My dad was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago. Sadly, so many can relate to that feeling of having the wind knocked out of you at the sound of such news. When this reality pierces the bubble of our seemingly invincible world, our paradigm shifts. Very quickly, the inconsequential is weeded out, leaving the truly valuable remaining. This holds true even when estrangement is involved.
Dad’s words and actions crushed my spirit very early on, and I carried unforgiveness in my heart for many years. I remember from a young age, maybe even as young as three or four, believing I was unlovable and that I wasn’t meant to be here because of the rejection I felt from him. I despised who I was, and I despised him. Since young children typically have yet to develop healthy coping skills, I internalized the pain and shame of his rejection, and the weight of it broke my heart.
When I was forty two, I began counseling with a prayer minister at Transformation Ministries here in Birmingham, Alabama. This was the beginning of my spiritual and emotional healing and restoration from the many years I had suffered while harboring unforgiveness.
Until then, I could not bring myself to forgive my dad. It just was not in me. I would say the words, even pray the words, but my heart did not change and the anger remained. I was seething with bitterness, which revealed itself in other relationships. Out of self-preservation, I distanced myself from my husband, daughter, family members and friends to avoid exposing my heart to further pain.
Not only could I not forgive Dad, I could not forgive myself for who I had become. It took me seeing and accepting the true grace God freely gave me to understand that I was already forgiven. And the Lord intended for me to extend that very same grace to my dad in the form of forgiveness.
I Chose Forgiveness
The Lord used the cancer diagnosis as my world changer to activate the gift of forgiveness in my heart. I do believe He often uses life-and-death events to clarify our perspective and toggle our focus from indifference to urgency. Instantly, all of the painful memories paled in comparison to the freedom found through the act of forgiveness.
On the day I chose to forgive, February 10, 2014, I was overtaken by an urgency to share it with Dad. I was ready for freedom. I was ready to trust the Lord with our relationship, knowing that He would restore it. To stay on task and make sure I said everything that was on my heart, I opted to send an email. That night, I feverishly pecked out every word on my laptop with determination. In part, here is what I said:
“…during my study of the Heavenly Father, I realized how I have not honored you during my life. This is why I know I need to ask you for forgiveness… I have forgiven you, and choose to continue to forgive you, for any hurt you have caused me. I hope you can forgive me for my reaction to hurts.”
When I came to the place in my spiritual healing where I could visualize and believe in my heart that Dad and I were both sinners standing at the foot of the Cross, desperate for salvation and forgiveness and in dire need of the Savior, it was then that my heart softened to receive God’s forgiveness and in turn present it to my dad.
What I’ve learned is that forgiveness is not about the other person, and it’s not even primarily about you. It’s about Jesus. If you have unforgiveness in your heart, you must ask yourself if you believe His work on the Cross – His shed blood, His death, and His resurrection – is payment enough for the offence for which you are demanding payment. As Christ’s followers, we are called, even commanded, to freely forgive. In return, we ourselves will receive “a good measure”. And with God, that’s a whole lot!
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38 NIV).
We Have an Enemy
Do not minimize Satan’s cunning. Unforgiveness can be a catalyst in the very subtle shift from an open heart to a resentful bitterness. And when that occurs, there you will find the evil one, plotting destructive schemes custom-made for you.
We were not called to sit idly by while the enemy enforces cursings in our lives through lies, deceit, and thievery. He knows your weaknesses and is a mastermind at spewing propaganda that convinces us of ungodly beliefs. For me, that was believing I was defective, unwanted, unattractive and undeserving He will mislead you in the direction of pride, provoking you to take a stand in your own defense, pushing you into seclusion. And in the process, he slinks in and embezzles your relationships one-by-one.
“If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:10-11 NIV).
We have been given the Spirit of a sound mind to discern his schemes and denounce their power over us in Jesus name!
Being Aware of Unforgiveness
Unforgiveness is a poison. It seeps in, and before you know it deep roots of judgement and bitterness have formed. As Christians, we must choose forgiveness daily. If you are not sure if you have unforgiveness in your heart, ask yourself if you behave in the following ways, which may aid in discovering if you do:
- Rehearse in your mind a particular event involving a friend or loved one that evokes shame, anger, or resentment
- Feel a sense of defiance or the need to defend yourself or someone else against another
- Become easily angered at the thought of a particular person or in their presence
- Avoid contact out of a sense of dread
- Find it difficult to connect with or hear from your heavenly Father
If any of the above are true, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the source. Ask Him to forgive you for harboring unforgiveness and to lead you to the Cross where you can relinquish bitterness and judgment and replace it with grace and forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not weakness, it is God’s power in action. It is Christ in you, working through you, enacting freedom in your life.
During the week before Dad passed away in January, I was able to meet one of his high school friends. As I listened to him reminisce about their youth and describe their friendship, I realized that I never really knew my dad. The fracture in our relationship had occurred so early in my life that I never came to truly know him. But what I do know is that my heart is open to him now, and he forgives me. My closed heart proved to be a lonely prison. But THIS… is freedom.
As much as we know our own failings and shortcomings, we must give an allowance to others and realize they are just as in need of grace as we are. Basically, we need to cut each other some slack. We know that grace abounds! We have no fear of a shortage, so let us pass it around.
When I wrote Dad’s eulogy, I was flooded with a sense of awe at what the Lord had accomplished in our relationship through His great gift of forgiveness. In some ways, I wish things could have been different between us. But my life is my life, and just as God promises, what the enemy meant for evil, He used for good. My prayer is that the curse of unforgiveness has been broken and that my family will live in mercy’s freedom for future generations to come.
“…Mercy triumphs over judgement!” (James 2:13b)
Gracious Father, thank you for the gift of your Son, our way maker to forgiveness. Thank you for your Spirit who shines His light on the unforgiving places in our hearts and gently leads us to the foot of the Cross. Thank you for your abounding grace, which you press down, shake together, and overflow into our laps. Help us to receive it with open hearts and to freely give it with open hands. Amen.