NOTE: I make this story available because, next to my profession of faith in Christ, no decision more changed my life than when I decided to forgive my dad.
When I was a kid our family didn’t go to church. Sure, we would try and go on Easter, but that was about it. Church was something with which I simply wasn’t very familiar. On the other hand, one thing I was familiar with was domestic violence.
My dad, when sober, was a wonderful man. But, he just wasn’t sober very often. And when he drank he became something altogether different. Angry. Violent. Monstrous.
Over the years, I’ve met many adults who carry around deeply painful – sometimes crippling – emotional baggage connected to one (or both) of their parents.
I didn’t forgive my dad until I was 34 years old. But, when I did, it changed my life.
What follows is my story. nw
“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
“Write down the ten most traumatic memories from your childhood.”
That’s what my counselor, Dr. David Rosenthal, asked me to do at the conclusion of our first session together.
“Do I have to stop at ten?”, I thought. What would I do with all the rest? And does David possibly know what I’ll have to go through emotionally to retrieve those memories?
“I refuse to go back there,” I continued to myself. “But I have to. God, why are You forcing me to open that door – that door that leads to that dark, emotional corner of my life that I’d just as soon not revisit?”
It was a Saturday morning in early September, 1997, when David gave me this “assignment.” I had never been in counseling before (like most men, I was certain I didn’t need any) and didn’t know what to expect. To be quite honest, I was scared.
Only a month earlier, August 26th, I received a note during the morning worship service at my church that my youngest sister, Cindy, was in critical condition at University Medical Center in Lubbock. I was not overly concerned. Over the years, I’d received numerous phone calls regarding my, then 29 year old sister, that could be described as “urgent.” She had been on her own since she was fourteen, and shortly thereafter developed addictions to alcohol and hard drugs. And, on those rare occasions when I heard from her, she either needed to get out of jail, needed money.
But, this day would prove urgent in the genuine definition of the word. The day before, Aug. 25th, after Cindy and a couple of her friends got off the night shift where they worked, they returned to her apartment to shoot heroin. By the time Cindy regained consciousness, one of her friends was dead, and she and the other individual were dying. I was later told by a Lubbock police officer that the heroin they got a hold of went by the street name of “white china,” sort of an “A+” heroin, which can be lethal.
Because she lay unconscious for eight hours before calling 911, the left side of her body was one solid, black bruise caused by the heroin shutting down her respiratory system. The bruise abscessed and caused permanent nerve damage in her left foot.
My wife, Michelle, and I arrived at the hospital shortly after we received the note that Sunday morning. I will never forget what I saw and the way I felt when I walked into the hospital room that day. Cindy’s small frame was bloated. She was suffering from renal failure, congestive heart failure, and respiratory failure. Unconscious, her breathing labored, she hung on by a thread. The doctors gave us little hope.
I simply walked over by her bed, sat down, held her hand, and wept bitterly. This is not the way I wanted to say “good-bye” to my sister.
After a few moments at Cindy’s bedside is when it happened. A darkness began to grip my heart. That darkness, fueled by rage, was unlike anything I had ever felt before. The latent hate that had been boiling in my soul for so long finally erupted – not for Cindy – but for my father.
What I share next is in no way intended to bring shame on my father. It simply must be shared so you can better understand the magnitude of what I finally forgave.
My father had been an alcoholic for literally as long as I could remember. But, unlike the “funny drunks” on television shows, Dad, when drunk, was extremely cruel, hateful and violent.
As a young child, I watched him strangle my mother, pull her by the hair across the floor, and throw furniture across the room. He embarrassed me throughout my high school athletic career, being thrown out of stadiums for public intoxication and out-of-control profanity. I’ve watched him wield both a knife and a gun in front of me during my teenage years wondering, “Is this going to be the time he doesn’t stop himself? Do I die today?”
We lived in perpetual fear because that’s all we knew.
Finally, in August of 1979, when I was a sophomore in high school, he beat my mother repeatedly with the buckle end of a belt leaving large, black, swollen whelps all over her back. Mom took my sisters and me the next day and we hid out in a friend’s home overnight. Mom filed for divorce shortly thereafter.
Probably my most traumatic memory took place in July, 1980. I had just turned seventeen. It was Sunday night and I had just returned home from church only to find that familiar look of terror in the eyes of my mom and Susan and Cindy, my two younger sisters, 14 and 12 at the time. I knew Dad had called. They were all crying.
