Growing up, I was taught about the kind of love God the Father has for his children; it was called "agape love." I understood it as the kind of love that allows a parent to forgive their children for wrongdoing, and the sort of love that allows God to forgive humankind for sin. It was something to take comfort in. The message that we had "fallen short" was pounded into my head, and God's love had to be extremely powerful to overlook how unclean and unworthy I was. Everyone cried and wailed around me, thanking God for forgiving them, feeling lucky and grateful their depravity was being overlooked by a loving Father.

Also, as a child, I dealt with a step-father who was abusive in many ways... although also constantly begging for forgiveness. This man had been abused himself, and dealt with many demons of his own. He constantly ebbed and flowed between a hair-trigger temper and a desperate contrition. He wasn't insincere when he pleaded, on literal bended knee with a tear-soaked face, for us to forgive him. And we did. Over and over, we forgave him. My mother forgave him. My brothers forgave him. I forgave him. 26 years into his marriage with my mother, he's finally matured into a fairly mellow human being.

When I was 23, I began building a relationship with my real father. He left before I was born, and left a trail of abandoned children behind him. He was a heart-breaker most of his life. When I decided I needed to know this man, he was reeling from being divorced by the one woman who had a grip on his heart. Because I hadn't known him my entire life, it was easier to forgive him than if he'd left while I was a child. He answered a lot of questions about myself just by being himself. Now, 30 years later, he has a lot of regrets. He's moving forward by building relationships with his children, but not all of them have found it within themselves to let it go. I have.

I've more than forgiven him, actually. I love him deeply, and there's not really anything he can do to shake my love... and I have been shaken. I see all that he's done to my mother, to other women, to my siblings... I still love him. I'll always love him. Maybe my step-father is unworthy; maybe my real father is unworthy... but I love them. I have agape love for my fathers.

The lesson I learned recently, while talking to my mother, is that it's actually up to children to forgive their parents. A parent is far more capable of sinning against their children than the other way around. We depend on them to be our safe place... to be our teachers, our kindest critics, our heroes, our mentors, our home. They're all just human, and they will inevitably fail us in some way or another. They will literally fall on their knees and beg us for forgiveness. Depending on the grievance, we might find it in our hearts to do so. Not everyone can forgive their parents; not everyone should. But a parent who's wronged their child should be grateful when their children are able to forgive them, and love them, despite their "sin".

This is one of the main things wrong with the idea of Christianity; with the idea that humans should ask their Heavenly Father for forgiveness. This god, who created the universe with so many flaws, and so many traps, and so many temptations; who created us with so many flaws, and so many weaknesses, and so little help... should be pleading for our forgiveness. He is the one, should he exist, who is unworthy of it. Christianity, or any religion, would make so much more sense if the Creator was the one assuming responsibility and repenting of his sin against all of creation.

I know what it's like to forgive a parent (or three). I know what it's like to love them in spite of all the hurt they caused, their character flaws, their imperfection... and it's most profound when that kind of agape loves flows from the child back to the parent. It's a given a parent loves and will forgive their children; they can't help it. It isn't a given for a child to forgive a parent.

Dear Christians: your message is wrong. God should be begging his creation for forgiveness for all the ways in which he's failed us. If only he existed.

Views: 717

Tags: agape, children, father, forgive, forgiveness, love, parents, sin

Comment by Simon Paynton on June 30, 2013 at 9:59pm

@Cara - another brilliant article from the intellectual powerhouse of TA. 

"It's a given a parent loves and will forgive their children; they can't help it. It isn't a given for a child to forgive a parent."  Absolutely. 

Here's my take on the subject. 

If we get inside the religious mindset for the sake of argument, and talk about God as a real entity: there are two aspects to God.  1) the creator;  2) God's love.  These are two separate things, and as an atheist, I can say that the first is irrelevant and the second is very real. 

God's love is an aspect of all living things. 

The phenomenon of forgiveness is an aspect of God's love. 

Forgiveness itself has two aspects:  1) the act of forgiveness;  2) the chance to be forgiven. 

There is a strong case to be made that Jesus provided "mankind" with an eternal supply of no. 2 (poor choice of words lol) when he got himself crucified and forgave all those who did it to him.  The reason I say this is that if he could forgive that (according to the stories that have come down to us in the bible - and these really exist - just pick up any bible) then there really is no good reason for anyone else, ever, not to consider forgiveness as a desirable option, since we know instinctively that when done appropriately, it always makes life better, and can provide salvation.  The metaphor of the Resurrection just reinforces this idea in my opinion. 

