Forgiveness is a difficult task, but forgiving parents is especially complicated. How do we handle cultural expectations (particularly Asian) to always honor our parents? How about Christian expectations to forgive and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40) when someone has hurt us deeply? It can be very confusing.
Learning to forgive is important for our well-being and our freedom, and important in our ability to truly love our parents. How do we start this healing process?
Admit your anger
Oftentimes we feel that forgiveness means ignoring what our parents have done. Or suppressing or denying the hurts we feel. There may be guilt for being angry at our parents. We need to first admit that we are angry before we can start the forgiveness process. If there is no debt to let go of, we cannot fully let it go. In addition, denying anger can often mean taking on the blame for what our parents did. This leads to self-hatred. Admitting anger is an important step for healing.
Set boundaries if you need to
Forgiveness does not mean trust. Maybe you shared with your parents how you felt about a situation and they did not receive it well. Or maybe they received it well but nothing changed. Maybe they are continuing to hurt you, or make decisions that hurt you. In this case, it is okay to protect yourself by setting boundaries.
Specific boundaries can look different depending on each person’s situation. For some, it may mean a total severing of communication. For others, it may mean limiting contact or certain types of contact. It can be forever, or it can be for a limited time. It is helpful to process this with someone you trust, like a mature friend, pastor or therapist, and take this decision to God in prayer.
Note that there is a difference between setting boundaries and taking revenge. Setting boundaries means protecting yourself while not intentionally doing harm to another. Revenge is intentionally doing harm to someone. Revenge will not only hurt the other person but it will hurt you as well, as this can lead to regret. Take a step back and ask yourself “when my parents have passed away, would I feel at peace about what I am doing?” Boundaries are necessary for self-care and protection–which leads to healing and growth. Revenge is manipulative and hurtful–which leads to regret. Make sure you are setting boundaries, not trying to purposely hurt your parents for what they did.
Understand your parents’ own wounds
As children, we see our parents as superheroes. They are perfect in our eyes and can do no wrong. However, as we get older, we see that our parents have flaws. They are imperfect. And this imperfection is often a result of their life circumstances, life choices, and their own upbringing. Many of our parents are themselves wounded, without a chance to fully heal.
If we can shift our perspective from our parents being “bad” to wounded and imperfect sinners in need of a savior–just like us– we will have more compassion on them. Many of us have heard stories of our parents’ upbringing as we grew up. Remember those and don’t underestimate the impact it had on them. This will make it easier for us to forgive.
Note that our parents’ trauma never justifies any hurt that they caused us. We are all responsible for what we do to someone else, regardless of what we have been through. However, forgiveness will be easier if we can see their own hurts that caused them to hurt us.
Reminding yourself that you are lovable
We can also remember that for most of us, our parents did the best they could with what they had. They did love us. And for various reasons, they were not able to love us in the way that we needed. For those of us who suffered abuse or neglect, our parents’ wounds hindered their ability to love us correctly. And this is not a reflection of how lovable or worthy we are.
Acceptance of the situation
Holding onto hurt is a way to feel power in a powerless place. The irony is, however, that holding onto that hurt will only keep us as victims. Holding onto the hurt demands that our parents change. And until then, we cannot be at peace. It ultimately gives them all the power and disallows us from fully embracing the life that God has for us. We have the ability to break free by accepting our parents–for all that they were–and all that they weren’t. And letting go of their changing in order for us to be happy.
We can continue to pray that God would heal them and change them. However, our peace and our joy do not depend upon it. This is true freedom.
Letting go of the debt–forgiveness
As you forgive your parents, you release the debt that your parents have given you through their hurtful actions. You are the one who unfortunately had to pay the debt, but now you are both free. The good news is that the work you put in to pay this debt (forgiveness), will almost always allow you to grow, deepen and mature.
For those of us who are Christians, we have the added blessing of knowing a God who paid all of our debts. Like the parable of the two debtors (Matthew 18:23-35), whatever debt we pay is miniscule compared to the debt that He has paid for us. And when we focus our eyes on God (vs. man), the burden to forgive becomes light.
Furthermore, we know Him as a God who is in control of all things and allows all things to happen for our good–for the deepening of our character, faith, and knowledge of Him. Oftentimes, it is in these painful times of wrestling with God that we feel closest to Him and receive the most blessing. And it allows us to mature and grow into maturity, peace, and joy.
Remember that forgiveness takes work and is a process. We often have to make a choice to forgive, over and over. But the joy can often be found in the journey, and Christ is found as we walk in His steps and live in His love.
About the author: Lia Huynh is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist serving the Milpitas and San Jose areas. She is also a pastor’s wife, seminary professor, and speaker. Find out more about Christian counseling with Lia here.