When It's Hard to Call God "Father"
TCW advisor Jo Saxton co-pastors Mission Point Church in the Twin Cities with her husband and serves as Chair of the Board for 3D Movements, a global discipleship ministry. A mom of two, Jo is a sought-after speaker and the author of several books including More Than Enchanting. I connected with Jo to hear more about her journey of healing, forgiveness, and faith.
When you spoke at the IF:Gathering this year, you shared how having an absent father deeply impacted your faith and sense of self. What was it like as you grew up?
My parents are Nigerian and I was born in London, England. They split up before I was born—my dad moved back to Nigeria, my mom stayed in England. It was a broken situation, and I spent the first six years of my life in foster care.
I became a Christian when I was nine, but the “God the Father” part of my faith seemed irrelevant because, to me, a “father” was someone who walked away.
I never even met my dad until I was 12 years old. I met him again when I was 15, and at that point I was deeply aware of the pain of it all. As a teenager, I poignantly felt what I’d lost, what I didn’t get to have. So I thought of Jesus as my Savior and my friend, but the idea of God as Father? It was very painful.
You’ve shared that, as an older teenager, you had an experience at a church in which a speaker specifically said that someone in the congregation needed to come to know God as Father— needed to understand God’s love in that way. You knew that message was for you. How did that moment change you?
The Lord really met me and unlocked years of grief. When that person said that God was my Father, it was almost like I was meeting God for the first time.
I knew God and was attuned to his voice, but it was that particular revelation of God as Father that I’d never gotten a grip on. But suddenly my life and the idea of God the Father collided. Initially the collision was full of grief and anger and sorrow. I broke down in tears. But I also wondered, “Now what?” I didn’t know how to relate to God in that way.
I shared this struggle with my pastor and his wife, and they told me that God was responsible for revealing himself as Father to me—that it wasn’t up to me, that God would get through to me. About a week later, I “started over” in my prayers. I said, Hey God, my name is Jo. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what a father is meant to do or what a father is meant to be. I don’t know how to get to know you in this way.
Another time, when I was 20, I literally talked to God all night long—I started at the beginning and told him every single thing I felt. Every memory, every encounter. When I finished praying that next morning, I knew something had shifted in our relationship.
How did your relationship with God as “Father” grow and change?
Much of God’s provision for me was through the church as God brought a number of father figures into my life. Initially, I found it very hard to get to know these men because I just didn’t have a framework for it. But God used them to somehow give me a glimpse of what God’s constancy was like, what God’s approval was like, what God’s pride in me was like.
I was on a journey of healing with God, but also a journey of forgiveness with my dad. My dad was such a big figure in my life, such an absent figure, such a broken figure. The pain of that relationship still kept creeping into every part of my life.
So what happened with your dad?
I was 25 years old the last time I physically saw my dad. I saw him during a mission trip to Nigeria. I met him and chatted with him for a while. He said he’d be around the next day—but he didn’t show. I realized I had to come to terms with who he was, which was very hard.
I was at a conference one time and the speaker said you know you’ve forgiven someone when you can tear up the “IOUs” and they owe you nothing. How could I do that? I felt my dad owed me birthday cards, birthday presents . . . life with him. But God said to me, You have carried this for so long. Give me the expectations of what he owes you and let me fill in the gaps. I knew I couldn’t be fully free unless I could forgive my dad—but it happened through degrees of forgiveness.
Eventually I wrote my dad a letter. I essentially told him, “You’re off the hook. You don’t have to write me any more if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do anything anymore. I feel like the Lord’s telling me to let you go. So if you want to stay in touch, that’s fine—but if you don’t, that’s fine.” He wrote back to me and said, “If that’s what your God is like, then I want to know more about your God.”
In 2008 he had been ill, so my siblings and I sent him some money for the bills. He asked to talk to me, but I was going to put off the phone call for a few weeks. But I suddenly had this thought, No, call him now. So I called him and he shouted, “Jo, is that you?” I said, “Yes,” and he started sobbing and sobbing and sobbing.
I said, “Look, you need to know we’re at peace. All is forgiven, all is forgotten.” He thanked me but kept sobbing. I asked him, “You’re not at peace, are you?” and he said no.
I told him, “Jesus is the only one who is going to give you peace. The most important thing in your life right now is that you make your peace with God.” We prayed together and I was able to lead him to the Lord.
He died about two weeks later.
So many women struggle with a need to forgive something that’s been done to them—so many need healing. For you, did healing happen first, enabling you to forgive your dad? Or did you need to forgive your dad first in order to experience healing?
I first chose to forgive my dad when I was 16, but I was 34 when he died—and only then did the forgiveness feel complete. So it was a forgiveness 18 years in the making.
I think, for me, the healing began first. We love because Christ first loved us. I actually don’t think God asked anything of me in terms of my dad. It wasn’t like, “You need to forgive because it’s the right thing to do.” Instead, God showed me, For the sake of your own freedom, forgiveness is an integral part of your healing.
It’s hard to forgive when you know the other person isn’t going to change. For me, there was a grief and a sorrow in the midst of the forgiveness. I felt, I’m giving you so much—I’m laying my all down here, and it means nothing to you. It’s irrelevant to you because you don’t think you did anything wrong.
So every degree of forgiveness was a choice—not a feeling. Yet every choice to forgive wrought a degree of healing with it. In his mercy, God helped me understand that forgiveness didn’t mean I was saying what happened was okay. On the contrary! In fact, it was so not okay that Jesus went to the cross on our behalf.
When God is inviting me to forgive, what is actually on the table? Ultimately, forgiveness is entering into what Christ has won for me—for us—on the cross.
What does God’s fatherly role in your life mean to you today?
Today, God being my Father means he is close by. He is always there, he is very present. In him, I feel secure—and I’ve been able to weather some hard things lately because I know I am safe. I know where I belong. When he leads me to take risks or do something that feels overwhelming, I feel like I’m standing right on his hand. And when I mess up, I know he’s there waiting. He has helped me settle into my own skin. I know who I am because I know whose I am.