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Overcoming Bitterness: A Testimony

By Bill Elliff

    I cannot imagine a more ideal childhood than my own. A godly, pastor-father led our home with strength and purpose. We believed our dad had the greatest, most important job in the world; and we often saw around us the evidence of changed lives resulting from his ministry. God so prospered my father’s hand that the churches he pastored experienced some of their greatest days during his tenure.

    Dad’s life challenged his three sons and one daughter. He lived on purpose – to bring men and women, boys and girls to Christ – and he passed this desire to us. When God called each son into the preaching ministry and the daughter to be a preacher’s wife, we saw this calling as a privilege, not a duty, and responded with joy and gratitude.

    And my mother filled our home with light. Unshakable faith, eternal optimism, and simple joy flowed freely from her heart and wrapped our home in a warm blanket of security. She gave us the legacy of unconditional love.

    As a child, I assumed every home was like mine. We had no overwhelming difficulties nor great complications. Even in my early years of adulthood, when I attended seminary and began my full-time ministry, I often wondered why our family had been touched by so little pain.

    But that soon changed.

The Pain of Sin

    My father had been so used of God that he was asked to give oversight and help to large groups of churches within our denomination. By the time he reached the mandatory retirement age, Dad had accomplished all of his goals and more. However, over a period of several months he experienced a series of disappointments, followed by a season of depression and despair. This vulnerable time opened a window of temptation.

    My father then faced and failed the greatest test of his life. He fell into an immoral relationship.

    Through the providence of God we became aware of what was happening. I was shocked to even consider that my father had fallen into such sin, but the evidence continued to mount. Finally, my brothers, sister, and I did something we never dreamed would be necessary. Together we went, unannounced, to my parents’ home where we confronted our father. It was our great love and our desire to see him rescued that compelled us to take such a difficult step.

    Sin always brings turmoil, and our family was no exception. We boarded a roller-coaster ride of uncertainty and upheaval that lasted for over two years. Dad went up and down, and back and forth. One day we would think his heart was returning to his family and his God, only to be disappointed. There was a time when he left home, then returned several days later. I vividly recall pleading and reasoning with my father as we talked in his workshop, trying desperately to pull him out of this awful confusion.

    We all prayed, and fasted, and wept ...and HURT.

    Much of my theology was shaken. Everything I had ever known was called into question, for the one from whom I had learned these convictions was falling.

    "Why would God allow this to happen?" I questioned. "Weren’t we trying, as a family, to serve Him? Why wouldn’t God answer our prayers and answer them now? How could a loving God allow His children to suffer so? Is God always true to His promises?"

    One day, upon returning home from an errand, my mother found a simple, sad note on the kitchen table. Dad was gone.

    In the subsequent days my father initiated a divorce and married someone else. Dad had walked away from our lives.

The Power of Forgiveness

    It is still amazing to me that the one who hurt the most outdistanced all the rest in her response. But then, that is the kind of woman Mother was. The breadth of her forgiveness sprang from the depth of a relationship long-developed with the Lord. She had her questions, fears, doubts, and pain; but she clung to the Lord with amazing faith.

    It was from my mother – through her words and life – that I learned the power of forgiveness. At every turn she chose to handle her hurt God’s way.

    About a year after my father left home, we began to notice some unusual behavior in my mother. A series of tests revealed that she had Alzheimer’s disease, and we were told that it was progressing rapidly.

    As Mother deteriorated, we moved her from her home to a nearby apartment. My sister and her family, and my wife and I, then had the privilege of taking care of Mother. Although difficult, it was an honor to give some return to this one who had given so much to us.

    One day I went into Mother’s room and found her in a semi-conscious state. I picked her up in my arms and literally carried her to the car, then rushed her to the local hospital. There the doctor informed us that Mother had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. That afternoon she slipped into a coma, and we were told that she might not live through the weekend. Both my brothers were away – one living in another town and the other on a preaching mission in Romania. For several days I tried unsuccessfully to reach my brother in Romania. I finally told the Lord He would have to get in touch with him because there was no way I could. About three hours later he phoned. When I asked him how he knew to call, he explained that he had felt deeply impressed to contact us. I told him that Mother was dying and that if he wanted to see her he needed to come as soon as possible.

