When My Old Demons Crept Back in, God’s Love Saved Me and My Entire Family!
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.
I could not see the bondage I was in, but my family could! I felt I gave my wife nothing to complain about. After all, I was faithful to her and always provided for her needs.Trisha knew I would be home every night and remain loyal to her. I was a man committed to purity in marriage. I had not touched pornography since my first encounter with Jesus. I even told her every day that I loved her.
But there was a lack of warmth and tenderness, and she felt unloved and rejected. Daily she battled the pain of being married to a man who gave his life to meet everyone else’s needs (and his own), but who did not have energy left to make his wife believe she was loved more than the ministry. As a result she had to wear her own disguises, suppressing the guilt and anger she constantly felt because her need for intimacy and emotional bonding wasn’t being met. She fell into a severe depression, and well-intentioned church people made her feel even guiltier. “You are married to such a godly man,” they would tell her. “You should be grateful instead of having these negative thoughts about him.” After 20 years of living like this, Trisha was dying inside. Any hope for a better marriage was gone.
My children didn’t fare any better. As more legalism crept into my life, the more unyielding and joyless I became as a parent. My three children could never do things well enough for me. They didn’t make good enough grades, they didn’t perform well enough in sports, and they never did their household chores to my satisfaction.
I would tell them I loved them, but I constantly pointed out every mistake and shortcoming. I demanded exact obedience, but I lacked the ability to express love, tender affection, and grace and mercy when they fell short. I read all the proper parenting books and tried measuring up to every expert’s standards, but something seemed to hinder me from expressing the love I felt inside. My attitude of superiority eroded any possibility of trust and intimacy.
By 1995, my 17-year-old son and my 14-year-old daughter had closed their spirits to any affection, correction, or advice I tried to offer them.They stopped looking me in the eye because they feared the look of rejection I often gave. They hardly spoke to me because they were afraid of upsetting or displeasing me. My pride produced a desire in them to rebel, and they began to seek the acceptance they yearned for by hanging around the wrong crowd. And worst of all, they wanted nothing to do with the angry, legalistic God I modeled to them.
Even though my family life was in shambles, God was still at work. In 1994, while I was attending a spiritual renewal conference, He began bringing me a fresh revelation of His power and grace. There were times when I spent hours weeping at the altar.
Yet during these dramatic encounters, I never equated His presence with what I know now as God’s phileo love. God also loves us with agape—perfect, unconditional love.
Throughout Scripture He demonstrates that He not only loves us, He also likes us!
Phileo is a Greek word that means “demonstrated, natural affection.” (See John 16:27.) It is occasionally used in the Bible to describe God’s love. Yet I always tended to view God’s anointing as His power—or His supernatural ability to do great things. I had no idea that His anointing could actually be a demonstration of His unconditional affection for me. I was so locked into this trap of performance orientation that I still did not break free from my aggressive striving—even after a powerful visitation of God’s Spirit! In fact, as I experienced more favor and visibility in ministry, my addiction to hyper-religious activity grew even stronger!
At that point my family had experienced enough of what I wrongly called “ministry.” My wife and children knew I was worshiping a golden calf of self-centered religious pride. The ministry was all I talked about, all I lived for, and all that brought a smile to my face. I felt inadequate at expressing love and care for my family, so I gave myself to what I could do well—the ministry. It made everyone at home miserable. Trisha had had more than she could take. I was doing all the right, religious things, yet our family was teetering on the edge of disaster.
Thinking that it was Trisha who had the real problem, I took her to a conference on emotional healing in November 1995 to get her life straightened out. I wanted her to be happy with how God was using me in ministry so she would finally appreciate all the sacrifices I had made for her.
During an afternoon pastors’ session, many of the wives were at the front receiving prayer. Trisha was resting on the floor, praying, and weeping quietly as I knelt beside her.Then someone from the platform began to pray. The words startled me: “Father God, take all the men in this room who were never held by their fathers. Hold them close right now. Give them the love their fathers did not know how to give.”
