It was a cold December night when I slammed down the phone. Devastation overwhelmed me and I started to panic. At the end of another angry and painful Sunday night phone call, my dad had finally threatened to come to my home and kill me with a gun. It was the last straw that brought my painful lifelong relationship with my dad to an end.
So much had led up to that moment, yet it was hard for me to understand the deeper dynamics of what was really happening.
What was a 16-year-old girl to do?
It wasn’t until I was in my first year of university that I recognized the relationship I had with my dad for what it really was: abusive. The relational space of being in a new city and having a fresh start helped me review it with a more objective perspective. The weight of that word “abuse” crushed me. How could I not have realized it sooner?
Verbalizing it for the first time, that I lived through emotional and mental childhood abuse, was the first step in the journey of deep healing that God was about to take me on.
Here are five things I discovered on my journey of learning how to forgive my dad.
My Anger Suffocated Me
Dwelling on my dad’s abuse, processing it, and thinking about it made me so angry.
In high school I bottled my anger up inside, afraid to tell others in fear that they wouldn’t understand. I would arrive at school and slam my locker door, not knowing how to release what was welling up inside of me.
My anger was like a giant rock that sat on top of me, blocking my view of everything else. I couldn’t see around it and the weight of the rock was suffocating me. It prevented me from experiencing God’s peace and comfort even in the context of the healthy relationships in my life.
In order to let go of the anger and walk forward in freedom, I needed the weight of that rock off me. I imagined that I sat on one side of the room and God sat on the other. All I could do was push the stone away from me and toward God for him to carry. When I felt the anger and injustice of my dad’s actions overwhelm me, I would mentally push that rock away from me toward God. 1 Peter 5:7 says, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (ESV) Out of God’s deep love for me, I was able to cast all my anxieties and anger onto him.
Each time I pushed the rock away my anger felt lighter. I could objectively process my feelings, and I realized that God was actively working alongside me. It was my job to surrender my anger and choose to forgive my dad; it was God’s job to carry my pain and heal my heart over time.
The Cross Freed Me to Forgive
I learned that it is only because of the cross that God is able to carry the weight of my pain and anger for me. When you forgive someone, you choose not to hold their actions against them or condemn them. The pain they caused you, you take upon yourself. However, in a relationship with God, we have someone who can carry the weight of forgiving others for us: Jesus.
On the cross, Jesus took all our sin, brokenness, and injustice (against both God and others) on himself and exchanged it with his own peace and oneness with God. He took our evil and he gave us his perfection, which allows us to be reconciled to God and experience true soul healing. Isaiah 53:5 declares, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (ESV)
The pain I was carrying both from being harmed and from choosing to forgive my dad, God was able to carry for me because Jesus already took the weight of all my sin onto himself. He ultimately took the weight of the rock upon himself when he died on the cross, and I was given access (through faith and grace) to freedom and healing. I needed to surrender my pain to God for him to take and allow him to restore my heart. It did not happen overnight, and entrusting the process to him requires deep courage. It also wasn’t a journey I walked on my own. God provided secure and stable family members to support me, the church to bless me relationally, and wise counsellors to speak truth into my life.
Forgiveness Brought Compassion
A few years after contact with my dad ended, I saw him living homeless on the streets of my hometown. He seemed lost in his own life, and even though I knew his own choices got him there, I felt sad for him. I saw the blessings of provision God was granting me: the healing, joy, and inner peace that was growing with time. I deeply desired my dad to experience that too, but unless he wanted help, no one could help him.
I saw my dad with eyes of compassion: stuck in the brokenness of his own life. His addictions, desire for control, and manipulative approach to relationships ruined him. Viewing my dad through the lens of brokenness does not excuse his actions or choices, but it helped me understand the deeper roots of his sin—which are the same as mine.
I have the same propensity toward sin as he does. I have the potential to hurt others as he hurt me. And I have deeply hurt others. I am not better than my dad, but our response to our sin is very different. By God’s grace, I saw my sin and took it to God to experience his forgiveness and healing and to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. My dad saw his sin and used it as a weapon to lash out at others. I desperately hope one day he will choose the better option.
Our True Identity: Wanted by God
The impact of my father-daughter relationship shaped how I view the world, and even how I interact with others—especially other men. It also shaped how I viewed myself: I was a daddy’s girl without a dad. I felt deeply unwanted because my dad continually chose himself instead of choosing me.
The reality of my dad’s choices has had long-term impact on me. Often when I experience rejection in relationships, the deeper pain from my dad resurfaces. When this happens, I have to realize that my relational vulnerability stems from a much deeper place, and I need to forgive my dad once more. I also need to be compassionate and patient with myself in the journey of healing. Forgiveness after abuse is not a one-time act, but a choice I must make many, many, many times.
When each of us chooses forgiveness, it releases us of the burden of how others have treated us. We are able to walk in freedom in our true identities as God’s children. The truth is, according to God we are: created (Psalm 139:13-14), his children (John 1:12), accepted (Romans 15:7), his special possession (1 Peter 2:9), and given a purpose (Ephesians 2:10). We are chosen, given spiritual blessings, predestined, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, given an inheritance, and sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:3-14).
In every way possible we are deeply and eternally wanted by God.
Forgiveness Gives a New Legacy
I love the idea of being a “new creation in Christ.” That no matter what I have done, or have had done to me, I am made new and whole (2 Corinthians 5:17). This means that I am granted a new spiritual and relational legacy. Walking in forgiveness, I was freed to recognize that this new legacy was available to me.
The pain and brokenness that shaped my dad’s life didn’t have to shape mine. I don’t have to pass along that pattern of brokenness but instead can pass along a legacy of faith and trust in who God is.
I am so excited to live my life. I am so excited to walk in freedom, in the grace and mercy that forgiveness offers. Being forgiven by God, and extending forgiveness to others, has transformed my heart and gives me deep joy. If you have been abused, I hope you can experience the power of forgiveness too. Only by the gospel, and the power of God working in you, is it possible.
Erin Ford lives in Guelph, Ontario and attends Calvary Baptist Church. She works as a missionary with Power to Change Students as an Editor and Writer for their online content. She’s passionate about using writing to inspire faith in others that the Holy Spirit is at work. She writes at erinwrites.ca.
This article was first published and has been re-published with the permission of The Gospel Coalition Canada ca.thegospelcoalition.org