Author Jonathan Edwards gives keen insight into the reality of what occurs in the life and heart of a child when a parent chooses to leave the family through divorce. Edwards tells what his relationship was like with his dad as he was growing up, and talks about the attempts he made to emotionally connect with his dad with no success. Hear where his relationship with his dad stands now, and why he chooses not to give up hope.
About the Guest
Jonathan Edwards gives keen insight into the reality of what occurs in the life and heart of a child when a parent chooses to leave the family through divorce.
Bob: After Jonathan Edwards’ mom and dad got divorced, Jonathan was estranged from his father for years until they had a reunion when Jonathan was in college—Jonathan, and his dad, and his dad’s girlfriend.
Jonathan: So we’re sitting there. I got asked by her to say a little bit about me and my dad’s relationship and how it had been over the years. For the first time in my life, I felt like: “I really want him to know how we’ve struggled,” and “How I’ve wanted him to be around.” I don’t know what came over me; but I got the courage to speak up and say: “We’re struggling over here. Why is it that you love your dogs more than you love your children?” I remember her looking at me and saying: “Jonathan, you’re 19 years old. You don’t need your dad.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, January 11th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to hear today from Jonathan Edwards about how important a dad is in a child’s life, and what happens to that child when dad leaves. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve heard a lot of young men—older men, for that matter—who have talked about how their life has been marked by what they have described as a father wound. I know you grew up with a dad who didn’t leave a lot of wounds in your life.
Dennis: Yes; and that’s always puzzled me a bit, Bob; because his father walked out on him and his eight brothers and sisters, back in the ‘20s, when divorce was unheard
You know, I never, ever really heard my dad talk that much about it. I wish he had been around a bit longer; because undoubtedly I would have asked him a few questions, trying to get at it, and ask him what he experienced back then. But he became a great man—husband/father—in spite of some of the gaps that were in his life.
We have a guest with us, Jonathan Edwards, who joins us, again, on FamilyLife Today. Jonathan, welcome back.
Jonathan: Glad to be here.
Dennis: He is the author of a book called Left. It’s the story of his own family that he grew up in—and a father, who didn’t leave just once, but left twice—and the impact of that on his life. There’s more to that story that we’ll be unpacking here in today’s broadcast.
Jonathan is a writer; he’s also in graphic arts and design; and he’s a real gift to the body of Christ, with his many talents in writing curriculum.
He writes for the ERLC, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God with John Piper. Jonathan has been married to Katherine for five years and contributes this book as really the story of his journey dealing with divorce.
Bob: Yes; your dad left when you were in elementary school. You didn’t know why or what—you just knew Dad had moved out. He came back months later, and you thought the family was coming back together. There was kind of a dramatic moment, where it looked like Dad was dead to the old life and now raised to walk in newness of life. There was hope for you; and then, not long after that, your dad leaves again.
Was there a pattern in your mom’s and dad’s relationship? Did you find out later—had there been anger?—had there ever been any kind of domestic violence?
Jonathan: Not domestic violence; but as I grew up, I did realize that my mom shared with us that, before my brother had been born—my brother was born in 1980, sister born in 1981, and me ’85—that my mom and dad had actually separated several times before my brother was even born.
Bob: Do you know what all of that was about?
Jonathan: I don’t know the specifics. I do know that the difference of faith was an issue. My dad told me, later in life, that the Christian home my mom desired to bring us up in was not his decision; it was hers. I think this is something that my mom still wrestles with. She actually called me last week, and she asked me if I knew that she was sorry. [Emotion in voice] My wife and I just—we cried with her; because we said, “There’s nothing for you to be sorry about.”
Dennis: What was she specifically asking about?
Jonathan: She was asking—should she have tried harder? Was there more she could have done?
Even at 66, she was concerned that the Lord would not find her effort faithful. I tried to console her and say: “At some point, you have to realize you did what you could; and it wasn’t on you. You can’t save another person; you can’t change another person.”
This is something that—not even us, as her kids, but even her—were still dealing with is: “What was the issue?” There are some mental things in there associated with my dad, so we understand those things; but figuring out: “What was my fault?” and “How could I have changed it?” I think that is just a very enslaving thought process.
