Forgiveness is difficult. At times, it seems impossible. There are some people that are just too hard to forgive—like parents who have failed you.
I hope this article is especially helpful for you if your parents have divorced, or if you currently struggle to forgive your parents. I want to help you see from the Bible that forgiveness is possible, and will heal you as much as it will bring healing to your relationship—I know from experience.
I share some of my story to let you know that you are not alone in the kind of tough, tough times you are going through, but also to give you hope that God can work in families like ours.
I was raised by a father who physically abused me and my siblings. An angry and insecure man, he would come home from work feeling slighted by those around him and take that anger out upon me and my siblings. Naturally, I grew up bitter. I resented my father.
That bitterness and resentment probably would have gripped me for the rest of my life had God not rescued me from it.
Soon after I turned 17, my parents divorced. My mother found out that my father had been having a ten-year affair. I felt as if I was going to drown in my anger and hatred towards my father—until I met God.
Or, rather, he met me, saved me, and loved me.
God’s Forgiveness Frees Us
The most beautiful news we read about in the Bible is that God has offered his friendship to those who have rebelled against him (Romans 5:8). He forgives those who are undeserving of his forgiveness. That news changed my life.
Though my father’s sins were heinous, I knew I too was still a rebel against God (Romans 3:23). I chose to actively lie to my friends about being a Christian in order to gain social favor. I became friends with people in order to manipulate them and get what I wanted from them. Paul’s description of life before Christ could not more perfectly articulate my life:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. (Titus 3:3 ESV)
It’s a shocking description—but it describes who I was.
The only thing more shocking is God’s response:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our savior . . . (Titus 3:4-6 ESV)
In his goodness and loving-kindness God saved me from my sin and renewed me, allowing me to live a new life. I didn’t have to identify myself by my parent’s sin. I could identify as a child of God, because out of his mercy and love, God saved me from my own sin.
Life, before I meet Jesus, was marked by serving my “various passions and pleasures.” My life with Jesus now is marked by God’s “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” and “regeneration and renewal.” God overcame my sin and forgave me through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. God picked me up and set me on a new path. He said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2 ESV).
“If God Has Forgiven Me, Why Shouldn’t I Forgive Him?”
I was 17 when I became a Christian. But it wasn’t until I turned 20 that I realized God expected me to be a forgiving person. In fact, we find in the New Testament God’s command to “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13 NIV). I saw what this looked like when I was visiting a close friend of mine, staying up late, and catching up.
Suddenly at 11:00 pm, I received a call from my mom. In the Lord’s kindness, my mom became a Christian a year after I did. The call surprised me because my mom was normally asleep by that time. I answered the phone and my mom, very matter-of-factly, says, “Hey, you know, I was just thinking about forgiveness. If God has forgiven me, there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t forgive your dad, right? If God’s forgiven me, why shouldn’t I forgive him?”
I don’t remember how I responded. I do remember it being a rather quick conversation. And I do remember hanging up, putting my phone down, and weeping.
My mother, betrayed by her husband of 28 years (for 10 years of their marriage), who physically abused her children for years, wanted to forgive him, because she realized the preciousness of the good news that through Christ’s sacrifice, God had forgiven her.
I was weeping because of God’s work in my mom. And I was weeping because I hadn’t forgiven my dad.
“If God has forgiven me, why shouldn’t I forgive him?”
How Can I Forgive the Impossible?
But how did she do it?
We read in the Bible, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2 ESV). A few chapters before this verse, we read that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5 ESV).
When we trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, God promises to come and live in us by his Holy Spirit. He helps us live his way. He does impossible things through us—things like forgiving the un-forgiveable.
God gave my mom the ability to love and forgive my dad. This kind of forgiveness can only come from God’s Holy Spirit.
Working Towards Forgiveness
It’s been years since that phone call. I can now say that I too have forgiven my father.
It wasn’t like some Rocky-montage of me reading Scripture, practicing forgiving with my friends, getting counsel, and then some big climactic moment where I forgave my dad. It took time, but there were three things in particular that helped me be more forgiving.
1. Live According to God’s Word
Rather than training for a marathon, forgiving my dad felt more like daily exercise. In other words: I didn’t learn how to forgive my father by becoming a super-Christian. I learned how to forgive my father by being a normal follower of Jesus who did normal things: went to church, read the Bible, prayed, and was encouraged by fellow church members to grow up into spiritual maturity.
2. Listen to What God Says in His Word
Encountering, believing, and obeying passages like Matthew 18:21-22 also helped me forgive my dad.
Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sings against me? As many as seven times?” “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.” (CSB)
It’s kind of hard to find a theological loophole in this—or a way out of taking it at face value—especially when we read Jesus’ parable right after this passage! (Matthew 18:21-35).
Some will confine this kind of forgiveness to fellow Christians (indicated by “brother or sister”), but I think Jesus’ prayer to forgive those who crucify him (who were not Christians!) (Luke 23:34), and Stephen’s final words, while being stoned, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60 ESV) seem to indicate that the Christian’s responsibility to forgive extends beyond the Christian community.
The text is clear—if I am a follower of Jesus, following Jesus means obeying his command to forgive those who have hurt me (by the help of his Spirit!).
3. Learn How to Pray
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)
Listening to my friends pray for my dad also transformed me. Because he is not a follower of Jesus, I asked friends to pray for him to come to know the Lord. When I heard my friends pray fervently for him, my heart softened towards him. They helped me learn to pray for him. And it’s hard to hate those you pray for.
Life is gradual; so was forgiving my father. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t angry or bitter towards him anymore. Rather, I had come to love him and wanted to love him better.
Loving him, of course, is still difficult at times. But this is where the good news comes in: I always have the Holy Spirit, who is ready to help me continue being a forgiving person.
This Is My Story; What’s Yours?
In the end, working towards forgiveness just looked like living a normal Christian life, but it was a life lived in dependence upon Christ and the truth of what he has done for me. I acknowledge that, for some, forgiving someone who has deeply hurt you may require serious counseling and a lot of time. And I would trust the Lord in that and lean into his kindness and grace.
But don’t do that alone. If you take away one thing from my story, please lean into community. And not some ambiguous form of it: fold yourself into the life of a local church whose members promise to care for you and love you.
If you have any questions about local churches near you, please reach out to us. We’d be happy to help you find a good church. The importance of the local church can’t be overstated for our growth and discipleship as Christians.
Forgiveness looks more like a daily decision than it does a one-time event.
But, honestly, God’s Spirit has so healed me that I don’t really get angry at my dad anymore. I don’t think of him in terms of the dad who abused me. I used to avoid his calls. Now, when I can, I answer them, and we’ll talk about marriage, life, my faith, and more. And I actually enjoy talking with him.
That’s not to say forgiving him wasn’t difficult. Coming to grips with the fact that “my story” is indelibly shaped by an abusive father still feels weird at times. Sometimes I’ll talk with friends who have great relationships with their fathers and I’ll feel a pang of envy—but that’s not my dad’s fault. That’s mine! And I have to repent of that envy, confess it to God, and be genuinely happy for my friends (1 John 1:8-9).
This is my story; what’s yours? If you feel some resonance with my story, or want to know more, please feel free to reach out. We would love to hear your story and learn how to pray for you.
Forgiveness from God has been the greatest gift of my life. And it has freed me from a life of bitterness, anger, and ambivalence.
If you’re struggling with forgiveness, I promise you there is life and joy on the other side. Ask the Lord to give you a forgiving heart, and he will (Luke 11:13).