Forgiveness and reconciliation is a three-phase process, and I will summarize it here. I don’t want you to be overwhelmed. What can be written in just a few pages may take years for the Lord to accomplish. In the chapters ahead, we will consider the small steps God would have us take toward this vision of family healing.
Phase 1: Forgiveness with the will
If we are commanded to forgive, then forgiveness must involve a choice. It begins with an act of the will, with obedience to Christ. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you. At this point, we are confronted with numerous obstacles. I don’t “feel ready” to forgive my brother. My sister has not taken responsibility for her bad behavior. My mother-in-law has not apologized and asked for our forgiveness. Even if I choose to forgive my dad, he is just going to continue with his toxic behavior. While all those factors are important, and painful, they are not relevant to this first phase of forgiveness. In this phase, feelings are not your friend and can actually keep you from taking a real step toward healing and freedom. If you wait until you “feel ready” to forgive, you may end up waiting your entire life.
How do we take this first step toward forgiving a member of our family? I encourage you to get alone with the Lord for thirty minutes. Take out a sheet of paper and at the top write, “It hurt me when . . .” What you write on this paper will only be for you and the Lord. In fact, when you are done you will throw the paper away.
Ask the Lord to bring to your mind specific things your family member has done or said over the years which have hurt you. As those things come to mind, write them down. It doesn’t matter if your list is long or short. Just write down events and moments that hurt you. When your list is complete, choose through prayer to forgive him or her for each individual item.
My prayer regarding my father sounded something like this: “Lord, I know you want me to forgive my father. Honestly, I don’t feel ready to do it. He has not asked for forgiveness or acknowledged how much he hurt me and our family. But I know you want me to forgive him so that my heart will be free of hatred and bitterness. So . . . I choose to forgive him for cheating on Mom. I choose to forgive him for putting random women ahead of our family. I choose to forgive . . .” When you are done, throw the paper away (or burn it if that makes you feel better!).
Here is what happens when we take this first step of forgiveness. Imagine an old wooden bucket. Over the years, your family drops in glops of thick mud. These are the hurts and wounds you have experienced. Now, because your bucket is filled to the rim, any time someone in your house drops in another glop—boom! You are so filled with hurt and resentment from the past that any new offense causes everything to overflow. When we make the choice to forgive, it is like taking a hammer and smashing a hole in the bottom of the bucket. When we tear the hammer out, a nice big glop of mud comes out with it. Now, instead of 100 percent full of past hurt and resentment, we are only 95 percent full. As I have counseled hundreds of people through this process, many experience an immediate “lightening” of their spirit. While it may be only 5 percent, they sense a bit of emotional breathing room, something they haven’t felt for a long time.
But we still have a problem. We still have 95 percent of our old bitterness and anger in the bucket. That leads us into phase two.
Phase 2: Forgiveness with the heart
In Matthew 18:35, Jesus calls us to forgive our brother “from the heart.” The heart is God’s territory. He is the one who has the power to change our hearts. So, if we want our hearts changed, we have to ask God to do it. If we want that old bucket drained of all that bitterness, anger, and resentment, we must open our hearts to Him.
The second phase of forgiveness is a daily prayer. Your prayer may sound something like this: “Lord, I have chosen to forgive my dad. It was not easy to do, and I still don’t have anything close to warm feelings toward him. I am afraid to do this because I don’t want to get hurt again. But I chose to forgive him out of obedience. Now, I ask you to heal my heart. I don’t want to hate him. I don’t want to be filled with anger and resentment. I don’t want his bad behavior to poison my life. I ask that you cleanse my heart of all those things so that I can be free . . . free to love you, and even to love my dad.”
I was in phase two for six years. It was six years of praying daily, “God, heal my heart. Take away my anger and bitterness.” Slowly and mercifully, God drained and cleaned out my old bucket. Later in our journey together I will share how God ultimately replaced my anger and bitterness toward my father with compassion.
Phase 3: Reconciliation
The final phase of forgiveness is when a relationship is healed and reconciled. But here is a hard truth—it is possible for God to bring us to a place of complete forgiveness without the relationship being fully healed. It may be that the family member who has hurt you never repents, never takes responsibility or changes his or her behavior. Reconciliation is not sweeping things under the rug and pretending they never happened. Reconciliation is not enabling or tolerating ongoing abuse. In the upcoming chapters, we will explore what true reconciliation looks like, and how the Lord can accomplish it. Our responsibility before the Lord, and to our family, is to do everything in our power, as far as it depends on us, to forgive and to seek reconciliation. In Romans 12:18, God says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We can’t control the attitudes and actions of our family members. They may have no interest in forgiveness or reconciliation. But, as far as it depends on us, we can still seek healing.
An excerpt from “Healing Family Relationships” by Rob Rienow: