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As a little boy, I took refuge in a tree for a period of time. Every day after school, I would dump my books and lunch pail on the porch and head for the tree in the front yard. I had strategically nailed three boards to the trunk as hand and footholds so that I could reach the first branch. Gaining height with each successive maneuver upward, I felt better and better.

Near the top of the tree, two strong branches formed a comfortable cradle. There I would sit, sometimes for hours. Most of the time was spent feeling. I didn’t really know what to think, but my feelings were well defined and strong. They were feelings of anger. Feelings of hatred. Intense longings for things to be different from the way they were—in that house down there that was supposed to be a home. Somehow I felt secure in the tree, even though it was the place where I faced my reality with the most acute pain. At least I was alone. At least I was separated from the sights and sounds that made life nearly unbearable.

But as all boys must eat and sleep and do homework, I always came down from the tree. Mother would call, and I would reluctantly climb back to earth, take a deep breath, and walk through the front door.

Sometimes the atmosphere was cheerful. Most of the time it was not. My mom was always trying to be happy, and my dad was always trying to crush any possibility of happiness. The mental pictures are still vivid, but I rarely browse through them.

We’d sit around the dining-room table eating dinner. Gradually, with each drink of whiskey or vodka, tension would build over little stuff. The way the food was prepared. Mom’s use of time. The bills. Whatever. Sometimes Dad would retain composure through the meal and vent his rage later in the evening. Sometimes he would begin to throw dishes off the table—or he’d just tip over the entire table. Always, it ended the same way. Mom would be beaten, oftentimes bloody, sometimes unconscious. Dad never touched us children roughly, but we felt his violence beneath our skin and in our hearts. Many nights we huddled in one bed, crying until the exhaustion would force us to sleep.

Then came the day of liberation—at least for me.

Mom called up into the tree that day, “Ty, please come down. I need to talk with you before Charlie gets home.” There was an unusual urgency in her voice.

That’s strange, I thought. She called him “Charlie.” Normally, when talking to us children, she called him “Dad.” I quickly climbed down from the tree and ran into the house. Mom led me into the den at the rear of the house and shut the door. We were alone.

She put her hands on my knees and looked me straight in the eyes. I remember thinking that whatever she had to tell me would change everything.

And it did.

Charlie is not my real dad

“Charlie is not your dad.” Her voice cracked with restrained emotion.

“What?” I blurted out. He was all I knew. I had always called him Dad.

Then Mom pulled a photo out of an envelope. The man’s face was not familiar to me.

“His name is Johnny,” she said. “He’s your dad.”

She proceeded to tell me what a nice man he was. Funny. Kind. Never violent. But she also told me that they were too young when I came along. Johnny couldn’t seem to settle down from his teenage party life. So she reluctantly left him after repeated warnings and desperate pleas that she wanted to have something better for her baby.

“Charlie is not your dad,” she repeated. “I hope somehow it helps to know that, because I know you don’t like the way he treats your mommy.”

Although I never really understood why it didn’t work out with Johnny and Mom, a major change took place inside of me that day. Over and over again I said to myself, He’s not my dad. Somehow, on some level, I was free—free to not identify with this ugliness, free to be someone else, to be unlike him.

I never called Charlie “Dad” again. My grades at school came up. And I never climbed the tree again, except for fun—which is the reason kids ought to climb trees. But my childhood liberation was only a faint shadow of a greater freedom yet to come. Finally, after nine years of hell on earth, Mom divorced Charlie and tried to raise four children on her own. Divorced and alone, every day she worked from morning till night, with an occasional Sunday off. We hardly ever saw her, but we knew she was working for us.

With lots of time on my hands, I gravitated to the streets of the big city through which I walked to and from school each day. I saw too much on those streets: drug addiction, racial hatred, gang violence, child abuse. Life was terrifyingly ugly, more ugly than I could cope with. So I became cynical because I couldn’t become numb, although I tried. Somehow, against my will, I felt every tragedy I witnessed.

Why can’t anyone do something to stop it all? I often asked into the emptiness. I wasn’t addressing God. I had a vague notion that there must be some Higher Being, but I had no clue just who or what He was.

I was aware that some people believed the ridiculous idea that God was a person, of sorts, and that He actually loved people. How could anyone believe such nonsense? I would wonder. Any moron can see that if there is a God, He sure doesn’t give a rip about what’s going on down here.

I meet my Father

Then I met my Father. Not Johnny. God.

My mom asked a youth pastor to try to visit with me. After he had led a weekly group Bible study in our dining room, he’d knock on my bedroom door, where I was hiding until the church people left. The first time he came to my room, I was blown away by the boldness of this suit-wearing, short-haired “geek,” trying to interest me in religious matters. But his courage aroused in me a certain level of respect.

After a few weeks, I determined to get rid of the nice but misguided man. Escorting him from my room to the front door, I said, “I think it’s great that you love God and that you think He loves you—but I don’t buy it at all. The real world of suffering just doesn’t equate with your God-is-love concept.”

He listened quietly, with what seemed like genuine interest, so I continued. “If I saw someone abusing a kid, I’d intervene. If I saw children starving to death, I’d feed them. If I saw a man beating a woman, I’d stop him. I’m not God, and I don’t claim to love everyone, but if I had the power to end all the torment of this messed-up world, I’d do it. So don’t tell me God loves people. Reality is far more persuasive than religion.”

What a relief to put into words the feelings that had churned within me for years.

The youth pastor didn’t have an answer for me. But he had something far more important; he had honesty. His eyes reflecting the pain I felt, he said simply, “Yeah, I agree. It’s so hard to understand how God can stand by and watch us suffer.”

Then, before walking out the door, he said, “Would you do me one favor? Would you be willing to read just the first chapter of that book?” He pointed to a thick volume sitting on my mother’s reading table. “Not the whole book— just the first chapter. It may have the answer to your question.”

“Sure, I’ll read the first chapter.”

Looking back, I am amazed that I said Yes. I still feel as if someone else said Yes with my mouth before I could say No.

That evening, I sat down alone to fulfill my promise. Skeptically, I began to read. The subject matter had to do with God’s character in the light of human suffering. I didn’t understand much of what I read, but one important concept became absolutely clear. Though the book used different words, this simple, profound picture of reality took shape in my mind: love mandates freedom; freedom creates risk; but love is worth the risk.

Love mandates freedom

Until that evening, I had reasoned that love mandates control. If God truly were good and loving, He would simply not allow evil to exist. And if it ever tried to raise its ugly head, He’d squash it instantly. The least He could do now, since evil already flourished, would be to destroy all the bad people and start over with the good ones.

But now I could see an entirely different picture of God. I could see that love, by its very nature, requires that God grant freedom, and that an absolute control would extinguish our capacity for love. And yet, freedom is risky. The same liberty that makes love possible also makes rebellion possible.

I sat dumbfounded at the beauty of the logic that was now reconstructing my thoughts and feelings. Like waking from a dream, I sensed myself being born into reality as it truly is. That evening I realized that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that His love is so genuine and deep that He has no choice but to allow us to choose whether to return that love. And if not, the only alternative to love is selfishness, which inevitably leads to injustice and suffering.

Suddenly God appeared beautiful; I could see Him. Not a face, but a person, a character composed of desirable qualities I had so long wished could exist.

It was as if I were eight years old again, sitting in front of my mother and hearing the words, “He’s not your father; your father is someone good and kind.” The ugly picture I previously had of God gave way to an entirely new picture. I had finally met my heavenly Father and liked the person He really was. I was free. Now I had Someone to look up to, a Father worth emulating.

The Father I've Always Wanted

by Ty Gibson
From the June 2014 Signs