Forgiving a Difficult Dad
Ross Reiman describes how God’s loving forgiveness gave him the power and ability to forgive his father for all the years of abuse. Turning my face again into my soggy pillow, I cried myself to sleep, trying to shut out the childhood memories that rushed at me.
Wild scenes punctuated my mind. I remembered an afternoon when I was in the fourth grade. My father, big and mean-looking, lost his patience and threw a 25 pound tool chest at me from the balcony. It hurdled down narrowly missing my head.
Other times I climbed between him and my defenceless mother and three young siblings, trying to protect them from his fits of rage. Then he’d turn on me. I remembered hiding in our dark basement after he’d chased me through the house at frenzied knife-point, threatening to kill me. Many times he’d pin me against the wall - high off the ground and suspended only by his hands around my neck. It’s an awful thing for a child to wonder if he’s going to be killed - and then by his own Dad.
But the worse pain came from my father’s constant humiliation. When I was 3 or 4, I accidentally urinated in the tub. My father washed me in the urine in a splashing tirade, telling me he was teaching me a lesson. When I was 13, he told me I needed to “become a man” and offered to take me to a prostitute. After I refused, he taunted me, saying I was less than male.
He often criticized me for things beyond my control. He’d ask why my nose was so big or why I had so many pimples. And every time he noticed my toed-in walk, he’d mimic it, waddling behind me in exaggerated turned-in steps, laughing hysterically. Throughout my childhood I had to determine for myself right from wrong. Dad didn’t have any regard for morals or the law. He encouraged me - along with my younger brothers and sisters - to shoplift, even for our Christmas presents to each other!
To my astonishment, when we were caught, he punished us for tarnishing his “pillar of the community” image. Once, he even held up several shops in town, handing the clerks a note saying he’d blow their heads off if they made one wrong move. He bragged later about his daring.
When things got bad with lawsuits or other trouble, we’d move. We did that 12 times before I was in high school. The hardest part was not being able to tell our friends we were going. He was the one running from the police, but I was the one who felt like a fugitive.
Whenever I would object to his immoral lifestyle and ask him to change, he’d mock me and say, “What’s the matter with you? Are you going to grow up and become a minister? as if that could be the absolute worst thing I could do with my life. Much to my surprise - and his - the answer to that question turned out to be yes . . . .(Later in the article he continues . . .).
The Road Back . . . a counsellor talked to me about my work, my family and my background. I answered his questions carefully, ashamed that I, a minister, was there. But I was looking for answers. What was it that was stopping me from being all that God had wanted me for as a husband, father and Christian leader?
. . A few days into therapy, the counsellor asked me another important question: “Have you forgiven your father?”
I averted my eyes and couldn’t answer.
Oh, I knew the importance of forgiveness. After all, I’d often heard it preached from pulpits and even from my own lips. Finally, out of desperation to salvage my sanity and my marriage, I acknowledged I had to work through the emotional chaos to forgive the man who had hurt me so deeply.
One Step at a Time
One afternoon I had the idea to ask him to forgive me for holding grudges and failing to show him love. I was certain he then would be so humbled that he would, in some sort of broken confession, ask me to forgive him. Instead, while my jaw dropped in surprise, Dad agreed that I had wronged him. Then he added I had been a “problem” child and quite beyond his understanding. I cut short my visit, and, in the car, exploded into tears.
Still, over the next couple of years, I continued to work at forgiving my Dad. Each time I made some progress, it felt as though I was peeling away outer layers of hurt and resentment, getting closer to the core. But I always struggled: Why did God put me in such an abusive family?
Gradually, it settled within my spirit that He had put me in a situation He knew I’d survive if I’d walk through it with Him. I had always looked at those tormenting childhood scenes through the eyes of the child I had been, but I began to look at them as the adult I had become. When the thoughts would swarm at me, I’d mentally walk into that long-ago room with Jesus by my side. Then in my imagination, I’d hug that sobbing, humiliated little boy and remind him that he wasn’t alone.
Taking Action Part of the process of letting go of my grudge was my trying to understand my father. I’d never thought of him as a victim of abuse too, but it was true. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, treated him cruelly. When he married a Sicilian “Gentile,” they never spoke to him again. As I thought about his pain, it was easier for me to be somewhat sympathetic toward him.
Next, I started a journal about my feelings towards him. On those pages I was able to uncork emotions that had been bottled up for many years. Those first months of working towards forgiveness were like riding a roller coaster. Just when I’d think, I’ve done it! I’ve forgiven him! the pain would resurface. I’d leave his house after an obligatory family gathering, feeling crippled by his cutting remarks. Then the cycle of anger would begin again.
The only way around that was to develop a strategy prior to visits with Dad. I learned to keep the interaction brief - setting some quiet limits as to where we would meed and for how long - and to guide the conversation to safe zones. I also quoted Scripture to myself and prayed inwardly. It was intense discipline, but I determined to win this battle.
One of the hardest disciplines, however, was what my counsellor called “acting into feeling” - to act as though we had reconciled. That means greeting him with hugs, asking to also talk to him when my mother phoned, sending cards on special days - all the things I had refused to do during the years of my silent unforgiveness. It was a big step, but after doing those things, I did find my attitude toward him softening.
Once, to my amazement, the counsellor asked me to list my Dad’s positive attributes. It took me a long time to think of any, but I eventually recalled his top sales ability and his hard work that kept us fed and clothed. Forcing myself to look for something positive helped me see something other than the painful, abusive aspects of his personality.
But while all these practical steps were important, I still had to depend on God for inner healing. Many times during prayer I broke down and sobbed, feeling overwhelmed by my inability to forgive the one who had been so cruel.
But through prayer, I felt His spirit changing me, giving me the strength to forgive, and move closer to becoming whole. Gradually, as the painful memories came, I learned to lift them to heaven in prayer instead of reliving the details over and over.
I’d wanted the ability to forgive to come sweeping into my life in one dramatic moment. Instead it came ever so slowly. But it did come. I still remember the winter day when it hit me that I had finally reached my goal and had forgiven Dad.
In place of the anger that had brewed inside me was now a calming peace. I celebrated the realization by shouting over and over, “I forgive you! I forgive you!” A satisfied grin stretched across my face. Scars may never go away, but wounds can heal.
Eighteen months ago, my father died from cancer. Recently, I went back to his grave, clutching one red and one white carnation. The red symbolized the blood of Jesus that covers our sins. The white symbolized the new life that we can have in Him. As I straightened up from placing the flowers near the headstone, I felt as though a terrible burden had fallen from my shoulders. My forgiveness had made me truly free.
Ross Reinman, “Forgiving a Diffcult Dad,” Focus on the Family Magazine, 15, 6 June 1991, 6-7.
Dr Keith Graham