I noticed when my parents started showing their forgiveness of me. It did not mean they approved of what I did or prevent them from punishing me. But it did allow me to start over with a clean state, a new beginning. The first major incident came when I was in junior high school and a new driver. Some of my friends and I maliciously harassed a geography teacher by running our cars through her yard. One of the boys was caught, and when pressured he revealed all of the others who had been involved in the evil conspiracy. It was not a happy time for me, having to face my father with my wrongs in order to be admitted back into school.
My father took me over to the lady's house and had me confess to her and ask her for her forgiveness. No other guilty student had to do that. My father wanted me to feel the full weight of the consequences of my behavior. But when the ordeal was over, he assured me that he had forgiven me for what I had done and for the embarrassment I had caused him and the rest of the family.
The second time my parents showed their forgiveness also involved a driving problem. My friends and I calculated that the four wheels of a Pontiac Catalina were the same width of the railroad tracks. We determined that with careful skill we could drive the car between two streets that intersected the tracks. I did quite well for a while, but on the first curve I curved too much. The car slid from the tracks and slammed down onto the cross ties, the under-frame snagged on the tracks. By the time the car had been removed from the tracks it was in need of repair. My father also determined that my rear end was in need of repair, and he delivered the appropriate punishment swiftly and effectively. But he forgave me, as did my mother. They let me drive again.
The third time that they reassured me with their forgiveness was a much more serious matter. You see, my father had three very prodigal sons. We made the one in the Bible look like a rookie. I was the first prodigal son to come back home. It was after I had gone off to a Christian college that cost much more than the state university that my brothers attended. I justified the expense to them by emphasizing the Bible teaching I would receive there. But reading the Bible was not how I spent my time. I was promiscuous and sexually active. Eventually a girl I dated became pregnant by me. We consulted no one, and in our isolation, we decided to have an abortion. I helped pay for the abortion of my child.
It’s not my intent to make people who have had abortions feel guilty, but I felt that I had been responsible for the death of a child. I also knew that the beautiful young girl would not feel so beautiful anymore. The pangs of guilt clawed at my soul, and my emotions of grief overwhelmed me. I had to discuss it with someone. I chose my parents as the ones to help me break out of the silence that was causing me to experience temporary insanity. I went to them because I knew that they would forgive and reassure me. They did, and my wounds, rather than become infected, began to heal.
My oldest brother was the second prodigal son to come back home. I am not going to confess his sins for him. He had his own problems and worked through them. Now he is a deacon in a Baptist church. My parents' forgiveness and understanding were key to his rededication of his life to God's will.
The third prodigal son who came home was my middle brother, Jerry. He was a talented, brilliant man whom I looked up to for most of my life. When he came back as a prodigal son, he came back as a repentant homosexual, dying of AIDS. His welcome home was not like the return of the prodigal son in the Bible. My father did not run to him; he drove to a hospital to hear his confession. There were no sandals for his feet; he was not going anywhere. There was no robe, only a hospital gown. There was no ring, just an IV needle in his hand. There was no fattened calf, just the IV solution to help sustain his life. And there was no feast, because there was no appetite. But there was a celebration that the prodigal son had come home, repentant and prepared to enter heaven. It was the ultimate resolution of the love-hate relationship my parents had maintained with Jerry since learning about his homosexual lifestyle.
And there was another celebration. Jerry died June 13, 1988, and on the following Wednesday, there was a wonderful celebration of what Jerry had done and what God had done through Jerry to bring triumph from the tragedy. Jerry, with my parents' permission, told his story in the book How Will I Tell My Mother? As a result, stacks of letters and hours of phone calls attested to the fact that God had used Jerry's struggle to prevent others from having to repeat it. Romans 8:28 was played out in my brother's life because Jerry knew that he could go to my parents and they would forgive him. He knew that even though he had become every parent's nightmare, my parents would not reject him; they would provide the forgiveness and assurance he needed. If he had not known that their response would be forgiveness, he would have died a lonely, painfully secretive death. His life would have counted for very little. But because of forgiving parents, his life and death have helped others live beyond the trap of homosexuality and find victory as they come out of their struggle.
In his book, written shortly before his death, Jerry wrote the following:
The Bible says God never sends a problem we cannot handle with His power. It also says He will provide comfort. In both cases, the Scriptures have held true for me. I have grown close to a sweet and loving Jesus and understand that sickness and disease do not come from Him. Our God is there to help us fight the evil forces. I have peace and comfort like I have never felt before, even through I know AIDS continues to ravage my immune system. I pray each night for all who have been afflicted. I pray that God will comfort all of us in our families. God is a good God and a perfect God, and a forgiving God.
For me, during these difficult times of struggle, as each day grows darker, a new dawn draws closer. That closeness to the God I love gives me a superhuman peace and sensitivity that keeps me filled with hope for a new and better day.
Sing, O heavens!
Be joyful, O earth!
And break out in singing, O mountains!
For the Lord has comforted His people,
And will have mercy on His afflicted.
Those are the words of a struggler, but a forgiven struggler. Jerry was unencumbered with the guilt of condemnation from the past deeds that had led to his untimely death.
Because of parents who pointed him toward God's forgiveness, Jerry died feeling forgiven. He had noticed the lessons of forgiveness that my parents had set before him. He said in his final days, "God has forgiven me; nature has not." He said that he had fought a battle with Satan and that God had won. I thank God for parents who led their son to the forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
God taught us to forgive others by doing it Himself. My father taught my brothers and me to forgive by doing it himself, over and over again. Because of his example, I feel forgiven even though I have committed some of the most destructive sins possible. Because of Christ's sacrifice and my parents' example that pointed me toward Christ's forgiveness, I am free from a past of which I could never be proud.
Parents often find themselves with children who have pasts of which they are ashamed. Children are not always going to meet the expectations set before them. They will embarrass, rebel, stray, hurt, and disappoint. They will let their parents down repeatedly. And when they do, God wants parents to forgive those children, to show them how to forgive by forgiving, and then forgiving again. For all things big and small, God wants parents to teach their children how to forgive by forgiving.
The above piece is an adaptation from Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Live Without 'Em, by Steve Arterburn and Dave Stoop. Nashville, W Publishing Group, 1988.
Stephen Arterburn is the founder of New Life Ministries, the largest provider of Christian counseling and treatment in North America. As host of the daily New Life Live! radio program, he is heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at www.newlife.com. Steve is the lead speaker at The New Life Weekend, a conference with specialty programs for Marriage, Balancing Your Life, Anger, Fear, Boundaries, Depression, Weight Loss, Abuse, and Forgiveness. Steve is also the creator of Women of Faith® Conferences and the author/coauthor of over fifty books, including Healing is a Choice, Lose it For Life, Internet Protect Your Kids, Every Man's Battle, Avoiding Mr. Wrong, Reframe Your Life, and Midlife Manual for Men.