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As believers, we are repeatedly called to forgive others (e.g., Matt. 6:14–15; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3–4; Eph. 4:31–32; Col. 3:13). But forgiveness is messy, isn’t it? It can be a lifelong process, not just a one-time event. And throughout the process, the temptation to return to old patterns of thinking, engaging, or even ignoring can seem insurmountable.

I am reminded of the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. They had become so accustomed to enslavement that when offered freedom by Moses, they wanted to go back. In fact, they cried out in front of the Red Sea:

Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians?” It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert! (Ex. 14:12)

Every time I read this story, I think, Seriously, Israel? You’d rather remain in chains than experience freedom? Then the Lord holds up a mirror, and I see my own chains. Chains of unforgiveness.

Chained Down

For many years, I struggled to forgive my father. We’d been inseparable in my early years, but we eventually drifted apart. By the time I entered middle school, the burgeoning divide only widened. Work forced him to spend a lot of time away from our family, and the more he traveled, the more distant he and my mother became. Flickers of frustration erupted into explosive arguments, followed by deafening silence. All the while I smiled and performed on the outside, as sinful resentment and anger sprouted in my heart.

For nearly 20 years, I clung to the hurt inflicted on me like a badge of honor. Oh, how I wore it well. Pain became my story, not for God to receive glory, but for me to receive attention—the attention I desperately craved from the man who had so deeply wounded my heart.

Pride seeped into my spirit, resisting any opportunity for inner healing and connection with my father. Emotional and physical distance felt safe. Year after year, silence between my father and me remained the norm. The thought of obediently walking out of bondage felt frightening, full of overwhelming uncertainty. “Egypt” felt more comfortable. It was simply easier to wallow in past hurt than to throw off the past and be thrust into an unknown future.

It was simply easier to wallow in past hurt than to throw off the past and be thrust into an unknown future.

Nevertheless, the Great Forgiver calls us forward, just as he summoned the Israelites:

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” (Ex. 14:13–15)

Brothers and sisters, loved and forgiven by the Savior, it is time to move forward. Here are three things you can do to pursue forgiveness and freedom, for the glory of God.

1. Decide

My first step toward forgiveness began with a rational, committed decision to forgive my father, plain and simple. I reflected on God’s straightforward charge to “bear with one another and, if any of you has a grievance against someone, forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). The Lord forgave me, in spite of my many sins, so I had to be willing to forgive my dad.

My decision had little to do with my emotions. On the contrary, I had to discipline myself—by meditating on biblical passages about forgiveness—to ignore the feelings that threatened to flood my heart and thrust me back into a bitter space. In God’s strength, I refused to return to Egypt.

2. Empathize

As my heart opened to listening to my father, I began to experience him against the backdrop of his own upbringing, and to see that we are more similar than I cared to admit. He’s a sinner, as am I. He needs a Savior, as do I.

Freedom blossomed as I began to look at him as a human being with shards of brokenness—similar to the way God looks at me. My prayers began to shift away from my personal healing and selfish indignation to inner transformation for my dad.

3. Be Still

The roads my father and I traveled to reconnect were occasionally riddled with confusion. What seemed like forward steps sometimes resulted in missed opportunities and miscommunications. Though I attempted to stress and strive my way to unity with my dad, God continually summoned me to be still. It was only in my stillness that I recognized the work he was doing in me, in my father, and in our relationship. God did behind the scenes what I could never have accomplished in the foreground. He healed us into reconciliation throughout a lengthy season, during which forgiveness toward each other prevailed.

God did behind the scenes what I could never have accomplished in the foreground.

On his own accord, my dad confessed his wrongdoings and pursued repentance. It is a humble display that unfolds to this day, as God continues to peel back the layers of our relationship and as memories of our challenging past periodically reemerge.

While Egypt seemed comfortable a few years ago, I have experienced more rest, more peace, and more comfort since I made the decision—compelled by Scripture and empowered by the Spirit—to obediently exit the prison of my past and walk in the direction of true freedom.

Though not always easy, mutual forgiveness continues to abound as my dad and I strive daily to chart a new path. We walk arm in arm now, surrendering resurfaced hurts at Jesus’s feet and meeting each other’s shortcomings with humble understanding and gospel grace. In obedience and love, we choose to spur one another on toward the cross.