Duncan and I are alone in the kitchen, sitting at the table, tense. We are having words, the kind a long-married husband and wife have when they cannot agree. We are not calling each other names, but we alternate between frustration and anger as our words trigger painful memories. Somewhere in this exchange, I feel my stomach ease and heart soften. I listen closely now to what Duncan is saying and what he is not. I begin to understand how he feels. I mentally close the door to past hurts and relax into my chair.
Before long, we are making tea together. Our disagreements don’t always end so easily, but it happens more often these days. We’re both becoming our real selves, and we now put on the habit of forgiveness more often than the robes of bitterness.
I have my father to thank for this. He was a supremely selfish, damaged man who barely spoke to me throughout my life. But God had something in store for me through him. It started with a phone call from my sister a few years ago.
“Leslie, Dad was at the VA hospital last week. They thought he might have had a little heart attack. I just found out today.”
My father was in his mid-80s by then. In the 25 years since I’d left home, I had seen him three times. But I pictured him, lying helpless in a hospital bed.
“How did you find out?”
“I talked to Dad on the phone today.”
“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 could not hide my amazement and confusion. I couldn’t believe that out of the six siblings, she was the one calling him. It was her room that he’d visit almost every night, when the rest of us were in bed. We didn’t know it until decades later. And my father had no relationship with anyone, as far as we knew. He showed no interest in his six children, nor did he have any friends.
I have always believed in forgiveness, of course. Isn’t this the heart of the gospel? But—forgive my father?
I was silent for a moment, then asked, “Why are you doing this, Laurie?”
“I’ve forgiven him, Leslie.”
Astounded, I could not speak. His abuse of my sister was enough to justify my anger against him. But there was so much more. Throughout our childhood, he refused to seek any employment other than as a traveling salesman. But his detachment and his inability to fulfill simple tasks cost him job after job, until no one would hire him. Without an income, we lived in unrelenting poverty. Once he took the only money we had left to live on and drove away, leaving us penniless for a time.
“Dad ruined my life, you know?” Laurie had said to me once. Yes, I knew. We all knew. It’s the reason I’d never even thought to pray for my father, who was an avowed atheist.
A few weeks after Laurie’s phone call, I was praying the Lord’s Prayer—head down, eyes shut tight—and hit the familiar words in the middle: “And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matt. 6:12 NLT). I stopped as though hearing those familiar words for the first time. What did I just say? I mouthed the words silently, then ran for my Bible. What was that phrase doing there? “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us”? How could I have missed that all these years? Was God really attaching, in some way, His forgiveness to our forgiveness? I could run from these words no further.
I have always believed in forgiveness, of course. Isn’t this the heart of the gospel? Didn’t I know that God’s forgiveness of my law-breaking heart brought me this crazy life of freedom and joy and constant second chances? But—forgive my father?
And so began my return to my father’s life. I flew from my home to his repeatedly to visit. I pushed him around the rehab facility in a wheelchair, helped him in and out of bed, took him on outings in a rented car, and sat with him at mealtimes, watching him eat his baked beans with trembling hands. I bought clothes for him, sent him gifts on his birthday and Christmas. I prayed for him. Constantly.
These attentions were difficult and guarded at first. He did not speak much, as always. He seldom thanked me. He told me frequently and defiantly that he was an atheist. And in the midst of my care and attention, I could never quite shake the awareness that every act of kindness I was showing him was something he had never shown to me.
But I began to see the pain in his life. I saw that few people—maybe no one—loved him, and some had done violence to him. I realized that he likely suffered from schizoid personality disorder and was incapable of loving me as I hoped or wanted. I stopped crying for myself and was able to cry for the hurts he had received.
I could not ignore all the harm my father had done to me and my family. In fact, forgiveness requires an honest accounting of all that happened. But I was no longer fragmented by feelings of hate and hurt, nor even the more insidious ones of apathy and numbness. I grew into an ever-deepening realization that God’s forgiveness of me—His release of all my unaccountable debts against Him—could heal me to release my father from his much smaller debts against me.
I grew into an ever-deepening realization that God’s forgiveness of me could heal me to release my father from his much smaller debts against me.
And I did. But this is no fairy tale. Forgiving my father’s debts did not turn out exactly as I hoped. I wished he would reciprocate my actions—that he would acknowledge me, thank me, and even say he loved me. More, I hoped that my own forgiveness of him would lead him to seek God’s forgiveness before he died. None of this happened. Though his heart softened for a time after his stroke and he returned to better health, he reaffirmed his unbelief and turned stonily from any mention of the gospel. Nor did he express concern or love for me, even on my last visit, when we both knew we would not see each other again.
I cannot lie and say this doesn’t hurt. But I have found God’s love so empowering, I believe we are enabled to love and forgive even those who have hurt us and cannot love us back. Here, then, is an ending I hadn’t foreseen. Forgiveness of my father is healing the broken and bitter parts of me and bring-ing me closer to my real self, the person God desires me to be: whole, not easily offended, full of mercy, quick to forgive. It has taken me two fathers to truly know this—one who hurt and One who continually heals.