Making Peace with Your Parents
How to forgive and let go of the past.
by Paul Thigpen
© 1997 by Paul Thigpen
Dad and I sat reading on a Sunday afternoon when a sudden spring thunderstorm swept through. I dashed for the windows — to open them. Most folks would have wanted them closed, I suppose, to keep the rain out. But Dad smiled approvingly and came to stand beside me, where the wet wind brushed our faces, and the musky smell of the rain wrapped around us.
"We love the same things, don't we, Son?" he said softly. I nodded, put my arm around his shoulders, and gave him a hug. The moisture on my face wasn't all from the rain.
Dad and I, you see, were best friends. But it hadn't always been that way.
My childhood had been stormy, with Dad at the eye of the storm. It was an emotional weather pattern repeated from his own childhood. He was distant and critical; I was arrogant and rebellious. I grew up resenting him, wanting to get away from him, longing for his acceptance but convinced that he rejected me.
In the years since then, I've discovered just how many others have a similar story to tell. They look back on their childhood less than fondly, and at the center of their unhappy memories stands a parent. Long into adulthood, the pain lingers, the resentment festers, the emotional debris still blocks the path of healthy relationships.
That was the case for me until the Lord apprehended me just after I graduated from high school. Not long after I was reconciled to Him, a godly friend helped me realize what had to come next: It was time to be reconciled to my dad as well.
Today I find myself repeating that urgent message to friends who still hurt from their early years. You may think you've dealt with the situation by moving far away from your family. But you can't move away from the pain. You may try to avoid conflict by minimizing your contact with them. But the inner conflict simmers.
If memories of your childhood are still painful and you're reluctant to be around your mother or father, it's time to make peace with your parents.
A Plan for Peace
Why can estrangement from our parents cause such emotional devastation even years after we've left home? Failure to forgive ultimately corrodes the soul.
Jesus once told a parable about an unmerciful servant (see Matthew 18:21-35). He talked of a debtor who was shown mercy, yet refused to show mercy himself, and was thrown into jail and tortured. Then the Lord added a chilling conclusion: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).
What kind of torture is Jesus talking about? You could see it clearly in an elderly woman I once knew who died lonely and bitter. Her refusal to let go of the injuries of life had poisoned her spirit over the years. The acid had eaten its way from the depths of her heart up to the surface of her everyday life. Nothing pleased her. Everything irritated her. Life itself had become her prison, and every new day, a torturer.
Failure to forgive anyone — even a passing stranger who offends us through some unintentional slight — leaves us vulnerable to the corrosive effects of bitterness. Consider, then, just how severe the misery can become when the person against whom we bear a grudge is someone who stood at the center of our lives for most of our formative years.
We have no choice but to forgive if we want to go on in our walk with God. Yet forgiving isn't always easy, especially when a parent has injured us deeply or habitually over a period of years. In fact, sometimes those we love the most are the hardest to forgive, because their offenses have the power to wound us more severely.
A few practical insights can make the process easier. Here's the approach I developed years ago through prayer and friends' advice — a strategy for making peace with my father. Perhaps you can adapt it to your situation:
1. I identified my father's specific offenses. Thinking about the hurt in broad terms such as "Dad never liked me" does little to clarify the problems we have with our parents. If we don't know exactly what the offenses were and are, we'll have a hard time forgiving them.
I found it helpful to get alone for a few undistracted hours to make a written list of my resentments. I recorded specific memories that were painful, such as the day, when I was seven, that Dad told a house guest in my presence how I had "the intelligence of a jackass." I also listed current irritations and long-standing conflicts, addressing my grievances directly to my father: "Dad, you never admit it when you are wrong." "Dad, you compliment everyone except your own children."
I didn't struggle to remember every incident that ever happened. I simply recorded everything that came to mind, until I had the sense that I'd written enough.
Next, I reviewed the list, allowing feelings to surface freely. They alternated between anger and grief. When I was done, I put it away for the time being-showing it to my parents would only have made matters worse.
2. I confessed my own offenses to God, repented of them, and asked His forgiveness. Just as no one had perfect parents, no one is a perfect child. Having identified specific offenses, I began to see that not all of my responses to his offensive behavior had been appropriate. In particular, when he had laid down unreasonable and arbitrary rules, I had simply broken them behind his back and covered my behavior with deceit. That response in turn had eroded his trust in me. Because I had also been wrong, I needed to repent of my own past.
I also discovered that some of my expectations of Dad had been unreasonable. For example, as a child I was disappointed by how little time my father spent with me, and the disappointment turned into resentment. But now I better understood how exhausted he had been every day, six days a week, coming home from twelve hours of hard manual labor. I recognized the difficulties of distributing his limited time at home among a wife and five children. To maintain my disappointment in him in light of my adult understanding of the challenge he had faced would only have been childish. I repented of it.
This time I listed all the times I could remember offending my parents. Again, I included current or long-standing problems as well as past incidents. Then I asked God to forgive me for these. Even though my contribution to the intergenerational conflict seemed insignificant compared to what my father had done (would he have seen it that way?), I had to repent of it all.
3. I counted the cost of failure to forgive. Was the pleasure I derived from holding this grudge really worth it? I remembered the parable of the unmerciful servant. Could I afford to hang on to my parents' debt when God had canceled my own? Did I want to be jailed with the "torturers" the rest of my life?
