Ten years had passed since I had seen my father. At the time I had no photographs of him, just a vague memory of his face from our last visit. When we pulled up in a rented van to the VA housing complex in Sarasota, Florida, my husband saw him first.
"There he is." Duncan tipped his head to point.
I turned my eyes slowly. A man was standing under the awning of the complex. I saw his dark skin, his head, nearly bald and square, and a barely visible neck. It was him. He was just as I remembered but bigger, maybe 40 pounds heavier than the last time, when I had left my young children to fly down for three days. I had not forgotten those three days of silence.
Now I stared at him, frozen. How do I play this scene? I thought. Loving daughter greeting long-lost father? Kind daughter bringing her children to meet their grandfather for the first time? Angry daughter wanting just a few words from her father?
Duncan stopped the van. I got out slowly and opened the doors for the kids, holding my breath. They piled out one after another. My father stood there seeming not to see them, as if they were inconsequential to his life—which they were. He knew nothing about them, had never even seen photographs of them. I had never sent any because my father was barely interested in his own children, let alone his children's children.
When the last one jumped out, suddenly I was on. I knew what to do. I hugged the strange man, patting him on the back with the tips of my fingers. I did not want to get too close to him.
"Hi. How ah ya?" he asked in his Massachusetts accent. He smiled a little, showing a few remaining teeth, all broken.
"Good. We had a little trouble finding this place," I said with false brightness.
It had taken us two days to get here. We had flown from Kodiak, Alaska, from the far northwest corner to the far southeast corner of the country. It was spring break 2006. Mostly this was a trip to see him. He was 84, so I knew this might be my children's only chance to meet him.
They didn't know anything about him, and they never asked. But over my then-28 years of marriage and 16 years of parenting, I had learned from my husband and my children what fathers were for. And I wanted them to know who my father was, for themselves. Someday they would care.
Two hours into our visit, I had run out of conversation. I was quiet and grim. He hadn't asked the names of my children or spoken to them. He had barely spoken to me. Scrambling to claim a memory from the visit, I suggested we go for ice cream, his favorite food. We stood in line for our cones and ate them under a tree, watching the traffic. Just before we left the stand, I told Duncan to take a photo. I wanted to remember this moment.
My father sat at the picnic table with a slight smirk on his face, looking utterly content. I stood behind him, my lips taut, mouth clamped shut, containing as much emptiness and anger as I could hold. How can I still want? How can I forgive him for all the years past, for this moment even now? He is utterly content with his ice cream, while his daughter sits beside him starving to death, and thinks the ice cream is pretty good today, isn't it?
I would not come back to see him again, I decided, no matter what.
Sinners Raising Sinners
Five years later, I got a call from my sister.
"Leslie, Dad was at the VA hospital last week. They thought he might have had a heart attack. I found out today."
"How did you find out?"
"I talked to Dad on the phone."
"You're talking to Dad?"
"Yes. I've been calling him almost every week," she said, her voice calm and assured.
"Every week? And he talks to you?" I couldn't hide my confusion. I couldn't believe that out of the six siblings, she was the one calling him. It was her room he had visited at night when he was home, when the rest of us were in bed. We didn't know until decades later.
That was not his only offense. He either couldn't or wouldn't keep a job, leaving us to a childhood of shameful poverty. When I was 13 years old and my mother was going to school so she could seek work, my father took the bit of money we had left and drove away in his car, intending never to come back. Unfortunately, weeks later, he returned. Years later, when he finally scraped together some money, he moved 2,000 miles to Florida to live on a dilapidated sailboat.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked my sister.
"I've forgiven him, Leslie."
I hung up. The room was spinning.
As the way such things happen, suddenly the entire world felt abuzz with the matter of forgiveness. The Lord's Prayer became unsettling: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. How many times had I said those words and not heard them? How could I let go of his sins and crimes against us? And what of the commandment "Honor your father and your mother"? Surely if a father or mother acts dishonorably, we need not honor them. I had built most of my life around that premise.
I did not have to look far or long to find others struggling to forgive a father, a mother, a stepfather, a foster mother, a grandparent—all the people who were supposed to love and nurture us and for many reasons did not. It's an ancient story, as old as Cain and Abel and their fallen parents: sinners raising sinners. The iniquity of the fathers and mothers visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18). But however universal, and however inevitable it feels, the issue is particularly compelling in our own time and place.
Families are unraveling at what seems like an unprecedented rate. Nearly half of first births in the United States are now to unmarried mothers. About 1 in 5 U.S. children are raised below the poverty line. Forty percent of first-time marriages will fail, leaving children in relational crisis and loss. More than 7 million children live with a parent who has alcohol or drug problems, and one in four families are affected by mental illness. Among families with two parents, about half (44 percent) are headed by two parents who work; another one in four families (26 percent) are headed by a single working parent, leaving these adults absent far more from their children than they would like.
