The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.

PSALM 103:8-13 (ESV)

I had just picked my daughter up from a playdate at a friend’s house, and she was all smiles on the ride home. She’s four and like most kids her age can hit that gear where the giggles and silliness seem to take over her system. I could tell that’s where she was headed as we got home, but rather than squash her playfulness, I decided to joke with her. I was teasing her about eating her cookies, and she was pretending to growl back in anger. It was all pretty uneventful until we walked in from the garage, and I heard her mutter under her breath three words guaranteed to break a parent’s heart.

“I hate you.”

As the shock of it hit my ears, I continued to unload the bags from the car, using each spare second to gather my thoughts and prepare for a response. In life you sometimes catch a brief little flash in your brain to let you know “This is a big deal.” I knew right then how I responded to what she said would have a big effect on my relationship with my daughter. I didn’t have a big window to pray and seek God’s wisdom, so I had to be content with a brief “Lord please help me” as I turned to face her.

“Sweetheart, what did you say?”

I spoke calmly to her, knowing she meant it as a joke, but immediately I could see panic set in, her eyes widening and voice trailing. “Nothing, daddy.”

“Baby, I heard you say something. I just want to know what it was.”

“I don’t want to tell you.” Her eyes began to fill with tears. “It’s going to make you sad.”

I didn’t know exactly what to say in that moment, but I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to show her I loved her. So I got down on one knee, put my hand on her little shoulder, and reassured her. “Baby, there’s nothing you could say that would make daddy love you any less. I just want to hear what you said so we can talk about it.”

At this point the tears began to flow, and she couldn’t hide her remorse. “I said ‘I hate you.’” She jumped into my chest for a big hug, and I could hear her little muffled voice on my shoulder through the sobbing. “I’m sorry, daddy!”

We spent the next minute or two there in the kitchen hugging and crying together. I didn’t really need to search for the words anymore. She already knew what she said hurt her father’s heart. So I straightened her up, looked her in the eyes, and assured her. “I. Love. You. I always will. When we love someone, we talk about hard things, and when we love someone, we apologize for hurting them.” She stared at me, her bottom lip still quivering. I just smiled back. “Do you know daddy loves you?” “Yes.” “Do you love daddy?” “Yes.” “Do you want to split those cookies?” “Yes!”

One of the graces of parenthood is that in trying to teach your kids you usually end up learning big lessons too. In this case, it’s hard for me to look back at this moment and not think about the kind of father I was aspiring to be. I wasn’t there trying to pry information out of her to strike her down or humiliate her. I was showing her what it meant to be truly seen, warts and all, and loved and cared for all the same. I realize now that her apology didn’t earn my love. It responded to it. My daughter left not with the baggage of her three words to me but with a deeper appreciation of my three words to her.

In my own feeble way, I was grasping then at the example the Father has set for us. I have said and done so many things to regret in this life with God, each misstep leaving its own scar and painful memory, but through everything, His love has always called me back to Him. With every stumble and every confession, God assures me that our relationship grows not on my ability to avoid wrong choices but on a willingness to run to my good Father. And though each walk back to Him has felt so heavy, I’ve learned that there is no weight His loving arms could not cast aside. There is no distance I could run where He isn’t there waiting, looking me in the eyes, ready to show me again what it means to be loved.

From the Book of Common Worship: “Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open us to a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image; through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.” AMEN.

Read the Psalm 103 excerpt again. As you hear what it says about the Father’s heart, try to give words to the painful things inside yours. Speak your sins and your struggles to Him. Read the excerpt again and hear Him speaking back to you. Repeat throughout the day.