A friend of mine said, “I don’t like Father’s Day. It reminds me of all the hurt I still have inside because of the way my father treated me. I look at Father’s Day cards and just want to cry. I can rarely find one I could give my father and not feel like a big hypocrite.”
Since no one but Jesus ever had a perfect father, I suspect we all need to forgive our fathers of a few things–maybe just for hurtful or untrue words that still sound in our heads like a continuous-play tape on an out-dated tape player. Whether our fathers are still in mortality or not, here are two reasons to implement the forgiveness process:
1. Our feelings about our earthly fathers have a way of coloring our perceptions and feelings about our Heavenly Father.
2. Emotional problems that crop up in current situations or relationships are often connected to unresolved childhood issues. Many of these issues have to do with the way we were treated by our dads.
Phil Harrison, in his upcoming book Clean Hands, Clean Heart, tells this story about his early relationship with his father:
When I was a child, I was often late getting home from elementary school. I would wander off to this or that friend’s house instead of coming straight home. When I got there, I was faced with a very uncomfortable time, waiting for my father to come home and administer the punishment–usually a spanking. I guess I must have misbehaved fairly frequently, because I came to dread his 6 o’clock arrival and the punishment I expected would come with it. Once I played at a friend’s house so late that I was sure my father was already home. I convinced my little friend to come home with me because I didn’t think my father would discipline me in front of my friend. My plan didn’t work. The friend got sent home and I was left to face the consequences of my misdeed alone, unprotected. I guess I came to feel the same way about God as I felt about my father. I was sure that “coming home” to God meant coming home to be punished. I came to believe this lie: God is a stern disciplinarian who is angry with me because of my sins and weaknesses.
And so it is, that the relationship we have with our fathers shapes our perceptions of God. For this reason alone it is vital to think about, and perhaps restructure that relationship, try to see more of the truth in regard to it. Phil was one of the fortunate ones who learned through his own experience to restructure his “dad-colored” ideas about God. He said,
Like Alma, I also became desperate enough to grasp the Lord’s proffered helping hand. Even though I was not sure what would happen to me, I knew I had to have help. I knew that my own strength was not enough, and I believed that Jesus was the only One who could save me. Tentatively, I reached out to Him. I confessed to Him my utter helplessness and my total dependence on Him. To my great astonishment and relief, He did not reject me as I feared He would. He welcomed me with open arms back into the fold. The lies I had believed fell away and I saw with new eyes. I have heard the saying: “If your picture of God is not working for you, you may need to fire your God and get a new one.” Said another way, “If your understanding of God is not helping you, come unto Him; you need a new understanding.” My recovery began when my understanding of God began to coincide more closely with the truth . . . This new perspective not only colors the way I hear the scriptures. It also colors my prayers, and opens to my understanding a relationship that, like Alma, I no longer fear but instead rejoice in. I never knew it was possible to love anyone the way I love Jesus and the way I now understand He loves me and has always loved me. With Alma, I no longer fear the coming of the Lord, but rejoice in it and long for that great day.
If we have not made this great discovery that our Heavenly Father is a whole lot more loving and accepting and wise than any earthly father could ever be, we might benefit from exploring this idea further. There are ways to clear the emotional pain that lingers through the years from mistreatment and misunderstandings. There are ways to forgive and move on. However, it is in the valley of pain that we usually learn life’s greatest lessons, and sometimes it is necessary to admit and feel the pain before we can let go of it.
The Pain We Run from May Be the Very Pain We Need
Pain often sends me to kneel at the feet of the Great Healer. I’m grateful for every circumstance of my life that motivates my discovery that only the healing power of Christ can bring me to a state of inner peace. I’m grateful for Christlike people who’ve given me the courage to look deeply at my feelings and my need for the Savior’s healing power. Elaine S. Sorensen Marshall said, “Healing really only begins when we face the hurt in its full force and then grow through it with all the strength of our soul. . . Healing is the Gift of the Savior . . . Healing is active. It requires all the energy of your entire being. You have to be there, fully awake, aware, and participating when it happens.” (Spring 2003 BYU Magazine, pp. 53-54)
Experiencing the Healing Power of Christ
Some of the hurt we harbor is likely to be connected with a father we need to forgive. Forgiving through Christ is the ultimate example of burying the weapons that Satan can use in his war against our souls. A friend, Cheryl Day, told of the process of forgiveness she was led to in a meeting I attended. Her father, like mine, was long dead, yet whenever his name was mentioned, or she saw his picture, bad feelings surfaced, and she realized those feelings were hurting her. The story she told impressed me deeply, so I asked her to write it. Here are her words, used by permission:
A few years ago I felt a real need to forgive my father. I was feeling stuck in all the pain and so I fell to my knees. I cried out to the Lord for help, asking what He would have me do. I was tired of coming face to face with the painful issue of “father.” Recognizing that my feelings toward him were interfering with my relationships with my husband and even my Heavenly Father, I knew it was time to face my fear of looking hard and deep at those feelings. I felt impressed to fast and pray for guidance. The guidance I received was to write and write and write about my problems with my relationship with my dad. I had avoided thinking about the whole subject, but now I tried to remember and to write in detail about the past–the alcoholism, abuse, anger and all the ugly reasons I hated my dad.