The next thing I knew, there was what sounded like someone hitting our front door with a sledge hammer. I hurried my sisters to the hallway and put my arms around them. I was the only protection my family had. With the door still chained, my mom opened the door and asked Dad what he wanted. He said, “Give me the kids.” She told him no.
What happened next is, to this day, somewhat of a blur. From where I stood in the hallway I could not see the front door. I heard what sounded like a car running into our house and my mom flying backwards across the living room. My dad had kicked our front door so hard the frame came out of the sheet rock pinning my mother underneath it. Instinctively, I ran toward my dad and hit him as hard as I could. He flew backward and we fought on the front porch as neighbors began to come out of their homes to see what was going on. It was bedlam. I can still distinctly remember having the chance to kill him by splitting his skull against a square post holding up our front porch. For whatever reason, I didn’t. Looking back, it’s as though Jesus said, “That’s enough, Nick. You’ve protected your family. That’s all I wanted you to do.” My mom ran to the phone to call the Abilene Police Dept., but Dad left before the police arrived. We spent the night in different friends’ homes because we didn’t have a front door. I still believe had I not been home that night my Dad would have killed my mom.
Back to Aug. 26th, 1997, in Cindy’s hospital room.
Walking out of Cindy’s hospital room, as a then 34 year old man with a wife and three children of my own, all of the rage came rushing back like a flood. All I could see was anger and rage. My dad deserved to hurt the way he had made us hurt. I thought to myself, “Cindy is dying and it’s his fault. He’s hurt us. I’m going to hurt him.”
A dear friend threw his arms around me and stopped me.
I quickly fell into deep depression. My wife calls this period of my life “the great unraveling.” My friend and pastor at the time lovingly encouraged me to get counseling as soon as possible.
That’s where my dear friend, David Rosenthal, comes in.
During our initial session, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. David then took me through a relatively new type of therapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, the same therapy used on Military Combat Veterans and other victims of life-altering trauma. The first thing David told me, in beginning the therapy, was “Write down the ten most traumatic memories from your childhood.”
I was upset for having to do so, but little did I know what God was about to do.
As a vocational minister going on, at that time, sixteen years of full-time ministry, I had always told people that I had forgiven my dad and that I loved him. But the Holy Spirit confronted me through David when he asked me,
“How can you say you’ve forgiven someone for whom you have so much hate and anger?”
I had no answer to that question.
For the first time in my life I was asking myself, “Could it be that I’ve never forgiven Dad?” More than that, could it be that I’ve never understood forgiveness as the Bible defines forgiveness?
God, knowing how vulnerable I was at that moment, began to gently open my eyes to the fact that the hate and anger I had for my dad was neither hurting him nor protecting me. It was, instead, eating me alive – slowly destroying me.
The lie Satan spins is that anger will make you strong and protected. All it does, though, is hurt you and those you love most. Or, as one counselor stated,
“You’re never weaker than when you’re angry.”
“Why do you continue to hate your dad?” David asked.
I thought for a while about his question.
“I guess it’s because hate is my armor. It protects me from being hurt all over again,” I replied.
“What will happen, Nick, if you give God your hate and your anger and forgive your Dad?”
I snapped back,
“Then, I’ll have no armor. I’ll become weak.”
The next question David asked would eventually change the trajectory of my life.
David asked, “What did Paul say?”
I knew what passage to which David was referring. I had read it dozens of times. But, now, for the first time, I was about to learn what it means on a level I had never in my life experienced.
I began sobbing so heavily I couldn’t even answer. So David quoted 2 Corinthians 12:10, finally arriving at the last phrase,
“….when I am weak, then am I strong.”
“Nick,” David asked, “what do you think you need to do?”
I answered, “I need to forgive my dad.”
The session ended.
It was Saturday, September 20th, 1997. I wrestled with it all week.
C.S. Lewis rightly said,
Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something (someone) to forgive.
I had never been able to trust my earthly father with my weakness. Could I really trust my heavenly Father with it?
Wednesday, September 24th, I was getting ready to teach our mid-week, youth Bible study, when the Holy Spirit convicted my heart and, in essence, said, “I’m not going to let this go away. You can’t encourage teenagers to trust me if you refuse to trust me.” I said, “God, what if I forgive him and he doesn’t change?” God replied,
“My child, this is not about changing your dad. This is about changing you.”
So, as best as I knew how, I prayed, “God, I choose to trust you with my heart. Today I choose to become weak. Today, I forgive my dad.”
There were no fireworks, no angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus, no tingling feeling down my spine. But, this I know: the power of the risen Christ was released into my heart that day, igniting a spark of transformation that would save my life.
