After years of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, Jay Cookingham wanted to run away not only from his own father, but from his heavenly Father as well. “I tried to find ways to mask the pain—I got involved in drugs, I started to drink heavily,” he remembers. “I ran away from God as far as I possibly could.”
But God didn’t forget about him. Instead, Cookingham says, “God slowly reworked the way I saw Him…by putting godly men in my life and helping them see me the way He saw me.” Those father figures helped him turn his life around, forgive his own father, and start on the path to a loving family and a rewarding career.
Among other things, that career includes the founding of Strategic Fathering Ministries, which encourages men to be father figures in the lives of those who are hurting. Fatherhood is a calling, Cookingham explains, one that can and should be taken up by every man regardless of whether they have biological kids of their own.
“I do a lot of men’s events, and there’s always lots of things about being dads,” he says. “And I see men who, for one reason or another, are not dads and they’re like, ‘How does this apply to me?’ I say it applies to you because you’re breathing and you’re on this planet to make a difference. And God’s going to use you to speak to people who are younger than you, or maybe even people who are older than you who haven’t been restored yet from their father or mother wound.”
Going back through all those years of abuse and all the self-destructiveness that came out of that, when I came back to God after those years of rebellion, it was just like the Bible verse that’s kind of become my “life verse,” Psalms 27:10: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” That was how God began to change that lens that I saw Him through. For a few years, I did see God through the lens of my earthly dad through the abuse, through the neglect, through the refusal to love me. And I kind of projected that onto God for a few years until God slowly reworked the way I saw him. And He did that through multiple means—by putting godly men in my life and helping them see me the way that He saw me. So that began to change how I saw God, and once I began to see God for who He was—that He was loving, that He was compassionate, and that He was for me—that started to make a big difference in how I was healing from the abuse and how I was moving forward as God’s son.
It came down to this one moment. I was going to a local college, but I still lived at home. And although the sexual abuse had stopped and most of the physical abuse had stopped, there was still so much anger and violence in the way he talked to me. I came home from school one day, and he started yelling at me like he often did, and he actually started hitting me—to this day I don’t know why he did that. But I just kind of stopped him. I didn’t hurt him, but I pushed his hands aside and started to go upstairs to my room. He followed me upstairs, cursing at me, swearing at me, and then he said something that really crossed the line about me doing something with my mom in a sexual way, and I grew really angry. He was a couple steps below me, and I was going to turn around and hit him with everything that I had—all this rage was piled up and I was hoping to explode it right in his face.
And it was really strange—it was almost like one of those moments where it feels like everything’s happening in slow motion: As I turned to hit him, my first turned into a pointer finger, and it landed right on his nose and I said, “God loves you, and I forgive you, Dad.” For the first time in my life, my father shut up. He was a little scared because he saw that fist coming, but he just shut up. And I turned and went upstairs and sat on my bed and thought “What just happened?!” I heard God speaking to me, and He goes, “You needed to forgive him, and I helped you. Now you decide to forgive him.” And I did. I sat on the bed and I said, “I forgive him.” I totally forgave him.
That’s a one-time event that led to multiple steps of forgiveness, as the Holy Spirit uncovered things that needed to be forgiven. But that’s when it began for me, that thing on the stairs. Whatever God did, He moves quickly, and although it seemed like it was slow-motion, God was talking really fast in that moment. That was the start.
It takes one person to forgive; it takes two people to reconcile. My father and I never reconciled. I got married a few years after that, and though my wife and I would go visit my parents, he still was a violent, angry person—I am relatively sure that there was mental illness there. So we never did reconcile, although there were quite a few attempts by my wife and me to bridge that gap.
It was tremendously freeing, and it took me many years afterward to realize that this is how kind God is—that he was offering a moment of redemption for my father too at that moment. That extension of forgiveness was an attempt by God to draw him to Himself by saying, “Hey, this could be made right—you too could be part of who I am, you could be My son too.” I thought about it years later, and I said to God, “You were so kind, You were offering my dad a chance to be redeemed not only by accepting responsibility but by owning up to it and repenting.” I thought it was extremely kind and good of God to do that, but that’s what forgiveness does.
It was a little bit strange for me, because when my wife and I got married, we were told we would never have kids. And then seven years after that, God healed my wife, and we had seven kids. So I wasn’t really thinking about it in that seven-year period. But when my wife got pregnant with my first son, I began to question lots of those things. Do I have what it takes? Is there a possibility to repeat even the mildest actions of my father—his words or the way he was distant? And I did work through that stuff and ask God to work on my heart to make sure that wasn’t a possibility.
But my wife was so instrumental—I often say my wife rescued my heart in our marriage, because a lot of the afterwork of healing, of forgiveness, of restoration, God used my wife to help me work through a lot of that. So when it became time to be a dad, those were the least of my worries, residue from my abuse or my father’s actions. I believed what God said in His words, that I was His son, I was redeemed, I was restored, and that the chains of the past were broken by the blood of Jesus.
The whole concept comes from how strategic a father God is in our lives as men, putting us in situations where we are healed and restored and redeemed, and bringing certain men into our lives to speak certain things to us. That’s part of my story: God gave me other men in my life to help me deal with the issues of manhood. So I think it’s very strategic of Father God to have a plan for each one of us as a son or a daughter of God and to orchestrate that walk, that path, that journey, to bring us closer to His own heart.
There are so many opportunities to be coaches, to be mentors, those kinds of things that we can speak into younger men or boys to say, “Hey, there’s a purpose and a plan for you that goes beyond whatever your situation is.” It’s a call to be a dad, to be a father figure, to be a mentor, to be a coach, to be a powerful influence of good in someone’s life, and there are so many opportunities out there to do that kind of thing. It’s just encouraging men to “get their hands dirty”—there’s a lot of influence that you have. Your voice matters whether you’re a biological father, an adopted father, or a stepfather. You have a voice, and God gave you that voice to speak life into someone.
I think restoration, for me personally, means the total rewrite of my story by God—how God rewrites my will, my purpose, my identity. He redeems that, He restores that, He makes it look more like Jesus. I think restoration means I am kind of being restored to the image that God has had for me way before the beginning of time.
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