How To Forgive What You Can’t Forget

by | Sep 11, 2018

“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour, increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”      Henri J.M. Nouwen

Everyone wants to be forgiven but most of us find it hard to let go when we feel deeply wronged. Even if we adamantly believe forgiveness is a foundational practice for those who follow Jesus we can still get stuck in bitterness or resentment.

Like anyone who’s lived very long, I had had my share of tough experiences. But nothing prepared me for the news that my husband, David had been unfaithful to me. There’s no adequate way for me to describe to you how shattering that was for me -and for him.

In the future, we’ll say more about the thorough process we used to love our marriage back to wholeness. But the question people most often ask me is, “How did you forgive him?”     Here are some of the steps I took:

I took my time. 

When we forgive a person, who has deeply wounded us too quickly, neither person gets the opportunity to feel the real impact. Rushing to forgive may cause us to dismiss our need to grieve if we just “move on” before we’ve had adequate time to process the experience.

We’ve heard that we’re not to let the “sun go down on our wrath.” And that we’re to forgive one another as we have been forgiven. But, too often, we take this to mean we must forgive immediately.

Every story is different and every person processes pain in their own way. It took me about four months to say the words “I forgive you.” But that was just the beginning.

I went through stages. 

Authors Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn say, “Any hurt can feel like a small death. We pass through the same five stages with forgiveness that we do in grief.”

  1. denial (“This doesn’t hurt (or this isn’t happening)”)
  2. anger (“It’s their fault I’m hurt”)
  3. bargaining (or boundary setting)(“I’ll forgive you if you….”)
  4. depression (“It’s my fault/ why didn’t I…”)
  5. acceptance (“I look forward to growing from this hurt.”)

Forgiveness is not a one and done experience. It’s one step forward two steps back over and over and over again. The goal is forward motion even if it’s just inches. Once I had initially forgiven David I had to keep on forgiving every time the hurt surfaced, which was at first, moment by moment, then hour by hour, and after a long while, day by day and week by week. Forgiveness takes practice.

I also worked with an excellent counselor who validated my pain, assured me I wasn’t going crazy and confirmed that everything I was experiencing was normal under the circumstances.  And perhaps the greatest help was that David was deeply repentant, contrite and unfailingly compassionate through every step of this process.

I learned to let go of my suffering. 

Someone has said, pain is the rent we pay for being human, suffering is optional.  There is something so juicy and justifying when we replay our mental tapes when we’ve been wronged. The ego doesn’t go down quietly.  Someone must pay for the shame, dishonor, disrespect, broken trust, disregard and general unhappiness we’ve endured.

The thing we don’t feel like doing is to accept that something so awful has happened. But getting to acceptance is critical if we want ultimate healing and closure. Here are three questions that helped me get there:

A. What does repeating/holding on to this offense, this nightmare, get me?

Revenge? Relief? Reconciliation? No. It gets me to anger, grief, depression, shame, and inertia. There are no good gifts in bad thoughts.

I had to repeatedly replace the toxic thoughts that triggered me. I had to remember and refocus on what was “honorable, worthy of respect, right, pure, admirable, excellent and worthy of praise…”  (Phil 4:8) in my husband, in our marriage, family, and the work we did together.   

B. Is he really all bad? 

When someone wrongs us they suddenly become the evil empire. We forget any goodness we’ve ever seen in them. I had to find ways to acknowledge the truth that though David had failed, he was not a failure. He was a good man who had done something horribly wrong. But my hurt, anger, and disillusionment wanted to paint him as the devil incarnate.

Forgiveness begins at the end of black and white thinking.

Staying in black and white, all or nothing thinking kept me stuck in perpetual bitterness and hyper judgment. Since I wanted to work toward healing in our relationship that stance was getting me nowhere. (*Here’s a link to how I got free of harmful black and white thinking.)

To err is human, to forgive divine. – Alexander Pope

Psalms 139 says, “both darkness and light are alike to you, God.” For God to forgive his own creation he has to be able to accept and hold the contradictions we present and love us anyway.

In the end, forgiveness is a divine act, impossible, in my opinion, to create on a human scale. When we forgive another, we have literally tapped into the most God-like quality we possess.

C. How free do I want to be? 

I have my absolute best, happiest and most productive days when I am living in the freedom of this present moment, not dredging up the past or holding anyone’s sins against them. And I’m happy to report that after enduring much anguish, offering the gift of forgiveness to the man I love most in this world has opened our relationship to a depth we never knew existed. I haven’t regretted it for a second.

He who is forgiven much loves much. (Lk 7:47)

It is totally your decision to hold on to unforgiveness. You get to do that if you want to. No one can make you let go of your pain. You can keep it as long as you want or need to.  But what do you ultimately want? How free do you want to feel? Who do you really want to be?

Here’s a simple practice I used to grow forgiveness:

I believe God is streaming forgiveness to every person on the planet 24/7. Each person regardless of their stature or track record is already being forgiven for every fault, failure and sin they will ever commit.

What I wanted most, at the time, was for my husband to be punished, not forgiven! But I knew this constant stream of forgiveness was flowing to him from God. No matter what I tried I couldn’t conjure up forgiveness for him on my own.

So, I would get alone in a quiet place and visualize myself wading in that stream of God’s forgiveness. I would see myself floating in that river, soaking up God’s forgiveness until, over time, his forgiveness for my husband began to feel like mine, too.

What questions do you have about forgiveness? I’m here to help if I can. What has helped you forgive another person? Who do you need to begin to forgive today?

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