FamilyLife Today® Podcast

When You Can’t Forgive Them: Philip Yancey

with Philip Yancey | May 28, 2024
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Constantly finding reasons not to forgive that one person (you know the one)? Giving kindness, even when it feels tough, isn't easy. Philip Yancey shows us how grace changes lives--and maybe even yours.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Making excuses not to forgive? Philip Yancey shows us how grace changes lives–and maybe even yours.

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When You Can’t Forgive Them: Philip Yancey

With Philip Yancey
May 28, 2024
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Dave: Okay, before we get started today, I’ve got a question for you—not you, Ann [Laughter]—our listener: “Where are you listening from?”

Ann: And you know that we’re from Detroit.

Dave: Motor City.

Ann: Shelby’s in the Philly area, and our FamilyLife Today headquarters are in Orlando.

Dave: So, we’re coming to you guys from all over the country, but what about you? We would love to know if you are in one of those areas or where else you consider home.

Ann: Text “FLT” plus where you’re listening from to 80542 to let us know. Again, you’re going to text “FLT” plus where you’re listening from to 80542.

Philip: Probably, the most challenging thing Jesus said is: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “What are you talking about?! They’re our enemies! You don’t pray! You don’t love your enemies. Why would you do that?” And Jesus said [paraphrased], “Well, very clearly, that’s the only way people will know what the Father’s like.”

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: So, we’re talking about a subject I just hate talking about—[Laughter]

Ann: —grace.

Dave: —a thing called grace.

Ann: Whew! Getting to talk to Philip Yancey yesterday, I’m still wiping tears from my eyes, because when he talks about grace—when the Bible talks about grace—and when Jesus demonstrates grace, it’s so heavenly. It’s so other worldly; it’s so compelling.

Dave: Philip Yancey is back with us today. Yesterday, Philip, when you were—right toward the end of our program—you were talking about Jesus as the picture of grace. I want you to continue that. I just know this morning, before I left the house, I was in the New Testament, and I’m reading—again, just taking another look at Jesus. How many times have I done this? Thousands of times in my 30-plus years, almost 40 years, of being a Christian. Almost every time, I see something I hadn’t seen, and it’s grace! It’s always a beautiful image of the heart of God.

You said, yesterday, Philip, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father.” Jesus is revealing another aspect of the Father, which is grace. We’re talking today about a book you wrote 25 years ago, and it’s been revised: What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Philip: Right.

Dave: Pick up from where you were, because you were talking about Jesus—looking at Jesus—and maybe, even Henri Nouwen’s quote.

Philip: That’s right, sure. [Laughter] It was actually a conversation I had with Henri Nouwen—I spent a day with him one time up at his place in Canada, where he was spending his life, dealing with people who were deeply mentally disabled.

Ann: Tell our audience: who is that?

Philip: He is a priest, who is also a psychotherapist, a PhD. He taught at Yale; he taught at Harvard. Finally, he decided, “I’ve had enough of these intellectuals. I’m going to some people who really have needs.” He went to this place and took care of a young man named Adam, who had an IQ of maybe 20 or 25. He spent the last, I think, 15 years of his life caring for Adam.

We were talking about that story that exemplifies Jesus, where, in John 4, He visits a woman in a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were the heretics to the Jews, so his disciples said [in a complaining voice]: “Why would you go there?!” He said, “Oh, God’s got something for Me there.”

Ann: I like Philip’s contrary voice. [Laughter] Don’t you like it? Yes, I like it.

Philip: He went and saw a woman who was picking up water from a well in the middle of the afternoon. That is not a time in the desert when you go out to get water; you go out in the cool of the morning. Why was she there in the afternoon? Well, we’re not really told, but it could be because she was the object of town gossip. She had had five husbands, and even now, she was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. They got into a conversation about water. Jesus said [paraphrased], “I think you’re drinking the wrong water. [Laughter] You need some water that doesn’t run dry.”

Henri told me a story: back in the days, when the AIDS epidemic was just starting, it was actually called the Gay Men’s Syndrome, because almost all the cases were in San Francisco among gay men. The church was not really treating gay people and people with AIDS very well in those days. There was a lot of fear, and we were kind of getting away from them as far as possible. Henri thought, “Well, that’s not right.” He went to see them. There was a clinic there. He described to me the condition they were in; they had sores all over their body and inside their mouths. There was no cure at all; they were almost 100 percent dying.

He said he would just go from bedside to bedside and say, “Hello. I’m a clergy. What we do is listen to people’s stories. Would you like to tell your story? If you don’t, I’ll just go to the next bed.” He said some people said [shouting gruffly], “Clergy?! Get out of here! I don’t want to have anything to do with the church, the way they treated me.” “Fine. I’ll go to the next bed. I will pray for you, though.”

