Father’s Day is a multibillion-dollar affair. In the weeks leading up to it, men’s ties, BBQ aprons, and golf-themed gifts fly off the shelves.

My own view on Father’s Day has a complicated history. After an abusive, impoverished childhood (detailed in my recent memoir, Motorhome Prophecies), I sometimes felt an anger toward my dad as intense as what Salvador Dalí, the Spanish surrealist painter, felt toward his own father.

I first fell in love with this brilliant artist while visiting a museum dedicated to his work in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s a futuristic, fantastical building filled with spacious, airy light flowing through a glass atrium entryway attached to 18-inch thick concrete. It’s a captivating and fitting home for this revolutionary man who pushed the boundaries intersecting art, science, and metaphysics.

Dalí clashed for decades with his father, a mid-level civil servant who didn’t appreciate his son’s creative, rebellious nature or his association with the surrealist movement. Adding insult to injury, he disapproved of his son’s muse and future wife, Gala. Dalí said he considered his true father to be psychologist Sigmund Freud, and later, quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg. Legend has it that Dalí gave his biological father a condom containing the artist’s own sperm, exclaiming, “Take that. I owe you nothing anymore!”

Obviously, that’s disgusting. But I confess there was a time in my life when I might have considered buying a sperm sample from a donor bank and sending it to my dad. I thought he’d die before I’d ever speak to him again.

God’s healing balm

As I shared earlier this year for CT, I grew up within an offshoot Mormon cult led by my father, who claimed to be a prophet. I lived with seven biological siblings in various motor homes, tents, houses, and sheds.

Besides time spent in homeschooling, I attended 17 different public schools. When I took my ACT exam, we lived in a shed with no furnace or running water in the Ozarks, where winter temperatures can hover around the freezing mark. Sometimes, we didn’t have food. I have two siblings with schizophrenia, including one brother who tried to rape me and one who accused me of trying to seduce him. I’ve suffered nine hospital visits for complications around depression, fibromyalgia, suicidal ideation, and PTSD.

My dad told my brothers they deserved their schizophrenia. And he warned me against leaving home for college, prophesying “in the name of Jesus” that I’d be raped and murdered. Despite all this, I landed a full journalism scholarship to Harvard, where I earned a master’s degree. Since then, I’ve largely enjoyed a productive career and a life filled with travel, adventure, and caring friends, though it’s been scarred with periodic episodes of severe depression.

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Eventually, though I never thought it possible, I forgave my father for what he did to me, my mother, and my siblings. Only through an unlikely series of events did I reach the point of visiting this man’s birthday celebration, grateful for the gifts he did impart and able to forgive the mental agony that made me want to kill myself. (Sadly, three of my siblings have attempted suicide.)

The journey started with my Christian conversion, a decision that began the process of opening my heart to God’s healing balm of forgiveness. Shortly after my baptism, Anthony B. Thompson became a spiritual mentor to me. Anthony is pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and author of Called to Forgive: The Charleston Church Shooting, a Victim’s Husband, and the Path to Healing and Peace.

We met through a Bronx pastor friend named Dimas Salaberrios, who invited me to a Manhattan screening of his documentary, Emanuel. Coproduced with Viola Davis and Stephen Curry, it tells the story of the 2015 shooting of nine parishioners at Charleston’s predominantly Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Anthony and I immediately connected over our shared passion for discerning God’s call on our lives.

Anthony’s wife, Myra, was among those murdered by the white supremacist killer, 21-year-old Dylann Roof. Mother Emanuel Church, as parishioners know it, is a historic church with a venerable history in the struggle for civil rights. Anthony and other family members of “the Charleston Nine” shocked the world with their incredible act of forgiveness in the face of such a heinous act.

Roof, a scrawny neo-Nazi with an allegedly violent father, had driven more than 100 miles across the state in hopes of sparking a race war. Instead, Charleston experienced the transformative power of forgiveness. Love and unity reigned, sparing the city the violence and destruction often seen after episodes of racial injustice. The words of the victims’ families carried enormous weight, and even though there was deep anguish in their voices, their message was loud and clear: Hate and vengeance had no place in their hearts.