Jill Hubbard, a clinical psychologist with New Life Ministries in Laguna Beach, California, sees the fallout of family brokenness up close and personal. "At least half of the people I see each week are battling some degree of unforgiveness, especially of parents," she told me. "They may not always realize the condition of their hearts, but you can see in their lives the replay of the hurts they haven't dealt with."
Even relatively healthy and stable homes suffer from wounds and deficiencies. No matter how dedicated to her children, no matter how churchgoing and God-loving she is, every parent is plagued by failures. I know I am. That's part of the reason I wrote my book—to give it to my own children.
After walking the stony path of forgiving my father, I am convinced we must all walk that same path. If we are to thrive as image bearers; if the church is to be a salve to a wounded culture; if our country and our communities are to prosper; if our own families and children are to break free from generational sins, we will need to learn and practice forgiveness toward those who often have hurt us most: our mothers and fathers.
'I Forgive for Myself'
As I urge others in this call, I'm not a lone prophet bleating a strange message in the wilderness. Forgiveness is trendy. In the past 15 years, the topic has been ushered out of the church and into mainstream and primetime, so much so that Jeanne Safer wrote for Psychology Today, "From the political to the personal, Americans are caught in an orgy of forgiveness." A number of academic institutions have formed forgiveness projects and institutes, including the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Stanford Forgiveness Projects. Fueled by foundation grants and hope, hundreds of studies in the fields of medicine, mental health, and the social sciences affirm the extraordinary power of forgiveness to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and depression, boost the immune system, and increase feelings of compassion and optimism even for the most traumatized individuals.
Beyond the West, forgiveness projects have brought healing and reparation to countries devastated by state-led and ethnically driven brutality, including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Africa. These projects have at least interrupted generational cycles of vengeance, hatred, and genocide.
Back in the States, the message of forgiveness has taken a decidedly American tone, becoming increasingly secularized and individualized, particularly in the past five years. The names of authors and articles are too many to list here, but a theme emerges: Forgiveness is a choice, and it's primarily for our good. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, delineates a nine-step process to "forgiving for good," stating outright, "Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else." Some forgiveness outlets counsel empathy toward the offender, but for many the impetus is personal health: releasing bitterness toward the offender, detaching from the offender, and regaining well-being and control.
The "therapeutic forgiveness" model has entered the public parlance as a kind of self-administered miracle cure. A New Age blog running the headline, "I Forgive for Myself," typifies the reigning therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. The author states, "I am not forgiving for the good of the other person. I am forgiving for the good of myself so I can be free and move forward." So goes the mantra: "Forgive and set yourself free." Dr. Phil joins the chorus, urging his readers toward forgiveness to gain "emotional closure." To get there, we do no more than is absolutely necessary. He says we are to find our "Minimal Effective Response"—"the easiest thing you can do to resolve your pain."
Christian theologians have played a significant part in crafting the therapeutic forgiveness message. Lewis B. Smedes, the late ethicist, was one of the first to pitch forgiveness as a gift to ourselves (in the classic Forgive and Forget): "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you." The quote is so widely used it has taken on the force of gospel truth. Such messages have only increased since then. Joyce Meyer's 2012 book on forgiveness is titled Do Yourself a Favor . . . Forgive. And in January, speaking on CBS This Morning about his new book on the topic, megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes assured the panel that "forgiveness is a gift you give yourself." The book is pitched as "the most important step you can take right now toward personal healing and professional advancement."
To be sure, a fuller Christian witness has remained in the public square—the forgiveness of the shooter of five Amish schoolgirls, for example, and the forgiveness offered by the mother of slain black teenager Jordan Davis. But multiple articles appear online in Christian outlets every month extolling the same message: Forgiveness is a choice, and forgiveness is for my own happiness and peace.
All these proclamations, from both inside and outside the church, demonstrate that we have not lost the concept of forgiveness as a moral good. But we have narrowed the good to ourselves alone. (Unsurprisingly, the near unanimous chorus to forgive for our own sake has spawned a minority but notable backlash—like the author of the Psychology Today article above, who rightly argues that if forgiveness is truly for our happiness, we might feel happier withholding forgiveness.)
I do not wish to diminish the aspirations and achievement of anyone who pursues forgiveness. But I worry that abandoning its deeper biblical foundation has gutted it of its full power and aim. We have to return to the New Testament commands to "forgive as we've been forgiven." This raison d'etre rescues the whole project of forgiveness from its worst forms of superiority and self-absorption. Jesus uses the parable of the unmerciful servant to illustrate our true condition and need—and the full scope of the remedy.
We know the parable: That man with massive debts who is called before the king is us. We're hopeless before the holy King. We stand there shoulder to shoulder with every other debtor, even those who owe us money and honor and parental love, all of us complicit in what L. Gregory Jones calls "the universal disaster of sinful brokenness." Our only hope is the King himself, and he does it. He clears our debts entirely. We know what it cost to clear those debts: the death of Jesus, the only one who could pay them.
In the parable, the debt-free man sings and skips out of the presence of the king. But then he collars the poor man who owes him a piddling amount, and we know he missed it all. He failed to recognize himself in that pitiful man, a fellow debtor. He sees himself instead in the role of the master. And he fails that role as well.
