(Note: This is the second installment of a three-part story entitled The Last Lesson My Father Taught Me. It begins with a great tragedy before God turns it into a story of redemption and freedom, though not in the way most would think. . You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.
So, how do you handle unmerited rejection when it comes from someone you deeply love and respect?
I’d been betrayed before by people I trusted, so this was not new ground for me. My best friend and co-pastor lied about a resignation I had not offered and forced me out of a congregation I’d helped plant. Twice co-authors on book projects had reneged on their promises, one even going to court to lie under oath. Those three events are where I took my first steps in learning how to walk alongside Jesus when people turn their back to me and to the truth. You can invite people to reconciliation and healing, but you cannot impose it on those who refuse.
Unmerited rejection is a constant theme in Scripture, some people begging God for vindication for themselves and vengeance on their enemies, while others held in love the people who betrayed them, as David did with Absalom or Jesus with Peter. Jesus knows this territory quite well, having endured the unmerited rejection of his countrymen and the betrayal of his own disciples. Since then, he has endured centuries of people rejecting him because they believed lies about him. There is no better companion to walk with in such times.
Even though Dad saw me as his enemy, I refused to let him become mine. I grieved the loss of our relationship every day and resisted the temptation to diminish him in my heart. I invited Jesus to hold the pain with me and found in him compassion for my dad and the brokenness of those who had deceived him. I found the courage to keep walking in the same love toward him that Jesus has always shared with me, even when I have been unfaithful to him.
Everything I describe below began to find a place in my heart in the first betrayals I endured, but they came to fruition in the greater depth of this pain. I got to experience firsthand that God was bigger than the destructive things others can do to us. Here’s how I learned to deal with unmerited rejection:
Do the work of self-examination. Whenever I am criticized or accused, like most people, my initial reaction is to defend myself. As I’ve grown older, however, I try to lay down my defenses and see if any of it is deserved, if even a small piece. Rejection isn’t unmerited if there’s a good reason for it. So, I asked myself the difficult questions as well as ran them by people I trust. Is there any merit to his anger? What could I have done differently? Is there anything I can apologize for to help bridge the peace? Search me, Oh God, and know my heart.
In this case, however, his accusations were so specific and so provably wrong that I didn’t have to spend much time looking for fault there. You can’t apologize for something you didn’t do. If he had accused me of being insensitive or not caring enough, that would have required more consideration and offered more room to find an honest apology. I’m a flawed human being and relationships are often fraught with misunderstandings and offenses that can be repaired with tenderness and honesty, if we dare not judge the motives of others.
Resist anger. With my family’s agenda now unmasked, I could feel the hostility rising in my gut, but my heart beckoned me down a different road. “The vengeance you want will only destroy you; walk away and leave this to me.” That thought went through my head within a day or two in a familiar voice.
Taking that road, I began to recognize a connection between my dad’s anger toward one brother that opened him up to the misdirected frustrations of another. I thought of Dad’s angry words in the first instance, “You let your mom go to her grave with all your lies.” I found myself wishing someone would say something similar to the brother in the second instance. Bingo! That’s where I saw it in me—the vengeance lying in wait in my own heart. I didn’t want to perpetuate this cycle and seek a solution with anger. Instead, I sought a love deeper than my pain, and over time, found it.
One day, I awoke to an email from a good friend, who knew both Dad and me personally: “May the Father who is rich in mercy speak kindly to your heart and comfort you with the thought that the only way out of this is to lie at the foot of the cross with the prayer, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’”
I used to think that prayer was for sins of ignorance, but the Pharisees were not ignorant of the fact that they were having an innocent man executed. That’s why they had to lie about him. No, this prayer is not for people ignorant of bad actions, but those who can’t see who God is in the face of their own agenda. We’ve all done that, so it is not an impossible prayer to pray for those you love once you understand it. I prayed it every day until it finally came from the heart, not only for my dad but also for those who enabled his darkness.
Embrace the grief and God in it. This was the first time in my life to experience fatherlessness and it was excruciating. I missed my dad and being part of the family as it used to be. So, I sat with my grief and invited God into it. I thought of Dad often, praying that he would come to his senses, and if not, that he would be at peace over his final days. I entrusted him to God even when he doubled down on his hostility. Whenever he asked for my help, I gave him what he wanted. I learned to be gentle and tender, inviting him to do so as well. Asking him to stop his accusations only made him more aggressive. Finally, the only gift I had left to give him was my absence, which is the most difficult of all gifts.
I held my sorrow with God until slowly over time, grieving with him replaced my feelings of rejection with a growing compassion for my dad’s darkness. As I prayed tenderly for him, I saw him as the man I’d known for sixty-eight years, before others took advantage of his vulnerability. It isn’t fair to judge people by their worst moments.
But there were other ways God brought me comfort. Many times, friends offered just the right words, Scriptures, or prayers, even those who knew nothing of the circumstance I was in. Four times over those two years I had prolonged dreams where Dad and I talked together like old times, sharing and laughing together. In one, he even gave me counsel as to how to handle his rejection. That was weird, but incredibly helpful. I woke from those dreams feeling full and grateful for the man I had known—a sweet taste of the relationship in another realm.
Instead of deploying our anger we can wait for Father to repay us for what we’ve lost. That’s where we find justice—not in the punishment of those who wronged us but in Father’s ability to make up for what others have stolen from us.
Don’t let false accusations define you. Here’s another note from a friend that helped redirect my heart. “Don’t allow your accusers to stifle in any way your message of God’s love. Just allow this experience to increase your urgency, your compassion, and to deepen your dependency on grace.” I did find myself wondering at times how I would go on helping people experience God’s love when I was unwanted in my own extended family? Didn’t that disqualify me?
