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How Do I Forgive My Dysfunctional Family?

How Do I Forgive My Dysfunctional Family?

I recently received an email from a member of my church who was struggling with forgiving his family after years of frustration.

“I had a lot of bad things happen to me when I was young. My father was cold to me and seemingly disinterested in my life, and my brother held grudges against me like his life depended on it. As I got older, we learned to keep the peace for my mother’s sake, but things were never great.

Then, two years ago, my mother died, and her death seemed to bring out a lot of my family’s buried dysfunction. I can’t seem to forgive my father and brother for everything they’d done to me over the years. At the same time, I hear my pastor talk about forgiving offenses and loving our enemies. It seems like he was speaking directly to me. I desperately want to forgive. So how do I forgive my family? Is it even possible?”

His situation, unfortunately, is something many people can relate to. No matter how you grew up, there’s a good chance you’ve got some beef with a family member. Most of the time it can be fixed with an honest conversation, but other times it can lead to years of resentment, anger, and uncomfortable dinners.

There’s no one way to resolve conflict in a family, especially one that is extra tumultuous. But there are a few steps you can take to walk toward a path of forgiveness and peace:

Cut Ties

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 family members 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?

Get Help

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, put your family members 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.

Explore 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.

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