Father and son Alan and Jackson Stanley share the second and final part of a feature series they’ve written describing a journey they’ve been walking together in recent years. Part one appeared in issue 15 and we begin this part with Jackson’s words in italics.
As I continued down this path I felt like I was on top of the world. I was living the dream – going to parties every weekend, skipping school and smoking as much weed as I could afford. I often felt guilty for letting my parents down. However, that was quickly drowned out by a few cones with my mates. The only opinions which mattered to me were that of my friends. If I had their respect, I was happy. However, there was another side to this lifestyle. While I was genuinely having fun, everything else around me began to deteriorate. I couldn’t see it at the time, but my relationships, my education and my mental health were all on a downward spiral. I felt that I had no responsibilities to any group of people outside of my friends, and I could care less about school. But I was completely oblivious to the consequences of my actions. All I cared about was getting the next high. And the more I smoked, the more I wanted that next high. Eventually, I couldn’t go a day without getting high and I was only happy if I wasn’t sober.
As Jackson’s dad, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered how I would handle a situation like this. Well, I didn’t have to wonder anymore. What surprised me was that once I had let Jackson go – as the father in the prodigal son parable let his son go – I felt a freedom that I’d never experienced before. A freedom to love my son unconditionally. A freedom to love him as my son irrespective of whether he was walking with the Lord or not. And a freedom to love him irrespective of the kind of lifestyle he was living. I should point out that this love was not contingent on whether Jackson got his act together. And, remarkably, I came to a point where I was not secretly in my heart wishing he’d get his act together. What I’m trying to say is that I simply enjoyed him for who he was – my son – rather than for what he was doing or how he was living. I’m sure I didn’t feel this way all the time but I do know that, as time went on, I remember feeling a deep love for my boy regardless of his choices.
There were plenty of times when I was able to hug him, tell him that I love him, talk with him and even pray with him. There were plenty of times when I was able to share deeply with him. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned was to listen to him – to really listen.
I had not lost my son at all. In fact, I had gained an appreciation of what it meant to love him without imposing my own expectations and beliefs on him. It was nothing short of liberating.
This does not mean that there weren’t difficult decisions my wife and I had to face, nor does it mean that we simply threw all our values and beliefs out the window. But one thing that helped was coming to appreciate that our relationship with our son was more important than enforcing our rules. For example, more than once it seemed we were faced with the decision of letting him go to a party – for the third or fourth weekend in a row – or allowing him to drink, but stay home. There was part of me that wanted to say, “The decision is easy. No to both.” But the question we were then faced with was, “Would we really prefer our son stay home, sober and under our surveillance?” To what end? What would that achieve in the long run? Situations like this were never easy, but we looked at them with a new perspective – a perspective that led us to choose what we thought was best for the relationship. It often felt like we were choosing the lesser of two evils. I never knew whether we were doing the right thing half the time, but this was new territory; it was uncertain, but I wanted love to prevail. I was convinced that our goal was to have a relationship rather than enforcing rules. It would have been easy to do the latter. The former was messy, sometimes complicated, and yet massively rewarding.
The moment things really changed for me as a father, was, funnily enough, in a car again (recall my opening story in part 1). It was after midnight, and I had just picked Jackson up from a party. He was high, lethargic and seemingly happy; far from his depressed self that had become so characteristic of him since lockdown in 2020. As I drove him home, I thought of the boy that we had known and raised. The baby who I stayed up all night with once because he couldn’t sleep (and then having to preach blurry-eyed the next day). The toddler who would chew his food until he fell asleep. The first grader who stunned his teacher with his ability to learn to read faster than anyone she’d ever known.
The boy who fell off his skateboard and badly injured himself because I convinced him that he could make it down the hill. The teenager who I would read to and play a silly but very fun game with before saying good night. It was like his life flashed through my mind within a matter of seconds. And I thought about him now. And all I could see was pain. Lots of pain. Beneath the lethargic happiness brought on by drugs and alcohol, I saw a broken boy – my boy! My boy in pain. My heart swelled with compassion and filled with a love that hurt. I ached with a love like I’d never ached before for him.
And then it hit me: this is the way that our heavenly Father looks at His children. This is the way God looks at me. We often imagine that God is fixated with our sin, disappointed when we fail in some way or quick to judge. However, the reality is far different. It must be different. He sees the cause, root and pain behind our sin. He sees our futile searches for happiness and the brokenness that undergirds our searches. How else do we explain Jesus being a friend to sinners and tax-collectors? Telling a woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you”? How else do we explain the father’s compassion, not even waiting for a confession or apology, toward his prodigal son? This kind of love is scandalous. But it’s God’s love.
