My father never said goodbye that day. He was much more interested in his hot dogs and beans, his favorite dinner. I knew I could not make the long journey again from Alaska to his nursing home in Florida. I knew I would never see him again. The doctors said his heart would not last much longer. I struggled to say my final words in the public dining room around his tiny table.

“Dad, it’s been so good to see you this week. I, ummmm, don’t know if I’ll get to see you again. So . . . uhh, I have to say goodbye. I really love you and . . .” My voice trailed off. He was busy trying to spear the hot dog with his fork.

I waited for a response, but I should have known better. My father never responded as others did, even when young and healthy. He may have said “I love you” once or twice in my life, but I can’t guarantee it. His children were of little interest to him, except for the one he sexually abused.

My brother was there with me that day, hoping, like me, for some kind of affirmation and even blessing. He was physically capable of this. We had had several conversations over the last five days. Not all had been dismal. One of those times, he complimented me. Another time, he looked at pictures of my children and acted interested. One day we sat together eating hot fudge sundaes. I cherished those moments. But in our final minutes with him, he was focused on a spoon of beans. We swallowed our hurt and both kissed the top of his bald head, gave him a hug in his chair, and slowly turned to the exit with his silence heavily following behind.

Forgiveness Isn't Always Pretty

This was the not the ending I expected. I desperately wanted a beautiful bow on my relationship with my father. No, it didn’t even have to be beautiful, just the ragged ends tied together in some fashion. And why shouldn’t I expect that? Hadn’t I (finally) forgiven my father? Didn’t forgiveness promise at least that?

I desperately wanted a beautiful bow on my relationship with my father.

I had forgiven my father. That alone was miraculous. Two years before his death, I felt a piercing, insistent tug back toward the man I had run from decades ago. I had no good memories to lure me back. It was the Holy Spirit convicting me through the prayer I had uttered for decades without a thought: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NIV). It was that delivered the final blow: I was the unmerciful servant who danced out of the presence of the king, freed from my massive debts, who then collared the poorest, most pathetic man in my life demanding, “Pay up! You owe me!”

I was enabled to release my father from the debts he could not pay. Indeed, I came to see that no matter how hard I pressed or prayed, my father could not pay back what he owed me or anyone in my family. The choice before me was clear: to continue to demand payment from someone who was himself bankrupt, deepening my own sense of anger and loss, or to forgive—to release him from those debts and offer to him the same mercy that God gave to me.

Mercy Takes Intentionality

Though God requires all of us to forgive those who wrong us, we still must choose. I chose mercy. And choosing mercy slowly led to love. Real love for my father, who had been unable to love me. I saw my father differently. I saw how little he had been loved. I saw his own suffering. And while the miracle I hoped for did not happen—that he would express acceptance and love for his daughter—a greater miracle occurred: I came to love him.

Offering mercy to my father was not cheap, however. It meant phone calls, expensive trips, opening a closed heart to the risk of hurt again. And I was hurt again. I know what the cynics say to this, and those who counsel revenge rather than release. “It’s your fault,” they would say. “Your most important job is to protect yourself, not expose yourself. You’ve been hurt enough.” But I came to know this: we waste so much of our lives trying to avoid hurt and pain. Not only is a pain-free life impossible to attain, but without pain, we lose the capacity to recognize and fully enjoy true life.

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Jesus’ own life was full of joy, but equally marked by rejection and suffering as well. We are in the best of company.

We must let go, as well, of the health-and-wealth gospel that seduces us to believe God owes us a happy childhood and life, and if we didn’t get it, God has wronged and robbed us. I wanted it too: family snuggles, parents cheering every achievement, a train around the Christmas tree, all the glowy images we have of family life and love—but where does God promise this? Jesus’ own life was full of joy, but equally marked by rejection and suffering as well. We are in the best of company.

Forgiveness Leads to New Beginnings

How does this story end then? It didn’t end the day my brother and I walked, leaden, out of the presence of my father. It didn’t end when my father died two months later in his little room. It didn’t end when I flew back to Florida one more time to scatter his ashes in the ocean with a sister and a brother, speaking the psalms over what remained of him. I have discovered since my father died four years ago that forgiveness leads only to beginnings, not endings. Forgiveness brings such life to both the forgiven and the forgiver, that even death cannot stop it.

Even my own death.

Just two years after my father died it happened: a new hurt and a loss that cut so deep, I felt slain. I was stunned. How could I be here again, at this same split in the road with people I loved and whom I had thought loved me? How could I survive this? (And, secretly, the thought: Didn’t my previous forgiveness, my obedience, give me a pass from this kind of repeated grief?)

I did not die . . . . Forgiveness has kept us all alive.

But it slowly came clear—again. I had to choose the only choice God gives: forgive. Though the circumstances this time were harder than with my father, I had learned that God could be trusted, that forgiveness was the most potent force he had given us, capable of turning stone hearts back to blood and warmth. I did not die. Nor did my love for these people, good people, whom I long for and pray for every day. Forgiveness has kept us all alive.

Here is what I know now. Our deepest hurts often come from those closest to us. Every time this happens, this is our chance to choose the real gospel: blessing those who will not bless us, letting offenses go, loving even our enemies. It isn’t easy, and we will do it imperfectly, but someone has shown us the way: a man staked to a tree, who in his last breath the very ones who hung him there. When we follow, we offer life to those who need it as desperately as we do. When we forgive, we become the kind of people Jesus died to make us—fully, beautifully whole and alive.

Leslie Leyland Fields is an award-winning author of eight books, a contributing editor for CT, a national speaker, and a sometimes commercial fisherwoman, working with her husband and six children in commercial fishing on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she has lived for 36 years. Her most recent book is Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Thomas Nelson, 2014).