117 | Is it time to forgive your parents?

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Hi, my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast, I want to discuss the touchy issue of forgiving our parents. I know of instances where parents have been dead and buried for years and yet are still alive in their children’s minds because of unresolved issues.

I attended seminary many years ago, and a hundred yards from my dorm was an old abandoned rail line running along the edge of the school’s property.

From time to time, I would wander out to that old rail track and walk along the line praying.

But more often I did something completely different.

You see, I had a dark secret.

I was a Christian. I had been filled with the Holy Spirit.

But at times I would walk down that track and I would take that verse out of the Bible that says we love God because He first loved us and I would horrifically twist it.

I would start chanting under my breath that I hated God because He first hated me. It became like some religious mantra that I would utter again and again and again.

If I was in a particularly foul mood, I would shake my fist at heaven and scream at God “I HATE YOU!”

If anyone was watching from the dorm, they might mistakenly believe that I was praying. `

But I wasn’t.

Despite what the Bible says, I believed God hated me.

I eventually went for counseling and was told, that if my opinion of God didn’t change, I would eventually fall away from the faith.”

I had a twisted perception of God and unfortunately, many of us do and now it might not be as extreme as mine.

For example, you may believe that God is rejecting you or you may feel that you aren’t good enough to be used by God or that God prefers others over you.

You don’t necessarily feel like this all the time, but there are moments when these disturbing thoughts pop into your head.

So why do people develop such twisted perceptions of God?

In 1994, the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion published a study that found that children perceive God in much the same way that they perceive their parents.

In the study, 143 children were presented with a set of characteristics such as kindness, and patience, and then asked to rank how much these attributes applied to their parents and also to God.

The authors stated:

Regardless of race, socioeconomic status or religious affiliation, children in our studies reported thinking about God often and perceiving God as similar to their parents in nurturing and power.

In other words, children transfer the perception that they have about their parents onto God.

This can be both good and bad.

For example, if they believed they weren’t good enough to keep their parents happy in school and sports, they believed that they were failing God as well.

People can even struggle to believe God loves them unconditionally because their parents’ love was conditional based on how well they did or behaved.

Believe it or not, there is a very good Biblical reason for this.

In Genesis 1:26, we read that God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”

The two keywords in this verse are likeness and image.

The Hebrew word translated ‘likeness’ means to model or shape. In other words, God created us with a mind and emotions which enables us to have a relationship with our Heavenly Father.

However, the second word —‘image’ (Hebrew: tselem) — is a bit different. It means to be a representative figure. At times the Old Testament writers used ‘tselem’ to describe idols such as in 2 Kings 11:18, when it was used to describe a Baal idol.

In some strange sense, it seems that God intended men and women to be the idols that represented Him, not carved wooden or stone figures.

But this begs a bigger question if everyone is created in the image of God, who are we supposed to represent God to? It would be fruitless walking around and telling everyone, “My, oh my you look divine today” because we all look divine.

So what was the purpose of this?

I believe God intended parents to be a representative or idol of sorts of what God was like to their children.

As children interacted with their parents, they gained an understanding of what God was like. This became a natural bridge leading them into a personal relationship with their Heavenly Father as they got older.

But then came man’s catastrophic fall into sin. In an instant, these perfect idols were scarred and disfigured. This unknowingly leaves all children to varying degrees with a distorted perception of what God is really like.

This can include such flawed perceptions as God loves others more than you because you believe that your parents loved your brother and sister more than you.

Maybe you don’t feel you can ever meet God’s expectations. Could that be based on the feeling that no matter how hard you tried, it was never good enough for your parents?

We all have flawed parents who unfortunately are the byproduct of their parents.

We must understand that it’s intergenerational in the sense that it has been passed down from one generation to the next. In some instances, it might even be classified as a generational curse.

Most of us have no idea, what our parents endured growing up and we need to cut them some slack.

I find it curious that in the middle of the Ten Commandments, we are told to honor our parents. Is this because, if we can’t or won’t honor our parents, we will also struggle to honor God?

Here is the point, God deeply desires to have a personal and trusting relationship with you and one thing that can hinder this from happening are resentments that you hold against your parents.

Though my case may seem extreme, there are instances when it can even go further.

In his book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist, Paul Vitz concluded that our childhood has a profound impact on our spiritual views.

Vitz was a professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences based in Arlington, Virginia, a Catholic graduate school, at the time he wrote the book in 1999.

After studying the biographies of some of the world’s most notorious atheists Vitz uncovered a common denominator in many of them. They came from broken or abusive homes, while others were impacted by the death of their father.

This included atheist Madalyn O’Hair who died in 1995. It was her 1960s lawsuit that resulted in the banning of prayer in American schools.

Vitz points to the memoir written by her son, W.J. Murray where he described the horrible relationship that O’Hair had with her father.

