Tell Me What You Did


973992298My father is not a violent or angry man; he is excruciatingly patient and self-possessed. Unlike many fathers, he never roared, strutted, or flaunted his authority. He didn’t yell or belittle me. When I failed, he didn’t condemn.
It was terrifying.

In fact, my most uncomfortable childhood memories are of sitting across from him after he had caught me doing something I shouldn’t have. Silent, he would simply look at me. My conscience, on the other hand, would be screaming, Just punish me – get it over with!  But I dare not say anything either. 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 simply 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 too smart for that. He’d listen and again merely say, “Tell me what you did.”  Usually, 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.”

Quickly frustration would turn 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! I don’t remember how long we would sit there, him listening patiently while I talked myself in circles, but I do remember that the truth always cycled its way out of the lie--sometimes purposefully, often not--and eventually my own lips would condemn me.

Then--and only then--would my father speak.

And while he would speak words of correction and discipline, my quiet father mostly spoke of his own past failures and of forgiveness. Of forgiveness that until then I hadn’t even realized I needed. This was the power of my father’s gentle self-possession--his patience forced me to wrestle with my own guilt, and in doing so, prepared me to receive mercy that I couldn't have only moments before.

I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the same with our heavenly Father.

We often expect Him to deal with our sin immediately—to rant and rave and hurl down condemnation—only to find that He is longsuffering and patient. He calmly waits and uses many different means to allow us to come face to face with our guilt. And once we’ve worked through our reserve of excuses, when they are finally depleted and we finally realize that we need Him, 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, I become angry and accusing. But even in those times, when I need it most, I remember how both my fathers have treated me, and I simply hear a voice saying “Tell me what you did.”