Forgiving the Unforgivable Father

In toxic family relationships, we often think the offending person has all the power—but that’s simply not true.

Her father’s timing was always the worst. On the rare occasion he would call, Victoria was usually in public and around strangers. Each time, she would attempt to keep a straight face while her father spewed nothing but contempt and hatred for her and then hung up. She felt the injury in her entire being.

I met Victoria at a neighborhood after-school program, when she was still a middle school student. For several years, I’ve volunteered in the program, and it’s given me the opportunity to watch many of the neighborhood children grow.

 

Victoria’s father left her family before she was born and has never made an effort to see her or her siblings. She is now nearly 16 years old and to this day has not met her father face to face. But to say they do not have a relationship would be inaccurate. Every once in a while he will take the time to call, to let her know how much he regrets having had her, how much of a mistake it was that she was born.

This particular call was no different.

With barely enough time to hide her tears, Victoria arrived at the weekly Bible study I helped lead with others from our church. Her knock on the door was dull and slow, as if her head was leaning against it as well. She walked in with a smile but distant eyes.

That evening, the topic revolved around loving Jesus by loving others and what shortcomings might prevent us from doing so. Victoria, in a moment more candid than usual, suggested that because of her abusive relationship with her father, she struggles with holding severe grudges, and oftentimes her anger over relatively small issues can stifle genuine relationships in her life.

Every once in a while he will take the time to call, to let her know how much of a mistake it was that she was born.

This behavior was something that we, as leaders and mentors, had witnessed. Victoria is a vital part of our youth group at church, and she helps lead our after-school program. Beginning in middle school, she took on responsibilities in the program, arriving precisely 15 minutes early each afternoon with a purposeful stride and a resolute expression on her face. She’d jump into whatever role was needed: standing by the door with the hand sanitizer and snacks; signing people in; cooking the meals in the kitchen; handing out candy at the end of the day.

Once, an otherwise ordinary day flipped completely, and by the end of the program Victoria was seething. She no longer handled objects or tasks with her usual care. She did even little things, like organizing crayons or putting metal cups into the dishwasher, with a restrained ferocity. Instead of helping with the cleaning after the 20 or so children had left, she stormed out with them.

She didn’t come back for two years. We reached out continually but received only silence. When at last she did return, her reentrance into the fold was quiet and unassuming, like going to school after summer break—as if it was merely something she was expected to do. She lined up with the other students outside the apartment door, waiting for the start of the program. While internally the leaders felt a fanfare of enthusiasm because she was back, outwardly we casually welcomed her and let her know how good it was to see her again.

***

She didn’t come back for two years. We reached out continually but received only silence.

On the night Victoria admitted her struggle with holding grudges, the Bible study leaders eyed each other, all remembering the two years without Victoria. But even after knowing her for so long, this was the first time she shared about her abusive relationship with her father. I was surprised by her honesty and insight about where she thinks her grudge-holding comes from.

Later that week, unbeknownst to the the rest of the youth group or leaders, Victoria called her dad, maybe for the first time in her entire life. The feeling of dread returned as she found his name in her phone. Though she was terrified at the thought of hearing his hostile, dismissive voice, she nevertheless knew exactly what she wanted to say:

“Dad, I just wanted to let you know that I forgive you.”

The next few seconds of silence felt like an eternity, and then her father responded with bitterness as never before, berating and belittling his daughter. He protested that he did not need forgiveness for a single thing. Once his tirade was over, she simply responded, “It’s okay. I’m not doing this for you—I’m doing it for me.”

Her father immediately hung up. Although the conversation had been one of the harshest from her father, and perhaps their last, Victoria felt both physical and mental tension evaporate like a haze of cold rain on sweltering asphalt. Cords of anxiety that had been tightening around her were now loosed. She felt free to fear less. Although she’d hoped to feel some measure of peace, she had never expected it to be so immediate and definitive.

Though she was terrified at the thought of hearing his voice, she nevertheless knew exactly what she wanted to say.

At the next Bible study, sunshine filled the room as Victoria entered the apartment, her face full of its own light. She shared her experience talking with her father, and the unanticipated release that her forgiveness had brought.

As the study was winding down and friends began saying their goodbyes, Victoria’s phone rang. It was her father. Taking a deep breath, she stepped outside the apartment door and answered. Instead of the expected shouts of rage, he was weeping on the other end, profusely apologizing for his actions toward her and the rest of her family.

The truth is, we often forget the power forgiveness can have for both the giver and the receiver. The healing that takes place can go both ways, even if the intended recipient does not think it’s needed. Since that call, her father has expressed an interest in reconciling in person. Although that has yet to take place, there’s never been a stronger chance of it actually happening.

Ephesians 4:32 reminds us, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Christ forgave us before we knew we needed it. Much like His love, His forgiveness of our sins does not hinge on our actions. In that light, may we too give forgive freely and generously—not only for our own sake, but for others’ as well.

 
Related Topics:  Forgiveness

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32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

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