Taking on the Heart of Forgiveness
About the Guest
Are you estranged from your mother or father? Leslie Leyland Fields has been there. Leslie reflects on her own journey of forgiveness which began one Sunday when the words of the Lord's Prayer penetrated her heart like an arrow: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Leslie shares what she did to begin to see her father through the eyes of Christ, a process she now admits, changed her life.
Leslie Leyland FieldsLeslie Fields writes for Christianity Today as a feature writer and columnist and writes freelance for a number of other magazines and journals. She is also a speaker, and between speaking and writing, she also runs a professional writing business, The Northern Pen, performing manuscript critique. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Cedarville University, a Master’s in English and Journalism from University of Oregon. Leslie lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in a house on a cliff over the...more
Leslie Leyland Fields reflects on her own journey of forgiveness which began one Sunday as the Lord’s Prayer pierced her heart. Leslie shares what she did to see her father through the eyes of Christ.
Taking on the Heart of Forgiveness
Bob: One of the things that is not optional for those who are followers of Jesus is to be forgiving to others. Here’s Leslie Fields.
Leslie: Forgiven people must be forgiving people. Forgiving my father has changed my life because it is turning me into a person who wants to forgive. God expects that of us. The forgiveness that He’s given to us was never meant to be private, or small, or individual. It is meant to be this balm that goes out. It starts, right here, in our families.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, October 8th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We have a responsibility, in Christ, to forgive others. So, how do we do that when it’s really hard? We’re going to explore that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve never seen any statistics on this—it would just be curious for me to know how many adult children today are estranged from a mother or a father.
Dennis: What percentage?
Bob: Yes. I know people who have great healthy relationships with parents and grandparents.
Dennis: Many; many.
Bob: But I also routinely run into folks who have these disconnected, disjointed, hurtful, angry relationships between parent and child.
Dennis: Let’s ask Leslie Leyland Fields what she thinks. Leslie—welcome back to the broadcast. What percent would you say? I’m going to put my finger on a number. What percent?
Leslie: You’re going to ask me for a number.
Leslie: Here’s the number I want to give—a lot—the number—a lot. In the course of writing this book, people would ask me: “Leslie, what are you working on now? What’s your next book on?” I would say, “Forgiving your fathers and mothers.” Their eyes would go big; and they would say, “Ahhh, I need that book!” I am astounded at how many adult children are estranged from their parents—or alienated.
Bob: Maybe they have a functional relationship.
Leslie: Yes—maybe, they’re still talking.
Bob: But there’s a wall up.
Bob: And there are places we don’t go. There is hidden hurt and bitterness in their hearts.
Leslie: It’s a very limited / very limited, narrow relationship.
Bob: And here’s the thing, Dennis—the Bible is pretty clear about forgiveness as not one of the options for you, as a follower of Jesus. But it was Jesus who said, “If you fail to forgive—when you stand before your Father, you will not be forgiven.”
Dennis: And Paul said in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…” There’s the soil—kind of the soil of where forgiveness comes from.
And then He commands us, “Forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” We’re to forgive because we’ve been forgiven. Frankly, a follower of Christ really ought to be an affluent forgiver / ought to be somebody who is abundantly moving toward other people with forgiveness.
Leslie: And I want to recall one more passage—key passage. Every Sunday, in my church, we say the Lord’s Prayer. There it is—right smack in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples asked Him, “Teach us to pray.” Right in the middle of that prayer / that model—that perfect prayer: “Forgive us our sins as,”—as—“we forgive those who sin against us.”
Bob: Our listeners have heard this week about your relationship with your father, growing up. He was emotionally-distant / often physically-distant. He was a traveling salesman—he was on the road.
When he was home, there was anger / there was attempted sexual abuse with children. There was no relationship. When you left—at 18, to go off to college, you left without any looking back and had almost no contact with your dad over a 30-year period, until you packed up the six grandkids and said—“Hey, we’re going to go meet my dad, 5,000 miles away,”—and reopened the door to a relationship.
Were you thinking, when you took your kids down to meet their grandfather, who they’d never met, and you couldn’t bring yourself to call the man their grandfather—were you thinking, “ This is going to be the beginning of the process I need to go through in forgiving my father.”
Leslie: I hoped that it was the beginning, but we didn’t finish that story. By the end of that visit—we were there together for about four hours—and my father was resistant.
