I didn't understand how the man who taught me right from wrong could commit such a sin.
I don't think I heard a word of the sermon that Sunday. The whole morning seemed to move in slow motion. I didn't greet my friends with the excitement typical of a college student home for the weekend. I was more like a zombie. My family sat together in our usual row, each of us dreading what was to come. As we stood for the reading of Scripture, my mind returned to a hot and humid morning in May several months before …
I had just finished my freshman year of college. I had only two weeks to spend with my family before heading off to a summer missions project. I was busy unpacking and re-packing when my dad told me he needed to talk to me about something.
We walked outside, and as he leaned against my car, the look in his eyes told me he had something very serious to say. Standing in uncomfortable silence, I tried to anticipate what that something might be. My heart quickened as tears choked his efforts to speak. He must be dying, I thought.
"Haley is your sister," he said through his tears.
My expression changed from fear to shock.
My dad said all he needed to say. In that one sentence he told me his friendship with a co-worker had been more than friendship, and as a result, I had a 2-year-old sister.
My mind reeled. I had babysat her when she was a baby.
"Does Mom know?" I asked.
"Yes, she's known for a while," he explained. "We waited to tell you because we didn't want you to have to deal with this while you were away at school.
"You probably won't want to talk to me very much," he said. "But I want you to know you can say whatever you need to say to work through this."
At that point I couldn't imagine not wanting to talk to him, and I certainly didn't want to say hurtful things. I could see he was in enough pain already.
I pulled him close and hugged him fiercely, wanting him to know I still loved him.
"Daddy, I forgive you," I said. "If I couldn't forgive you, then I wouldn't deserve forgiveness."
I meant what I said. But I had yet to experience the hurt and the bitterness of betrayal. I was still in shock. So I really couldn't understand what forgiving him meant.
I went on to the missions project and had a good summer. But all the while I was trying to ignore questions which left me feeling uneasy. How could he? was usually the one that got me started. Then I'd begin thinking about God's punishment. How is God going to punish Daddy? Will he punish me, too?
Sometimes I'd think about my little sister. Her life can't be a mistake, can it? Then was her birth a part of God's plan?
When I headed back to school in the fall, I was still trying so hard to be strong, despite the questions that clouded my mind. I read that "all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28) and assumed God could somehow use the experience in my ministry to others. I told myself the pain would make me stronger, so I should be joyful. I didn't know it was OK for me to hurt first and maybe even get a little angry. So I bottled up everything inside.
Then one night as I was attempting to study in the library, I reached the breaking point. I was staring at pages of notes, but not really seeing any words, when it hit me: My dad had an affair, and I have a little sister. A forceful tide of emotion swept over me when, as if for the first time, I acknowledged the reality of the situation. I jumped up from my seat and began to run toward the door, afraid I wouldn't make it before the tears began to gush.
Once outside I kept running in the cool night air, searching for a secluded place to unleash the pent-up emotions. I think I cried for two hours straight. They weren't the sort of tears that just trickle down your cheeks, either. They were screaming, coughing, suffocating sobs, the kind that make your lungs burn.
I was still thinking about that night of tears when the last verses of "Just As I Am" brought me back to the packed sanctuary. I scanned the congregation, thinking about all those who would hear my dad confess his sin of adultery and wondered how they would react. My mind was in turmoil. On one hand I respected him for taking responsibility for his actions. He could have run from it, but instead he faced it head on. Yes, I was proud of him for that. But on the other hand, I felt a deep sense of shame, as if I were the one who had committed the act. I wanted to keep it a secret to save myself from embarrassment. But then what about Haley? How could we keep her a secret?
My heart began to beat faster as I watched my dad make his way to the front of the church. He and my pastor had already talked about his decision to share his confession. I can't believe this is happening, my mind screamed. Surely I'm going to wake up from this nightmare!
As our pastor motioned for the congregation to be seated, I locked my arm around my older brother's and squeezed his hand firmly. He extended his other hand to my mom, who, with head bowed, prayed silently. As my dad began to speak, I could see his lower lip quivering. Tears streamed down my face. This has to be the hardest thing he has ever done, I thought.
"What I do now, I do for one reason and one reason only—obedience, that the name of God may be glorified," he began. He went on to confess his sin of adultery. He also admitted lying to members of the church when they confronted him about the affair. "What I did, I did to protect my family," he explained.
