How Relationship Changed My Dad’s Hard Heart . . . and What All of Us Can Learn from It
The picture still brings tears to the eyes of family members old enough to remember my dad.
We had gathered as we often did in the backyard of my sister’s house; it was a special occasion—I can’t remember what—and someone snapped the picture of Dad holding his great-granddaughter. Such a picture wouldn’t ordinarily evoke such strong emotions; after all, I have many pictures of my dad cuddling with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But this picture is different. . . .
Memories from my own childhood, now some 50 years ago, are still vivid.
I hear my middle-aged dad arrive home from work and I immediately scramble for my bedroom . . . or backyard . . . or the garage—anywhere out of earshot of his angry outbursts. Dad rants almost daily, typically about some of the men he works with—specifically the Black men he works with (although “Black” is not the word he uses).
I don’t understand why Dad treats some people differently based on their skin color. I wonder where the hate he spews comes from. I like hanging out with my Black and Hispanic friends at school and on my baseball team, but am I somehow betraying my dad by doing that?
Fast-forward a few years. In high school, I bring home a girl I like. When she leaves, Dad belittles me for bringing a “Mexican girl” into the house. “She’s Native American,” I tell him. “Her family was here long before ours.” Dad doesn’t like being corrected, especially on this one. He doesn’t speak to me or look at me for weeks.
Racism Is a Sin Issue
Growing up in that kind of environment and with that kind of role model affected me. One day when I was in eighth grade I was walking to a friend’s house in our very White neighborhood when I saw a Black man walking toward me. Fear gripped me, and I crossed the street to walk on the other side.
My reaction to that Black man upset me. I didn’t want to be like my dad; I didn’t want to become my dad. A year earlier I had started reading the Bible on my own, and God used his Word to convict me. My reaction was wrong; it came from what the Bible calls my “sinful nature” (Romans 7:18-25), which is why it was a “natural” reaction. I didn’t want prejudice to be a part of my life, but there it was.
I’d like to say that’s the last time I responded wrongly in matters of race, but I can recount too many times when my thoughts and even my words have fallen way short of God’s standards.
Racism is sin. It devalues people whom God created in his image and dearly loves. It breaks God’s heart. It falls short of living like Christ Jesus. It falls well short of God’s glory.
I believe it’s wise for every Christ follower to do an honest self-assessment in regard to this sin. We can’t just assume we are not at all culpable. I may be better than my dad was, and my kids may be better than I am, but none of us is completely blameless on our own. Racism is sin, and it demands personal repentance.
Repentance Is a Heart Issue
It took my dad decades to change. But he did. He was in his mid-seventies when God used two significant life circumstances to bring transformation.
In 1994 my great niece Tori was born. My dad always had a soft spot for babies, and Tori was no different, even though she has dark skin like her father. Dad fell in love with her from the minute he saw her. And little Tori began to change his heart.
Relationships do that. Love can transform even the hardest of hearts. “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), and it overpowers the sin of racism. There is no prejudice in real love.
Over the next several years as Dad dealt with serious health concerns and knew he was inching closer to the end of his life, he began earnestly seeking God, reading the Bible and other spiritual material, and praying. It was an answer to my decade-long daily prayer for him. He was able to forgive people who had hurt him earlier in his life and repent of his own sinful ways. I saw him changing; he was no longer the man I knew and feared growing up.
God’s love changed my dad. God’s Word was becoming evident in his life: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
There was no longer any room for racism in my dad’s heart. Hatred and love cannot live together in the same heart any more than darkness and light can exist together in the same room.
Tori was only 5 when Dad died. My brother and I were on either side of his hospice bed holding his hands as we said the Lord’s Prayer together when he took his final mortal breath.
As we grow closer to Jesus, as we abide more with him, as we become more Christlike, the more we realize how far from his manner of love we really are. Yet, as we continue to surrender our lives to him, the more his love begins to naturally overflow from our hearts to others around us.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:19-21).
The simple key to true racial reconciliation is in living out the Greatest Commandments: Love God and love one another deeply, “because love covers over a multitude of sins.” We learn how to love as Jesus loved and loves—across all societal barriers of gender, race, ethnicity, and social status.
I have a long way to go. The church still has a long way to go.
Reconciliation Is a Church Issue
Perhaps it’s wise for the church to honestly assess ourselves in regard to the sin of racism. That, too, will take love and humility. How can we improve at obeying the foundational command of loving others—all others—as Christ has loved us?
A government program alone won’t fix the racial problems in our society. It will take more than lawyers and legislators, actors and athletes, or even—gasp—clergy to solve it. We need something beyond the bounds of stronger laws, better policing, defunding the police, or more money to make things better. Those strategies on their own can offer only temporary solutions, or no solution at all. God didn’t send a politician, pop star, pastor, or police officer to solve our sin problem. He sent a Savior.
Our primary job as his church is to point people to that Savior. The world will be changed by Christ alone, but he will use us in the process. As his ambassadors, we have been called primarily to his cause: reconciling the world to him (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
Just as God used a relationship to change my dad’s heart, so he will use relationships to change ours. Here are six ways we can get started.
- Pray for reconciliation. Ask God to use you. Ask him to give you courage to take advantage of the opportunities he has put before you and all around you to develop or strengthen redeeming relationships.
- Get out of your cocoon. Be proactive in moving outside of your comfort zone.
- Get beyond your party. Don’t let political differences, disputes, and debates cause racial (or any other kind of) disunity. We can disagree without discord. Choose love over law.
- Ask questions. Be genuinely interested in the other person, their experiences, their opinions, and their faith. Listen.
- Seek to understand, not to be understood.
- Choose to love others deeply. This takes guts. It must be genuine, unconditional, tangible, and sacrificial. “Serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).
The world is struggling to bring about racial justice and reconciliation, and it obviously doesn’t have all the answers. And, by the way, neither do we . . . but we know the only One who does.
Imagine if we, Christ’s church—a church made up of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language—linked arms as one body to once again take the lead in showing a hurting, divided world what real love looks like. If we can imagine it, Christ can do it, according to his power that is at work within us.
The world needs us to show the Way.