In his book, My Life without God, Murray described the day that his mother actually tried to kill her father with a ten-inch knife. Though she failed, O’Hair screamed, “I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave.”

O’Hair’s horrific, hate-filled, relationship with her father may explain her vitriolic hatred of God and Christianity.

Or how about famed atheist and German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900.

He didn’t come from an abusive home, but his father, who was a Lutheran pastor, died of a brain disease when Friedrich was just five years old.

At this age, Vitz says children believe death is a choice and blame their parents for the pain their death caused.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Nietzsche aggressively opposed Christianity later in life and developed what became known as the ‘God is dead’ movement, eerily paralleling his childhood experience.

Divorce, depending on a child’s age, can also have a profound impact on children as they sometimes blame themselves for their parents’ split.

Studies have shown that divorce can have a profound impact on children, emotionally and behaviourally.

A 2002 study conducted by the British government’s Youth Justice Board, entitled Building on Success found that while only 20% of youth were from broken families, they represented 70% of the young offenders.

A study entitled, For better or worse: Divorce Reconsidered by M. Hetherington reported that 25% of children whose parents divorced will experience prolonged emotional problems compared to just 10% who came up from non-divorced families.

The study noted that these issues often don’t start showing up until they are adults.

So if divorce can significantly impact children’s behavior, can it also distort their perception of God?

Or how about being abandoned by parents?

The 700 Club recently interviewed Hermes Giannis, whose father abandoned him forcing his mother to raise him alone.

Growing up, Hermes found success in baseball and was doing so well that while in high school he received several offers of university scholarships.

But he was influenced by the older players on the team and he turned to drugs, alcohol, and partying. His marks declined and he was eventually kicked off the team and lost his potential scholarships.

After having a serious accident while driving drunk, a Christian medic told Hermes that God saved his life because not many people survive the type of accident, Hermes had been involved.

Hermes shrugged it off, stating, “I just didn’t understand that God would save me, you know, that there was somebody out there who loved me. I didn’t feel loved.

Hermes continued with his drinking and drug-infused lifestyle.

But things started to change when a friend invited him to church. During the service, the pastor had a word of knowledge about a man in the service, that so accurately described Hermes’ life that he turned to God.

Though he was now a Christian and attended church, he still struggled with alcohol, which would rear its head when he encountered difficulties.

Hermes said this struggle was tied to the father he never knew because he hated his father.

A few nights after his wife threatened to leave him because of his drinking problem, Hermes had a dream, where he found himself wrestling with a man, that Hermes knew was his father.

He was shown in this dream that he needed to let his father go and forgive him for abandoning their family, which Hermes realized he needed to do.

The forgiveness process took several months. He first started by praying for his dad which resulted in him feeling compassion for his father. Then Hermes started forgiving him and he forgave him again and again and again.

After repeatedly doing this several times, Hermes finally and completely forgave his father.

This became the breakthrough that led him to break his alcoholic addiction and today, he serves as a pastor at an addiction treatment center.

This is the key to dealing with our wrong perceptions of God. We need to forgive our parents.

Several decades ago, I was walking down the street in the city where I lived when my mind was flooded with a memory of a negative incident that had happened to me years earlier.

I have no idea what triggered it, but it was part of a package of about five negative memories from my past involving my dad, that would play like a video in my mind.

They would come out of nowhere and suddenly I was reliving this incident like it was happening right in front of me.

The same thing had happened many times previously, but this time I asked God why it was happening.

At that moment, I felt the Holy Spirit say that this was happening because I hadn’t forgiven my father who was involved in those five incidents.

Thousands of things happened to me as I was growing up, none of which I have a hope of remembering, but there were five, I couldn’t forget.

I felt the Holy Spirit impressing on me that I was having these flashbacks because these distant memories were being kept alive by emotional charges of anger and resentment that I had towards my father.

These emotions had become attached to these memories and kept them alive.

If I wanted them to stop, I needed to forgive.

At that moment, I chose to forgive my dad.

And some of those memories I needed to forgive more than once, in fact, multiple times.

I remember the night I was pulling into the driveway of our home when I had another flashback of one of those five memories that I had previously forgiven.

Puzzled, I didn’t know what to do, but I felt I needed to forgive my dad again, a second time, for the very same incident.

I learned a valuable lesson that night.

Forgiveness is like an onion.

As you peel off the first layer by forgiving, another layer appears. You keep on doing this forgiving again and again, as the Holy Spirit brings this to our remembrance until you peel off that last and final layer and the onion disappears.

After being plagued by these five flashbacks for years, I can no longer remember most of them.

Because having finally forgiven those incidents, for the first time, they had a chance to grow old and become one of the thousands of things from my childhood, I have forgotten.

And as I went through the process, the anger and hatred that I had with God, began to fade as well.

I am convinced that unresolved issues between us and our parents can potentially hinder our relationship with God. They can serve as impediments even blockages, and we must deal with these issues by forgiving our parents.

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