A sweet friend has been struggling with her childhood and what she experienced from her parents. Like many of us when we become adults, get married, and begin raising our own families, she sees clearly as a mom of two all the mistakes her parents made.
I understood because I felt the same way when I was in her season of life.
In my late twenties and early thirties, I blamed my parents as the source of all that troubled me. I found them guilty for my shyness, insecurity, fears, and for not teaching me to know God as a child. My lack of confidence in relationships, my weakness in resisting the influence of friends, and my inability to be comfortable and confident in who I was … it all seemed to be their fault.
That I might be responsible in some way never occurred to me. Nor did I have eyes to see that God could be using my perceived losses and weaknesses for my good. Years later God showed me that being left out of the in-crowd was actually a protection from harmful activities those kids were involved in.
How my perspective changed
The change in my heart toward my parents began when I learned over time bits and pieces of their stories. I knew from experience as a child, for example, that my paternal grandmother Lillie was an unhappy and often angry woman. My brothers and I were afraid of her. But I never thought about how her anger and unhappiness impacted my father as a child.
When I learned that my grandmother’s mother died when she was eight and her first-born son died as an infant, my heart began to feel compassion toward her. She also suffered from irregular heartbeats which the doctors all dismissed as “in her head” or caused by her “inferior” female emotional state. Being a woman was, for many, difficult in the early 1920s. There were no counselors, no woman’s ministries, no books about any of the issues she lived with.
My grandmother Lillie was just one of four broken, flawed, sinful parents who shaped the two people who gave life to me. Parents like mine, I realized, try to do their best, but often they don’t know what they’re doing or why. I didn’t know what I was doing as a parent much of the time either.
We have so much to learn from Jesus
I’ve learned many of Jesus’ words are widely recognized but rarely practiced. One of the most remarkable of all is His prayer for His killers as He hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
Even in His agony Jesus saw them for who they were; deceived, misguided, mistaken men, following the wrong leader. He knew that if they saw Him as He is, God Almighty high and lifted up in all His glory, they would have been flat on their faces before Him instead of railing at Him as they killed Him. In His darkest and most painful moments, as He was brutally tortured and murdered, Jesus modeled the way forward for His followers to forgive as He did.
To my young friend I texted:
“I’m sure you know now after six years of parenting how many things you have done that you regret, how many emotions you feel unable to control. Like all parents you, too, struggle with losing your temper or parenting out of fear. Right?
“So did your parents. They too did not know what they were doing. They too made mistakes, some perhaps were intentional, but probably most were not. Just as couples walking down the wedding aisle cannot imagine harming or being harmed by their beloved, so most parents love their children and would never intentionally harm them if they understood what their words or actions were causing within their child.
“Sadly you will harm your kids, too.”
All parents make mistakes and harm their children even though they don’t want to and are often unaware of the harm being done. It’s unavoidable. We are all too broken. And one day your children will have the choice to forgive you or not forgive you and become angry and bitter.
So here are three simple-to-say but hard-to-do steps for forgiving your parents:
1. Learn their stories. Try to see your parents as people with stories of heartache, failure and pain who need to be accepted as they are. Ask God to help you see them as He does. Do you know any of the experiences that shaped your parents? If you don’t, start asking questions to get to know who they were and what life experiences shaped them. You too might discover compassion blossoming in your heart toward them.
2. Make a list of the things they did right or the things they did that you are thankful for. Focus on what is good, honorable, and true about them. Making a list of positives will help you shift your eyes from all the negatives, creating a more balanced view.
3. Forgive them as Jesus forgave. Pray the same prayer He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” As an act of your will, stop blaming them and release them from the debt you feel they owe you.
And if you dare, one of the very best gifts you can give your parents is your list of what you are grateful for. Take that list and turn it into a written tribute, a gift of honor, a tangible way to obey the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land …” (Exodus 20:12). My husband, Dennis, wrote an entire book about honoring parents and included examples of tributes people have written to their parents.