4. I confessed to God that my anger had clouded my vision, and I asked Him to show me my parents the way He saw them. Seeing our parents from God's perspective makes forgiveness easier because we begin to understand the circumstances that have contributed to shaping them.
This particular step was a major breakthrough in my own process of reconciliation with my father. I envisioned him in a situation my grandmother had once described to me. As the oldest of five children with an alcoholic father, living in urban poverty and struggling to survive during the Depression, my father had had to help support the family financially. I could picture him, as my grandmother remembered him, standing on the street corner in winter, a primary school child, hungry and wrapped in rags, selling bundles of kindling wood he had chopped up himself and hauled to town in his wagon.
Seeing that frightened, weary little boy began to melt my anger at the outwardly tough, inwardly insecure man who had raised me. His gruffness and macho attitude, his insistence that his children work when others were playing, became easier for me to forgive in the light of his past. Of course, those early circumstances didn't justify his later behavior, but understanding them gave me more grace to forgive him.
To help you gain a similar understanding, try talking to your relatives — especially your grandparents — to find out what experiences shaped your parents in their formative years. What kind of mother and father roles were modeled to them? Were they deprived of some normal childhood experience because of poverty, illness, or accident?
Discover as well what pressures they were under as you were growing up. Were finances, unemployment, or chronic illness a problem? Was their marriage shaky? Understanding such circumstances may help explain certain incidents or patterns of behavior.
Seeing from God's perspective also helps us to recognize the role the other person may play in God's overall plan and even in His plan for our own lives. In my case, for example, my father's motivations for making his sons work long, physically demanding hours in our family business were not all reasonable. Yet the Lord used those weary days of my childhood to teach me discipline and business skills and to keep me out of trouble.
5. I prayed for my father. Holding our parents up in the presence of God through prayer allows us to gain God's perspective on our own indebtedness to Him. We learn of His perspective on their needs, weaknesses, and difficult circumstances. And we come to understand His desire for everyone involved to be healed and whole.
Just as it's hard to pray when we're angry, it's hard to remain angry for long when we pray. I prayed that the hurts and fears lingering in Dad's heart from his childhood would be washed away. I asked God to give him grace to grow into Christ's image and to become the mature and holy man he was intended to be.
6. I let go of my father's offenses and canceled his debts. This was the most important step of all. Once again, I got alone, this time bringing with me my lists of offenses, my Bible, and some pictures of my father as a child.
One of the most powerful motivators to forgiveness is realizing how much we ourselves have been forgiven by God. So I read Matthew 18:21-35 and meditated on my own offenses-not just against my parents, but of every sort. Then I asked God to forgive me for each specific item on my list of offenses against my parents.
Next, I studied the pictures of my father as a child. (If none had been available, I might simply have thought about how he may have looked when he was young.) I meditated on the smiling little preschooler mounted on a pony, still carefree, and compared it to the tight-lipped, haunted look on the adolescent face of a decade later, after the fearful, angry years had hardened him. I remembered him in the difficult circumstances I'd learned about from relatives, and I felt compassion for his needs and hurts. Then I said aloud to that child, "I forgive you."
Finally, I pronounced forgiveness aloud to my father for each specific item on my list. I read each one, then said, "Dad, God has forgiven you for that, and I forgive you, too." Whenever I felt some resistance to saying this with regard to a particular item, I voiced my reluctance to God. Then I said again, "I forgive you." I kept repeating these words until I felt a sense of release, then I crossed out the item and went on to the next.
Two New Testament words we translate "to forgive" mean literally "to let go" and "to cancel a debt." I found that at times the phrase "I forgive you" seemed empty, so I said, "I release you. I let you go. I let go of this offense. I cancel your debt. You owe me nothing now. I renounce my desire to get even with you." That way, the imagery of this biblical language filled the word "forgiveness" with a more specific and concrete meaning.
When Jesus said, "It is finished," as He paid our debts on the cross, His words meant literally, "PAID IN FULL" (see John 19:30). So when I had gone through every item on the list, I wrote these same words in large letters across each page.
New Behavior Patterns
Forgiveness is just the first step to making a lasting peace with your parents. Next comes building a new relationship.
To do that, I had to let go of the passive child role of the past. I had to take responsibility for making changes. I had to become fully accountable for the way I responded to my father, and I had to make decisions without always seeking his approval. In short, I had to see myself fully as an adult.
That meant I had to be the one to act with maturity when conflicts with my father arose in the days that followed. I still remember the day, for example, when Dad and I fell into an old habit pattern. An argument we were having had escalated into a shouting match. Suddenly I realized what was happening, so I dropped my voice to a near-whisper. Dad immediately felt silly being the only one yelling, and besides, he couldn't hear me over his own bellows. So he turned down the volume as well and we ended up working it out amiably.
In this season of relationship building, I also had to face up to the reality that I wasn't a clone of my father. There would be times when I wouldn't meet his approval — or he, mine. I couldn't spend the rest of my life trying to live up to his expectations. I couldn't follow his vocational path, feel comfortable in his church denomination, or share his political views. Instead, I had to live according to the wisdom and vision God had given me.
It wasn't easy. I found out just how costly reconciliation with a parent can be. But I also discovered that the rewards of a healed relationship are priceless.
Not long after that thunderstorm I shared with my father, he developed lung cancer, and soon went home to be with God. Despite my grief, when I stood beside his bed to close his eyes for the last time, I also knew a deep sense of joy. After all: We had made our peace-and I was saying good-bye to my best friend.
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