He did not talk to me / he didn’t look at me. At the end of those four hours, I had determined: “That’s it! I am done. I am really done. I am never coming back.”
Bob: “I paid $10,000 to get everybody here.”
Bob: “I took two days—four hours—you’re not looking at me.” You just wipe the dust and move on.
Leslie: Exactly! I did—I wiped the dust off my feet and I went back home. I thought: “The door is closed. I’m done.” It wasn’t until—
Dennis: Wasn’t it the Lord’s Prayer that ultimately hit you?
Leslie: It was—it was. I was in church—so it was a combination of two things. It was the phone call from my sister and then, in church, praying the Lord’s Prayer. My head is bowed—oh I’m being so holy—and I’m praying the Lord’s Prayer. Those words came out of my own lips: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” My eyes popped wide open, and two words: “My father—my father.”
That’s when God really began to work / began to pry my fists open—open to His Word and to what God requires of all of us—that we forgive—even those who have offended us.
Bob: You have already shared with us that the first step in that forgiveness process for you was to write out and name the offenses. You took time—I’m imagining it was not days but weeks or months that you catalogued—that you brought to mind the things that your father had done?
Leslie: Yes. It was over a period of time. It’s hard because it’s a process of grieving. You’re confessing, but you’re also grieving over these things. It’s important not to hurry through that. It’s important to let that time be whatever it needs to be.
Bob: How did you know you were done with that time? How did you know: “Okay, I have grieved this / I have it catalogued. I’m ready to move to the next step”?
Leslie: I was just sick of it all. [Laughter] I was sick of myself, and I was sick of all those emotions that it was calling up. I knew—here’s the wonderful thing—yes, we’re never alone in this process—just as you said. The Holy Spirit is with us and His Word. I try to be in His Word every day—so the Word of God drew me to the next place—out of my anger. Oh my goodness, it was so good to leave that behind—on to the next step.
Dennis: Yes. You write about these steps in your book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. Let’s talk about that second step. Again, I just want to say, what you said earlier, too, Leslie. This process of forgiveness can take time. It is a process, and it might take months. It might even take over a year.
Bob: You don’t sit down in an evening and work your way through the four steps and be done with it.
Dennis: Well, I almost commented, in an earlier broadcast, as Leslie was talking, but decided not to interrupt her.
I almost commented that this is where I think the Christian community sometimes whitewashes, or over-spiritualizes, or puts a lot of religious talk around deep dark wounds—that they just, for a moment, need to let them be what they are.
Dennis: Admit it so that, when the forgiveness is lavished upon the other person for those deep wounds, it’s meaningful.
Leslie: Yes; it’s not cheap forgiveness.
Leslie: When we try to just plaster over whatever those events were / whatever those hurts and wounds are, we’ve got a cheap forgiveness. It’s not going to stand the test of time—for one thing. Those hurts are just going to break right on through, at some point. We do have that tendency to just want to skip over that hard part. We think, as Christians, we’re supposed to be happy and joyful all the time. We’re victorious in Christ and so we don’t want to be opening the doors to dark rooms and to shadows.
But Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” The truth does set us free—even the truth about the hard things and the awful things. Even naming those truths does begin to set us free.
Dennis: Yes, in fact, just to speak of God’s forgiveness of us—He follows the same pattern. We were enemies of God—the Scriptures tell us. God names it—He talks about the truth; and yet He sent His Son to die on a cross on our behalf. Okay, let’s get to the second step, then.
Leslie: Okay. The second step is what I call “becoming human.” Up to this point, we have looked at our parent through the eyes of a child. We see them through what C.S. Lewis calls “need love.” We need all these things from them; right? They’re not providing these things for us, and the next step that we take—we have to look deeper—and we have to see that person, who has wounded us, as a child themselves.
We have to see them as a human being themselves—not just as a mother or father—not just in that role that they’ve failed in. We have to see them as a whole person. We have to recognize that we are not the only ones who set off on the road—like the parable of the Good Samaritan; right? We set out on this highway toward adulthood. Somewhere, along the way—we are jumped, we are robbed, we are beaten, we are left bleeding beside the road—there we are.
We are bleeding. We need someone to come by. If we lift our head up from the side of the road and look across the road, you know what we’re going to see?