Writing a tribute to my parents was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because it was so difficult to let go of blaming them. But it was also one of the best things I’ve ever done. Writing my list into a story form and reading it to them (through buckets of tears) set me free from the bondage I was in. It opened the door to a much freer and healthier relationship for the rest of their lives.
We are living in world full of divided relationships marked by disagreements and discord. We who belong to Christ, who have been born again by His death on the cross, should not allow our relationships to look like those who don’t have the power of Christ to redeem.
I pray you will take Jesus at His word when He says:
- “I am the resurrection and the life …” (John 11:25). If God can resurrect a dead Jesus, He can resurrect lifeless relationships with parents.
- “You will know the truth’ and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). When we know the truth about our parents and ourselves (we too are sinners and need forgiveness) we can be set free.
- “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our broken, divided family relationships are ruining our witness to the world and breaking the heart of God. The last verse of the Old Testament is a warning: “ … and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6).
- “Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). God can do anything with willing hearts in His surrendered people.
May you discover the joy of freedom and forgiveness with your parents.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to read more about honoring your parents:
15 thoughts on “How to Forgive Your Parents”
Thank you for this insight. Since my parents passed away in 2020 and 2022 I have been learning these same things. Let go of the past and what I think their mistakes were. Appreciate what they did well and know that the other things were unintentional. They loved me. Now I need to remember all the good things they did and respect their memories and talk about their positive traits when I talk about my parents to my adult children and grandchildren. I honor God by honoring theirr memories. They were imperfect human beings who loved Jesus who did the best they could. I look forward to seeing them again in Heaven someday.
Well written article, I am praying for the day my children send me a tribute as well. For now, they seem content to be bitter sinners calling me mean names like “molester” or “alcoholic” and “abuser”. I made it clear that I had a hard childhood so they should be thankful for all the good I did and forgive me already! Couldn’t agree with this more!
Beautifully said, Barbara, so true.
Very wise words. thank you
You are right. I know how much I have forgiven him for turning away from his relationship with my mother and choosing another woman to live with up to his last dying days. But somehow, I cannot forget the hurt I felt deep in my heart seeing and feeling the betrayals he would do to cheat on my mother. Through the years, I have set those aside, and accepted his leaving us for another woman. I got married, had kid, eked out a living. Until one day when he decided to be with us during his sickness and left us to take care of him until he died. I did not resent that, but I resented the fact that even as he chose to be with us his daughters instead of the other woman, he continued, openly this time, to show how much he loves the other woman. And that hurt me a lot again. I could not accept the woman and forgive her for luring our father into living with her, but why leave him to be taken cared by his daughters and not her knowing how much they love each other, as they say. And my father seemed not to like me because he finally knew that I could not accept his other woman into my life. Although I did nothing to harm him and his woman but just avoided any discussion about it with my father as he struggles with his sickness, nor did I do anything harsh to openly get mad at his woman. I remained firm in my belief that I forgive my father but not his woman and as long as I do not express or show how much I resent their relationship which is actually living in sin, I am okay. When my father died, I knew he resented me for that. Forgot accepting his deliberate intention to let his woman be a part of our lives. That was total absurdity. My mother and siblings have accepted that fact, but not me. And for my father for deliberately showing how right his relationship with his woman is such a wonder to me despite his being a loving and caring father to us edp.when we were small and still with us then.
I’m so sorry for the hardship you’ve written about. I do hope one day you can forgive your dad just as Jesus forgave hanging on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Such a good article. I went through childhood trauma and survived not thrived. I had a little christian therapy with forgiveness and it really did help me to see that my parents did the best they could considering their upbringing. I brought perfectionism, legalism, control issues, over analyzing into my marriage and raising our son before realizing God’s grace. I still at 68 suffer with ptsd, adhd, learning difficulties, anxiety because I didn’t get further help or trust God. Now our son at 31 is struggling with these generational issues and woundedness. He is a Christian and he doesn’t trust us outside of counseling, so of course, we desire restoration and healing, so I’m going with him first since he says I’ve inflicted the most hurt. Ouch, BUT GOD. He will redeem. I wish there were do-overs but I do know allowing our son to see an imperfect mom as opposed to trying to protect his world from what I went through, has opened his heart to more grace-giving, compassion and empathy. My scars run deep but it’s because I kept them to myself and didn’t think I could trust anyone. When we listen to God’s way and get our fear and self off the throne, the healing begins through Christ.