    After a week in a coma, Mother woke up. My brothers and their wives were scheduled to arrive the next day. My sister and I strained to understand Mother as she tried to talk, but it was very difficult. Only one word was clear to us, and Mother repeated this word at least three times...

    "Forgive," she said.

    We were overwhelmed. We did not know if she was telling us to be sure and tell Dad one more time that she had forgiven him, or if she was reminding us to continue to forgive him. We finally decided to let the Holy Spirit apply this to each of our hearts as He desired.

    The next day our family gathered around my mother’s bed. She was awake and able to hear. For three hours we experienced the greatest worship service I may ever know this side of heaven. We sang and prayed, read Scripture, reminisced, and laughed and cried. We thanked Mother for her tremendous sacrifices and the manifold investments she had made in our lives. God gave us a precious time around her bedside...and the best was yet to happen.

    The phone rang. We stood in stunned silence when we realized the call was from my dad. Although all of us had talked to Dad at times, and had taken every biblical step we knew to help bring him to repentance, it had been over two years since he had talked to Mother. But when we put the phone to her ear, her face lit up with joy. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to voice words of forgiveness and love. Dad expressed his great sorrow and repentance, and asked Mother if she could find it in her heart to forgive him.

    After my brother spoke briefly to Dad, he relayed the whole conversation to all of us. There was silence...and then waves of great joy and thanksgiving as God filled that hospital room with His grace and healing. It was a holy moment.

    The next morning when I entered the room, Mother was talking! She said, "Billy, isn’t it great about Dad calling! Why, this is what we have been praying for, that he would return to the Lord!"

    Later that night, Mother slipped into a coma again. To the amazement of all, she lived another five weeks. We often wondered why God allowed her to linger, but later realized that someone had heard about Christ in that hospital room almost every day. God’s delay in delivering Mother physically was, in reality, His design for delivering others spiritually.

    Our entire family was able to gather one last time around Mother’s bed just a few days before she died. This time there was something very different...Dad was with us. God had given us back our father! The grace God had given my mother to forgive had paved the way for him to repent and return. Since that day, my father’s repentance has been abundant and clear, and he has granted me permission to tell his story, hoping it might spare others from making similar destructive choices. He and his wife have been fully restored to fellowship with all of us, and God has once again used my father to minister in the lives of many.

    My mother loved poetry. During the last two years of her life she often recited the following verse:

He drew a circle and shut us out;
Daunting rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had a whit to win;
We drew a circle...and brought him in.

God Is Bigger Than Our Hurts

    In the early days of this ordeal, my mother had an encounter with the Lord that shaped her future responses. In fact, she often mentioned it to me as one of those watershed moments in her spiritual pilgrimage. As she wrestled to understand God’s purposes, she came to a point of surrender where she told the Lord, "All I want, Father, is for You to receive glory."

    Mother knew she would never be remarried to her husband. She knew her life would never be the same. She realized the road ahead would be filled with suffering, but she also knew a God who had walked with her throughout her life and had prepared her for an eternity beyond.

    Her settled surrender to a higher purpose determined the course for her days and opened the door for God to use her life as a testimony of forgiveness and faithfulness.

    What about you? As your children and grandchildren hear the story of your life, what will they learn of God? Will they perceive a God who is bigger than any problem or hurt...that is perfect in His dealings and redemptive in His work? Will they "taste and see that the Lord is good"? (Psa. 34:8).

    – Taken from Forgiveness: Healing the Harbored Hurts of Your Heart by Bill Elliff with Tim Grissom. Copyright © 1998 by Dr. Bill R. Elliff. Used by permission.

    Bill Elliff is senior teaching pastor of the Summit Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas.