“You need to go to this sex addiction and issues group.” My friend was insisting, but I wasn’t understanding. I had lots of problems, but sex issues weren’t amongst them. “The main idea of the group,” my friend explained again, “is to forgive your parents. Most sex issues and addictions stem from issues with a parent. This group will help you forgive your father.”
Lack of forgiveness. That was MY issue.
When It All Began
Growing up my father was abusive emotionally, verbally, and sometimes physically. Not only that, but he also had unending affairs. Even as a little kid, I knew. When I was 9-years-old, I asked my mom, “Why does Daddy date other girls?”
He also spent his life running from the law, and he took us with him. He was a professional poker player, but also a con man who stole people’s money. He always had people who wanted to kill him and always wanted by the police. So, we ran. We repeatedly moved, sometimes in the middle of the night. We even had bricks thrown through our windows.
I grew up afraid of him and fearful of all these people who were after us. I hated him because of:
- The horrible things he said to me.
- All the ways he made me feel about myself.
- What he did to my mother.
- His actions, which tore me away from my friends.
- The years I grew up in fear.
Learning To Forgive
I hated him while growing up and continued to hate him as an adult. Then one day I realized hating him wasn’t hurting him, but it was killing me. I’ve heard not forgiving someone compared to eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. The rat doesn’t die; you do. That was me. My bitterness simmered inside. It made me miserable, and came boiling out in anger directed at the wrong people, and always disproportionate to the situation.
I realized I had to forgive my father. Not for him, but for me.
But I couldn’t.
That’s why my friend was insisting that I go to the sex addiction recovery group he had attended. It seemed absurd for me to go to a sex issue group without a sex issue, but I was desperate.
I decided to go.
The group worked. I learned principles of recovery, from the Bible, that I had never really learned, and probably never applied to my life. AND the group got me to a place where I was able to forgive my father. As a result, it set me free.
If I did it, you could also do it. It’s not a neat and tidy 3-step process, but let me share with you what I learned.
Understand Who Your Enemy Is
One time my father was being a jerk and calling me names, so I yelled back, “Was your father like this?” He was puzzled, “Like what?” I glared at him. “Was he a jerk to you like you are to me?” He stopped, seemingly stunned, and said, “No, it was my mother.”
For the first time, I saw him not just as a monster, but as a wounded person for whom hurting others came naturally. That didn’t lead me to forgive him, but it did compel me to pause.
The sex addiction group helped me realize part of the reason I refused to forgive my dad was because I didn’t understand what forgiveness meant. I had some false beliefs about forgiveness that I had to overcome.
Understand What Forgiveness Is Not
Forgiveness is not forgetting. You can’t erase memories from your mind. We don’t work like that. If you try to forget without forgiving, you’re just burying your feelings. It’s like pushing a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; your feelings will inevitably pop back up. Nothing is solved.
Forgiveness is not waiting. People say time heals all wounds. It doesn’t. It’s not waiting for the pain to cease, or for the other person to apologize. Forgiveness is a choice to take action regardless of the other person.
Forgiveness isn’t a matter of kiss and makeup. Have you ever been in a situation where there’s conflict, along with hurt feelings, but then, one day, everything seems smooth again? You didn’t even have to talk to resolve it. That’s not forgiveness. We can’t just sweep things under the rug.
Forgiveness is not just saying the words, “I forgive you.” Most of us learned this wrong idea from our mothers. You had a fight with a sibling. Mom found out. She grabbed both of you, made you face each other, and said, “Say you’re sorry. Now you say you’re sorry.”
Most parents thought those words would make everything better. But, of course, two minutes later, you and your brother were beating the daylights out of each other again.
Understand What Forgiveness Is
That’s what forgiveness isn’t, so what is forgiveness? I learned…
Forgiveness is releasing my hope for a better past. Part of our inability to forgive stems from always thinking about what could have been, what should have been. Part of forgiveness is finally accepting, “This is what happened, and I can’t change it.”
Not only are we unable to change the past, but if we hold on to bitterness, it can ruin our future. When we forgive, it doesn’t change our history, but it can change our path. What happened doesn’t change, but a better future becomes possible.
Forgiveness is releasing my hope for a better past. And as I do that, it helps me to be able to change my perspective on what real forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is releasing my right to retaliate. We want the other person to hurt the same way they hurt us. So we began to have revenge fantasies. The problem is that it keeps us stuck in the past. We need to surrender our need to retaliate.
I learned to take solace in a promise God gives in the Bible, in Romans 12:19, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” I decided that revenge is God’s job, and that was fine because I wasn’t very good at it.
Understand You’ve Been Forgiven
The reality is that you can’t give away something you don’t have, right? If I asked you to give away a million dollars, you couldn’t, because you don’t have a million dollars. If I asked you to give away a Lamborghini, you couldn’t, because you don’t have a Lamborghini. (Unless you do have a Lamborghini, in which case, I am asking you to give away your Lamborghini, to me!)
So if you can’t give away something you don’t have, and if you haven’t received forgiveness, you can’t give forgiveness. Who can forgive? The forgiven forgive. So, I needed to be forgiven to forgive.
When I accepted God’s forgiveness, it made me feel forgiven, it helped me to understand that I wasn’t perfect, that I needed forgiveness, just like my dad.
And there it was, I had forgiveness to give. While I was in the recovery group, I spent a lot of time focusing on the fact that God had given me mercy and, with His help, I could give it to my dad.
Understand You’ve Been Set Free
Nelson Mandela unjustly spent 27 grueling years in prison. When he was inaugurated as President of South Africa, he had the prison warden on the platform with him. He also reconciled with the white government who had kept him in jail for those 27 years.
Later, Bill Clinton asked Mandela why he did that. Why did he forgive those people? Mandela responded, “Those people controlled me for 27 years. When I got out of jail, I didn’t want them to continue controlling my life. I wanted to release the venom I had built up all those years in prison.”
So, I learned Mandella is right. Forgiveness means deciding to release a prisoner, only to realize the prisoner was me. Forgiving my father may not have done much for him, but it changed my life. Forgiving set me free. It can do the same for you.
I wrote my new book, Restore: Break Out Of Your Past and Into God’s Future, to help people move past their history. Whether it’s an issue of unforgiveness, sin they’re experiencing shame from, or an addiction they can’t break out of, I think this book will offer freedom and healing.
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