Dennis: Well, you’d been through it as well.
Jonathan: Yes; so when you say—you know, a dad leaving multiple times—that what you wrestle with, when he’s gone, is a whole different thing to wrestle with:
“What is wrong with me that he could be so mad at me that he just doesn’t want to talk to me?” or “…he doesn’t even want to try to reconcile? What could be so defective in me?” You talk about a question that will affect me and has affected me for my entire life. Heaven will be the first time I see life, not with the film of fatherlessness. I don’t know what it’s like to process anything without seeing life through that lens, and it is exhausting.
So, thinking about what played into Dad and Mom doing that—I do think about that. I think my mom’s wrestling with that; but for me, I’m wrestling with, “What is so wrong with me that I’m such a risk to people committing to me/to people valuing me?”
It’s all rooted in: “If my own dad won’t do that—if my own dad doesn’t see me valuable enough to talk to/to reconcile with, what gives me any hope that an employer, a spouse”—even though I’m so thankful for Catherine, but even coming to that was hard—“What are you seeing that he didn’t see?” and “Why are you here?!”
Dennis: —and “Why do you stay?”
Dennis: I mean, marriage—I’m just reflecting back on my own journey, which is nothing like yours, but you enter into marriage and you go: “Will I be able to fulfill this commitment?” and “Will my wife be able to fulfill it to me? Will she see something in me where I’m not loveable?”
We’re talking about raw emotions, Bob, of what human beings experience. I think what Jonathan is doing here is—he’s giving us a peek behind the curtain at the impact of divorce on a man’s life.
Bob: Your relationship with your dad during junior high and high school was an every-other-weekend relationship?
Jonathan: Not every other weekend; we hung out a couple times. I would go see him, but it wasn’t an every—
Bob: It wasn’t a routine. Did you look forward to those times?
Jonathan: I did. But what is so interesting is—that when I think about that, I was so proud, I guess, of where my dad lived. He lived on the lake—had jet skis/had a boat. I wanted my friends to kind of come up there; because the fact that my dad was successful and had these amenities, I wanted to be the friend that invited my friends to have a good time—like to be able to supply that to them.
But what is very interesting is that there were families in our church that knew my dad—and that knew him, and what he enjoyed, and how he acted—and there were several friends that weren’t allowed to come with me.
I remember it breaking my heart; because I thought, “There’s nothing I can do to fix this.”
Dennis: You’re talking about their parents would not allow them to come with you.
Jonathan: Yes, yes; so you can imagine—I mean—even as a junior in high school/senior in high school—you’re like, “Well, should I go?” [Laughter] It was sad—it was having to wrestle with that and “What’s going on here?”
Bob: Well, I think you’d have to wrestle with the fact that, here, your dad’s living on the lake with jet skis; and your mom can’t come up with the money for you to go on the ski trip with the youth group. You’re not living the jet ski life; and that’s where dad is—out on the lake. Was there never any sense, in your heart, that’s like, “Hey Dad, could you help us out here a little bit?”
Jonathan: There was. That’s actually the reason that he and I do not talk anymore, just because I brought that up.
Bob: Take us to that. Take us to the—this was while you were in college, a freshman in college—and you, and your dad, and—his fiancé?
Bob: You guys got together for dinner.
Dennis: This was 2004.
Jonathan: September of ’04. He asked to take me to dinner—he asked me and my sister. My sister said she didn’t want to go, so she didn’t go. We joke about that to this day—that I had to experience that by myself, and she just stayed back.
Bob: Did you know it was going to be “Meet the fiancé” dinner?
Jonathan: I did—I knew that she was coming; I just didn’t know what was going to happen.
We’re sitting there. I got asked by her to say a little bit about me and my dad’s relationship and how it had been over the years. I kind of explained it and kind of said what I thought about it. I don’t know what came over me; but I just, for the first time in my life, I felt like: “I really want him to know how we’ve struggled,” and “How I’ve wanted him to be around.” I don’t know what came over me; but I got the courage to speak up and say:
“We’re struggling over here. If it wasn’t for some of our family members/if it wasn’t for some of these people in our lives that have taken care of us, we would be on the street. Why is it that you love your dogs more than you love your children?”