I tried to remember the good things too, but couldn’t. I promised to be thorough and spent three days and nights pouring out my deepest anger, hurt, disgust, and every other emotion I could connect with this “father” thing. Finally I was so spent I had nothing else left to give; I turned to my Lord and fell to my knees in fear and trembling. I still had no forgiveness to give my father, no love. I was trying with all my heart and my might to work this out, and the only thing I could see clearly now was Step One of the Twelve Steps which I, as a child of an alcoholic, have tried to faithfully work. Step One is about admitting our powerlessness without God, and I knew I of myself was powerless to forgive my father. I was completely and totally without anything to offer, nothing to put on the altar. All I had to give was my desire to have the pure love of Christ and the willingness to give my all. To my dismay my all seemed like nothing. I had no broken heart, no fond memories, no sweet moments, no power. I couldn’t even say “Heavenly Father this is all I can do; please apply the blood of the atonement and make up the rest–please Savior, tell my Heavenly Father I did my best, and gave all I had to give.” No. Not this time, the altar was empty. All I knew was I wanted what Christ offered and couldn’t bear losing Him. I prayed for mercy and grace that third night and finally crashed. I went to sleep crying for peace and redemption. I woke about 3 a.m. In my mind I was seeing my father in a new light–as a child. He was no longer the abuser, but the sweet innocent boy he once was. I picked up the scriptures and read where Jesus tells us we should forgive seventy times seven. Wow! I thought. How many times is that? 490! I began to write again, “I forgive my father for ________.” I picked whatever specific painful situation came to my mind and started writing “I forgive my dad.” Like a child writing on the blackboard, I wrote again and again that I forgave my dad for that particular way he had hurt me until the energy or pain was gone. Then I went on to another specific situation. After some hours, my writing became more personal. I switched to writing, “I forgive you” and began to feel that I was talking right to my dad. After some hours of writing, the negative feelings that had been seething inside me for so many years were lifted–all of them. The pain and sadness, the fear and resentment, the abandonment, the hate were all gone. That empty hole in my soul in the shape of my father was being filled with the love of the Master. I felt His love for me and what’s more the love He had for all men–even my earthly father. I knew that my father too was a child of God. Then I felt my dad’s presence right there in my room, and I heard him whispering oh so softly to my spirit “Thank You.” I felt such joy and relief. I can’t tell you how it all works–only the principles I learned. Forgiveness is a choice, God loves us all, Christ’s power to atone will meet us wherever we are even if we are without anything to offer. I also learned that my dad needed me to forgive him before he could move on. Somehow my unforgiveness was holding him back from progressing. I will never forget the peace and love of that miracle night. I now have love for my dad–not the phony kind, but real unconditional love–because it is Christ’s pure love. I’m only borrowing that love, yet it is so powerful that day by day my love gets stronger. For now Christ is doing the loving and all I have to give to the equation is all I really ever had or ever have–my will. To submit my will to His will is the only gift I can give Him that He doesn’t already have. So the altar is full and my offering is enough–it is perfect in His sight. Now when I see a picture of my father I see a child and I feel nothing but love for him. Christ taught me that each of us will always be a child in His eyes. As a mother and grandmother I think I’m beginning to understand the kind of perfect love God has for us, his little children.
Jesus, the Great Healer
The Lord led Cheryl to use the powerful tool of writing to explore her feelings and to empty her heart of the stored-up negative memories of decades. Finally, the Spirit led her to a process of forgiving that literally carried out the Savior’s counsel to forgive “seven times seventy.” She was healed because she followed all the steps suggested by Elder Robert D. Hales: “My message today is how to aid the healing process of the soul. It is a message to lead you and me to the Great Healer, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a plan to read the scriptures, pray, ponder, repent if necessary, and be healed with the peace and joy of His Spirit” (Ensign, Nov. 1998, 14). Only through the power of the Spirit and the power of Christ’s atonement did Cheryl find her peace.
Forgiveness is Between You and God
A few lines excerpted from a piece called “Do It Anyway” written by Mother Teresa, carry a profound message:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway . . .
You see in the final analysis, it is between you and GOD.
It was never between you and them anyway.
Hurts of the heart are an opportunity to deepen our relationship with the Lord, learn of His healing power, and partake of his miracle of forgiveness. The natural man functioning without the Spirit is totally incapable of forgiveness. The ability to forgive is a gift of the Spirit that the Savior offers to all who, like Cheryl, come unto Him.
Do you have a need to forgive your father? This Father’s Day season can be a reminder to follow a well-marked spiritual path to the peace that comes from the miracle of forgiveness.