Fathers and Forgiveness

Father and daughter walking on the beach in the sunlight - sometimes, though, we need to learn forgiveness

Forgiveness and Coming Home

While I was looking for readings about fathers for this Sunday’s Recovery Church service, I re-read the chapter on “Father” in Henry Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son. The book is an in-depth examination of Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” painting. The Bible story that prompted the painting is about rejection, addiction, and jealousy; it is also about homecoming, acceptance, and eternal love. As Nouwen explores the nuances and depths of both the parable and the painting, he addresses these issues and more, including a discussion about forgiveness.

Ah, yes, forgiveness. Fathers and forgiveness seem to go together.

Not necessarily because our earthly fathers are so loving and forgiving, although some are. Rather, I think of fathers and forgiveness together because the complex relationships we have with our fathers leave ample room for us to practice forgiving them.

Raising Children

In my work as a chaplain for people struggling with addiction, I rarely hear about loving and protective fathers who guided their children with affection and consistency. The fathers I hear about abandoned their children, abused them, were stern, harsh, judgmental, and unforgiving. Alternately, they may have neglected their children, giving them little structure and setting few boundaries because they themselves were lost in an addiction, or because they had suffered abuse and rigidity when they were young and wanted to parent differently. Until we heal our childhood wounds, we tend to pass on the same pain, even if in a different form.

Father and daughter walking on the beach in the sunlight - sometimes, though, we need to learn forgiveness

As the father in the Prodigal Son story knows, there is no perfect way to raise a child. No matter what you do, you will make mistakes. The child will make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will be easily soothed; some will be harder to get over. Many of the addicts I work with are angry at their fathers. Some of the fathers I talk to are wracked with guilt about how they treated their own children.

Regardless of how wonderful or horrible our relationship with our father, and no matter how carefully we raise our children, there will be things that need to be forgiven.


But forgiveness is not easy. Especially if the pain is significant, you may need to heal a bit first, create some space from the suffering, before you can even think of forgiving. To heal, you have to trust some professional or community to guide you, and you have to face your fears, experience your pain, and not stop until you’re done. At least, most of the way done.

The paradox, though, is that before you can heal the wound so it’s is no longer sore, you need to forgive. So you need to heal to forgive, then you need to forgive to heal further.

Not everyone wants to go do all that. Drugs are easier, even if they don’t really do what we want them to do, which is take away the pain. Maybe we can numb the pain for a while, but that only makes it more insidious, popping up at times when we least expect it.

Learning to Forgive

But let’s say you’re willing to stick it out, that you can be clean and sober for a long period of time and do the inner processing and outer sharing so you feel better, you find a measure of peace, and you think you might be ready to forgive. How do you do the forgiving part?

There are many books and articles written on the topic, but basically, to forgive, we first decide we want to let go. Like getting clean, forgiveness doesn’t generally work if we’re doing it to please someone else.

After deciding to forgive, we seek to understand the person we’re trying to forgive, whether that’s ourselves or someone else. If we’re trying to forgive our fathers, for instance, we might consider how he was raised, what his hopes and dreams for us were, or perhaps for himself. We try to understand what caused him to do the things he did. Once we understand, we may actually feel compassion for the man who raised us, or did not. Out of that compassion, we will probably notice that we’re willing to let go of our desire to seek revenge. After that, we can release the hurt and forgive the past.

Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean allowing ourselves to be hurt again. It just means letting go of the wish to hurt the other person back.

Forgiving Ourselves

We forgive ourselves the same way. But before we work on forgiving ourselves, we need to make sure we’re not letting ourselves off the hook too easily. Do we still have amends to make? Have we taken responsibility for the harm we caused? Guilt is not all bad. If we blame everyone else for what happens in our lives or for how we feel, we may want to question our perceptions. Maybe we’re not seeing as clearly as we like to think. So we may want to consider who we still need to apologize to and seek forgiveness from them before forgiving ourselves.

For those who have beaten themselves up for years over things they’ve done, however, forgiveness is vital. Maybe we have no trouble admitting we harmed others. Instead, we may need to address a shame that won’t let us admit we’re anything less than perfect. If we expect ourselves to be better and smarter and more controlled than anyone else, especially our father, then we set ourselves up to feel guilty about pretty much anything.

The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote a meditation to help us forgive ourselves and our parents. He explains that if we imagine ourselves as a 5-year-old, we can more easily forgive ourselves. Doing the same with our parents allows us to see them as vulnerable and lovable. That can help us forgive their faults. By recognizing and loving the child that still lives within us, we can begin to feel compassion for ourselves and for others. We can even forgive our parents.

Happy Father’s Day!

In faith and fondness,


Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Copyright © 2013 Barbara E. Stevens