I remember her looking at me and saying: “Jonathan, you’re 19 years old. You don’t need your dad.”
Jonathan: I started crying. I just was—the first thing I thought was: “First of all, who are you?!”—like—“How did you get here?” The second thing was—I said something specific about a couple family members that have helped us over the years. He said something very degrading about them—spoke ill of them in a way that he should have never said to me—and I ran out the restaurant; got in the car.
We get home; and my mom and her boyfriend, my now-stepdad, Rusty, were sitting on the couch. I ran to my room, and she asked me what happened. I told her the things that he said. She was offended; she was hurt. She was going to call him and ask him: “Why did you say these things to Jonathan? Why did you do this?”
She didn’t that day, but she did end up—she wanted to stick up for me, and so she called him. A couple days later, I was in my dorm room. I got a call from him; and he said: “How dare you share with your mother what I told you in confidence? If you ever have something you want to tell me that you don’t want her to know, I suggest you never do it; because I will do the same thing to you that you have done to me.”
Jonathan: He hung up the phone, and that was the last time I talked to him.
Dennis: No communication around birthdays—
Jonathan: He might have sent something—a Christmas card or two over the years—but sometimes it was signed by his fiancé, at the time, or the lady he was with. There was a year, 2006—so two years after that—where my sister and brother got invited to his house for Thanksgiving; and I did not get invited. So me and my mom just had Thanksgiving by ourselves.
I wrote a letter to him in 2012. My pastors, at the time, had encouraged me—they saw what it was doing to me—and they said, “If you don’t reach out to him, you’re going to be 38 years old and bitter and angry.” I just remember being so frustrated: “Why do I have to reach out? Why do I have to be the adult? He hasn’t talked to me—he’s the one”—what I said was—“He’s the one that left! Why do I need to do this?”
I can tell you guys that that was the pivot point for me in this whole process of viewing my dad. I had always looked at him with anger, with bitterness, with rage. The pastor had told me to just kind of read Ephesians 2 and to really reflect, theologically, on my status in Christ before God and what God had to do to save me. I thought about that, and thought about that, and thought about that; and I realized that what my dad had done to me would never come close to what I do to the Lord, on a daily basis, and what my sin has done to him.
I realized it is one thing to never talk to him again here; it’s whole other thing to not talk to him for the rest of eternity. Reconciliation with me is so much less important than my dad being reconciled to the Father.
I viewed my dad as just a man in need of saving, the same way that I am in need of saving.
I just remember my mom, every day, asking us: “Are you praying for your dad?” “Are you praying for your dad?” “Are you praying for your dad?” I remember saying, “Why should I pray for him?” You can imagine the spiritual pride that just flooded my mind with how arrogant I was.
People ask, “What do you pray for him?” and the only thing I know to pray is, “Will You save him?” Asking my forgiveness is completely different than him asking the Lord’s forgiveness; and I think when you get to that point, you’re able to completely forgive.
Ephesians 2 has been huge; I love Isaiah 43, where it says: “Behold, do you not see that I am doing a new thing? I am bringing rivers in the wilderness.”
One of the things that I love that has been so valuable is Psalm 40, where David talks about: “I will not restrain my lips to declare the glad news of your deliverance.” Isaiah 61 is another, where, “For the spirit of heaviness we put on a garment of praise.” What are we praising?—we’re praising Him—that He has restored me in a way that I could not restore myself. If I’m really glad about that/if I know what He has done that for me, personally, I need to be on my face, praying that my dad leaving me is light compared to what we have done to God’s righteousness—how we have defamed Him.
Bob: Do you have any idea if he knows that you’ve written this book?
Jonathan: He has read it.
Bob: How do you know that?
Jonathan: A year-and-a-half ago, he had gotten all of my family’s addresses. [Emotion in voice] We were so hopeful that this would be when he would be restored to us, and we would get to have a relationship with him. What we got in the mail was a bound book. The first page said: “Non-fiction books pride themselves on facts, reality, and research,” or something. “Jonathan Edwards’ book, Left, is not one of those.”