I recall a few moments in my life, only a few, where I have had something revealed to me that has so gripped and impacted me that it has forever changed me. This was one of those rare moments. I was seeing my son as my Heavenly Father sees me. This, of course, is not to take away from the love and compassion I felt for Jackson in that moment. But that God would see me in the same way . . . well, I couldn’t have asked for a greater gift.
This is how I began to see my son. But how did Jackson see me?
It was hard at first. I was angry at my parents. They didn’t know how to react to the things I was doing and they didn’t want to hear my side of the story. This only pushed me further away from them. The problem was I was never going to stop the things I was doing if I was forced to. It had to be my decision, otherwise I would keep coming back to it. So, when I told my parents this, and they listened to me, it was as though a weight had been lifted from me. Although I didn’t think much about it at the time, later I would often think about how my parents helped through that time in my life – helping me with my schoolwork when I couldn’t be bothered helping myself, picking me up in the middle of the night when I was stranded, making me food when I was too high to get off the couch and just sitting on my bed with me. Despite what I was doing they made it clear that they loved me and were there for me. My dad would even tell me that he would always love me even if I continued to do drugs. I knew that whatever direction my life took my parents meant what they said.
This story does have a happy ending as it turns out. However, I would like to make it clear that it’s not the happy ending that is important to me personally. In fact, the editor of Authentic suggested to me that we entitle these two articles something along the lines of “Jackson’s redemption” – yes, Jackson gets redeemed! Keep reading. However, this is not why I am sharing this story. For, as wonderful as this next part of the story is, that’s Jackson’s happy ending. My happy ending had already happened. And it was simply this: I no longer needed my son to live up to my expectations, values, or Christian beliefs for me to be proud of him and be his biggest fan. I knew that I loved him for the boy he was, not for the boy I wanted him to be.
But there’s more to it than my love for my son. God had shown me how He – as a Father – sees me, His child. How often is our experience of God’s love influenced by how well we are doing in our Christian walk? How much do we believe God loves us when we sin, when we’ve blown it, when we’re spiritually dry or when we’ve turned away from Him? But unconditional love exists, irrespective of how well we are doing. Think about it for a moment. “How could anyone,” asks David Benner, “…ever expect to feel safe enough to relax in the presence of a God who is preoccupied with their shortcomings and failures?” He just can’t help loving you. And He loves you deeply, recklessly and extravagantly – just as you are.” Why? Because “…the Father’s love reflects the Father’s character, not the children’s behavior.”
I’d experienced this myself in the way I saw my son and was now experiencing what it felt like for God to see me in the same way.
But, back to Jackson’s happy ending . . .
In the October 2020 school holidays, I went with my mum and younger brother to visit my older brother Luke at YWAM in Nelson. I don’t know why I went. I knew I wouldn’t be able to smoke for a week. It didn’t take long for the withdrawals to set in. My depression spiked, I was constantly angry and I couldn’t sleep. However, on the day we were to leave I decided to sit in on YWAM’s worship service. I slipped in the back where no one could see me. I began to pray, “God, if you are real, send someone to pray for me.” I looked up and saw a man walking towards me. He sat next to me and said, “I felt God telling me to pray for you.” He then asked me if there was anything I would like to surrender to God. I told him I wanted to be set free from my addiction to marijuana. As he prayed the tears began to stream down my face.
Two weeks later, I sat in the back of my friend’s car with my head in my hands. I was in pain, every day. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks, but I wasn’t happy. In fact, I felt worse. I cried out to God, asking him repeatedly, “Why can’t I be happy?” I then asked Him, “Is it You that I’m missing? Will You make me happy?” Later that night, I decided to read my Bible. However, I couldn’t understand it. I put it right up close to my face, but it still made no sense. I felt dejected and hopeless. The next day at school my brother from YWAM texted me to tell me that last night one of the girls studying with him had a vision of me in my room with my face close to the Bible. There’s no way she could have known that. I knew it was God. My pain went and I was overcome with a joy I had never experienced. There and then I asked God into my life. It is now just over a year later, and my life couldn’t be more different. I’ve been sober from marijuana for over a year. In May I was baptized, and I am just about to complete my first semester of a Bachelor of Theology at Laidlaw College. My journey of faith has not come without struggles, but despite my countless mistakes God is always waiting for me with open arms and His gift of grace.
- David Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 21, 22, 24.
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By Alan and Jackson Stanley
About the author
Alan Stanley is a Waikato-based preacher, writer and lecturer at Pathways College of Bible and Mission. He has started a new initiative – Preachit! – aimed at training, equipping and mentoring preachers. Jackson is studying a Bachelor of Theology at Laidlaw College.
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