In 2013, I sat in the audience at a conference where the speaker led a 60-second forgiveness exercise. He said, “Close your eyes and think of someone you need to forgive. Then, spend the next minute giving it to God and letting it go.”
I all but snorted aloud. I was in my late 30s at the time, and I had spent the majority of my life hating my father. I hated him for abusing my mother. I hated him for walking away from me without a backward glance after they divorced. I hated him for not being there at piano recitals, choir concerts, school awards ceremonies, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and birthdays.
You may immediately think that Christianity and hatred don’t exactly line up, and you’re right about that. But when the unforgiveness tucked away into the corner of my heart met my angry departure from my walk with Christ in college, it emerged as something dark and different. It was no longer enough to cast blame my father’s way. I needed to avenge my broken heart. I repeatedly told my mother that I hoped when my father finally passed away, it was unbearably painful, and I was there to laugh in his face as he took his last breath. In my mind, that would somehow right the wrong that had been done.
I did eventually reconcile my relationship with God, and I truly wanted to forgive my father when that happened, but that malicious grudge had been a part of my life for so long that I simply didn’t know who I was without it. So, I refused to relinquish it. I never spoke with God about my father. I never asked forgiveness for my refusal to offer him grace. I just squashed it down, trying to bury it back in that cobweb-ridden corner of my soul that it had come from.
Letting all of that go in 60 seconds is a tall order.
But I closed my eyes begrudgingly and took a deep breath. That’s when God put an image of a scared little boy in my mind. He was backed against a wall, crying and shaking, terrified and alone. It was so vivid that I wanted to reach out and wrap my arms around this pathetic, defenseless child.
God spoke: “This is the man that you have hated for so long. This is who he is inside. He is a traumatized little boy who never knew love as a child himself. A little boy cannot love you like a father should love you. A little boy cannot be the father that you need. It is simply not something he is capable of.”
I then saw my favorite picture of my grandfather and me from when I was very young, where I’m sitting in his lap, and we are smiling at one another adoringly. My mother and I lived with my grandparents for the majority of my formative years, and he had been my father figure. I had even taken to calling him “daddy” as a toddler, because that was what my mom and aunt called him. He loved that I called him that, and he was as devoted to me as a father could ever be. When he passed away in 2001, the pastor delivering the eulogy referred to me as “the apple of [my grandfather’s] eye.”
God spoke again: “I gave you this relationship in place of your father. I gave you a love you never would have known with him. I gave you a father figure who would demonstrate my love for you. Your father is to be pitied, not hated. It’s time to let that go.”
In the matter of a minute, I had surrendered my unforgiveness, and instantly, I was delivered. It was an elating, intense experience that I, in that moment, felt certain had given me a forever freedom. I was never going to have live under that raincloud of bitterness ever again. The jail cell had officially been opened and I was never going to return to that place!
You can imagine my surprise when Satan began to remind me of all of the reasons I should rescend my forgiveness. He was constantly whispering my father’s list of sins against me in my ear, inching me back toward that dark prison, until one day I was so angry that I willingly re-entered it and locked myself in.
“How?” I asked my therapist. “How could this happen? I forgave him. How am I here again?”
“Because forgiveness isn’t a one and done,” she responded. “Why do you think it is that in Matthew, Jesus says we are to forgive seventy times seven? Did it ever occur to you that those are not all independent grievances, but the enemy using the same grievance against you again and again? He doesn’t want you to forgive. He wants you to continue to be hostage to the hate he placed in your heart. You have to be intentional with your grace, and realize that this is a continual effort. You will have to forgive your father again and again.”
She was right. I have. I’m in a constant battle with my natural instinct to be angry, and I find myself trotting back to the cross with this burden over and over again. God graciously holds it for me for as long as I will allow Him. For that, I am eternally grateful, because without Him, I can’t achieve authentic forgiveness.
If you have forgiven someone, only to find that you are heavy under the weight of that anger again, do not be discouraged. God is not going to grow weary of delivering you, and you are not a bad Christian for finding yourself in need of His help in this area. Do not be mystified by what you perceive as a step backward, but take it as an opportunity to trust God with this hurt again.
He will always meet you where you are, without fail, seventy times seven.