Forgiveness: An Ongoing Process

I have been making peace with my mom one little step at a time for many years. Recently, I realized I have become stuck, vacillating between anger and acceptance. After a time of anger and resentment, I’d work to a place of comfortable acceptance of her abilities and disabilities when it comes to showing love. And then I would have a visit with her and the feelings of rejection would hit me hard, leading to my symptoms of anger — overeating, exhaustion, depression. The week following our visit last Thanksgiving, I slept an unheard of 12 hours each night and gained 13 pounds!

Once I realized I have become stuck, I also realized that I cannot repeat this cycle anymore. I am simply sick of the energy it takes from me.

At dinner with a caring group of Christian women, one friend explained “kairos moments” to me— kairos is a Greek word meaning “opportune time.” At a kairos moment, we have the opportunity to make a change that will bring us more in line with the life God is intending for us. “But when you keep hitting the same bump in the road—the same kairos moment,” she said, “it often means there is a need for repentance.”

I felt my guard go up at the word “repentance” because, while I’m certainly far from where I’d like to be in my life as a Believer, I truly don’t know of anything I need to repent of when it comes to my relationship with my mother. I was aware that my guard had gone up, so I knew there was something deep within me that made me want to run and hide. At this stage of age and life, I know the signs. There was something God wanted me to learn.

On the drive home from that dinner, I prayed to God to tell me what it was He wanted me to know, to learn, to do. I wanted to do it and be able to move on from the
cycle I’d been caught in for so long. I drove the long way home, waiting for His answer. Should I turn on the radio? I prayed. Maybe You want to speak to me through a song? But instead a small set of lyrics popped into my mind: “Show me how to love the unlovable. Show me how to reach the unreachable.” I knew I had heard the lyrics, but I couldn’t remember more of the song. I guess You want me to love Mom no matter how she treats me, I prayed. That makes sense. That’s honor.

But when I arrived home, I still felt unsettled and so I pulled out my iPad and Googled the lyrics. My answer immediately appeared: Forgiveness. It’s a song by Matthew West and the answer to my question, “What do I need to know, to learn, to do?”

I jumped right in. That’s my personality. Once I have the go-ahead, I bulldoze my way through and get it done. That Sunday I stepped forward during my church service and asked a pastor to pray for me because I wanted to forgive my mom and need God’s help to do it. “How long ago was the situation that you are forgiving her for?” he asked. I did the quick math and answered, “Thirty-three years.” It shocked me to realize that a lifetime had passed as I held on to my unforgiveness. I prayed to God to forgive me for refusing to let Him take care of this before that day. I repented. I felt forgiven. I felt free.

The Christmas visit with my family a couple of months later was fun. For the first time in many years, I was excited to see my parents and siblings and to know about the people and events in their lives. I realized when I left that what had changed to make this visit different was me. God had loosened the resentment that was in me, and I was able to enjoy my family without expectations.

I was caught off guard, then, when the relationship problems between my mom and me reared their head a few months later. I had explained at Christmas that my husband and I didn’t plan to attend my family’s big Easter celebration. My oldest son has ADHD and big events like the one they had planned cause his behavior issues to increase. My parents don’t have experience with special needs and prefer for children to behave like little adults. The Easter celebration would not be good for my parents’ opinion of my son, which meant it would most likely lead to hurtful comments and I would become resentful once again. My mom appeared hurt when I told her we wouldn’t be coming, but, after I explained our reasoning—that big events get my kids so excited they act negatively and I’d prefer a normal visit sometime soon when we can all spend positive time together playing and visiting— she seemed to understand why we chose to stay home for the holiday.

In late March she began calling to convince me that we should come, that all my siblings would be there, and that one sibling thought we weren’t coming because of him. I tried not to let the drama pull me in while I set about fixing any misunderstandings that had occurred. I called my brother and explained to him the reason we weren’t coming; I promised my mom that I would come to visit for Mother’s Day; and I stuck to my guns about Easter.

A couple of weeks later, my mom called to set up a visit. “I feel bad that your kids will miss out on the big Easter party, so your Dad and I are driving down to bring them Easter gifts and to visit. We’ll stay at a hotel, but we’ll have one whole afternoon and evening to visit as well as the next day until after lunch.” I ignored the dig about my kids missing out on the big Easter party and looked forward to their visit.

On the day they came, I cleared my calendar as much as possible so we’d have plenty of time to spend together. They arrived just as my sons were finishing kindergarten and preschool for the day. I wanted my mom to see that my older son had learned to read since she’d last seen him. Despite his ADHD and other special needs, he was proving to do well in school and was well-liked in his class. My younger son was writing his name now and had become much less shy around strangers. I was so proud of both my sons.

Unfortunately, after only six hours with us, my parents left for their four hour drive home. I could see it coming. It became clear little by little in the short time they spent with us. As my son read his book aloud to Grandma, he grew distracted between pages — starting unrelated conversations with her or leaving the room to see what his brother was doing. As I used the techniques I’ve learned to regain his attention and focus, I saw her shut down, disapproval in her expression as she stared out the window into our back yard. When my son leaned heavily onto his grandfather’s arm to look at the dinosaur book Grandpa was reading to himself, I saw my father push him away with a gruff “move over!” When my son asked, “Grandpa, will you play with me?” I watched to see my dad’s reaction: my father stood up and walked outside, ignoring my son.

By the time my daughters returned home from school and my husband from work, my parents were ready to eat a quick dinner and get on the road to the hotel. They told us that they decided to get home before lunch the next day and that it made more sense to get a hotel somewhere on the way home instead of nearby us. I was not surprised. I was, however, hurt. Again.

My husband took the kids out for a while so I could have time for a private cry. As soon as the minivan left the driveway, I ran to our bathroom and knelt on the floor, sobbing explosively. “Lord, why? This was their idea! They say they want to be with us and then when they are they can’t wait to get away. I hate this! I hate this! I hate this!” Even during my crying I wondered exactly what it is that I hate. The best answer I could come up with: rejection.

The next day, my mom called to tell me that they had made it home safely. Sensing some openness on her part, I commented on what a short visit they had for such a long drive and asked what I had been wanting to ask for a long time, “Don’t you…like…us?” After a pause, she assured me that they love us. “But I’ll be honest with you. Your son upsets me. He doesn’t need to act like that.” We had an honest but polite conversation about ADHD and how it presents itself in my son’s case; she affirmed their decision to keep their visits with us short at this point in their lives; and I thanked her for at least telling me how she felt.

That night, I climbed into bed early, exhausted from rerunning the conversation in my mind throughout the day. Slipping way down under the covers and curling in a fetal position, I asked my Father, “Why is this happening? I thought I forgave her. Why can’t she love us as we are? Why do I have to feel hurt all over again?” I knew the answer immediately. Seventy times seven times I will need to forgive her. And in the process of this forgiveness that is ongoing and not the one-and-done that I imagined it would be, I will be healed. The healing, I realize now, will also be ongoing and not the one-and done that I want it to be.

Frankly, this is not the news I want. But it feels true to the depth of me. This is the type of forgiveness Jesus knew and did and taught. And while I am slower than I want to be in seeing His footprints, I know that it is only His footprints in which I want to walk. This kind of forgiveness, therefore, is what I want to know, to learn, to do. And I will continue learning and healing with each tiny step I take following Him.