The presence of God’s compassion and acceptance fell on me immediately. I did not understand what was happening, but it felt as if hot, liquid love was pouring into my soul. I began crying like a baby as I lay on the floor. Such displays of emotion were not normal for me. I always had every emotion in check, especially in front of my wife, children, or other ministers. But my mask was off now. I was completely undone.
I felt as if God transported me back to a time when I was only ten years old. I suddenly saw vivid scenes of me as a child, hiding in a closet at night, fearful of the yelling and screaming I heard in my parents’ room. I remembered the fear, the loneliness, and the sense of abandonment. I felt the deep, painful ache for my father’s embrace— an embrace he was not able to give me during my childhood.
Suddenly I realized that now, 34 years later, my heavenly Father was meeting the deepest need in my heart for a natural demonstration of a father’s affectionate love. I had a direct encounter with the phileo of God. As I lay on the floor weeping, Father God entered that dark closet of my childhood and held me in His arms. For 45 minutes, the Holy Spirit poured the love of God that the apostle Paul spoke of in Romans 5:5 through my mind, will, and emotions and washed away much of the guilt, shame, fear of failure and rejection, fear of intimacy, and the fear of love. My breakthrough finally came. My pride had been shattered. Until that moment, I had never realized how deeply in bondage I was, to striving and fear.
You do not know what you are in bondage to, until you are free from it! But in that instant I felt free, and for the first time since the earlier months of my salvation I experienced true rest. I had heard all my Christian life that God loved me, but I had never lowered the walls of protection enough to receive personally a natural demonstration of His love and affection in some of my deepest areas of pain. Knowledge of His love had become a personal experience! Phileo was no longer just a Greek word to use to construct a theology.
I hardly stopped weeping for five months. Every time I looked into my wife’s eyes or saw the pain that I had caused my children because of my lack of tenderness,the tears of repentance would begin to flow.Then I would kneel at their feet, weeping and pleading for forgiveness for the times I had harshly misrepresented Father’s love to them.
I knew the healing would not come instantly for them. My children’s hearts had been closed to me for years. But now, the brokenness I was experiencing began to open their spirits. The Father’s affectionate phileo love began to restore the heart of this father to his children and the hearts of my children to their father, and it was breaking a curse off of our lives. (See Malachi 4:6.) Four months after I received this unusual baptism of Father’s love, my daughter, Sarah, gave me an essay she had written for her English class at school. It was titled,“The Greatest Influence in My Life Is…”
My eyes moistened as I read her words:
“The greatest influence in my life is my Daddy! Through him, I have seen the eyes of Jesus and felt His unending love! At one point, not very long ago, my Daddy was a man to fear. He was Captain Bligh off the H.M.S. Bounty. Now he is as gentle as a lamb, not to mention just as loving. Through watching my Daddy change from being a hard man to being tender, he has influenced me to change. His new patience has helped bring me through a very difficult year. Seeing my father love and cherish God, like never before, has done miracles for me. Instead of referring to God like a Holy Being, he refers to Him as Daddy.
Now, instead of fearing my Dad, I crawl up in his lap, and I find a very cherished peace. What I cherish most about my father is his smile. I also love the way he sits with me and helps me with my faults in a loving way.Whenever I do some- thing good, he notices that, too. My Dad is changing in so many areas. I am so proud of him. Every time he looks at me and smiles, I explode inside with joy. My Daddy has been my greatest influence these past four months. I forgive him for being Captain Bligh in my early years. I love you, Daddy!”
This overpowering revelation of Father’s love also began transforming my marriage, but it didn’t happen overnight. I had rarely been able to pray with or minister to my wife prior to my encounter in Father’s love in 1995. In spite of the breakthroughs I experienced with my children, something in me seemed to hold back from pursuing deeper levels of intimacy with Trisha. I always kept my emotions and feelings under control around her. I daily said the words “I love you,” but I could not let Trisha inside. I did not want to risk being hurt again like I had been in my youth.
