FORGIVING PHIL MAKING PEACE WITH THE PAST
A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.
By now, you might know the story of my dad’s life. If you haven’t heard it or read about it, here’s the most blunt way I can describe it: Phil Robertson wasn’t a very nice person from about the age of seventeen until he turned twenty-eight. In a lot of ways, my dad was an outlaw. He had no regard for rules, authority, or what was right or wrong; his only focus at the time was getting drunk and killing as many ducks as possible. And anyone standing in his way, even his own family, ran the risk of getting hurt.
Don’t get me wrong; Phil Robertson eventually became a great husband, father, and businessman, and, most important, a disciple of Christ. After my dad’s repentance, he became the biggest influence in my life because of his love for his Creator, hunting
and fishing, and nurturing God’s greatest creation. Once my dad turned from his wicked ways and submitted to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, he became a role model for people struggling to overcome their addictions and problems. It wasn’t so much that he focused on their problems but that he offered them a solution. His life wasn’t easy when he was drinking, partying, and committing other sins, and it certainly was difficult for the people who loved him most. But once my dad turned his life around, he made a profound impact on thousands of people by sharing God’s story of healing and hope. He became a man of faith, perseverance, and courage. But the decade or so before his baptism wasn’t easy for my mom or me and my brothers.
My recollections of my childhood are kind of hazy, which might be a good thing, because I don’t have many fond memories of growing up until my father was born again; his becoming a new man is the most drastic change in a person I have ever seen. I remember my family owning a bar in Junction City, Arkansas, for a couple of years, and it seemed like every night ended with men rolling around on the ground and fighting, followed by flashing lights from police cars in the parking lot.
It also seemed that no matter what, my dad usually won the fight. I remember one particular fight outside the bar, when an Asian-looking man grabbed a board. The man was doing all of these martial arts moves complete with sound effects, and all of a sudden he swung the board at my dad. In the blink of an eye, my
dad grabbed the board out of his hands and popped him in the head with it! The guy fell like a sack of potatoes.
My family lost the bar after my dad beat up the couple who owned the building after they’d had a dispute about rent. Phil hurt them pretty badly, and he fled into the swamp to avoid getting arrested. The people my dad beat up took about everything we had; in exchange they agreed not to press criminal charges against him. My mom moved our trailer near D’Arbonne Lake at Farmerville, Louisiana, and I was forced to change schools again. We moved a lot when I was a kid, and there never seemed to be much stability in our lives.
After the fight at the bar, my dad was gone for several months. I remember going to visit him in the woods one time, and when we pulled up he was drinking beer with two of his buddies. They were living in a hut that didn’t even have electricity or running water. There was a massive pile of empty beer cans and liquor bottles. There was also a big pile of animal carcasses. It was unbelievable. As a kid, I’d never seen anything like it before. I remember getting out of the vehicle thinking, How long has my dad been out here? He was walking around barefoot. Of course, as his impressionable son, I thought he was the toughest man in the world because he was living in those conditions.
My dad walked up to me and asked, “How’s it going?” We had a normal conversation right there in the middle of nowhere. This might sound crazy, but as I look back at the experience now, I think it taught me that a person is capable of living in the woods and surviving without the luxuries we have today. I probably realized
then that I wanted to spend most of my life in the woods or on the water.
My dad eventually moved back into the trailer with us, but he didn’t stop drinking. In fact, it only got worse. He often took out his anger on my mom, my brothers, and me, and even though I was young, I understood that it was the beer and liquor making him so mean. I feared being around him. I think my dad tried to quit drinking more than a few times, but alcohol always seemed to get the best of him. One night, while Phil was driving home from a hunt, he threw a half-empty liquor bottle out the window of his truck. I guess he finally decided it was time to stop drinking. But a few hours later, my dad had my brothers and me on the side of the road in the dark, searching a ditch for his liquor bottle. What might seem like terrible parenting was actually one of my first adventures in hunting. I found my dad’s bottle, so I figured I would one day make a pretty good tracker in the woods.
In a lot of ways, my dad’s behavior made me shy and introverted, which is something I struggled with until I was a teenager. I never said much as a kid around my dad. I was afraid that if I did say something, I would get in trouble. It didn’t take me long to figure out that as long as I was out of his sight and didn’t say anything, I could pretty much stay out of harm’s way. I kept my mouth shut to survive, and I went into a cocoon as a kid because of my circumstances. I was kind of antisocial until high
school, but then I realized I would have to be more vocal if I wanted to share my faith or get a date.
Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of my early childhood is the night my dad kicked us out of our trailer. I was about seven years old at the time. I remember seeing my dad stretched out on the couch with a tall can of beer between his legs as we gathered our belongings in the middle of the night. We headed out the front door, not knowing when or if we would ever see him again. My mother was in tears and pleaded with him to let us stay, but he wouldn’t change his mind. He kept yelling at Kay to leave. I had no idea where she was taking my older brother, Alan; my younger brother, Willie; and me. We didn’t have any money, so it wasn’t like we were going to go stay in a hotel for a couple of weeks. We spent the night at my uncle Harold’s house, and then we moved into a low-rent apartment in West Monroe, Louisiana. White’s Ferry Road Church in West Monroe helped us get furniture and assisted my mother in paying the rent.
Our move to the apartment complex is a foggy memory, but it seemed a lot more stable and safe than the place we left. My mom took a job at Howard Brothers Discount Stores, working in the corporate office, so Alan was left to take care of Willie and me when we weren’t in school. I didn’t see my father for a long time. I was bitter about it, too. No matter how mean your parents are or what they’re doing to you, as a kid they’re all you have, and that’s the way it is, for better or worse. Even though my dad wasn’t a nice person to be around, I couldn’t understand why in the world he would abandon his family. My dad’s reason for his path of ruin
and misery during his first twenty-eight years on earth was that he just wanted to “be free.” Apparently, that meant leaving his wife and children behind so he could hunt, fish, and drink whenever he wanted.
About the time I finally stopped wondering where my dad was, he showed up in a cool green Jeep outside of our apartment building. Earlier that day, he had driven to my mom’s office, and she found him crying in the parking lot. Phil begged her to take him back, and fortunately my mom found enough compassion and love in her heart to forgive him. She told him he had to stop drinking and disassociate himself from his unsavory friends. My dad met with William “Bill” Smith, the preacher at White’s Ferry Road Church. My dad studied the Bible with him and was introduced to Jesus Christ for the first time. After a couple of studies and a lot of soul-searching, my dad made a decision to repent and claim Christ as Lord, and he was baptized. Romans 6:1–4 discusses baptism as a reenactment of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The burial of the old Phil Robertson and the rebirth of the new man who surfaced was one of the most powerful influences of my life. I’m sure there were still plenty of rough times for him as he battled temptations over the next couple of years, but my brothers and I were happy our dad was back in our lives.
My dad really got my attention during our first Christmas back together as a family again. He participated in the giving of gifts, and, more important, played the games we had received with us. He was turning into the father we had always wanted him to
be. Looking back, it’s amazing that kids are so forgiving, because they really don’t understand all the details of what’s going on. They’re so innocent and naive. Despite everything that had happened in the past, I was happy my dad was finally paying attention to my brothers and me. That’s really the only thing we ever wanted from him. We were going to church a couple of times a week, and my mom seemed so happy that our family was together. I would love to say that my new church experience had a big impact on my life at the time, but it was uncomfortable for me to be around so many strangers. Honestly, it seemed like a bigger version of the honky-tonk bar, but without all of the hollering and fighting.
After my dad got his life back in order, he took a teaching job at Ouachita Christian School in Monroe, Louisiana. He’d attended Louisiana Tech University on a football scholarship and earned a master’s degree in education. Even though he wasn’t drinking anymore, he still loved to hunt and fish and wanted to spend as much time as possible in the outdoors, so he decided to quit his teaching job and do something that allowed him to hunt and fish. We moved to a house on the banks of the Ouachita River, which is about twenty-five miles from downtown West Monroe. My dad started working as a commercial fisherman, and then he started building duck calls because he was convinced he could make a call sound more like a duck than anyone else in the world. He was right.
Shortly after we moved closer to the river, my dad and a few
of his friends started a church in Luna, Louisiana. It was a small church of about forty members, and I didn’t really like going to services there because there weren’t many kids my age. One Sunday morning, my dad went to the pulpit and gave his testimony. It was entitled, “The Good News and the Bad News.” Of course, I was in attendance, but I wasn’t really paying attention to what he was saying. I was astounded that he was acting nervous. I’d never seen the man nervous in my life! I always believed he was the most self-confident man in the world.