He misses this essential fact: Forgiveness is not for his personal freedom and happiness alone. It's to bring freedom and restoration to all, especially to those who owe him. It's to bring the mercy of God among us frail humans, waiting for redemption in a broken world. This right response to God's forgiveness is so serious and essential to the Christian life that Jesus warns the disciples after teaching them the Lord's Prayer, "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt. 6:14–15). God is not hinging his forgiveness on our release of others' debts—his salvation doesn't depend on any action on our part. Still, it's clear God requires forgiven people to be forgiving people.
Believing all of this did not make my own forgiveness of my father simple or immediate, of course. After that phone call with my sister, I made several trips to Florida over the next year and a half. I went at first with the words of Micah in my ears, "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8). I went wanting to love mercy, but my father and I clashed. He proclaimed his atheism. I was defensive. I remembered all the reasons I never liked him. And in every kindness I extended to him, I mourned that he had never done the same for me.
But I began to see him more fully. I saw his eagerness when I showed up each morning to visit. He called on my birthday. After his stroke, when he awoke to see me standing beside him, he began to weep. I placed my hand on his shoulder, the first time I had ever touched him with compassion, and we wept together silently, both of us for his long, sad life, and for all that had divided us. I finally recognized his mental illness, the root of his inability to love others. I realized I was not the only one jumped, robbed, and bleeding beside the road: he lay there too. With every recognition, my heart both broke and healed. Between visits, I called and sent letters, presents, and books. I was loving my father. I was loving mercy. I was laying down his selfishness and crimes, leaving them in the hands of God.
But things did not end as I hoped. My father never voiced interest in or love for me. He did not acknowledge his wrongs. My extension of mercy did not lead him to plead for God's mercy. When his heart so weakened that he fell into a coma, my sister held the phone up to his ear and I spoke words of love and forgiveness, but he was unable to respond. When he died two years after my return to his life, I cried for days.
Some might interpret these events as proof that Christian forgiveness—the kind predicated on God's forgiveness of us—doesn't work in the real world. I released my father from his debts against me, but it didn't seem to change him. Then I made a crucial mistake: I reentered relationship. I loved him and served him. In the end, I was hurt far more than if I had simply found my "minimal effective response" and then moved on with my life.
But that final event is not the real end of the story. I end at an earlier time, when four of my siblings and I gathered in my father's tiny room. We perched wherever we could, all of us turned toward him. He was wearing a beige shirt with green stripes and the khaki shorts my sister and I had bought him.
I looked around the room that day and blinked with wonder. It had been 16 years since we'd all been together. Now, our family was reconstituted around the very one who had split us apart so many years before. I thought of the Old Testament story of Joseph, of the scene in the dining hall with all his brothers, the reconstitution of his own family. How unlikely, impossible even, it was. The 10 older brothers sitting below him had ended the life Joseph had known some 16 years before. But their intent to harm had not utterly destroyed Joseph's life, and neither would he let it destroy their lives.
So it was with us. Our father had wounded each of us in significant ways, but we had decided the same thing: We would not pay back what was given to us. We were there to bless. We were there to honor. We were there not to silence the past but to reclaim it together. We were there to become forgiving people, people who could forgive one another as well.
My father was confused by our presence, but I saw him tear up with emotion one afternoon. Another time he acknowledged with stuttering words that he was not worthy of our attention. But we were not there to measure worth: we were there to love. When he died months later, he did not die alone. Two of his children were by his side.
The ministers of therapeutic forgiveness have a role to play, but their message is deficient in significant ways. They have made forgiveness too emotional, too private, and too small. But they are right about its power and freedom. Biblical forgiveness does release us, and not simply from our own anger and hurt. Biblical forgiveness releases us to bring the mercy we received from God out into the world to others. Forgiveness does simplify: the more forgiving we become, the less offense we take from others. Forgiveness does liberate: it opens our hearts rather than closes them to the suffering of others. Forgiveness does empower: it enables us to heal families and break generational sins.
We may begin the journey of forgiveness to ease our own burdens. But along the way we discover a chance to live out the fullness of the gospel: loving the unlovely, forgiving seventy times seven. In so doing, we reflect the kingdom of God among us.
I could so easily have missed it. I could so easily have listened to those voices rather than to the man who hung on the cross praying over his betrayers, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In the moment of his executioners' greatest wrongdoing (and therefore their greatest need), Jesus offered forgiveness. We are called to do the same. We will not mend the entire human family, nor will we ever forgive as perfectly and completely as Jesus. But we are called to try, out of obedience and love for the Father who forgave us.
Let us begin with our own families, bringing to our ruined homes the balm of Christ's boundless mercy. From there, who knows where forgiveness will lead?
Leslie Leyland Fields is a CT contributing editor and the author most recently of Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate (Thomas Nelson), from which this article is adapted. She lives in Alaska, where she works in commercial salmon fishing with her family.
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