But other people did tell [him] their stories. He said, “Philip, you couldn’t believe these stories. When I went there, I thought, ‘What about these immoral people? What about these loose-living people?’ When I came back, I thought, ‘What about these thirsty people? They’re thirsty for love, and they’re not finding it. Where can they find it?’”

We talked about how similar that was to the passage in John 4: this woman hadn’t found it either. She was still looking. Jesus—it’s the only place in the Gospels where He voluntarily identified Himself, who He was, to somebody who didn’t know. He said, “Do you know who I am? I am the Messiah.”

Ann: And it’s a woman! It’s a woman.

Philip: It’s a woman, a heretic woman.

Dave: —a heretic woman, yes.

Philip: Actually, if you look back on it, she was probably His first missionary; His first foreign missionary. [Laughter] He [made] a good choice, because she went back and it says [she] converted the entire town; this woman because they could see the changes in her. She used to be someone that you gossiped about and tell your children, “Don’t ever be like her!” And now, suddenly, “You want what she’s got,” because it transformed her. I think that’s a beautiful model of what we should look like to the rest of the world.

Dave: You’ve got to tell this story—and I know you told it the last time you were here—[of] when you were in that Bible study (that prayer group) in college, and you realized who you are, that’s a grace story. I’d love our audience to hear that again, because I’m guessing some have never heard. I know it’s in your memoir—

Philip: —right, right—

Dave: Where the Light Fell.

Philip: Right.

Dave: Just mention that, because it’s such a beautiful story of you realizing who you were and what you needed.

Philip: Yes, right. I mentioned that I went to this little church that had the truth. There were about 100 of us, and we were superior to everybody. [Laughter]

Dave: I was in that church, too! [Laughter]

Philip: We were also racists and all these other things. And then, I realized that church was wrong about race, about a lot of things they taught me. So, I swung the other way as far as I could go and started judging them. You know, “these ignorant fundamentalists. I don’t want anything to do with them.”

I ended up in a Bible college campus. That same judgmental attitude followed me there. We had to have a Christian service. The Christian service I chose was to go to a university campus and, supposedly, witness. Instead, I would usually sit in the student center and watch basketball. [Laughter] The guys with me would witness, then I’d come back, and we’d write these stories about all the people we talked to. Mine were very loosely told, shall we say.

And we had to have a prayer meeting each week. We did, and I never prayed. There were four of us. The three guys would take turns praying, and then, they would pause about ten seconds. I never prayed. And they would say, “Thanks, guys! See you next week.”

And then, one time, I just—without thinking about it at all, I just—started praying. I said, “God!” Everything got very tense. I said, “As You know, I don’t care if all ten thousand people at the university go to hell.” You could cut that with a knife at a Bible college prayer meeting. "In fact, I don’t even care if I go to hell.”

I had a vision. It was a life-changing vision, the only one like that or anything close to that I’ve had. We had just been studying the Good Samaritan. I started talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan: “I know we’re supposed to be like the Good Samaritan, reaching down to this wretch in a ditch here, and helping them.” And then, suddenly, as I was talking, that vision changed, and I saw the person in the ditch was me.

Here I thought I was smarter, more sophisticated than these fundamentalist types; and I realized I was the neediest one of all. Every time Jesus—because the Good Samaritan took on the face of Jesus—every time the Good Samaritan reached out to help me, I would spit in His face. Three times it happened; three times. And then, I didn’t know what to do, so I just got up and left the room.

That changed my life. Here, I’ve made my career as a Christian writer, and it all goes back to that moment. It was a moment of grace, where I realized I was the needy one. Unless you come to some point of realizing that—and a lot of people don’t; it’s like, “I can get along fine without You, God.” They’re the losers; they’re the losers. I realized that for the first time.

Dave: Hearing you say that again, it’s such a beautiful story, because we resist being the one in the ditch. We don’t want to be that one; we want to be anything but that. Grace does a work until you admit that—is that true? Until you’re able to say, “I need it”?

Philip: In some way, yes. Look at the rich young ruler, and the story there. Jesus would always find: “What is that one need?” [Laughter]

Ann: Yes, yes.

Philip: And He pretty well exposed him; his need was a need to be rich! “I’d rather be rich than to be loved by God.” That was the choice, because Jesus said [paraphrased], “Here, do these things.” “Oh, I’ve already done all those.” “Oh, okay. Give away all your money.” “Uh, talk to You later. I’m out of here.” [Laughter]

God will often do this—not like God has to devastate us—but until we understand it’s not about how much better we are than other people, or how much like God we are even; it’s how open we are to receiving God’s free gift. Jesus has already done the work. That’s the point of the gospel: Jesus has done it. So, you don’t have to do it; you just have to follow Jesus in the way that He set out.

