Forgiveness is one of the foundational values of the Christian life: God forgave us and, in turn, we’re charged with forgiving others. That doesn’t make it easy though, and we can often misconstrue ‘forgiveness’ as being a free pass for the people who’ve done us wrong.
In her latest book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget, American author and speaker Lysa TerKeurst clarifies what the Bible really says about forgiveness, and talks about how we can manage the memories that interrupt our healing and truly forgive people who caused us hurt.
After detailing her own experiences in her previous book, It’s Not Supposed to be This Way, Lysa talks about working through the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, and how – after two-and-a-half years of separation – they ultimately reconciled and renewed their vows.
“I’ve been in a season it seems like, of years of pain and unexpected trauma that happened to me. It was so hurtful,” Lysa said.
“When a family falls apart it’s not just the marriage relationship that is affected – everyone involved experiences wounding, and hurt and pain. And people have different reactions, so then the pain is compounded.”
Part of what Lysa hopes her book will help people realise is that forgiveness isn’t just a once-off decision we make, but a continual healing process we have to actively pursue.
Forgiving her husband Art, Lysa said, “wasn’t what I would call the easy path, because it’s hard work to rebuild a relationship when here’s been so much devastation – and there was a lot of devastation in our relationship”.
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“It’s important for people to know forgiveness is a beautiful step in the healing process – and forgiveness does help sweep our heart clean of bitterness, anger, resentment and forgiveness but forgiveness does not immediately fix a relationship, nor does it immediately rebuild trust. There’s a long, hard process to that; forgiveness is both a decision and process.
“Trust is built [with] time and believable behaviour,” Lysa said.
Despite your best efforts, reconciliation isn’t always possible in relationships, and Lysa intentionally stresses that doesn’t disqualify you from being able to forgive, and experience healing.
“You can still pursue a redemption story with your life even if reconciliation never happens,” she said.
“Just because we forgive somebody, doesn’t mean that we allow them free access back into our lives. We may have to draw some boundaries – not to shove them away, but to help hold ourselves together.
“Forgiveness is a command by God, but reconciliation is very dependent on the choices that that other person may or may not make.”
Too often ‘forgiveness’ is associated with letting things slide, or dismissing the pain and unjustness of someone’s actions toward you. That can be a real barrier to people choosing to forgive – as it was for Lysa – and she says we need to correct that belief.
“When I first started out on this journey, I thought, ‘If I forgive this person, well that’s saying what happened is no big deal but I think it’s a very big deal’. Or it’s saying that what happened didn’t really hurt me – and it did really hurt me,” Lysa said.
“But we can absolutely forgive someone and still hold them accountable, for their actions. We have to understand that forgiveness is not a free pass for the other person to keep hurting us.
“Forgiveness is God’s gift to us, to help heal our heart and sever the source of suffering from this other person [and to] try not to hold resentments toward them. Holding resentments, and holding them accountable, are two totally different things.”
Asked how we can know when we’ve really forgiven someone, Lysa said, “If you have had that marked moment of forgiveness where you have said, ‘I forgive this person for this pain that they’ve caused me, you have forgiven that person and no one can take that away from you”.
“But you’ll really know you’ve made progress in your healing journey, when you listen to the way you tell the story in the future: if you tell the story and you’re still focused on all the hurt, and wrongs and actions that this other person took then you’re probably stuck in that pain.
“But if you tell the story and you’re much more focused on the wisdom and the experiential life lessons that you’ve gained along the way that’s a sign of wonderful healing.”
Lysa TerKeurst’s book Forgiving What You Can’t Forget is out now. Listen to her full conversation with Laura Bennett in the player above.