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How Could I Forgive Him?

By Lisandrea Wentland
Staff Writer -- When I was born, my father had not prepared a home for a child, and neighbors had to hang sheets in one room to create a clean nursery for me. Our house was a 10-year-long construction project, with sawdust on the floor and open air between each step in the ten-foot ascension up to the second, and then to the third, floor.

My father beat the dogs and threw knives at them out of rage, even kicking them in anger. He was drinking all the time, and if he wasn't passed out on the couch, he was practicing with the band at 3 a.m. or playing in a local bar.

He wasn't what I wanted for a father. He wasn't fathering me.

I remember him yelling irrationally at me when I was 8 years old. It was terrifying. He liked to terrify. I learned to be strong against that intimidation and not back down. I learned to fend for myself -- even to a man 27 years my senior.

Who would ask me to forgive him?

Year after year he disappointed me. Failed me. Missed my mark. After his divorce from my mother, he never made good on promises. He didn't pay child support. He was late remembering every holiday. My birthday, a day he told me was memorable and special to him, was not celebrated with a phone call or gift on time. Instead I got excuses as gifts—tears and "poor me" words of desperation.

I became more and more angry until my anger exploded out onto others. I began hurting my family the way he had hurt me. Out of my disappointment and frustration I had ironically begun to become my father.

I hated him. I hated myself for becoming him.

Who would expect me to forgive?

When I was nearly 14 years old, I heard about Jesus in a fresh way that I understood had personal implications on my life. I turned my heart to Christ. But life did not get easier. I did not find myself feeling love for my father overnight, as if a stroke of magic had occurred.

I still hated my father, and now I felt conflicted because the Holy Spirit kept hounding me to look at myself and think about change.

I heard and read about forgiveness and tried desperately to forgive my dad. I found it impossible.

Everything in me burned. He'd hurt me. He'd left me. He'd become such an insignificant part of my every day, while still holding some strange control over my emotions. I was resentful.

Worse was that he was still as angry and as drunk as I'd always known him to be. Shouldn't he have to change or ask my forgiveness in order for me to forgive him? Shouldn't we have a reversal of parenting roles before I forgave him? Shouldn't I see some effort on his part?

But then I read the story of the unforgiving debtor (Matthew 18:21-35).

Now, how could I not forgive him?

I read this biblical mandate with shocking clarity—I could not accept forgiveness without also forgiving! The impossible was becoming possible with God. I began to pray that my heart would soften. I prayed for my expectations to fall away. I told God that I didn't want to do this and that I didn't know how and asked Him to help me. I prayed for restoration and healing. I prayed because it was the only action I could take in my distance from my father.

Prayer began working on me. The Holy Spirit kept working on me. Love replaced hatred, and I began to pray for my dad's salvation rather than his elimination.

And the good news isn't that my dad became everything I expected him to be, or everything God wanted him to be, even. The good news is that God changed me, and forgiving my father gave me the freedom to love him and others in my life as well.

So many of us are blind to what we do. We don't understand the impact our actions have on others—the recoil of our anger or gossip that knocks others over as we walk away unscathed. We do not see the way our actions affect others, but we're quick to notice how others' actions affect us!

If anyone could harbor unforgiveness it was Christ, but from the cross He cried, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

If He could forgive, why shouldn't I?

The yolk of unforgiveness, anger, and hurt is an overbearing burden. Its weight brings our shoulders to slouch and our hearts to heaviness. Its darkness swallows our minds and consumes our lifestyles.

If you are harboring anger and unforgiveness, you know this weight. It is a dark, heavy, foreboding shadow that drags behind you everywhere you go. Others see it and ask about it and you defend yourself with reasons why you share its company. But those reasons are really only excuses preventing you from doing what is right.

Ditch the whole thing. Never reunite with it.

God's best for you includes understanding forgiveness. As imperfect as I am, Christ is perfect. As imperfect as my parents are, Christ is ultimate perfection. As wrong as injustices done against me, God is righteousness. Though my parent was less than a parent, God is the ultimate Father.

Lay your anger and resentments at the foot of the cross. It may take time, if the damage is deep, but keep dumping it there at the base of the cross day after day until you've disposed of all of it. Where the blackness occupied your soul before, accept an understanding of unconditional love as replacement.

My dad will always be imperfect. That's God's promise, because he says that none of us is without sin—no, not one (Romans 3:12). I celebrate that His Word is true. With new vision I can try to understand the hurts my father experienced that made him hard. Now he has quit drinking (15 years or sobriety!) and his life is improving.

With new vision I can try to understand my parents' imperfections and love and accept them. It's a very freeing way to live life—dropping away my expectations of people to look at God's expectations of me; recognizing that God fulfills all His promises, even when others do not; and taking logs out of my eyes before approaching others with speck-corrections (Matthew 7:4).

Forgiveness is freedom in Christ.

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