The prisoner was me: Forgiving my dad after years of bitterness

Jazlyn Chua // June 12, 2019, 8:04 pm

Forgiving dad

In life, people will hurt us and we will hurt people. No one is exempt from having to forgive and release forgiveness. But sometimes the people who are closest to us are the hardest to forgive.

For many years, I hardly knew my dad and he was like a stranger to me because he was estranged from my family. Growing up, I was very emotionally affected by his absence.

In fact, I used go up during altar calls in church to ask someone to pray with me about this matter. For many years, I would pray for my father – that he would return home and receive salvation one day.

However, over time, my heart hardened towards him and the desire for his presence soon turned to a desire for his absence. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to come home and I was angry at him for hurting my mum and my family.

For many years, I thought my dad didn’t love me

Even though I constantly reminded myself of God’s commandment to “honour your father and mother”, it was always a struggle to honour him because I felt that he did not deserve to be honoured. When I saw him on special occasions, I could hardly hold a decent conversation with him and got easily frustrated in our interactions.

I continued to ask God to help me forgive my father, but deep down, there was a reluctance to forgive him because I reserved my right to be angry and wanted justice to be served. I had all these questions: If it’s so difficult to forgive people who have hurt us, then why must we do it? Why is it so important to forgive?

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

During a church retreat, I could sense God telling me to look inward. That’s when I realised that I had become so imprisoned by bitterness, my heart so hardened as I held onto what I felt was my right to be angry with my dad.

“Forgive” in the Bible is originally the Greek word “aphiemi“. It means to set free; to let go; or to liberate completely. So what exactly are we setting free? There is a quote that says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

I wanted to tell my dad how much I hated him

That night at the retreat, the message preached was on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The servant was forgiven of a great debt by his master, but when it was his turn to forgive a friend who owed him a lesser amount, he mercilessly had the man thrown in jail. Finding out what had happened, the master had him put in jail as well.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

The message reminded me of God’s forgiveness and unconditional love that had written off a massive debt that I could never pay him back for – his life paid for all my sins.

It also revealed to me that even though God had forgiven me, I had not extended this same grace to forgive my father. This convicted my heart that I needed to seek forgiveness from God for harbouring so much anger and bitterness all these years. Only God’s tenderness could melt away my bitterness – if I allowed Him into this part of my life.

That same night, one of the retreat facilitators stood in proxy for my dad, and as I told him that I forgave him, I immediately felt a burden lift and a sense of peace that I had never felt before.

I thought I would never forgive

When we learn to forgive, we release ourselves from the hold unforgiveness has on our lives. We let go of all the bitterness and pain that we have been feeling all these years.

Forgiveness is not saying that what was wrong is now right; it doesn’t make the other person right. But it does set you free as you surrender all your hurts to God and let Him heal your wounds in His way, in His time.

So now that we know it’s important to release forgiveness, how do we truly forgive?

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Even though I struggled for years trying to forgive my father, I was failing over and over because I was doing it all on my own strength. God was calling me to look upwards to the source of forgiveness – Him. The strength to forgive can only come from the One who has already paid for and promised forgiveness.

The 4 stages of forgiveness

Exactly 9 months after the church retreat, we received news that my dad was in the hospital and the doctor suspected he had cancer.

During the weeks that led up to his diagnosis, I was still struggling with my emotions even though I thought I had forgiven him already. I was angry. I was bitter. I was also telling myself if I chose to distance myself from my dad, it wouldn’t hurt so much.

In the midst of the struggle, God spoke to me through a book that I was reading, The Grand Weaver by Ravi Zacharias.

In it, Zacharias writes: “Morality alone would dictate that he gets what he deserves. A redeemed heart says, ‘Let me bind his wounds because what needs attention is his soul.’ Morality alone says, ‘There is nothing reasonable in the man’s request.’ The redeemed heart says, ‘The reason by which we live is the heart of mercy that does not keep a ledger.'”

Those words cut deep into my soul. I knew the self-righteousness in me had been seeking justice for a long time. How should I respond, now that something bad had happened to the person who had done me wrong? Perhaps I could have even been apathetic about it, but in Ephesians 4:32, God calls us to be better than that: To show kindness and compassion and release forgiveness, just as He has forgiven us.

Does my dad deserve a Father’s Day?

It was then God called me to look outward to serve my father. I was confronted with the truth: That even though I had forgiven my dad inwardly and entrusted the situation to God, forgiveness is a journey. And the next difficult step of this journey was to make room in my life for someone that I had gotten used to not having around.

But in that struggle, I chose to believe that God would grant me the strength to live out this forgiveness and love and serve my father. And I learnt that making a conscious effort and intentional decision to serve those who have offended us is part of the process to release forgiveness to them.

God showed me that my dad was also a sinful, broken, frail human being in desperate need of restoration and salvation.

As my dad’s condition was very volatile, we knew we didn’t have much time left with him. We knew that God desired us to reconcile with him and to release forgiveness as a family. So just before Chinese New Year that year, we finally managed to meet with my father when his condition was stable.

As we spoke to our dad, I could feel all the past anger and bitterness I had towards him slowly melting away. God showed me that my dad was also a sinful, broken, frail human being in desperate need of restoration and salvation.

Even though I told myself I would tell my dad that I forgave him, I ended up asking for forgiveness from him for all the ways I fell short as a daughter. It was such a humbling and healing experience because I know that I only managed to do it by the strength of God.

It was only by God’s grace and love that healing and closure was brought to all the past hurts within the family when we released forgiveness and reconciled with each other.

Asking Dad for forgiveness

It has been 3 years since my dad passed away. When I think back about it, I really never thought I would forgive him or even want to see him, but before his death, I felt the need to visit him at the hospital daily. I desired and prayed for his salvation because I knew that was most important.

To release forgiveness can be one of the hardest things that God requires of us. But the good news is He doesn’t leave us to do it on our own. He gives us the strength to forgive. The road to forgiveness is not an easy one, but perhaps none can be as tough as the one that Christ took in order to reconcile us back to God.

All of us have made mistakes, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of a perfect God. God initiated the process of forgiveness when He took on our mistakes and bore the consequences on our behalf by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die in our place, so that we may be forgiven and be reconciled back to Him.

Ephesians 1:7 states: “In him we have redemption through (Jesus’) blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”

Truly by God’s grace, we have been forgiven when we confess and repent of our sins. When we comprehend the extent of grace God has shown to us, it is much easier to extend forgiveness to others.

No, repentance is not just being sorry

Today we need to ask ourselves – is there someone that you need to forgive? Or is there someone that you need to seek forgiveness from?

Regardless of the pain that you are experiencing and struggles that you are facing, Jesus is waiting for you with arms wide open as you learn to let go of the hurt and let God take over.

And as Charles Spurgeon says, “To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven.”

In this season, I pray that you will taste the sweetness of forgiveness and reconciliation as you experience the grace of God for yourself.


  1. Do you struggle to forgive those who have hurt you?
  2. What are the main obstacles preventing you from releasing forgiveness?
  3. In the journey of forgiveness, what is something you can let go off now?
  4. Share your struggle with a trusted friend or leader. Pray about this issue together.