To forgive your father you must first understand him.

I met Earl when his marriage was in trouble. Years of putting work before his wife had led to a huge gap between the two of them. Earl was a hard worker, successful in his full-time job, holding down a part-time job plus farming “on the side”. Earl assured me he was doing it all to provide for his wife and family and he felt hurt and angry that they didn’t seem to appreciate it.

But after a few conversations it became apparent that all his hard work was really an attempt to win his father’s approval. You see, Earl’s dad had been ultra successful, a hard worker and a good provider. He was also a man who motivated his only son by relentless criticism and by raising the bar of his approval to unattainable levels.

Ray and Sandy were on the brink of divorce when Sharol and I met with them. They walked into our living room like they had just walked off the cover of a fashion magazine! They were successful, wealthy and had two sweet kids but they were drowning in hurt and anger. The root issue surfaced pretty quickly — a lack of forgiveness. Any couple that goes the distance learns to practice forgiveness but for Ray this seemed impossible. His military officer father had drilled into him: “If someone wrongs you, forgive them once but if they do it again, get even. Or get out.” I have no idea how that wisdom served his dad but I do know it played a big role in ending Ray’s marriage. That’s a father’s influence.

I have dozens more stories of men who are poorly disciplined and never manage to live up to their potential… just like their fathers. Men who don’t believe they are worth much or are capable of much because their fathers told them that. Men who abuse substances or women because that’s what dad did. Men who are emotionally absent and men are physically absent, walking out on their relationships because that’s what their fathers did. Men who find it almost impossible to express love or respect the important people in their life because their father never did.

But I also have hundreds of stories of guys who have become men of integrity and compassion, men who are successful at home and in the marketplace, men who are able to give and receive affection and respect because they are following the example of a great father. This too is a father’s influence.

Men, the truth is this: our fathers profoundly influence us — for good and bad. If we want to live freely into our own identity and potential we must come to peace with our dads. We must come to the place where we can give thanks for the all the good they have blessed us with and forgive them for the ways they have hurt and disappointed us. If you find this difficult, here are two things that can help:

1. Consider that your father did the best he could.

You will never fully understand the issues that shaped your father or compelled him to act the way he did, including unresolved issues with his own father. Choose to believe that your father was doing the best he could and forgive him for the rest. Do it in your heart first. Then, if your father’s alive, reach out to him. If your father is gone or unreachable, it will help to write down your thoughts and share them with a close friend.

2. Consider our Heavenly Father and seek to be like Him.

God teaches us throughout the Bible how to give thanks and forgiveness. His Son Jesus Christ was the perfect human example of this. It is very possible that we have deep wounds from our fathers. God’s grace can heal our hearts and our relationships. He can give us the ability to forgive. And our Heavenly Father can teach us new patterns of living and loving in our relationships, with our father and in all our relationships. We need this… because no man is an island.

Neil Josephson is the National Director with FamilyLife Canada. Neil, together with his wife Sharol, lead FamilyLife Canada. Neil loves to learn, teach and write about anything related to marriage, family and Christian discipleship. Married since 1982, Neil and Sharol have two great sons, two awesome daugther-in-laws and three of the sweetest grandchildren ever.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY FEATURED IN SEVEN MAGAZINE.

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