At the end of every chapter was an indictment to me on how I misrepresented things. I did not read it; my wife did and several of my friends.
Dennis: They advised you not to read it?
Jonathan: They said, “You do not need to read this.” What I wanted to do with my book—
—I wanted people to end my book, knowing that Christ is in all and fills all; and that is why the first chapter is called “Empty” and the last chapter is “Filled.” I wanted people to marvel at the Lord’s faithfulness.
[Emotion in voice] Two, I wanted people to know that, if one parent leaves you, the Lord is so faithful to provide another parent to do the job of two. People who read my book have said to me that they pray the Lord would allow them to meet my mom.
[Emotion in voice] And three, I did not want people coming away thinking ill of my dad, but I wanted the Lord to be number one. I wanted to provide some form of hope to kids/to adults—to say, “Yes, my dad left; but I am alive physically, and I am alive spiritually because my mom refused to give up.”
I think about how she is the strongest woman I know, and she loves the Lord with a joy that I don’t even understand. You can imagine, for me, hearing her heartbreak—that she thinks she is to blame—I just don’t know how to handle that: “I think this is why you”—[mom]—“are so faithful to the Lord; because you are always reflecting on, ‘Lord, how can I increase in sanctification? Show me Psalm 19—declare me innocent of hidden faults.’”
I just hope the Lord and His grace are magnified through this, not my dad’s mistakes.
Dennis: I agree with you on that. I think about how your words are touching people’s lives right now—and thinking about those who are adult children of divorce—maybe they’re not adults yet; maybe they’re still in the home—but the call for every person is to forgive as you have been forgiven. That’s what I hear you saying. That call has enabled you to come clean before the Lord—to forgive your father.
You can know when you’ve forgiven someone when you give up the right to punish them—when anger is replaced with prayers that are praying for their wellbeing. It’s hard to pray for somebody who’s the enemy.
A second group of people I’m thinking about are those dads/moms—
—maybe they are grandparents—who are living out the result of some choices that they could have done better, and they have regret. The same God who led Jonathan to forgive is the same God who wants to forgive you and your choices. If you haven’t read Ephesians, Chapter 2, take a look at it. At the core, it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that is not of yourself…lest any man should boast.” It may be a time to come to faith in Jesus Christ, if you don’t know Him—there is cleansing for that person.
Bob: And the story’s not over. We don’t know how this will resolve itself in this life or in eternity; but the story’s not over, and there’s still hope. I think everybody listening—who would find themselves in a situation, estranged from a child or from a parent, knowing of their mistakes; knowing of how they were affected or wounded—
—they just need to know that there can be reconciliation; there can be hope. That’s the news of the gospel: forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope are the cornerstone elements of the gospel, not just between us and God, but between us and our fellow man.
For anybody who has had the experience of being abandoned by a parent, get a copy of Jonathan’s book. It’s called Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order your copy, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; our toll-free number is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Ask about the book, Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves, when you get in touch with us; and we’ll get a copy sent out to you.
Now, a quick reminder. We’re encouraging couples, this week, to begin a new discipline in your marriage as we start a new year; and that’s the discipline of spending time together each day, praying together, as a couple. Our team has put together a series of seven prayer prompts that we’re sending out via email. When you sign up for them, we’ll send one to you each day for seven days. You can sign up with both of your email addresses, and then each of you will get the prayer prompt. You can carve out time in the morning or in the evening; but get together and just spend a few minutes looking at the email, praying together, reading a verse of Scripture, maybe sharing a few thoughts with each other. You’ll be amazed at how this daily discipline can have a significant impact on your marriage relationship, and that’s what we’re hoping will happen with tens of thousands of our listeners.
If you’ve not signed up yet to get the seven days of marriage prayer prompts from us, here, at FamilyLife®, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and look for the link that says “Better Together.”
We’ll get it all taken care of, and you can start a new practice in your marriage that will pay dividends.
And we hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and we hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk about the first years of marriage and why those are particularly challenging for couples. Jim Burns will be with us for that. We hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today—his name is Keith Lynch—along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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