There aren’t do overs but there are second chances that only God can orchestrate and in that forgiveness and restoration. Keep praying, surrendering to His work in your heart and praying for redemption with your son. God wants to do that more than you desire it.
Thanks so much, Barbara, for your transparency and vulnerability in sharing. I recall many years ago that your husband Dennis shared on the radio about writing a tribute to parents. At the time I felt overwhelmed to think of how to write one to my dad, in particular. I focused on unpacking my resistence by looking into my childhood with a therapist. It took much longer than I would have hoped, but eventually I was able to write a tribute to him and read it to him on Father’s Day. It is now such an incredibly poignant memory to me of healing and forgiveness. We were able to care for him and my mom for the many years of their declining health because of this healing. I’ve always been so grateful for this memory and its impact on my life and I appreciate the legacy you and Dennis have been making for families.
Hi! I have been bless for many years by this ministry! I just read today’s post about forgiving our parents. By the grace of God, I have forgiven them for the ways they both abused me and then my children as well. We have seen the Lord’s mercy and grace and redemption in all of our lives. I do wish that along with the exhortation to forgive, that you had acknowledged that there are cases where parents do not unintentionally harm children but do so intentionally and actually do want to harm- yes this is evil. Children who are abused often experience evil perpetrated by parents who do so with great intention. I experienced this. I taught at a school for girls rescued from human trafficking and one or both parents were often the ones who trafficked them.
YES – the need to forgive is as Jesus forgave us is a necessity but I think that without meaning to, you potentionally close the spirit of those who have been on the receiving end of evil – perpetrated by their parents, by not acknowledging that some parents harm intentionally with full knowledge.
Thank you for sharing this! I am struggling with forgiving my parents for the intentional abuse they did to me. How were you able to fully forgive? Do you have any advice on how to reconcile the relationship. My father sexually abused me and my 3 siblings and my mother refuses to believe us. I have tried to reconcile with them Biblically but they both refuse to admit to any of this ever even happening!! There was also lots of physical and emotional abuse that they also deny ever happened. I Have forgiven to a point but am struggling to fully forgive. Thank you for any advice you can offer. God bless 💖
This is wonderful thank you! I find myself thinking so often in my parenting about how one day my kids will have to forgive all my mistakes! I too had to work on forgiving my parents. I did do my parent tribute after hearing Dennis speak on this years ago and was thankful to do it. However my favorite part in your article was also the scriptures you used and how I realize I have not actively been praying these for my current relationship with my parents. Thank you!!
Thank you so much ma’am for this article. I actually had a hard time forgiving my parents for some recent happenings, but God helped me with the scriptures you quoted: “father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”. Besides my parents, this scriptures helps me forgive anyone who offends and myself too.
I’ll like to write a tribute to my parents, but I’m yet to figure out how to go about it because they are not so learned, and seeing them is quite hard because of distance.
Thank you again for always sharing.
Thank you for writing this, Barbara.
It is so true that we are all broken and in need of forgiveness from the the Saviour and need to extend forgiveness to each other. I’ve messed up so many times and am a work in progress (in my late 50s); recently being able to forgive my mom for perceived injustices on my part; when I really considered the hurt in her own heart from her upbringing. Knowing our parents’ pasts is truly a huge help. My dad has passed and I had peace with him before he died. I am sad I never wrote a tribute to them while he was alive.
Your transparency will certainly help others, as well.
When I began to read this article, right away I was saying to myself ” this does relate to me.” OMG, was I mistaken, the more I read, the more I came into agreement with what I was reading. And so right away it dawn on me, and the words that. came to my mind from God, “I take what the enemy meant for evil, and I turn them for good. I have to admit it’s a blessings to have you writing these articles and I want to bless you and you family for sharing such an important topic.