Mar 032016 17 Responses

How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget

“Forgive,” they say.

“Even if they aren’t asking for it. Forgive. Do it for yourself.”

It’s good advice. Forgiveness is a powerful act which doesn’t free the guilty party, but frees the victim from being held captive by the past actions of another. It doesn’t undo the event. It doesn’t cause someone to forever forget. It simply creates the possibility for healing to begin.

But what happens when you try to forgive and it doesn’t seem to work? You want to move on, but you can’t. You’re stuck.

One of the great misconceptions about forgiveness is that it can happen in one dramatic act. The thought is that we can have a powerful moment and forever be done with the situation. Some stand on a mountain, look up at the vast night sky, and make the decision to forgive the other person. Others kneel at an altar and in response to what they feel God has done for them, decide to release the other person from their offense. Some grow weary of having the circumstance continually control them and try to let go.

These moments cannot be dismissed. Forgiveness is, in part, a point. It is a moment in which a clear decision is made. Without the moment, forgiveness will not happen.

But that’s not all it is. (See: Three Reasons You Can’t Forgive)

Forgiveness Is a Process

It is also a process. Forgiveness doesn’t occur simply with one dramatic moment. It is also something that is repeated time and time again throughout different seasons of life. A teenager might forgive a parent who committed suicide for not being present for their high school graduation. But they will likely have to forgive again when the parent’s absence is felt throughout other milestones in life–college graduation, a wedding, when children are born, and in times in which the child could use some advice from their deceased father or mother. They must forgive and continue to keep forgiving.

Forgiveness is a point and a process. Both are required and the more significant the hurt, the more present the process of the event will be. A person doesn’t forget about sexual abuse. One moment can’t unravel all that happened. The victim must continue to work through the process of forgiveness throughout their lives.

When we confuse forgiveness as simply a point, we can miss opportunities of growth and understanding when issues keep coming to mind. Knowing that forgiveness is also a process makes us expect times in which we remember what has happened. We know those times will come and we see them as invitations to further explore how the event influenced us. (See: What Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean)

Too often we see hurt as a single experience. If the one you loved walked out on you, she didn’t just end the relationship. A series of changes were experienced–loneliness, no more family vacations, division at graduations or weddings, changes in friendships, tainting past memories, dashed future dreams, having less help with aging parents, being alone during personal illness, etc. The list could go on. While a point must be reached in which you forgive the person, the process of forgiveness means grieving each experience.

One reason forgiveness has to be a process is because some of the ramifications of the act may not be known for years. A person must forgive and keep on forgiving. Some things will be easier to forgive than others.

As long as we see forgiveness as process, we can feel as though we are making progress even if events keep coming to our mind. When we think it is a single point, we might feel stuck when memories re-emerge. (See: But He Said “I’m Sorry”)

Both the point and process of forgiveness may not be things we can do on our own. In many instances we need the help of a friend, pastor, or counselor.

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Sometimes You Need Help with Forgiveness

Here are some diagnostic questions to see if you might benefit from help from a counselor:

  • Are you headed in the right direction or are things getting worse?
  • Do you feel stuck?
  • Is it easier to talk about the past event than it use to be?
  • Is the event still having a negative impact on your daily life?

If you answer yes to any of these, getting help through the process of forgiveness might be necessary.

The importance of forgiveness is well known by many people. However, the nature of forgiveness–being both point and process–is often overlooked.

If you have been the victim of someone’s action and you want to forgive, experience a point of forgiveness. Set aside the time, think through the events, consider your emotions, and then take a specific moment where you forgive the person.

But don’t assume everything ends there. Spend the rest of your life continuing to work through the process of forgiveness–remembering that you have released the person from their responsibility for what happened in your life and understanding what that looks like on this specific day.



17 Responses to How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget
  1. Margi Meeks Reply

    Kevin, this was so good and I needed it. Thank you so much.

  2. God is Love Reply

    This post resonated with me because I know I forgave my parents but sometimes feelings of hurt and pain still arise. I know understand that forgiving is a process that may be lifelong. Thank you

  3. AMY Reply

    I am struggling with this very thing. I for gave my husband for his indiscretions that occurred seven years ago.
    Part of the problem is that he had an affair that lasted six years. And I was supposed to forgive him instantly? He was very sorry and we did go to counseling for a little while. But as things have gotten rough again in our marriage and it seems to go back to where we were before the affair, all those emotions feel fresh and I feel like I am in morning again.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      It might be time to go back to counseling. This time, you might be able to confront some deeper issues that led to the affair.

  4. Lynn Reply

    I love this! Forgiveness can be SO HARD when you cannot erase memories. “Forgiveness is a process…forgive and keep on forgiving” is a healthy and reassuring way to think about forgiveness; it just makes sense when you realize it’s a process. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Rita austin Reply

    I so needed this. I forgave a person for a sexual assault. I find myself mad at what this act has
    cost me, my daughter. Not the act itself, but me wanting the individual to be held accountable. Now I realise that it’s a daily act, not a one time act of forgiveness. I must move on, but at a high cost for coming forward. Thank you for this much needed read.

  6. Rowena Reply

    What it says here is very true, but a lot of people will always says that the Lord says if we dont forgive he will not forgive us.
    Forgive a person is to let go of our anger, frustrations from ourselves to think more of it and we have to move on in life. It is not as easy as it says but as a life long procesd till we have finished our race with the Lord.

  7. Glenn Reply

    Well written sir! Many times when major offences have come, I chose to forgive quickly whether asked to or not, however, the enemy would repeatedly try to bring back up the issue. The battle is in our thoughts…I just say: “Nope, already forgiven”. It is a daily battle to take EVERY thought captive to the obedience of Christ. It helps me tremendously to pray the LORD’s Prayer daily. I also know how thankful I am that our Father forgives me over and over and over when I chose to stray. Sharing this post as I believe it will help many others understand the “process”

  8. […] But forgiveness doesn’t just reside in the heart. It’s most expressed in our ears. To th...
  9. Tipi Word Reply

    Forgiving is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Forgiving someone who doesn’t admit wrong doing and who isn’t “sorry” is especially hard, but the emotional and spiritual freedom you receive is worth the work it takes.

  10. chaney Reply

    for me its becoming a build up.some many people hurt you and i just cant seem to get pass where do begin.its gone to a point where im isolating myself and totaly avoid people ive had an issue with.i need to be set free.where do i start.

  11. Sdavon Reply

    OH MAN!.. this hits home for me. I don’t know how to do it, when the person keeps doing things continuously.. talks, against me to friends, family, my children and my grandson.. what do you do with that?
    It is my mother, and I believe she is completely evil, and I have had enough of the toxic nonsense through out my life, since I was 13,.. I love her YES!, I have forgiven, through out my life.. I am 51 now, and still to this day she still does the same thing.. I have chosen to love her from afar.. Satan will play his part even through your loved ones..

  12. Roxanne Reply

    I may need a little help with this. Every time i believe that I can forgive and my life is getting a little easier these people throw something else at me. I try to stay away but it’s impossible at this point. I feel so much dread every time I know I have to see them. I want to forgive.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Understandably so. It might be worth looking at Gary Thomas’ book “When to Walk Away.”

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