for them, and to share with them my love of the God who gave them to me. I pray every day for these broken relationships to be healed and for my sons to come back to their father. But until that day comes, I take peace and comfort in knowing that I am still and always will be God’s son. I have my identity and purpose in knowing who I am in Christ, in whatever he calls me to do, for as long as he would have me do it.
“In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” - Ephesians 1:5-6