Forgiving My Father

“Oh, Daddy,” the little girl said sweetly, as her father took her out of the swing and held her close. His eyes were filled with love.

After I got home from the park, I wept. At first I cried, because I had witnessed a beautiful moment. Then my tears turned bitter. The thought that grasped my heart was, I never had a daddy.

That day my mind focused on daddy qualities: tenderness, acceptance, affection, comfort–things I’d longed for from my father. In the midst of my pain, God showed me something that was a turning point on my path of forgiveness. Additional truths God has shown me since then have gradually helped me forgive my father to the point where I have developed a deep love for him.

“The time for forgiveness is now.”

“Do you remember when you said that?” I’d habitually ask during Dad’s visits, after recalling a childhood memory involving my father’s rage and hoping for an apology.

“Surely, I would never have said that,” was his rote reply in this repeated exchange.  His refusal to apologize fueled my bitterness.

Finally I realized that my efforts in trying to get Dad to repent were futile. I needed to let go of the lie that says receiving an “I’m sorry” is a prerequisite to moving on in the forgiveness process. Instead I made a decision: “I choose to forgive my father fully — even if he never repents.” As I said those words, I was reminded of Jesus on the cross when He said, “Father, forgive them, because they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Unforgiveness prolongs pain.

For years I thought my father’s treatment of me was responsible for my ongoing inner turmoil. In reality my unforgiveness was tormenting me. (See Matthew 18:34-35)

It wasn’t until I was middle-aged that I renounced resentment and stopped reliving in my mind how my dad had rejected me. I began to focus on how my unforgiveness had affected my life and my relationship with him. Instead of feeling bereft that he refused to say, “Will you forgive me?” I studied God’s Word and followed His instruction for me. Eventually He even led me to ask my father for forgiveness for my judgmental and unforgiving attitude. That, rather than any transformation in him, was what changed our relationship and brought me peace.

One of the most difficult things I had to forgive Dad for was the death of my 21-year-old sister. I felt convinced that his cruelty toward her during her battle with schizophrenia—his yelling at her to try to get her to “snap out of it”–caused her to commit suicide–and I had told him so

Years after my sister’s death, God prompted me to go to my father and tell him that I forgave him for any way he might have contributed to my sister’s death and to ask forgiveness for blaming her death on him. When I did this, this man who rarely displayed vulnerability admitted to me that if she hadn’t killed herself, he would have ended up killing himself—he had already planned his method.

At that moment, as the “I know everything/I can handle anything” mask came down, I saw how much my father was hurting –and how much he needed healing. Even though he professed
to be a Christian, my father was in deep bondage and needed my prayers, not my criticism.

God wants to be my Daddy.

For years, I sought Jesus as a loving brother, but I had built a wall to keep God the Father out. Then one day in church, we were encouraged to meditate on our relationship with Father God.

In my mind I visualized God stepping off His throne. I felt frightened as He walked toward me. Would He be critical? Would He point out my sins and yell in rage at my imperfections? Suddenly He was right with me. Then He did something unexpected. He got on His knees and washed my feet. The words that echoed in my mind were those of Jesus in John 14:9: “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father.”

Since then I’ve embraced God the Father and even God my Daddy. I’ve discovered that He has none of my father’s imperfections. I’ve asked Him to forgive me for judging that He did.

The rest of the story.

In the midst of my tears over the girl in the park and over never having a daddy, I heard God whisper, “Let Me be your Daddy.” I pictured myself starting to walk toward Him. As I got closer, my father was walking with me. Then the truth hit me: My father didn’t know how to be a daddy because he never had one. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was young. He didn’t see his father again until he was an adult, and my grandmother remained a single mom. Suddenly I no longer saw my father as the cause of my grief and pain. He was a fellow sufferer. I felt immense compassion toward him and took his hand in mine as we walked toward God, our Daddy.

As I have let go of my expectations of my father and have allowed God to be my Daddy, my father has developed “daddylike” ways. He used to say, “Me too” or “Same here” whenever I told him I loved him. Now he’s able to say the words and even initiates them occasionally.  He hugs me whenever we get together, and over time the hugs have turned from stiff, mechanical to the genuine article. His tone has become more tender, and his harsh, abusive tirades are a distant memory.

As I reflect on mistakes I’ve made as a mom, even though I desire to be a great mom, I know my dad wanted to be a great dad and even a great daddy. His words “I did the best I could,” are the closest he’s come to an apology. I know now that our best can never measure up. That’s why we need Jesus, and that’s why we need a heavenly Daddy who promises to be “a father of the fatherless.” (Psalm 68:5 ) — a Daddy of the “daddyless.” That promise is for me and for my dad and for anyone else who will embrace it.

This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of Journey. © 2006 Lifeway Press