The Blessing of Forgiving Our Parents

One conversation changed my relationship with my mom forever.

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

These are hard words that Jesus gives us in the Lord’s Prayer. As Christians, we know we ought to forgive—in fact, we’re commanded to do it. But often it’s easier said than done.

To emphasize the point even more, immediately after saying those words, Jesus has one further, critically important comment to make: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:9–15).

Jesus later clarifies the consequences of unforgiveness after telling a parable about a master who forgave a servant a very large debt. When the servant did not show mercy to another as his master had shown toward him, he was thrown into prison. Jesus then says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:21–35).

Paul encourages believers in Colossae to bear with one another “and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). And James reminds us that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Are you convinced yet that you need to forgive?

I’ve had some trouble with these verses in the past—not because I was unwilling to forgive, but because I seemed unable to forgive. Especially when it came to those who had inflicted deep wounds in my childhood.

As Christians, we understand that if someone apologizes for doing us wrong and asks for forgiveness, we are to forgive them. But that’s a “best case” scenario compared with the all-too-common situation of a family member who has sinned against us, sometimes in childhood when we were young and defenseless, sometimes repeatedly, and they admit no wrongdoing. And we know with almost 100% certainty there will be no apology forthcoming in our lifetime.

Do we still need to forgive? And how do we do that?

I struggled with these questions for years. After I became a Christian, I fervently hoped to hear a sermon on this topic, but to this day I never have. It was a conversation with my mom, an unplanned talk we had many years ago, that opened the gates of forgiveness for me, and healed my heart of the bitterness and resentment surrounding much of my past. I see God’s hand in that conversation in so many ways, and I thank him for setting in place for me a path of understanding and reconciliation before my mom passed away.

I was sitting on my couch; she was sitting in the chair opposite me. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but at some point we began talking about my mom’s childhood. I know that God had a hand in this because two things happened to make this talk different from the usual: her defenses were down and she was honest and real with me, and my ears were open and I was listening with compassion and without judgment. Praise God for small miracles.

During this conversation I learned much about my mom’s childhood, her parents (who had been like a father and a second mother to me), her often-debilitating health problems, her fears and anxieties as she was growing up, and her challenging relationship with her own mother. As a bonus, I also gained insight into my grandmother’s difficult childhood during the Great Depression, what she endured as the last of nine children in a poverty-stricken family, her struggles in school, her father’s shortcomings, and some of the more difficult aspects of her very early marriage and motherhood.

These women, the two women who had raised me and influenced me greatly as a child, had troubling stories of their own. For the first time, my eyes were opened to their lives as entirely separate from mine—lives that began long before I was born, full of insecurities and conflicts and challenges that I had never been aware of in such an honest and true way. It was the first time I ever saw them as more than just “my mom” or “my grandmother.”

Something shifted in me that day, like a rusty lock clicking open and falling from a gate marked “Forgiveness.” I didn’t consciously think, “Now I can forgive so many wrongs done to me in my childhood,” but looking back, I see that’s exactly when and where my story of forgiveness began. One day, one chance conversation, one healing moment when my eyes were opened to my mother and grandmother as human beings with full lives, who were functioning to the best of their ability with what they’d been given.

Oswald Chambers, in the devotional My Utmost for His Highest, says about judging others, “There is always at least one more fact, which we know nothing about, in every person’s situation” (June 17). I’d read that insightful sentence many times, and I had applied it often and with great compassion and understanding in the lives of other parents, church members, neighbors, and total strangers. But sadly, never once had I applied it to my own mother, my own grandmother, or other close members of my family. I thought I already knew them. I thought I knew what I needed to know in order to make judgments, especially concerning what I believed were sins committed against me as a child or as an adult. I had made assumptions, held resentment, and fostered the bitterness of unforgiveness based on incomplete information.

After I had this conversation with my mom about her own past, and about her mother’s past, I felt that I’d been given two gifts: one was the ability to forgive those who had hurt me in childhood (as Jesus has instructed me to forgive) and the other was a better understanding of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). I had never quite grasped how to honor parents who I believed had fallen short in so many ways. But as forgiveness began to grow in my heart, so did honoring my mother, which, until the end of her life, took the form of seeking restoration, steering situations to avoid conflict and strife, assuming the best of her, and letting go of long-held grudges.

I wrote recently about how important it is to maintain the relationship with your children (Unshockable Parenting). Part of that means recognizing that your kids aren’t perfect, freeing them from unrealistic expectations and overly high standards. The same principle applies to your parents—they also are not perfect, they have made and will make mistakes, and some of those mistakes may affect you directly and quite painfully. And yet …

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7).

As I grow closer to the age that my mother was when we had that remarkable conversation, I realize that both as a daughter and as a parent, I’ve made so many mistakes of my own. I pray that my own loved ones, those who are closest to me, can forgive me and extend mercy for all my shortcomings, just as our Lord forgives and extends mercy to each of us through Jesus.

Related articles: Putting an End to Generational Sins and Loved by God the [Not Absent, Not Abusive] Father

Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

8 thoughts on “The Blessing of Forgiving Our Parents

  1. As a high school theology teacher, I am sharing this with my students. Why wait until we are older to apply something so beautiful as forgiveness today? Thanks for the encouragement.


  2. In my situation, it has been forgiving my husband. We married young. On our wedding day, he was drunk and has no memory of the day. I did not see him before the wedding and had no idea he was in this condition. And every day since then he has nothing to reflect back on. He rarely mentions the day with a Happy Anniversary to me. I did not know for many years that he was a criminal during the early years of our marriage. He had a mother who was not nurturing, comforting, maternal; and this caused the beginnings of his troubles. His parents were abusive alcoholics when he was a child growing up. He had a huge problem in our marriage with spending money on stuff and then later calling me at work to state he’d spent several thousands of dollars. He has committed adultery several times, and I found out about them at essentially the same time. At this time, he can no longer be intimate, not even with me. He has health problems mentally and physically, but he is able to work. He is on medication for depression and anxiety, and this helps. I’ve left a lot out of my story, but I think you have an idea. We’ve been married 40 years.
    After the incidents, where he’d confess to things, I forgave. But it has been in my 50s that I’ve understood a deeper level of the ugliness and horror of those sins, the emotional impact, and the reality of the damage/consequences sin specifically has caused. I have grieved the loss of what might have been. I have grieved the young girl so taken advantage of- betrayed. I’ve grieved the other people he has hurt. And I have forgiven again-asking God to search my heart for any residual of unforgiveness.
    Despite the above, God has richly blessed our family. Our children have active relationships with God. They have wonderful families of their own.
    I am a longtime member of Bible Study Fellowship. For the past several years I have been a Children’s Leader. I enjoy reading the Bible and studying the Bible. I have an active prayer life. I love my church family.
    Despite the hard, the suffering, God is with me. He will continue to be with me.


    1. Annette, thank you for sharing. That’s an amazing testimony of God’s faithfulness. I’ve seen a few comments from other readers about this article, saying that it applies to others in our lives besides our parents, which of course is true. I’m in agreement with you that the older I get, the more I understand the necessity of forgiveness, even forgiving while grieving the loss of what might have been.

      Liked by 1 person

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