Comment by Mike Donohoe on June 30, 2013 at 11:04pm

Very well said, Cara.

Comment by Sagacious Hawk on July 1, 2013 at 1:09am

This is an excellent take on the idea, and it's something I've recently found myself grappling with in regards to my own parents.

Comment by Simon Paynton on July 1, 2013 at 4:57am

@Angela - thanks for providing the warm human counterweight to my dry unempathetic intellectualism. 

Comment by Cara Coleen on July 1, 2013 at 11:03am

@Simon -

I actually find the entire redemption story quite repugnant, despite its claim to be all about God's love. As I said above, God should be asking humanity for forgiveness, not requiring we beg him for it... or demanding we accept a blood sacrifice on our behalf. The whole concept is sick and twisted.

Jesus didn't have to die; he chose to (if he existed), and all of humanity did not put him on the cross... just a few did, over 2,000 years ago. If Jesus would like to forgive those that did beat and hang him, that's fantastic, but it isn't remotely appropriate for everyone on earth to ask him to forgive them for something they had no part in... even less appropriate is punishing those who refuse to ask forgiveness for something they did not do. Neither Jesus forgiving people who did not kill him nor punishing those who do not accept his sacrifice are displays of love, but of control.

And that's Christianity's entire premise: we sinned against our perfect parent and need forgiveness... and we need saving from that perfect parent's wrath! Somehow, this parent can't just take a deep breath and say, "Okay, I forgive you." This parent requires someone be punished! Instead of just punishing the actual offenders, the parent decides to punish the one child who has done nothing wrong at all. He punishes the innocent to save the corrupt! This is not a display of love, and it is not a display of justice.

Frankly, if any of it were true, I'd refuse to accept Jesus' sacrifice for the sheer fact it would make me even more unworthy of paradise. What sort of person allows an innocent to take their beating for them? If I admit I'm guilty of such egregiousness crimes, I should at least be willing to take the flogging. I deserve Heaven and forgiveness even less if I accept Jesus' torture and death as payment for my sin. Jesus' willingness does not make this scenario acceptable; it makes God into a cold-hearted tyrant, and me into a disgusting opportunist.

Aside from all of that, while I agree that forgiveness is something humans should aspire to for their own sake's, it should never be something that is demanded or expected (not by the perp, and not by society). As Angela said above, forgiveness is a difficult process... and, sometimes, it is simply out of the question. Some crimes are too great, and some wounds, too deep.

The Bible, Old and New Testaments, is terrible showcase of parental love. Yahweh is a tyrant who's blood-thirsty and vengeful. He makes unrealistic demands of humankind, and demands we ask forgiveness for being imperfect... even while he's the one who created us. The Bible says we are created in his image, so all our faults are merely reflections of his imperfections. Maybe this god is so angry because he can't stand to see himself as he is. If he can't take responsibility for his own failings, how dare he expect us to take responsibility for our own?

FORTUNATELY, it's all just a really bad fairy tale.

Comment by Strega on July 1, 2013 at 11:08am

Go, Cara!  Great posts, both the original one and this response above.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on July 1, 2013 at 12:24pm

Cara – your post makes an excellent point that is seldom discussed. I think that is because it is not an obvious one. You needed to spend time reasoning your way to that understanding. It is the mirror image of the accepted “benevolent father” image that Christians have. It is when we get those moments of clarity we see how corrupt the whole concept of having faith in such a god is for the human psyche. It is a poisonous concept. I would like to hear the apologists reply to it.

You also have to consider that this god knew all about the sins his creations would commit before he created them in the first place. He should have done better. He failed us. I do not want to hear an apologist reply to that…Lol.

When it comes to forgiveness the Christian position is impoverished too. A Christian can commit an terrible act and know that they will be forgiven by merely asking for it. That is a core tenet of their faith. We atheists however must make genuine efforts to be contrite (if we wish forgiveness).  Our code of conduct and ethics of behaviour is forged from reasoned debates and a focus on personal responsibility. There is a process of self-development we need to engage in.  We tend to follow the Golden Rule (imo) because we see it as a worthwhile ideal rather than something demanded of us. It is so much better than “Obey me, Love me or Burn forever”.

