Growing up, I remember thinking my dad could beat up your dad. I thought my father moonlit as a superior version of Superman. He’d see that we kids were neatly tucked away and then nip out to save widows, orphans, and stray dogs. And then one day my dad had surgery. It wasn’t some huge ordeal, just an attempt to surgically repair a lingering knee issue—perhaps an injury attained from his years of late night heroics? Of course, he told us it was from playing sports as a young man, but he was probably just being modest.
I remember all this because, for the first time, I heard my dad whine. He had probably whined before—certainly he had—but for some reason, this time I heard it. He’d limp around on crutches and my mother would let him out near the door of the mall or church or wherever we happened to be. She’d go and park the van and I’d open the door for my hobbled, weakened father, realizing that he could not, in this state, beat up anyone’s dad or even grandpa. And that is when I saw it for the first time. Weakness.
My dad, I realized, was a human. He may have been a bigger one than me, but we were, essentially, made of the same stuff. That meant some things physically, but it also opened up this other frightening prospect: What if my dad did the bad stuff I did? What if he lied? What if he cheated? What if he faked like he was asleep and played LEGOs in the dark—or some form of that? And the truth was, as a bigger person, his own wrongdoings were weightier, more heinous, and affected more people.
My dad was a screw-up. I realized this more and more as I got older. My mom was too. And so was I. We all are, aren’t we? That is the thing about this human experience: Ashes, ashes, We all fall down. But many times in my adulthood I was tempted still to look at my dad like he should have been spent a whole lot less time as Clark Kent and more time flying around saving the day.
Even though we know our parents had failings—for some of us that meant occasionally being late or not getting us the right birthday present and for others it means much darker things like abuse or abandonment—for some reason, many of us cling to those shortcomings and harbor those sins. We refuse to let go of the past hurts, and, in doing so, we open ourselves up to recurring present pain and future strife in dealing with our feelings toward our parents, whether they are dead or alive.
We simply can’t let go; we can’t forgive. Here are some reasons why:
1. Pain hurts and lingers.
I recall breaking my wrist as boy. I knew something was wrong and that it was broken because I had never had such a gut-wrenching sense of pain. Had no pain been present, I still might be walking around with my crooked little arm. “Bones sticking out, Pal,” a kindly passerby might say. The pain alerted me to a problem, and one I needed to have fixed. I went to the doctor and he “re-set” my bone—a fancy way of saying he mafia-tortured me on a lab table and re-broke my arm—and I wore a cast for a few months.
But even now, I occasionally get a pain in my wrist and it reminds me of that incident all those years ago.
And that is the thing about the wounds we suffered at the hands of our parents. These affronts—both big and small—often were the first indicators that something was wrong with the world, and when something hurts us now, it is often that original feeling to which we return.
I hope this doesn’t come across as harsh, but some of us just love the perks of pain. Yes we hate pain in and of itself, and if we could live in a world void of it, sure, bring that world on! But since we don’t live in that place—nor can we—we attempt to wrench benefit from the bad.
To use a coarse aforementioned example, when I had a broken wrist, I had all the Popsicles I wanted. My mother kept the fridge well-stocked for her “wittle boy” (fortunately, my mother graciously never actually used “baby talk” on me!), and all I had to do is say the word and a frozen treat would appear in my one remaining good hand. Before the broken wrist, I was limited on how many Popsicles I could consume per day and often found a freezer void of them, and upon complaining about this hardship, I was met with the one-word answer, cold as the very freezer itself, “Tough.” Some parts of me–my greedy little taste buds, probably–never wanted to heal! Popsicles for life! they cried out.
Sometimes we use our painful experiences in this manner. Because my parents got a divorce, I have a trump card to play when I am a bad husband. “Sorry I forgot to unload the dishes, babe, it’s just . . . it’s just . . .” I pause to wipe the tear from my eyes, “It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, the divorce lately.”
Okay, so maybe it isn’t as pitiful as that example—I hope not—but to say we don’t sometimes fall in love with our own painful past, especially in regards to injustices of our upbringing, is simply untruthful. While we would trade out our pain gladly for an experience lacking it, we cannot go back in time and undo hurts, so we decide to harbor and exploit these painful experiences rather than process them. We use them to get sympathy, favor, privilege, attention, and, who knows, maybe even Popsicles.
3. Pain frees from responsibility/obligation.
Similar to the above example, sometimes a crummy relationship with our parents is grounds for a “Get Out of Responsibility Free Pass.” One of my favorite things to do is avoid my own foibles. I love to tell my wife how selfish she is or preach out against a friend who “just doesn’t get it.” There is nothing better than floating above and pointing out from afar the filthy sins and bad decisions of others, like Peter Pan flitting about Never Land and catcalling down to Hook, Smee, and the boys. I love living that fiction, but it is just that: fiction. I cannot float above what I am daily entrenched in. I’ll look in the mirror to make sure I look good, but how many times will I go to that mirror to inspect the bad?
Oftentimes, we use our painful past—especially in regards to our parents—to free us from dealing with some of our own flaws. Am I really selfish because of my parents’ divorce or am I selfish because I’m selfish? Is my rage justified because my father or mother abused me? Or is that unrighteous anger something I still need to nail to the cross and be cleansed of?
Sometimes we use our painful parental relationships as a scapegoat for rationalizing unrepentance, and in that way, we often repeat the sins of our fathers and mothers and miss out on sanctification.
The truth is, our parents were human beings—at least, I hope so. And with that said, comes this: they were fallen. Some of our parents did the best they could and some of them couldn’t have done any worse if they had really brainstormed and plotted it out. Some of us were neglected or hit or even sexually assaulted, but whatever hurts were attained in our youth, we can say this: we are alive. If you are reading this, your mind is functioning, your lungs are breathing, and you are alive! We owe that to our parents in some fashion, but even more than that, the fact that you are alive means this: on earth Christ ultimately experienced worse than your worst childhood trauma, big or small. He was tortured and killed! You are alive! So whether you had great parents or lousy ones, we can honor them for bringing us life and trust a God who walked around and endured worse than we ever will, on our behalf. Jesus paid it all, after all, and included in that were the sins of our moms and pops. We need to begin the process of forgiving those who gave us life using a measure more akin to the one Jesus uses for us, and less on a personal vendetta scale that can never truly be appeased.
Would it be amazing to let some of our hurts go? Would it be great to live a Galatians 5:1 type of freedom and be rid of our angst? What would it be like not to repay evil with evil (the silent treatment or slander or repressed rage) but repay evils—large and small—with good? The command to honor our parents was never meant to be a rigid restriction but rather a means of liberation. We do not honor our earthly mothers and fathers because they are good but because our Heavenly Father is. And in that—in Him—there is freedom to experience forgiveness, hope, and grace.
So let’s attempt to bring honor to our parents today. Maybe that is done through a card, through an email, through a prayer, through a lunch. For some of us, this may be a long road and it may take some time and accountability. That’s okay. Good things take time. For others, like me, we were blessed with admirable, loving parents—and, in my case, even a very good step-parent too—and the honor might come a bit easier. But whatever our individual story is, God allows us, in His power, to control our part of the ending: we can choose love; we can take the path of forgiveness; we can honor our father and mother.