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I was recently in a gathering of LDS women and noticed how many had strained relationships with their fathers. Many men have similar upbringings. The problem is so widespread that entire Hollywood movies have been made about this, books have been written, and therapists have been kept busy trying to help people come to terms with a dad who let them down.
So, as Father’s Day approaches, I thought I’d offer some help to those who have mixed feelings about this upcoming holiday.
While nobody is raised by perfect parents, some get parents who are neglectful, demanding, unaffectionate, stubborn, or abusive. Forgiving is not always easy. I might add that this same situation can occur with mothers.
So what can we do? Let’s set aside the parents who are unrepentant, who are continuing to put their families in danger. Boundaries have to be set and safety has to be ensured. No one expects you to invite someone to Thanksgiving dinner if they’re planning to burn your house down.
But what about the ones who made mistakes years ago, but have genuinely changed and been forgiven by God? Those wounds—even for lesser slights—hang on. They fester. They grow. It could have been a disparaging remark, a missed recital, an unfair spanking, a raised voice, a cold personality. But it stung and it stayed in our hearts. It made us mistrust, pull away, blame.
The story of the Prodigal Son has many layers of important meaning (and we’re all that Prodigal Son, let’s face it). But one of the messages is that people can actually change. We want to think that cruel, unrighteous people stay that way. They’re selfish, they’re uncaring, and they’ll never be any different. This notion justifies our continuing hurt and our refusal to forgive.
But the fact is that people do change. You are not the same person you were twenty years ago. You have repented of many things, perhaps things that make you cringe when you think about them. The entire reason we take the Sacrament every week is so we can continually repent. This means we know we can change and improve.
When we refuse to believe that another person has that same possibility, we are in the clutches of pride. Such a mindset may prevent us from building a bridge of understanding, repairing the relationship and believing we can trust this person again. Sometimes we even acknowledge we are digging in our heels, blaming it on copying our fathers’ example of negative behaviors.
So how can we overcome a bitterness that is eating away at our soul, doing us no good, and even blocking our access to inspiration from heaven?
I know two things that can help. One is to look deeper at your father’s background. See what damaged that innocent child and turned him into a dysfunctional adult. Realize he may have been doing his best, given his own flawed upbringing. Find the child of God inside that parent and focus on the good in his heart. Really listen when he apologizes. Don’t exact a penalty (none will ever be enough), simply have compassion for the tortured life he’s been living. If you are a parent yourself, you know all about regrets, and don’t you hope your own children will have a forgiving heart towards you? Again, remember that this works with moms as well.
The second thing is to remember a key principle, which is that Christ’s atonement is for the here and now, not just for when we die and count on him to have paid for all our sins. We can enact our Savior’s incredible sacrifice as we strive to follow him more closely, especially when we can love and forgive one another. If consequences must be suffered, let Christ figure that out. Let him decide if your parent needs additional work to be forgiven.
When you see your parent reaching out to you, your job is to watch for them, see them afar off, run down the road, and throw your arms around their neck. It’s exactly how we hope Christ will forgive us, too.
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.