Do you know who’s over there, on the other side of the road? Do you know who else started off on that road, just as we did?—our mother, our father, our stepmother, our grandfather—whomever that person is. They lie there, on the other side of the road, just like you. That’s a key moment—to lift our head and look over and see them there—and our heart should go out to them.
Bob: Did you know anything about your father’s childhood? Did you know anything about what he might have experienced, growing up, that might have left him wounded, and bleeding, and not talking to his kids, and running away from home every day to go have ice cream and a cup of coffee and leave his family abandoned?
Leslie: I didn’t know very much, Bob. This is a part of this next step that’s really important—is, if you don’t know much about your mother, or father, or whomever this person is—about their childhood / about the early years of their marriage—go find out.
Go find out however you can. For me, it meant another trip down to Florida. My father had one living relative—a brother. I flew down and I spent several wonderful hours with them—just learning about his childhood / learning about what his experience was like.
That gave me deep compassion for my father because I recognized a whole pattern in his life—a pattern of failure and a pattern of rejection. He was rejected by many people in his life. That broke my heart because I began to see him, for the first time, as a human being rather than as just my father.
Bob: I have often talked to people who would describe for me traumatic experiences at the hands of a mother or a father—who only learned, later, that that mother or father had experienced more severe trauma in their own life, as a child, than what they dished out, as a parent.
Bob: It’s like—when the child realizes Mom and Dad were fighting against their own background / their own experience—and they didn’t fight perfectly, but they did better than what they had gotten—there can be some compassion that comes in that moment; can’t there?
Leslie: Absolutely. There is a phrase that is something of a cliché, but it is just so true I have to say it: “Hurt people hurt people.” Those who are wounding other people—you know—you know there is deep woundedness within them. I think that’s a very important step we have to take—is to look into their life. We will find compassion, and pity, and mercy for that person.
Bob: You’re not excusing your father’s behavior in that moment—you’re not saying, “Oh, well”; and he’s off the hook for what he did because, “Obviously, he had bad things—he couldn’t help it.” You’re not explaining it away.
Bob: You are just understanding.
Leslie: Right, right. It’s not an excuse—it is understanding—it is understanding.
Dennis: I call this process: “Looking at your parents through the eyes of Christ,”—the phrase in the New Testament—Jesus looked at Jerusalem; and He felt compassion because it was described, “They were like sheep without a shepherd.” More than likely, your parents, at some point in their lives, experienced life without a shepherd / without someone guiding as they should have been guiding.
The next step you talk about in the process of forgiveness is taking on the heart of forgiveness. Unpack what you mean by that.
Leslie: Yes. We look at our parent now with compassion. We recognize we are both wounded travelers on the path of life.
That’s really important that we identify with our parents that way in the woundedness. There’s another really important way we need to identify with our parents—and that is who we both are before God.
There is a parable—the parable of the two masters. We know this parable, but the Word of God continually speaks to us. This parable has been so powerful for me because it correctly identifies who I am before God; and it correctly identifies who my father was before God. So, you guys know the story; right? We have a king here—and he calls in one of his subjects, who owes him a lot of money—millions of dollars; right? He calls him in, and the subject can’t pay. The king knows that he can’t pay these debts—it’s impossible.
So, the king does what—this is a great and merciful king. The king could have thrown him in prison—in debtor’s prison—as many kings do. Not this king—this king says: “There’s only one thing that I really can do, and that is I’m going to erase your debt. You’re free. I’m going to free you from your debts.”
So this man—this freed man—he just got out of prison! He just got his life back! He is free! Hallelujah! He runs out of the presence of the king. What’s the first thing that he does; right? He grabs the next guy, who owes him nothing—a nickel. This guy owes him a nickel, and he demands that he pay the nickel back. So, there we are—we’re in there. Do you see yourself in there? [Laughter]
Dennis: Sure; sure.
Leslie: Are you aware, Bob and Dennis?—yes, so that’s us. We’re that first person who is called in before God. Our debts are unpayable—our sins against God are unpayable—and God says: “Okay, I’m going to pay them. I’m going to pay them.”
Jesus went to the cross to pay for those sins. The last word that Jesus said on the cross: “It is finished,”—that word “finished” means “paid in full”—your account—paid in full.
I run out of the presence of God, and I run to my father. I’m grabbing my father by the neck and I’m saying to him: “Hey, you owe me! You owe me!” No. No, no, no. My sins against God are so much greater. They are so much greater than my father’s sins against me. God knew I couldn’t pay my sins; you know?
