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How to Forgive Your Parents

By Barbara Rainey

First posted on

A sweet friend has been struggling with her childhood and what she experienced from her parents. Like many of us when we become adults, get married, and begin raising our own families, she sees clearly as a mom of two all the mistakes her parents made.

I understood because I felt the same way when I was in her season of life.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I blamed my parents as the source of all that troubled me. I found them guilty for my shyness, insecurity, fears, and for not teaching me to know God as a child. My lack of confidence in relationships, my weakness in resisting the influence of friends, and my inability to be comfortable and confident in who I was … it all seemed to be their fault.

That I might be responsible in some way never occurred to me. Nor did I have eyes to see that God could be using my perceived losses and weaknesses for my good. Years later God showed me that being left out of the in-crowd was actually a protection from harmful activities those kids were involved in.

How my perspective changed

The change in my heart toward my parents began when I learned over time bits and pieces of their stories. I knew from experience as a child, for example, that my paternal grandmother Lillie was an unhappy and often angry woman. My brothers and I were afraid of her. But I never thought about how her anger and unhappiness impacted my father as a child.

When I learned that my grandmother’s mother died when she was eight and her first-born son died as an infant, my heart began to feel compassion toward her. She also suffered from irregular heartbeats which the doctors all dismissed as “in her head” or caused by her “inferior” female emotional state. Being a woman was, for many, difficult in the early 1920s. There were no counselors, no woman’s ministries, no books about any of the issues she lived with.

My grandmother Lillie was just one of four broken, flawed, sinful parents who shaped the two people who gave life to me. Parents like mine, I realized, try to do their best, but often they don’t know what they’re doing or why. I didn’t know what I was doing as a parent much of the time either.

We have so much to learn from Jesus

I’ve learned many of Jesus’ words are widely recognized but rarely practiced. One of the most remarkable of all is His prayer for His killers as He hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do(Luke 23:24).

Even in His agony Jesus saw them for who they were; deceived, misguided, mistaken men, following the wrong leader. He knew that if they saw Him as He is, God Almighty high and lifted up in all His glory, they would have been flat on their faces before Him instead of railing at Him as they killed Him. In His darkest and most painful moments, as He was brutally tortured and murdered, Jesus modeled the way forward for His followers to forgive as He did.

To my young friend I texted:

“I’m sure you know now after six years of parenting how many things you have done that you regret, how many emotions you feel unable to control. Like all parents you, too, struggle with losing your temper or parenting out of fear. Right?

“So did your parents. They too did not know what they were doing. They too made mistakes, some perhaps were intentional, but probably most were not. Just as couples walking down the wedding aisle cannot imagine harming or being harmed by their beloved, so most parents love their children and would never intentionally harm them if they understood what their words or actions were causing within their child.

“Sadly you will harm your kids, too.”

All parents make mistakes and harm their children even though they don’t want to and are often unaware of the harm being done. It’s unavoidable. We are all too broken. And one day your children will have the choice to forgive you or not forgive you and become angry and bitter.

So here are three simple-to-say but hard-to-do steps for forgiving your parents:

  1. Learn their stories. Try to see your parents as people with stories of heartache, failure and pain who need to be accepted as they are. Ask God to help you see them as He does. Do you know any of the experiences that shaped your parents? If you don’t, start asking questions to get to know who they were and what life experiences shaped them. You too might discover compassion blossoming in your heart toward them.

  2. Make a list of the things they did right or the things they did that you are thankful for. Focus on what is good, honorable, and true about them. Making a list of positives will help you shift your eyes from all the negatives, creating a more balanced view.

  3. Forgive them as Jesus forgave. Pray the same prayer He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” As an act of your will, stop blaming them and release them from the debt you feel they owe you.

And if you dare, one of the very best gifts you can give your parents is your list of what you are grateful for. Take that list and turn it into a written tribute, a gift of honor, a tangible way to obey the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land …” (Exodus 20:12). My husband, Dennis, wrote an entire book about honoring parents and included examples of tributes people have written to their parents.

Writing a tribute to my parents was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because it was so difficult to let go of blaming them. But it was also one of the best things I’ve ever done. Writing my list into a story form and reading it to them (through buckets of tears) set me free from the bondage I was in. It opened the door to a much freer and healthier relationship for the rest of their lives.

We are living in world full of divided relationships marked by disagreements and discord. We who belong to Christ, who have been born again by His death on the cross, should not allow our relationships to look like those who don’t have the power of Christ to redeem.

I pray you will take Jesus at His word when He says:

  • I am the resurrection and the life …” (John 11:25). If God can resurrect a dead Jesus, He can resurrect lifeless relationships with parents.

  • You will know the truth’ and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). When we know the truth about our parents and ourselves (we too are sinners and need forgiveness) we can be set free.

  • By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our broken, divided family relationships are ruining our witness to the world and breaking the heart of God. The last verse of the Old Testament is a warning: “ … and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction (Malachi 4:6).

  • Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). God can do anything with willing hearts in His surrendered people.

May you discover the joy of freedom and forgiveness with your parents.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to read more about honoring your parents:


My Heart, Ever His: Prayers for Women (NEW from Barbara Rainey)

As we search for meaning in our world of shallow online relationships and glamorized selfies, many are returning to traditional and liturgical churches. The repeated words, benedictions, and historic hymns connect us to saints who have gone before, giving us a sense of belonging, richness, and transcendence. Written prayers, once cast off as archaic, are now welcomed as guides to tune our hearts to the heart of God.

In My Heart, Ever His Barbara Rainey shares 40 prayers for women. Readers can read and meditate on one prayer throughout the week or read a prayer a day for 40 days as a way to express the longing of our hearts to our Father who loves us even as he sees who we truly are. Like the psalms of David, these prayers are honest, sometimes raw. Barbara uses these transparent expressions of common female experiences to encourage us to surrender to Christ and help us see God as he is, not as we assume him to be. My Heart, Ever His provides a stepping-stone to help you become more transparent with God and discover his welcoming embrace.


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