Forgiving My Father, Forgiving Myself, Ruth Graham with Cindy Lambert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Summary: Through both personal narrative and biblical teaching, explores the power of forgiveness to bring freedom from bitterness, transforming our lives, and in at least some cases, our relationships.
Ruth Graham was leading a team into Angola Prison when she encountered Michael, on death row for murder, and yet at peace with God. Graham learns the amazing story of how the grandfather of the murderer’s victim had forgiven him and was praying for him. It led Ruth on a journey where forgiveness went from head knowledge to transformation in her life.
Ruth grew up in an extraordinary family. Her father was Billy Graham. Such a family carries its own stresses, that Ruth speaks about, never bitterly or cynically, but honestly. She made a series of bad choices in marriages, going through four divorces. Her mother’s advice was often less than helpful. She also began to see that she had a deep wound in her life from her father’s long absences. Despite her love for him, and his for her, she struggled with feelings of abandonment, and anger. Graham never excuses her own bad decisions, but weaves her journey of learning to forgive her father, forgive her self, and seek the forgiveness of others with biblical principles of how we forgive, and the tough issues of forgiving when forgiveness is not sought or rejected, when those we forgive are no longer around, and forgiving when the other person is not safe to be around.
She helps us see that forgiveness is neither fair nor easy, but that God has commanded it. She shows us that forgiveness is a process that does not depend on our feelings, but that God can help us to do something against which our feelings rebel. In forgiveness, bitter wounds become sacred wounds as we offer these to God and open our wounded places to Him. She teaches us how to ask forgiveness: “I did this. It was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me.”
Unlike Bryan Maier in Forgiveness and Justice (reviewed here) she believes that forgiveness can occur separately from repentance, reconciliation and restoration. Maier contends that forgiveness (which Graham might call reconciliation) can only occur when the offender confesses and repents from the wrong done. Maier contends that where there is no repentance, the proper response of the aggrieved is to take the grievance to God and trust God for justice
Graham would propose that forgiveness delivers us from bitterness, even in the absence of reconciliation, or when reconciliation is no longer safe or possible. Maier, I believe, would say that we take our anger to God as well as to pray, where it is possible, for the repentance of the offender, but not prematurely forgive.
I don’t believe Maier deals adequately with what one does when it is not possible to reconcile with an offender. At the same time, I think there is a point that Graham misses that was called to my attention in watching the documentary Emanuel on the deaths of nine people at the hands of Dylan Roof and participating on a panel with two black scholars who have studied the history and literature of violence against blacks. One of the remarkable things is how quickly a number of families forgive Roof, even though Roof never shows remorse (and other family and friends struggle to or refuse to forgive to this day). While we all recognized how these believers were shaped by biblical teaching, it was observed that it has often been the place of oppressed blacks to forgive, often accompanied by celebration that this has averted a more violent response. One scholar asked, “should not there be anger at the white supremacists and a system that produced Roof, at the history of violence in the forms of lynchings and church burnings against blacks?”
What I wonder is whether it is possible to forgive, as Christ forgave unrepentant enemies on the cross, and yet be angry, but not with bitterness, at the things which anger God, whether systemic racism, infidelity, sexual abuse, or morally corrupt leadership. There is an anger which is not hate, but which motivates advocacy, that does not relent in seeking justice. Sometimes, at least for some, forgiveness is a quick release from the hard feelings of grievance, or an escape from the hard work of seeking justice.
What I would say is that Graham does not minimize the challenge of forgiveness. She also offers a model of honestly facing her own need of forgiveness and what she hadn’t forgiven in others and herself. She helps us see the corrosive character of bitterness arising from an unforgiving heart and the grace God can give to forgive. Yet I think we also need teaching on forgiveness that teaches us how to know and live amazing grace while avoiding cheap grace, that does not heal personal or national wounds lightly.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.