I looked at my father—and I recognized, too, my father cannot pay back what he owes. He cannot pay—so I’m going to release those debts. That’s what God expects of us. He has released us from every sin, every debt—everything.
And He’s released us—not just so that we can be free, happy people—He released us for the very purpose of us going out and releasing others.
Bob: I, sometimes, wonder if people—who struggle with being able to forgive a father, or a mother, or somebody who has offended them in a terrible way—if they really do understand what God’s mercy toward them has been.
Dennis: I think that’s our problem every time we don’t forgive.
Leslie: Yes, I agree.
Dennis: I think we all are just a step away from piously going, “I’m going to get back at you,” because we’ve forgotten God’s mercy / God’s grace.
Leslie: We’ve forgotten who we were—just really rotten, terrible sinners before God!
Bob: We’ve minimized it. We’ve dumbed it down—that’s what we often do. We go, “Yes, I know God was gracious toward me; but I wasn’t that bad.”
Bob: That’s our—that’s our thing. That’s why the Bible comes back and says: “Oh, no. Oh, no. You were—
Dennis: “You did owe millions.”
Bob: —“You did owe millions.”
Leslie: “You did owe more than you could ever pay in your lifetime.”
Bob: That’s right. Once you can get it into your heart and head: “That’s true. God has released me from the obligation there,” then it’s really hard to turn to the next person and say, “But you still owe me a pound of flesh in all of this.”
Dennis: And Leslie, I don’t want to move past a message that is one that I know that is on your heart—and that is that God has called us, as followers of Christ, to move into the world with this forgiveness—to not just hoard it in our families but to express this forgiveness in the marketplace—that it would be a balm of healing and peace to all that we come in contact with.
Leslie: Absolutely. We are called—forgiven people must be forgiving people.
I hope that we can start, right there, in our families. I have to say—my life has been changed. Forgiving my father has changed my life because it is turning me into a person who wants to forgive—who is ready and quick to forgive. I’m not perfect. Watch—someone’s going to hear this broadcast, and they’re going to test me. They’re going to [Laughter]—please don’t do that! [Laughter]
God showed me His heart of mercy toward my father. My father was given people—Christians, all along his path—right up to the moment he died. That’s how much God loved my father. He gave him unending moments of mercy to lead him to Himself.
Seeing the merciful heart of God has changed me. I want to offer that mercy to others, and God expects that of us. What can salve and heal the wounds of the world?—forgiveness.
Dennis: Yes. And Leslie, there’s one last question I want to ask you that is going to test that forgiveness you gave your dad.
Bob: I don’t mean to interrupt you, but let me let our listeners know how they can get a copy of Leslie’s book before you ask her your final question. We have the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. It’s called Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate. You can request a copy of the book when you go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. That’s our website: FamilyLifeToday.com.
When you get there, click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll find information about Leslie’s book. There’s also information about a book that Dennis Rainey has written called The Forgotten Commandment about honoring our fathers and our mothers and about, proactively, writing a tribute to honor our parents. Our listeners may want to get both of these books as they process through what we’re talking about here this week.
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “GO DEEPER”; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY and ask for more information about the books we’ve talked about. You can order them from us, online; or you can order by phone—again, 1-800-FL-TODAY or, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Dennis: It’s been our privilege this week to spend a real rich time of discussing life’s most important relationships—beginning with our mom and dad—and forgiving them. Leslie Fields has helped us do that.
Here’s the assignment. Folks have listened to a pretty dramatic story about a daughter who was estranged from her father for more than 50 years—really, practically speaking.
Dennis: If I had the ability, right now, to seat your dad across the table from you and you could give him a tribute—a verbal tribute—and Bob and I would leave the studio—could you give him a tribute?
Leslie: I would honestly have a hard time saying, “Thank you for this and thank you for that.” I don’t have a lot of things I can thank him for, but I can thank him for life. I can thank him for showing me God’s heart. I can thank him for receiving me when I flew down and visited with him.
When I came down to be with him after his stroke, he listened to me / he heard me—I think for the first time in my life. He heard me, and he saw me. I would thank him for those things.
Dennis: And I think you’re pretty courageous that you can move toward a spirit of gratefulness and thankfulness in a very, very tough situation. I just appreciate you being a woman of faith, a pioneer, and a survivor.
Leslie: Thank you.
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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