"While I'm ashamed of what I've done, I'm not ashamed of my daughter, Haley," he said. He asked for forgiveness, and then he walked back to his seat.
By this time my mom, my brother and I were all sobbing, but to my amazement, we weren't treated as if we all had scarlet A's embroidered on our chests. Our church family surrounded us after the service, embracing us in love. Men my dad had lied to came and hugged him. They cried together as they began the process of reconciliation.
I left church that day with a better understanding of what the body of Christ is supposed to be. But I still had a lot of questions. That morning was only the beginning of the healing process. I would go on to learn that forgiveness is a daily choice of moving toward the one who has hurt you, a daily choice to endure the pain caused by that person.
I would later come to the conclusion that, yes, God was in control of the whole situation, but it was never his will for my dad to sin. However, because of his awesome grace and mercy, he can take even our sins and use them for his glory.
As for the fear of punishment, I had to come to a whole new understanding of the gospel. I'm sure I had heard a million times that Jesus' death paid the penalty for our sins, but it didn't really occur to me that the payment covered not only the wrongs we had already committed but all that we would ever commit in the future as well. God satisfied his anger against sin by pouring out all his punishment on Christ.
Since my dad is a Christian, God did not and will not punish him. However, my dad and my family suffer the consequences of his sin. We've all experienced a lot of pain. The past few years have been tough ones as we've accepted a new member—Haley—into our family. My mom has definitely modeled forgiveness by relying on God's grace to raise my little sister, whom we adopted.
I can honestly say that I wouldn't change what happened. God has taught me so much about who he is and about trusting in him alone. My family is stronger, too. And my parents will be the first to say that their marriage is better than it ever has been.
But there are still times when wounds are reopened. During those times I'm often tempted to hold onto my anger, but then God reminds me that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. That says to me that I should love and forgive others as he has loved and forgiven me.
If I'm really honest with myself, I see I'm just as capable of doing the same things my dad did. That's why I needed Christ in the first place, and that's why I must depend on his grace each day.
Steps to Forgiving
1. Acknowledge the pain. Sometimes it's hard to admit you've been hurt because doing so intensifies the feelings. But you won't be able to work through the pain until you admit you're hurting. Tears are a pretty good indicator that something's wrong. So are feelings of resentment.
2. Think through the pain. Be honest about how you feel, even if you think you shouldn't feel that way. Admit that you don't like what happened or how you were treated and that it makes you sad or angry. Try writing these feelings in a journal or sharing them with a trusted Christian friend.
3. Put yourself in the shoes of your offender. Think about a time when you have wronged another person, maybe your parents, a sibling or a friend. You needed their forgiveness. Did that person extend forgiveness to you, or withhold it? How did it make you feel? When it comes to forgiving others, remember these words from Jesus: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you … " (Matthew 7:12).
4. Remember that God forgave you. If you're a Christian, you've admitted your need for God's forgiveness. Remembering how he forgave you, when you didn't deserve it, can help you forgive others. You may not be ready at this point to voice your forgiveness to your offender. In fact, communication with that person may be impossible if, for example, the person is no longer living. That's OK. You can forgive someone without having your offender accept your forgiveness.
5. Remember that God commands us to forgive. When Jesus taught about prayer, he stressed the importance of forgiving others (Luke 11:14). And in Mark 11:25, he says, "If you hold anything against anyone, forgive him … "
6. Let go of the pain. Once you've gone through the stages above, refuse to hold onto your hurt. Don't replay the offense over and over. Allowing yourself to get sad or angry again and again will only cause you more pain. Determine that you are going to choose to forgive your offender. Your emotions might not agree with this decision. This is where prayer comes in. Tell God you want to forgive, and ask him to change your heart toward the person who wronged you. You may want to consider voicing forgiveness to your offender either vocally or through a letter. But again, if this isn't possible, it doesn't mean you haven't expressed forgiveness.
7. Continue to forgive. If the wound was deep, you'll probably have to forgive more than once. When memories of the wrong come to mind and you find yourself getting worked up over it, immediately go to God in prayer.
8. Pray for the one who hurt you. It may be impossible to restore a relationship with your offender. For example, you don't know where the person lives or contacting this person could be a safety risk. But you can pray for the one who hurt you. Ask God to reveal his love to your offender. Doing so will help you to release any remaining resentment.