The more I grow into my identity as an adopted son in the family of God, the more I grow as a father to my children. The Lord has blessed my wife and I with a blended family of five children—three daughters and two sons. Each one of them captures my heart in a unique way. Our family is healthy and stable, but it hasn’t always been that way.

When my wife and I were married almost 20 years ago, I brought a lot of wounds and dysfunction into our relationship. My childhood was marked with a father who was physically and mentally abusive to my mother. Tragically, I was an eyewitness to much of this abuse. My father was a very volatile man. I remember crouching into a ball with my hands covering my ears when he would raise his voice. It was like a terrifying roll of thunder. I never wanted to make him angry. My formative years were filled with fear and uncertainty.

I carried that into my marriage. It didn’t take long before our marriage began to crumble beneath the weight of my dysfunction. At the time, I was an active duty United States Marine. My career was on the fast track and I had the respect and admiration of my fellow Marines, but my home life was a different story. My fear and uncertainty sabotaged me at every turn. I wasn’t afraid to fight and die, but I was afraid of being rejected by my wife and children. Rejection was all that I had ever known. That fear turned me into a very demanding and hardhearted man.

I continued to spiral downwards to the point that I finally resolved to take my life. There I was, sitting on the edge of my bed with a loaded Heckler and Koch .45 caliber pistol. All I had to do was pull the trigger. I felt like I was stuck in a perpetual cycle of failure. I had messed things up so badly that I could not believe that God could love me. After all, he’s a father and I had seen how fathers responded to children who don’t measure up. I understood God in his authority and justice, but I had yet to grasp his love and tenderness. I wanted to die.

The Lord intervened and rescued me that day. I cannot fully explain it, but I began to become aware of God’s love for me. I could not understand how God could love a legalistic, unfaithful, hypocrite of a man. My mind could not compute what was happening in my heart. That day I felt something that I had never felt before: hope.

The Lord placed my family into a godly community of believers, and I began to learn what it means to be a son. I was being graciously broken down so that I might be conformed to the image of Jesus. There were times when all I could do was weep at the realization that Jesus bore the punishment for my sins on the cross, and through him I was now eternally embraced by the Father.

I didn’t have to be perfect, because Christ was my perfection. I didn’t have to get it all right all the time, because Christ became my righteousness. I didn’t have to worry about God changing his mind about me, because his mind was already made up about me before time began.

The more I grew into my God-given identity as a son, the more I began to grow as a father. His love is transforming. God was turning my hard heart into a tender one. As I understand the Father’s love, I am free to love my children in a way that has nothing to do with how they perform. Why? Because that’s how the Father loves me.

As he tunes my heart to sing his grace, I can in turn lavish grace on my sons and daughters. The fact that God freely gave his Son releases me to freely give of myself to my family. As a father, I am learning to draw everything I need from God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit. His loving initiative sets the stage for me to reflect his nature and character through my very flawed yet redeemed life.

I don’t have to rely on machismo, make the most money, be the smartest, or hold it all together. God loves my children more than I do. God loves my wife more than I do. God knows what is best for me more than I know what is best for myself. He desires our good for his glory more than I do. The more I embrace my identity as one of his children, the more I can function in my identity as a father.

I am not claiming to have all of the answers. I’ve done more wrong than I’ve done right. I simply want all of the dads out there to have hope. Maybe your life experience is like my own. Maybe not. Either way, my message to you is this: In Christ, you can be what you’ve always wanted, but never had.