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As a pastor, Anthony followed up with the murderer and visited him in prison to reiterate his message of forgiveness, urging this intransigent monster to pray for God’s mercy and submit his life to Jesus.

For me, Anthony’s book on forgiveness proved invaluable. It knocks down all the major myths that keep us from practicing it. All too easily, we imagine forgiving others means downplaying or excusing the sin and harm involved. Or that forgiving makes you weak and passive. Or that forgiving means you must let an abuser hurt you again.

None of these statements are true. First and foremost, forgiveness is an act of obedience to God. And even if you don’t believe in God, science proves that forgiveness is a powerful, healing antibiotic for victims around the world. For example, scholars with the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health recently produced a randomized trial showing forgiveness improved depression and anxiety and promoted flourishing in five relatively high-conflict countries: Colombia, South Africa, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.

Forgiveness helps release us from the emotional and mental cancers of vengeance, insecurity, rage, and fear. It obliterates the power that abusers maintain over us by releasing their control over our minds and hearts. Though we still might suffer bodily, financially, or in other ways, we have begun to steel ourselves against the dangers of self-sabotage.

Anthony built an exemplary life as a pastor and is now a symbol of God’s redemptive power for millions of people. I knew that if he could forgive, then I could also.

With Anthony’s mentoring, along with numerous prayer circles with other Christian friends, I learned to release my visceral hatred of the man who’d brought me endless shame and regret. The man who spoke curses over me, abandoned me, and likely drove my two sweet brothers to insanity, stealing any possibility of a normal life.

The deep healing prayer ministries that helped me, including Sozo and deliverance prayer, involved a prayer minister or two talking and praying with me through specific events and traumas. We talked through how God was present in each of those moments and their aftermath, even if he seemed silent and distant. We reclaimed each moment and released the residual pain and sorrow in my heart and mind. Though pain returned, it gradually dissipated and is significantly reduced today.

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In my late 30s, after years of not speaking to him, I visited Dad at home with Mom and my two schizophrenic brothers for a simple meal. It was surprisingly peaceful. Battling dementia, Dad was still coherent and able to hold a conversation, though there were moments when he seemed to drift off and his sky-blue eyes glazed over. There were no recriminations, no fire and brimstone accusations, no hateful sermons.

Honoring the dishonorable

We often get our view of God from our earthly fathers. That’s one reason our crisis of fatherlessness hits society so hard. Numerous studies show fatherlessness and paternal child abuse are crucial factors in whether a child drops out of high school, falls into drugs and gangs, commits crimes, or becomes a single teenage mother. Whether we suffer the trauma of abuse or abandonment, this often leads us to forget who our real father is—God, our infinite source of love, joy, and purpose.

Billy Graham said, “A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.” He’s right. My rage against my father manifested itself in how I disrespected myself, my romantic partners, and others in my life. I needed to forgive everyone in my life (including toxic coworkers, various church leaders, cheating exes, and others) and ask God to forgive me. There were LDS church leaders who hurt me, but many others who cared for and helped me. I needed to forgive all the hurt and release my anger.

Graham also wrote:

The Bible clearly says, “Honor thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12, KJV). This passage sets no age limit on such honor. It does not say they must be honorable to be honored. This does not necessarily mean that we must “obey” parents who may be dishonorable. We must honor them. Honor has many shapes and affections.

In many ways, my father lived a dishonorable life, but that doesn’t mean I should retaliate and dishonor him by sending him a package of sperm or yelling at him on my grandparents’ grave. It means I must live in a way that brings him honor, both to him as a person and to my family name. The more I study the effects of childhood sexual and emotional abuse, the more my heart grieves for the pain my father suffered.

For me, Father’s Day now means reflecting on the good my father gave me while forgiving the rest. Though I thought my father was the villain, I now see how he had suffered himself. He had been crushed by severe religious zealotry born of mental illness, the result of enduring sexual assault as a toddler followed by isolation as well as the death of his best childhood friend. He’s no more or less deserving of God’s mercy and compassion than I am.

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I pray for his life, especially during his struggles at age 86 with Alzheimer’s. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Carrie Sheffield is the author of Motorhome Prophecies: A Journey of Healing and Forgiveness. This essay is adapted from the book.