Forgiving our fathers

Susanna: I think you’re exaggerating. You were his only child, his son, his blood. In this photo he doesn’t look like a man who doesn’t love his son.
Charlie: Nothing I did was good enough for that guy. Don’t you understand that? —Rain Man, 1988

Bonnie: He’s not afraid of losing. He’s afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their father’s love every time they come up to the plate?
Fred: All of them! —Searching for Bobby Fischer, 1993

Mothers are the stuff of legend. They shuttle us from tuba lessons to soccer practice to Boy Scout meetings, they bandage our wounds and wipe away our tears, they have an infallible memory for our sizes and colors and favorite foods, they’re faithful and true, even when friends desert us. The bond between mother and child is one of the most resilient in human experience.

And then there are fathers. Where mothers are doting, fathers are disapproving. Where mothers are kindhearted, fathers are stern. Where mothers are close, fathers are distant and cold, even slightly dangerous. I’m generalizing, of course. But most of the time, when one parent packs his bags and leaves for greener pastures, it’s usually the father. When a parent is physically abusive, it’s usually the father. When a parent is missing at recitals and teacher conferences and baseball games—you guessed it.

Fathers have earned a poor enough reputation that some post-modern thinkers have suggested writing them out of the family script—that would be a terrible loss. When a father is engaged and involved—when he is attentive, available, caring, loving—children thrive, and family studies bear this out.

My father was a slow-motion train wreck. In my mother’s wedding photos, he is full of joy and hope—his eyes sparkle. Only a few years later, he had become brooding and distant—the sparkle was gone. My father had issues—like many people, he hoped that marriage would make everything right. It did not. In a few short years he was drinking, heavily, and his life began to unravel.

I have very few memories of that time, perhaps because it was painful and confusing. Dad was often absent—sometimes he would disappear without explanation. Our home was tense, and at times it was a battleground.

One evening stands out in my memory. We are sitting down for dinner. Dad had been drinking, my parents had been arguing and the air was thick with tension. He says something in an angry voice, grasps the table with his hands and shakes it violently, spilling milk from our glasses. Suddenly, he bolts from his chair and storms out the door in a rage. I see his back. I see the door slamming behind him. A few days later, we are at my grandmother’s home and the adults are whispering and weeping: my father had been found dead in his car—a suicide. The scribbled note he left said that we would be better off without him. I was nine; my dad was thirty-four.

David Meece, the musician, also grew up with an alcoholic father. One evening his dad burst into his bedroom, put a gun to his son’s head and shouted, “You’re worthless!” By comparison, my own experience seems hardly worth telling. Meece says that even in adulthood, no matter how much success he attained, those words—you’re worthless—crippled him. He believed them, because they had come from his own father.

Some fathers threaten to kill their children; some walk out the door and never look back. Some fathers set impossible standards and give their love parsimoniously, if at all. A bad father has the power to convince a child that he or she is utterly worthless. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A, a bad father will tattoo a capital letter L on his child’s forehead: L for Loser.

Jesus died on the cross; we have received forgiveness through his death. This is one of Christianity’s foundational doctrines, and one that almost everyone is familiar with. But there’s another side to the coin: in order to benefit from God’s forgiveness, we must first find it in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us.

…and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us…. If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. —Matthew 6:12,14, NLT, (Jesus speaking)

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” —Matthew 18:21,22, The Message

It is no easy thing, forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply. It was not until I made an honest attempt to understand my father that I was finally able to forgive him. And it was not until I forgave him that God released me from the chains of worthlessness and self-loathing that my father had bound me with. My grandmother died of an infection shortly after giving birth to my father. In his grief, my grandfather abandoned his children and drowned himself in booze. His children were parceled out to foster homes, and my father, perhaps blaming himself for the death of his own mother, never overcame his own tragic sense of worthlessness.

When I could see my own father as a child—frightened, homeless, weeping—I had no choice but to forgive him. Forgiveness is much more than merely releasing someone from responsibility—forgiveness is an act of humility, of stepping into someone else’s shoes, of acknowledging the kinship of failure and sinfulness that unites us all.

They kept on asking Jesus about the woman [caught in adultery]. Finally, he stood up and said, “If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!” —John 8:7, CEV

Perhaps we simply expect too much. Perhaps making peace with our fathers is God’s way of making us sensitive to our own failings, our own inadequacies, our own sin. When Jesus was hanging from the cross, bleeding and suffering, one of his last utterances was, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34, The Message)

Our Father in heaven, give us the grace to forgive our fathers, as you have so mercifully forgiven us.

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  1. “Our Father in heaven, give us the grace to forgive our fathers, as you have so mercifully forgiven us.”

    How merciful is a god which demanded the agonizing death of his own son in order to provide the forgiveness you laud? This was a moving essay, until you introduced the idea that humanity has received global forgiveness from an angry father via the death, through torture, of an innocent son — introduced the idea without addressing it, without asking why Jesus didn’t say, “Father, I forgive you… for the unforgivable act of filicide.”

    There is always a dissonance that rises to hypocrisy when Christians talk about forgiveness and mercy, and this is the core of it. A death cult that glorifies an act of vicious human sacrifice and blood atonement — how do you call that merciful? How do you call that an examplar of forgiveness?

    I didn’t realize I was on a Christian website before I got to those lines in the essay. My fault for not reading the URL & banner before jumping into the material; I got here through Google. And I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing the reason for my dismay over the failure of an essay that was otherwise intriguing and effective.

  2. Thank you for your comments.

    Your objection to the Christian doctrine of the substitutionary death of Jesus is one that others have shared. But your comments show that you have misunderstood that doctrine.

    In any system of justice, a balancing of the scales is necessary. A wrong must be made right, or else there is no justice. Either a penalty must be paid, or the penalty must be forgiven.

    If we are guilty of sin, and we are, is there any penalty that can justly wipe away our sin? The Scriptures say no, humanly speaking. Our sin is too great for any human effort at balancing the scales.

    The merciful solution God devised is that He, Himself would pay the price for our sin. The doctrine of the trinity says that Christ was both fully human and fully God. This was not therefore an act of filicide by an angry God, but a merciful act of self-sacrifice by a loving God, who balanced the scales of justice by paying the price for your sin and mine Himself.

    An analogy can be made to a young man who was recently killed in the war in Iraq. He was a soldier. A grenade was thrown into his vehicle. He threw his body on the grenade and the explosion killed him, but his self-sacrifice saved the lives of the other soldiers in his vehicle.

    Thus, God, threw Himself onto the tearing explosion our sin has caused and took on Himself the destruction that was meant for us.

    Only in Christianity do we see a God so loving, so generous, so merciful, that He would willingly suffer so that His people would not have to.

  3. Charlie,

    When I was 13 my Dad spit on me.

    I think that really affected me way into adulthood. Your article has given me the courage and understanding to REALLY forgive my Dad.

    I love what you said about Forgiveness includes a sense of Humility. I have two kids upstairs asleep and I dont want them to be writing about this subject in 25 years.

    God Bless.

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