After I prayed that prayer, I walked into my house, fell into my wife’s arms and cried like a baby. For the first time in my life my heart was now unprotected by the layers of callouses the years of hate had created.
With one breath of a prayer the grace of Jesus Christ gave me the strength to forgive my dad. All the hate and anger in my life had never given me that kind of strength, only bondage.
Author and professor, Lewis Smedes, writes,
“When we forgive someone, it’s as though a prisoner has been set free. And then we realize that the prisoner was us.”
It’s taken time – and more counseling – but, much of my life has changed as a result of that encounter with the almighty Christ that day.
I came to realize that, through the years, because I had focused my entire life on not becoming like my dad, I had in many ways become just like him. God’s grace broke the cycle.
Andrew White shared,
“Forgiveness is the only thing that can prevent the pain of the past from dictating the future.”
Cindy lived. Forty days following her overdose we were finally given hope by the doctors that she was going to make it. She was released from UMC 45 days after she had been admitted and spent another 45 days in in-patient drug rehabilitation. (Cindy passed away in 2016. She was 47.)
But what about my relationship with my dad?
I had never in my life had much of a relationship with him. More than that, I had neither seen nor heard from him the past ten years. He’d never even met nor seen any of my three children. Do I recklessly jump back into a relationship with him? No.
Forgiveness and trust are two completely different things.
By that time, Dad suffered from alcohol-induced dementia. I didn’t know if he could understand the magnitude of what God had done for me. But, I desperately wanted to tell him I loved him and had forgiven him. But, I didn’t even know where he was living. I just didn’t know if that day would ever come.
That day came.
My granddad (my father’s dad) passed away on November 20th, 1998. On Nov. 22nd, the day of the funeral, as we arrived at the church my dad was the first one we saw. Although only 55 years old, the alcohol had taken its toll on his face, body and mind. He was penniless and had no permanent residence. I learned that, over the past several years, he had lived both in a car and at the Salvation Army.
The Holy Spirit’s presence was strong that day. Michelle told me, “Your dad is coherent.” So I took that as the Lord giving me the opportunity to tell dad what God had done.
After the graveside service, I said, “Dad, all my life I believed you hated me.”
“Why?” he asked incredulously.
I could have fired back with a blistering response.
But, what would normally have been easy in bringing up the past – all that he put us through – was now difficult to do.
By “deleting” the hate and anger in my soul, the traumatic memories of my childhood were not as easy to remember anymore. Alas, I didn’t want to focus on the past anyway. Because today I was there not to condemn, but to forgive.
“Dad, for all the things you did to Mom, Susan and Cindy, and myself, I forgive you – I really forgive you. It’s a done deal. I no longer hold any of it against you.”
His head was lowered the whole time I spoke so I said, “Dad, look at me.” He slowly lifted his head. I continued, “I love you. And I want you to know something else. I’m proud of you.”
Obviously, I wasn’t proud of what he’d done. But, I wasn’t referring to that. Author, Philip Yancey, writes,
“Grace helps us see others not as they are, but as God intended for them to be.”
Hate and anger never gave me the strength to do that. Only God’s grace could.
We embraced and Michelle took the first picture of me and my dad together since the day I graduated college 11 and a half years earlier.
It’s the first time he’d met his grandchildren.
(See picture below.)
The photo stands proudly in my office and in my home. Not so much because it’s a picture of me and my dad. But, because it is a picture of the power of God.
I once read,
“Forgiveness, we discover, is harder than the sermons make it out to be….because behind every act of forgiveness lies a wound of betrayal, and the pain of being betrayed does not easily fade away.”
Holocaust survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, said,
“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
To once again quote Philip Yancey, when I forgave my dad
“the hurt did not disappear, but the burden of being his judge fell away.”
God has been true to His promise to protect my heart. I am so glad I chose to trust Him.
Since Sept. of ’97, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a project produced and sponsored by HealthNet, a part of the Texas Tech Health Science Center, on the topic of EMDR. I was interviewed in a video that was sent to over a hundred hospitals and military bases around the world.
I used to share a testimony of abuse. Today, I share a testimony of God’s grace.
To quote the 18th century hymn writer, John Newton, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….”
Epilogue: Dad is free now from alcoholism. On November 8, 2000, I received a call and was told that he’d been found dead. He was 57. The pain of losing him was tremendous. But, not near as painful as it would have been had I not made the decision to forgive him, allowing God to set me free, as well.
Soli Deo Gloria, Nick