How Do I Forgive My Dysfunctional Family?
A few steps to break out of the cycle.
I had a lot of bad things happen to me when I was young. Then, two years ago, my mother died, and her death seemed to bring out a lot of my family’s buried dysfunction. I just can’t seem to forgive my father and brother for everything. I’m a Christian and I know I need to forgive, and I desperately want to forgive! I’m scared that God is mad at me for not forgiving my family. How can I forgive all the hurtful things that have happen?
– Feeling Hard Hearted
My dear friend, you need to know some things about yourself. And I don’t want one more moment to pass without you reading and hopefully internalizing these truths:
1. Whatever happened to you shouldn’t have. You were a child. You were not responsible for whatever was said or done. None of it is your fault.
2. I’m sorry your mom died. That’s really sad. I wish she was alive.
3. God loves you deeply, much more than you know. Neither your dad nor your brother nor the powers of hell could separate you from His love. You’re never too damaged or too angry for God the Father’s love.
So now we’ve set a baseline of truth. And I hope you have—even for just a moment—felt the warmth of truth. Because I sense you have a lot of guilt surrounding your past. And, for as much as you can blindly believe me, you don’t need to carry that weight. In fact, the answer to your question really isn’t about how to forgive, it’s about how to live.
To that end, I offer the following next steps:
A pastor once said to me, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but He never told us to get our butt kicked.” And this coming from a man of the cloth! However, the principle behind the blasphemy is dead on.
You see, your dad and brothers are the source of the problem. And while I don’t know what happened, I don’t need to know details to understand that your interactions with them are painful and debilitating. Yet you continue to go back for more. Why? Because you’re a good person, you love God and you know the power and bravery that accompanies forgiveness.
But now, what I’m asking you to do is summon a different kind of bravery. One that requires you to walk away from the scene of the crime and move into the life God has laid out before you—a life of purpose and hope, a life of health and healing, a life that isn’t defined by the suffering of your past.
Someday, forgiving your family will be possible—even if it means not having the same sort of relationship with them but releasing them in your heart. However, today is not that day, and today you must escape the cycle of dysfunction in order to understand yourself, and God, and what forgiveness may truly look like.
But how, practically, will you come to that understanding?
Maybe you have more willpower and wisdom than I do, but I can’t imagine sorting through the deep complexities of your pain without help. Specifically, help from a counselor. I think that in order for you to process the pain of your childhood, mourn your mother appropriately, put your father and brothers in the proper context, and, of course, sort through your feelings about God, you’re going to need someone to help you think about your thinking.
I once heard the job of a counselor described as “Someone helping you turn down the noise of your life so it’s not louder that the real, loving voice of God.” That’s the ballgame for you right now. Everything in your question is thoughtful and right—but it’s too loud. I think all of us could benefit from seeking help from a professional who will give us the tools to quiet the pain and make more room for a graceful and loving God.
So often, the voice of our father (the one on earth) becomes the voice of God in our hearts and minds. For some, that is a beautiful truth that leads them to understand the facets of God that are loving, patient, kind, graceful and thoughtful. But for others of us, the voice of our father was not kind, or loving, or patient. It was harsh and judgemental, too loud and too scary, maybe even painful.
That is not the voice of God. That is the voice of a man who failed you.
What you need now is to know the real voice of truth and wisdom and love. To know that voice, you’ll need to take risks in exploring the many dimensions of God. Visit churches in other countries and see how people around the world worship. Spend time in a local shelter, feeling how God loves those who are hungry and cold. Open the Bible, highlighting every instance of God showing grace. You get the idea. Just do whatever you can to take God out of the box He’s currently in. This will change everything for you.
Dear friend, the journey to forgiveness is messy and complex and not wrapped in a lovely bow of reconciliation. But alas, this is your journey. And while I wish it wasn’t, I’m proud of you for having the immense bravery it’ll take to move a single step toward realizing that your Father loves you so very much—and that your past is not your future.
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