One of my friends, Matt, who was a couple of years older than me, was sitting next to me in church. He apparently was very moved by my dad’s sermon. My friend and I had a discussion about the Gospel, and it kind of broke the ice for faith in Christ being a reality in my life. Up until that time, I’d thought about what it meant to be a Christian, but I hadn’t taken the step for myself. I remember riding in the car with my mom going to school one morning. We stopped at a red light in front of the paper mill in West Monroe, and she asked me, “Are you going to be a Christian when you grow up?” Now, I’m not a morning person unless I’m going hunting, so I was kind of annoyed by her question. I don’t like to be interrogated when I’m still waking up. I stared out the window and thought, Well, am I, or am I not?
“Yes, ma’am, I believe I am,” I told her.
Even though I waited a couple of years to do it, I think my mom’s question planted the seed for my conversion. After my conversation with Matt, I went to my dad to talk about it. I told him what I had come to understand about Christ, and he said,
“Well, that’s what I heard. What you’re thinking about doing is what changed my life.”
“Well, sir,” I said, “I’m ready to do it.”
We walked to the riverbank, and my dad baptized me in the Ouachita River, which is where we’ve baptized hundreds of people over the years. Right then and there, I decided I was going to forgive my father for everything that happened in the past. The past was history, and I was excited about our future together as Christian men. My father had given me the greatest gift in life. How could I not forgive him?
As I reflect back on my dad’s pre-Christ life, I realize that by embracing the Son of God, who died on a cross for his mistakes, my dad was given a second chance and a life of continual forgiveness. I came to realize that same cross is where I would find forgiveness. My life has never included drugs or drunkenness, mainly because I saw what they did to my dad and our family. But as my dad once said, “You’re either a rank heathen like I was or just a heathen.” I have made my share of mistakes and realize that a life without forgiveness is a life filled with guilt, bitterness, and misery no matter how many sins you’ve committed or which ones they are. Once I became a Christian, I viewed being part of the forgiven as synonymous with being a forgiver. I learned to forgive my dad for his mistakes. It was a huge step for me, but it’s impossible to find harmony in relationships when there is no forgiveness. After all, everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect.
Later in life, my wife, Missy, and I shared God’s message of grace with a single mother who had a gut-wrenching story of a lifetime of physical, mental, and sexual abuse. If there was ever a person who had a reason to quit in life, or at least retaliate toward her abusers, this woman was it. Her tears flowed as Missy and I shared the story of Jesus. To my surprise, she was not only moved by God’s love for her but she also even found a place for the sins committed by those people who abused her—a bloody cross. I was almost uncomfortable with her response because she was willing to forgive the people who had tormented her for so long. She became one of my heroes because of her grace and compassion.
I have a special place in my heart for those who are sinned against, and while I believe we should do everything in our power to protect the innocent and punish the guilty on earth, there is something special about the people who overcome atrocities through grace and forgiveness because of a loving God in heaven. I suppose the most common argument against the evidence for God is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It is a valid question, but it is a question the Gospel—Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, and return—answers for us. If we can obtain forgiveness in this life and eternity in the next, all other things really do not matter. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant from Matthew 18:21–35 has always had a profound effect on me and taught me a lot about forgiveness:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
What I’ve learned from this scripture is that we need to have mercy and forgive one another, as God is merciful in forgiving us. Forgiveness cannot be based on the quantity or consequences of sins. You’re either with or without sin, and our God-given conscience confirms our guilt. Christ is without sin and that is why His death was God’s justice, mercy, and forgiveness in action. When we have unforgiving hearts, we are like the unforgiving servant. God’s forgiveness of our sins should motivate us to forgive those who offend us. My motivation to forgive is my own forgiveness. I can never repay God what I owe. Christ paid for our sins by dying on the cross, and we can never repay that debt.
As I have observed my dad’s post-Christ life, I have seen a man who has been open and honest about his past mistakes. His blunt speech about sin is a powerful testimony of the transformation that God’s grace offers, but it also is a target of those who are uncomfortable with Bible-based faith. Fortunately, for my family and those in earshot of my dad’s voice, he has almost forty years of righteous actions that show a humble walk with God and an unselfish love for all people regardless of their circumstances in life. To those in opposition to God’s grace and a righteous lifestyle, Jesus said it best, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”