In March 1996 I went with a group of men to my first Father Loves You conference, seeking a deeper revelation of God’s love. During the first meeting, a lady at the altar prayed with me about some deep hurts I had encountered as a young boy.Through the supernatural leading of the Holy Spirit, this woman discerned that around age ten I had constructed thick walls of protection in my soul during the time that my father and mother were having extreme difficulties in their marriage.
This woman’s prayers laid my heart bare. I lay on the floor weeping uncontrollably for two hours as Father poured His comfort, love, and affection into my wounded heart. Then, during a subsequent ministry time that evening, what seemed like a river of God’s love broke through my fears of intimacy, and the walls I built so long ago began to crumble. For the next four days I wept as I realized the depth of pain Trisha lived with daily. She had always been kept at arm’s length from the heart of her husband. I had unconsciously pushed her away. But when I arrived home from that conference I ministered my love to her in healing prayer. She wept for hours as Father took her back to some points of deep wounding in her youth, comforting her with His healing love.
God began to take our relationship into new depths of intimacy. We have hit a few stumbling blocks along the way, but each time the Holy Spirit has revealed past hurts where, because of fear of trusting, we had built walls of protection. We would move toward repentance, and the love of God would wash away hidden barriers and take us into deeper depths of love for each other.
During one of these times in 1998, I was prompted to write my wife a poem. I am not a poetic type, so writing those kinds of words was extremely uncharacteristic of me, but it evidenced the power of Father’s love to transform the most callous man! When I finished reading that poem to Trisha, she began to weep with deep, convulsing sobs. It was as if the excruciating pain she had hidden inside for so long began to pour out of her. After about ten minutes the sobbing turned to gentle tears of peace and joy.
“All of these years I never really could believe you loved me,” Trisha told me. “For the first time, I now know it is true. I now feel loved by you!”
As Father’s love has brought restoration of intimacy to my marriage and family, it has changed my whole philosophy of ministry as well. I am no longer striving to be holy or to win God’s favor. I don’t want to do anything to hinder the intimate, loving relationships that God has given me. Ministry is no longer something that I have to work or strive for; comparisons, competition, and rivalry are fading away. Spiritual ambition is now but a shadow.
Most of the time I am motivated by a deep gratitude for being loved and accepted unconditionally by my Father. Ministry is simply an overflow of the love of God that flows freely through my marriage and family. As I receive His natural demonstration of affection for me, His precious phileo love, then I simply give it away to the next person I meet.
This restoration of love and intimacy in my life has been a process that has required deepening levels of humility and repentance on my part. I have certainly not arrived! I can easily get off center of Father’s love when my priorities get confused. I can still be pulled toward aggressive striving. But now, I normally do not stay in that condition for long. I quickly run back into the resting place of Father God’s healing love, and peace is restored to my heart. I am then compelled to humble myself and repent to anyone who has been hurt by my striving. And I am then restored once more to a life of intimacy and love!
Do you know what it means to love God wholeheartedly? Is love for God reflected in faithful Bible reading, rigorous prayer, or strict holiness? I think not. What reveals a genuine love for God is my ability to convince my family and others of my love for them. Without this, everything else finds its rewards in self-love. Doing great things—even religious things like preaching, winning souls, performing miracles, or feeding the poor—all have their own rewards. And we can do these things out of wrong motives. But the Bible tells us that we cannot say we love God if we do not love each other (see 1 John 4:7-8, 20).
Do you desire to experience more fully God’s love for you? Would you like to encounter His unconditional affection? This book contains many of the truths I have experienced and learned about Father’s love since I was touched so deeply in 1995. As you read and study these pages, I pray that you will do much more than develop a healthy theology. Rather, I pray you will experience Father God’s affectionate embrace, feel His unconditional acceptance, and hear His tender words of love in deeper ways than you have ever known.
I pray you will hear the words that the Father spoke to His Son in Mark 1:11 (author’s paraphrase): “Child, you are the one I love, and on you My favor rests.”