If, however, you let the false conclusions of others define you, you embrace the delusion as well. False accusations are more a commentary on those making them than it is on your character or lack of love. When people comfort their anger with lies, they won’t be able to see love because it won’t fit into their darkness. You can only entrust them to Jesus and go on with your life as best you can, hoping for a better day.
Find a passion for truth over comfort. Ultimately, what you believe doesn’t matter if what you believe isn’t true. If you don’t want to know the truth, your hopes will become your delusion and you won’t even know it. Cultivate a desire for truth even if it proves you wrong and you get to apologize. The delusion of those we love ought to be a reminder of how easy it is for any of us to succumb to its wiles.
In relationships, control is the opposite of love. When it became obvious that I wanted a relationship with my dad more than he wanted one with me, it was time to let go and allow him to set the tone for any future of the relationship. If he wanted to work at reconciliation, I was ready. If he preferred his delusion to our friendship, there was nothing I could do to help.
You can’t force friendships, even with family. Healthy relationships take a lot of patience, communication, and tenderness, willingness to hear each other out, and forbear with each other’s weaknesses. There’s no room for manipulation, secret whispers, ambushed meetings, or judging with certainty the motives of another. When people treat you that way, the loving thing is to take a safe distance from their toxicity until they are willing to lay it down.
See what other opportunities God has for you. Joseph was first betrayed by his brothers, who almost murdered him before selling him into slavery. As a slave in Egypt, his master’s wife tried to seduce him and when he fled, she falsely accused him of rape. In prison, he interpreted a dream for a fellow prisoner that got him released, and then who conveniently forgot to plead Joseph’s case with Pharoah thereafter. And yet after all of this, when his brothers came to him for help, he bore no grudge, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
So, what good might come from this? There is nothing that Jesus can’t work for our good if we look for it. Earlier betrayals shifted the trajectory of my heart in ways I came to appreciate, so I began to look for those here. As disappointed as I was to lose my father’s respect, it was also a ticket out of a growing cancer in our family of gossip, vitriol, and anger. I had watched it spread person to person over the years whenever someone didn’t get their way. They had to be right and if I didn’t agree with them, or had a different viewpoint, I was accused of motives I didn’t have or called a liar.
It was a relief to finally confirm I was being gaslit by those who could only see what they wanted to be true and were unwilling to consider differing thoughts or perspectives. They tried to control me in the name of family loyalty and punish me when I did not conform. I could finally leave them to it with the good conscience that I had done everything I could possibly do to save that relationship. Thus, while I no longer play their game, I do keep my heart open to them in case they ever want to repair the relationship.
Unmerited rejection also put me in touch in a deeper way with people in the thralls of relational pain. Not all conflicts can be resolved on this side of eternity. It helped me see more clearly the difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones and know when people are open to healing and when they are not. Sometimes we are the victims of other people’s choices, but that doesn’t mean Father won’t have endless options to take us on to fruitful ways of living.
Unilaterally learning how to love and forgive in the midst of judgment proved to be a powerful training ground for a disaster still to come. But before we go there, let me tell you these things resolved with my dad.
The day after our last phone call, the one where he pronounced me possessed by demons and destined for hell, I had a waking dream in which I was walking on a beach looking for a place to spread my parents’ ashes behind the lake they loved so much. After my mom died, Dad asked me to commingle their ashes and find a place for them there. In the vision, I knew their remains were in my backpack as I searched for an appropriate spot to place them. I finally thought of the perfect place and started toward a rocky outcropping at the end of the beach. Suddenly, I heard footsteps behind me. Turning to see who was there, I saw my dad standing on the water a few feet offshore.
It was disorienting to say the least. How could his remains be in my backpack and yet he was standing right there? His face was twisted in sorrow. As he looked at me, he choked on his words, “I know! I know now!” That was all he could manage to say, but it was more than enough. Then he reached out to hug me. It was a magical moment; my heart swelled with love for the man I’d always known. It is so easy to reconnect with someone you’ve already forgiven. As I started to walk toward his embrace, the vision stopped.
Awake, I lay in the darkness, reveling in the tenderness of the moment and asking God if this was a dream was a gift from him. I’m convinced it was and that Jesus let me see my eternal dad, the one who now knows the truth and how he had gotten stuck in the darkness. What a comfort it was through the last year of his life, and even more after he passed away.
Dad died a year later, and regretfully, we didn’t speak again in this life. I would have loved the opportunity, but I was concerned it would only further incite his anger. The morning I heard that he had died, my visceral reaction was unbridled joy. He was finally free! I was grateful his suffering was over and with it the lies he came to believe.
It is easy to put the last two years of my dad’s life inside a giant parenthesis, knowing that those days did not define him. He truly was the man I’d always known—wise, gentle but firm, and a man who followed Jesus as best he could. I know that in Christ now we are fully reconciled; the lies no longer exist for him. I can’t wait for the next conversation we have in the presence of Jesus; it will be beautiful.
And what of those who stole two years of friendship with my dad? I pray for them, too: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” People who trade in rumors, anger, and lies are hurting people themselves, who are just trying to make their lives work even if they destroy others around them. That may be caused by trauma as well, or selfishness or jealousy. They need love, too, and the opportunity to run to the light and find God’s grace and freedom. Until they do, I just don’t let them destroy my life anymore. I don’t have to let their anger find a home in my heart, knowing that God always has ways to work around the damage they cause.
But the greater gifts of this horrible experience were yet to come.