Mar 032016 18 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.



18 Responses to How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget
  1. […] But forgiveness doesn’t just reside in the heart. It’s most expressed in our ears. To th...

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