My father was not a violent or angry man; it was worse than that.
He was excruciatingly patient and self-possessed. Unlike many fathers, mine never roared, strutted, or flaunted his authority. He didn’t yell or belittle me. When I failed, he didn’t condemn.
I was terrified of him.
My worst memories are of sitting in my father’s bedroom after he had caught me doing something we both knew I shouldn’t have. The impending confrontation always weighed heavily on me. Not only was it going to take a long time, but the outcome was completely inevitable. There was no escape.
As I sat across from him, my father would simply look at me, quietly, dispassionately. I dare not say a word though my conscience screamed “Just punish me – get it over with!” One thing I had learned through these encounters was to keep my mouth shut. Talking only got me into trouble.
He would break the silence after several minutes by saying “Tell me what you did.” This was my cue. Predictably I began with “I didn’t do anything.” Then I’d confidently rehearse my version of events and, more often than not, conclude with an out right lie.
He’d listen, sit silently for another few minutes, and then simply repeat “Tell me what you did.”
So for a second time, I’d tell my story, perhaps revise a few facts, and add a detail of truth, hoping to convince him. But he was not easily satisfied. He’d listen and then again merely say, “Tell me what you did.”
By this point I’d begin to get frustrated. Was he deaf? I’d just told him twice what had happened. What more could I say? This was getting us nowhere. But I had no choice so I’d repeat my hopeless excuse for a third time.
And still all he would say was “Tell me what you did.”
Eventually my frustration changed to anger. How dare he sit there so passively, so silently! If he doesn’t believe me, he should at least say so, get angry, and threaten me. We both know I’m guilty; we both know I deserve to be punished -- why doesn’t he just do something!
But each time, he’d respond only by sitting quietly in his chair, looking at me, and saying “Tell me what you did.”
I don’t remember how long I would sit there with him, talking myself in circles. But I do remember that somehow the truth would always cycle its way out of the lie, sometimes purposefully, often not. And finally, when my own lips spoke the truth about myself, it was over.
Then my father spoke.
He spoke words of correction and discipline. He spoke of his own past failures. But mostly, my silent father spoke of forgiveness. A forgiveness that I could not have understood until I’d realized I needed it.
The beauty of my father’s self-possession was that it forced me to wrestle with my own guilt. In doing so, it prepared me to receive mercy. It gave me the opportunity to be broken from the inside out.
So it is with God.
His quiet restraint allows us to deal with our sin and come face to face with our need of Him. Instead of ranting and raving or hurling down condemnation, He calmly waits. We work through our reserve of excuses; and when they are finally depleted, He stands ready to overwhelm us with grace and forgiveness.
Today with my own children, I usually fail to mirror my father’s composure. More often than not, I become angry and accusing. But even in those times, I think of what my father taught me. And I simply hear a voice say “Tell me what you did.”
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