Ann: When you say that Jesus saw grace everywhere He went, and then, He communicated that through His parables, what do you mean by that? "He saw it everywhere He went.”

Philip: Part of it, I think, was the common grace that spoke to me, too, because when Jesus is telling a story, what does He use? He uses wild flowers. He says—somebody says something about King Solomon [paraphrasing]: “Now, there was a king. Man, he had 800 wives…” Jesus says, “You know what? See that lily over there? It’s more beautiful than Solomon ever was,” you know? There’s kind of that common grace.

And then, even in people who were the outcasts—literally, outcasts—those with leprosy, the disease I know a lot about because I wrote three books with Dr. Paul Brand, who was a leprosy specialist in India. Those are the most abused people on the entire planet. There is nobody lower than somebody of—what used to be called the untouchable caste—now Dalits in India, who has leprosy. They’re kicked out of their homes; their kicked out of their villages—

Ann: —still?

Philip: still, yes. Many of them live in a pile of rocks somewhere. Somebody will take a bucket of food over every few days. Because people are so afraid of leprosy—which is not that contagious; it’s not that dangerous—but the fear persists. It was really strong in Jesus’ day. Jesus would touch a person with leprosy. Jesus dispensed grace to the outcasts.

Probably, the most challenging thing He said, for us, as Americans is: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” I mentioned that one time. I was writing a book on prayer. I stood up in the pulpit, and I said, “I’ve never done that. I’ve never prayed for Russia. What would happen if every church in the United States adopted a terrorist—and these people who are trying to blow us up in Iraq and Afghanistan—and just prayed for them?”

There was a guy I didn’t know (he drove up from Colorado Springs) who was a chaplain and the rank of Colonel. That got to him. So, he started a website called (Adopt a Terrorist for [Laughter]

Dave: Wow!

Ann: Oh, my!!

Dave: Wow.

Philip: You can go—you still can; you can go—on that site, and you can see a little biography and a picture of a terrorist; all the terrible things he’s done. You have to agree to pray for them on a regular basis.

Well, his commanding officer, the General, got a hold of this, called him [screaming], “What the…?! What are you doing here?!!! [Laughter] I’m trying to teach these guys to kill! And you’re trying to teach them to love and pray?!!”

Actually, I think that was the disciples’ response, too, when Jesus said that: “What are you talking about?!! They’re our enemies! You don’t pray! You don’t love your enemies. Why would you do that?” Jesus said [paraphrased], “Well, very clearly, that’s the only way people will know what the Father’s like, because God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the evil and the good, alike. That’s the kind of God you have.” Unless you can show that to the rest of the world, by doing something as crazy as loving your enemies, they’ll miss that message of grace.

Ann: Oh, I’m just telling you: that is so convicting. I’m just thinking—the person that you just struggle with or—

Dave: —it could be a family member.

Ann: —it could be your spouse. I mean, that is. . .  “Love them. Pray for them. Do good to those who hurt you.” That is so other worldly.

Dave: Philip, talk about forgiveness. When you talk about loving your enemies or loving your family, but you’ve got hurt, and wounds, and bitterness—

Ann: —that are terrible.

Dave: —that maybe they have a history or story—or maybe, it’s decades. God calls us to forgive just as we’ve been forgiven; that’s grace.

Philip: Yes, He does. You’re absolutely right. I have maybe five chapters in this book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? about forgiveness. The publisher took those and some other material into another book called The Scandal of Forgiveness.

Ann: Oh, yes.

Philip: Because it’s scandalous.

Dave: Yes.

Philip: And it’s also poisonous [to not forgive]. The funny lady, Anne Lamott, says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” [Laughter]

Ann: I thought that was good the first time I heard it. I remember that.

Philip: We’re the ones who suffer [in unforgiveness].

I told you the story, the last time I was here, of my own family—just three people: a mother and two sons—my father had died when I was a baby. My mother and older brother didn’t speak to each other for 52 years. Finally, just before she died, I got them on a three-way phone conversation. They never saw each other for 52 years.

Each one of them—I look at them—it’s like a little version of my mother was living inside of him, saying: “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!” And the same thing—a little version of him was living inside of her. And they’re fighting themselves, because no one’s willing to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,” or “I didn’t feel I was wrong, but I regret what happened. Can you forgive me?” It can be that simple: “Can you forgive me?” And yet, so many people go through life with those unforgiven things just eating away inside them like rat poison.

Dave: Yes, I had to go on a journey with my own dad. You write in your book the term you coined, “ungrace.” I was ungraceful; he didn’t deserve it. I couldn't see, for decades: “This is poisoning me. This is locking me up.” I sort of had this image of [me] locking him up, you know? “He can’t have a relationship with me.”

