I pulled out of the driveway and looked back at the house—there he was sitting in the doorway on the seat of his walker, waving at me as I eased down the road. I waved back and called out, “I love you Dad!” As I pulled to a stop at the end of his street, I realized I had tears dripping off my face, because I finally knew I meant those words. God had done a remarkable work in my heart.
My Dad and I had a rough time starting in my early teens and for some 20+ years after. The details are not important, but the pain was very real. There was a long stretch of time that we did not speak at all and when we did begin to reconnect it was strained and awkward. To borrow a little from Simon and Garfunkel, there was a very rickety bridge over a lot of troubled water. And honestly, I was okay with a minimal relationship—that suited me just fine. I had moved away from my hometown and was busy raising my family, working and making my own life separate from my Dad.
But God was not satisfied with the relationship between us. Ironically, I was hearing God’s call to ministry even while I had shut myself off from my Dad. I taught women from the Bible, dug into the Scriptures and shared what God declared, but I steered pretty wide around verses about forgiving others. Sure, I knew the importance of forgiveness and had told God “I forgive him.” But God required something deeper from me—and for me.
For a while I had kept a polite demeanor when I was with my Dad, but my attitude was honestly arrogant. My words were ever so slightly barbed with disrespect. His birthday was approaching and my brother wanted us to come for a birthday dinner. I would have just as soon sent him a card and called it a day, but my brother insisted, and so we agreed to go. A couple of days before we left, God took me to Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 2:7-8 and told me very pointedly this word was for me regarding my Dad.
Now you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.
Wait, God wanted me to forgive and comfort and reaffirm my love—for my Dad’s sake? That seemed a bit unfair, after all I was the injured party here! I was the one who had lived all these years with “excessive sorrow.” Shouldn’t he be made to comfort and love me? Didn’t he owe me something? God patiently heard my arguments (read whining), but kept coming back to the same point: “I am calling you to obedience, not your Dad.” “Lord,” I answered, “I will do as You have said, but only because You said it, not because I want to. You’re going to have to help though, because it ain’t in me.” I’m not sure, but I think I heard God say, “I can work with that.”
That year had presented a lot of health challenges for my Dad, and when I saw him in a motorized chair with his oxygen, it gave my heart such a shock. My Dad was frail, unable to walk on his own or breathe without a tube in his nose. I felt a piece of ice crack around my heart. Still, we sat on the opposite end of the long table from my Dad. But my eyes kept drawing back to that frail old man. We enjoyed the meal and the conversation, and prepared to leave the restaurant. I found myself walking ahead of my Dad, moving chairs and obstacles out of his way. We decided to take some pictures in the parking lot and my sister-in-law positioned me directly behind my Dad sitting in his chair. I put my hands on his shoulders, and he reached up, and grabbed my hands so that I was bent over, hugging him, with his hands on my arms. Another piece of ice broke away. We all said our goodbyes and I climbed into the back seat of our car. My phone pinged a message; my sister-in-law sent me a copy of the picture we had taken and suddenly the frozen dam broke and flooded my eyes. I didn’t see the man that I had been so hurt by or so angry with. I saw my Dad—frail and old, but with such a glad look on his face with my arms wrapped around him. The thought came to me: “This is not the same man who hurt me,” Forgiveness rushed into my heart, filling all the places where the bitterness had taken root. I don’t know where the man I had avoided for so long had gone, because the person in that picture was someone I truly loved. And there in that backseat, God spoke to my heart: “You are not the same girl so full of pain and anger anymore either. I have carried you and I have been your Father all these years and my love for you has washed away your pain and bitterness. Now you can love your earthly father with the love I have poured into you.” My heart had been set free.
Forgiveness is a gift that God gives to every person who will receive it. Forgiveness is a gift that you and I are also called to give, but the truth is, we are often the greatest benefactors. Forgiveness sets us free, because bitterness is the heaviest burden known to man.
I know that someone is reading these words and thinking, “but you don’t know what this person has done to me!” Beloved, I chose not to go into detail about all the troubled water under my own rickety bridge, but suffice to say it was deep and painful and affected every aspect of my entire life. When I forgave my Dad, it was an act of obedience to God, not because of a warm-fuzzy feeling on my part. But that step of obedience broke the dam of bitterness and God took away that pain and anger. He changed my heart. Perhaps God is waiting for you to look up from your tangled emotions and simply say, “I’ll forgive them because you say so.” That, my friend, is the first step in the direction of true freedom.
Merciful, Holy Father, Thank you for not allowing me to settle for less than a heart set free by forgiveness and love