The following article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 Men's edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
I’ve only seen my dad cry a few times before. He’s an emotional warrior who usually manages to hold it together when everything else is falling apart. But on that particular morning, standing across the street from the county courthouse where I had just been sentenced to prison, he was struggling to maintain his composure.
I was, too.
"It'll be over before you know it," my dad offered, choking over his own words as he pulled me in for a final embrace.
His tears loosened my own. For several bittersweet seconds, I was a little boy again, desperately clinging to my dad for protection from some pretend monster. Only this time, the monster out to get me was one I had created myself, and there was nothing my dad could do to shield me from it.
When he pulled away, his emotional warrior side returned. "We're going to get through this—together," he assured me. "Got it?"
I nodded, wiping my face.
"OK, then." He turned to lead the way. "Let's do this."
FALSE FATHER FIGURES
That's the kind of father I grew up with—a faithful husband and dedicated provider who loved his children unconditionally, even when we failed to live up to his expectations. Father's Day was hard for me in prison because it reminded me how far I had fallen from his example.
But many of my fellow prisoners were haunted by memories of abuse and neglect when they thought about their dads. Some had to grow up far too soon when their fathers walked out on their families. Others ran away from home to escape the terror of their fathers' presence. A few had never known their dads at all.
CELEBRATING FATHER'S DAY IN PRISON
Father's Day was especially hard for prisoners with children of their own. I remember when one of the guys in my dorm returned from a long-awaited family visit, looking more depressed than I'd ever seen him before.
As it turned out, his oldest son had been suspended from school for bringing drugs onto campus. The police were involved, and now he was facing charges that would likely end his shot at a college football scholarship.
My friend was heartbroken and angry—not only with his son, but also with himself. Though he had tried to teach him otherwise, his son was following in his footsteps, just as he had followed in his dad's footsteps before him. Prison was becoming a family tradition, and he felt powerless to stop it.
Patterns of brokenness and wrongdoing do seem to pass through family generations, almost like an inheritance. But the Bible says all of us are broken, imperfect people by nature—regardless of where we come from or how we were raised. According to the Apostle Paul, we share a selfish, rebellious instinct that comes from our first father, Adam (Romans 5:12). Even the best of us, as Jesus taught in John 8:44, are capable of the worst acts. We all repeat the mistakes our earthly parents made before us—and theirs before them.
FINDING THE FATHER'S LOVE
I decided to share my history with my friend. I wanted him to understand that even if he had been a terrific dad, like mine was for me, his son would still make mistakes—perhaps even huge ones. He couldn't change the example he had set in the past, but if he was willing to confront his own wrongdoing now, he could still become the role model his son most needed.
The Bible says, "The Lord is like a father to His children, tender and compassionate to those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13). Even though God, our perfect Father, ought to disown us, He chose instead to come alongside us in our brokenness and show us a better way to live.
He did this by sending His own Son, Jesus, to become one of us. As both God and man, Jesus lived the perfect life none of us can, only to suffer the criminal's death we deserve on a Roman cross.
After three days, God proved that our debt of guilt was fully paid by raising Jesus from the dead. Now, anyone willing to turn to Him for forgiveness and follow after His example can receive a fresh start in life—and adoption as God’s beloved child (Ephesians 1:5).
Father's Day in prison doesn't have to be an occasion for anger and sadness. Instead, it can be a time for new beginnings. Because of the heavenly Father's great love for us, we can break the cycle and start a new family tradition.