He was sort of repentant and wanting to step back into my life—this is college years. I’m playing college football; and he’s in Miami as an airline pilot. Next thing I know, he’s showing up at ball games because he’s reading about me down in the Miami papers. My first response—instead of being a grateful son [saying], “Thank you for…”—I’m like, “What are you doing here? You’ve never showed up anywhere in my life. Now, that I’m somebody…”

I had to go on this journey. It didn’t take a couple of days or weeks, it took years; but one of the best decisions I ever made in my life was to set a prisoner free—and I was the prisoner—through forgiveness.

Philip: Very good.

Dave: It’s what’s so amazing about grace. You can read it in a book or talk about it, but when you experience it, it’s a whole other deal.

Philip: It is. When I go around talking about forgiveness, inevitability, somebody says, “Well, what about if the person doesn’t repent or ask forgiveness?”

Dave: Right.

Philip: We have a beautiful example of that in Jesus. He’s being crucified, nailed to the cross, and it’s interesting what he prays. He says—He doesn’t say, “I forgive you”—He says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.” Paul was the same way when he faced people who really upset him, he would say [paraphrase of Romans 12:19], “Okay, they deserve revenge, but ‘Vengeance is Mine,’ says God; I’ll give it to God.”

Ann: That’s a good way to implement that. I think it’s practical when you just feel like, “I can’t say that, but I’m going to give it to You, God.”

Philip: Yes.

Dave: What about you? You talked about your brother’s struggle with your mom. How did you forgive your mom?

Philip: I got to know her background. A lot of forgiveness is just putting yourself in their place. My mother did a lot of things wrong, but she got some bad cards in life. She had an unloving family—very strict, very harsh; a lot of poverty. We heard these stories about people living through the Depression. She lived through the Depression, and it was tough.

Finally, this person came along—kind of a knight in shining armor. He was in the Navy in World War II; he was in the Philadelphia shipyards. And [he] went home and had lunch with a family—church people invited the sailor home for lunch. She fell in love, and he really was the man of her dreams. He wanted to be a missionary like she did. They were ready to go to the mission field, and they [had] two children. I’m one of them.

And then, boom! One day, he’s completely paralyzed. And then, he spends the next two and a half months living in an iron lung, unable to move.

Ann: He had polio, didn’t he?

Philip: He had polio, yes. And then, Christians got together and said, “Well, that’s no future. Let’s pray that he would be healed.” Well, he wasn’t healed, and they took him out of the iron lung, and he died.

Imagine: she placed everything on him; she had never written a check; she had never driven a car; she didn’t know how to live. And suddenly, he’s gone! She’s left with two kids—two brats—I’m one of them, [Laughter] one and three years old. She made a lot of mistakes, but I think they were mistakes. She did a lot of things right as well. I learned to see that over the years.

I had to go back to some people I had written about in the church I grew up in. I told you some stories. Well, I had to go to that pastor and say, “Do you still believe all that? Why did you preach so much on hell?” And then say, “But I just wish you had also shown me the other side. But I wanted, if I’ve offended you in something I’ve said, can we talk about that? I want to apologize for it.” I went to four or five people.

Ann: Whoa!! This is a big deal.

Philip: I call it “The Amends Tour,” [Laughter] because it’s easy for me to write something that can really damage somebody’s reputation. Usually, I didn’t use their names, but they knew who I was talking about. I did go through that process.

Dave: How did they ever respond?

Philip: In every case but one, they would say, “Yes, I have matured a lot over the years. I have softened. I wouldn’t do it like that again. My beliefs haven’t changed, but my attitudes and the way I present them have changed.” One person was just still really angry. “I’m sorry. I apologize,” He’s no longer living, but he had to live with that.

Ann: That’s a good action step: “Is there anyone whom we’ve offended?”

Philip: Jesus said [paraphrased], “If you go to the temple, and there’s someone you haven’t forgiven, leave your offering, and run back and get that person.” [Laughter]

Ann: Yes!

Shelby: You know, I love the way Philip Yancey is leading by example as a person who is admitting that he didn’t always get it right. He’s saying, “We all need grace, so let’s not pretend that we don’t need grace by never apologizing to other people and admitting when we’re wrong.” It takes a lot of character. I’m really glad he was genuine with us today about that.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Philip Yancey on FamilyLife Today. Philip has written a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace? If you wanted to read a little bit more about Philip’s profound insight and exploration of the topic of grace, you can get a copy of his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? right now by going online to; or you can find it in the show notes. Or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

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How do we navigate cancel culture? How do we model grace and engage with differing viewpoints in our culture today? Philip Yancey is back with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about just that tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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