There is also the concept of “Vicarious Redemption” which calls in question the supposed morality of Christianity.  To have your sins forgiven vicariously by a third party is pitiful. I can “sin” against someone and all I need to do is ask someone else (a priest) to forgive me? So much for a personal relationship with Jesus when you need to keep calling in a mediator!!

Hitchens on the subject.

Comment by Ed on July 1, 2013 at 12:35pm


I respect your ability to look beyond the hurt & pain of an abusive relationship with your dad(s). I unfortunately had an irresponsible biological father and an abusive military veteran for a step-dad. Neither has expressed remorse for their behavior towards me and others. It's a hard thing to try and get over. You proved it is possible.

Comment by Belle Rose on July 1, 2013 at 12:41pm

I have forgiven my parents for hurting me. Although I cannot say with absolute certainty that it was that hard, mostly due to the fact that they are not my biological parents and I do not feel a strong bond with either of them. I forgave them both years ago. 

The aspect of agape love in the Biblical sense that is overlooked and never taught, especially within the church on a Sunday morning, is the balance of self-sacrificing love without destroying yourself. It is taught that one is selfish for putting your own needs above another.

An example is within a marriage, the wife is taught to submit to her husband. A subject I know of all too well. But the flip side is that a husband is taught to love his wife with agape love, that is to sacrifice anything and everything for her, to love her and be willing to die for her, or in more practical terms, to do whatever it takes to fulfill her needs even to the detriment of his own. 

This concept is incomplete.

What is not talked about is the fact that when you love to the point of extreme self-sacrifice, you never learn to love yourself. The concept of self-love is considered sinful within the Christian world. It's all about everybody else. 

I've had a harder time forgiving my own "sins" against my parents - and forgiving myself - and I was never taught that it's OK to love myself with the same agape love I've been taught to love everybody else. 

Coming out of AA and recovery from severe alcoholism, I had what I thought at the time was a spiritual experience that changed my life. Suddenly I was able to stay sober and the more miraculous thing was I didn't have the urge to drink the way I did before. When I look back at that experience and analyze it now several years later, still sober, is that what I perceived as supernatural was nothing more than someone - a man - telling me that I was OK, that I was valuable, that I was worth it, that he too had similar struggles (and he was right next to Jesus as far as I was concerned, lol)...being told that I was "normal" was the most healing thing to me and it allowed me to forgive myself because up until that point I was drinking because I truly subconsciously thought I was the most horrible person in the world. His words allowed me to let go of some of that.

Had I not been so deeply propelled further into religion at that point I may have been able to heal completely, but the wound was simply bandaided up but the bleeding hadn't stopped. I was further indoctrinated into a world where women were the "helpers" of their men. I embraced this role, not seeing that I was still not a whole person.

Now as an atheist I see that while I forgave my parents, I held on to self-loathing, self-hatred, self-persecution, selfishness, self-seeking fantasy, and a never-ending feeling of self-worthlessness. So the forgiveness have extended to them is worthless because I was not in a position to give anything worthwhile from it. I was not a better person for forgiving my parents, I was not healed. It didn't matter, It made not difference because the freedom that is supposed to come from forgiveness was not experienced. Not until I became an atheist and let go of everything inside me that said I am not supposed to think of myself. I released the religious dogma that hindered me and allowed myself for the first time every in my LIFE to see the world clearly. NOW, when I say I forgive my parents, I can also say I've forgiven myself too. It gives the concept of agape love a new dimension and brings about a new way of looking at the world. 

My parents raised me in an abusive home, but I am no longer a victim.

Comment by Strega on July 1, 2013 at 1:18pm


I went in the confessional
My sins, to be absolved
In whispered tones I listed
What I hoped to get resolved

The beating of my sister
Was adressed with the solution
A dozen short "Hail Mary"s
Would provide my absolution

The stealing from my neighbours
Was far simpler to repair
It seems that God's outrage could be,
Averted with a prayer

I'm not entirely certain
That the priest had heard me right
Since forgiveness for those murders
Comes through candles I would light

My blasphemy, through swearing
Was apparently fixed, too
Instead of "Jesus fucking Christ"
I'm now to say, "Fuck you".

Now almost through my guilt trip
I had one more sin to go
My palms were hot and sweaty
And my words were weak and low...

It wasn't my adultery
That triggered God's rejection
I'm going straight to Hell because
Of fucking contraception


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