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Key insights from

Forgiving What You Can't Forget: Discover How to Move On, Make Peace with Painful Memories, and Create a Life That’s Beautiful Again

By Lysa TerKeurst

What you’ll learn

Swirling in place, constantly bound to a particular moment in time—this is a feeling all of us experience in the face of a traumatic wrong, or a seemingly unforgivable hurt. In the presence of our turmoil, we either give in to our pain or attempt to unwind the strings of suffering ourselves. Neither method works. Your past simply leaks into your present, infecting everything with its sting. Biblical forgiveness forces pain into the light, initiating healing through an individual choice to follow God’s peace. Bestselling author Lysa Terkeurst explores the reality of forgiveness in the Bible and its impact on her own life, teaching us how to grow in God’s healing and start living in a way that loosens binds of hurt from our souls and reinvigorates our reality with peace.

Read on for key insights from Forgiving What You Can't Forget.

1. Forgiveness is individual: Healing is between you and God, no one else.

During her time in Israel, the author was struck. Though she’d visited the history-laden site of Jerusalem numerous times before, only this time did her tour guide mention that Jesus only performed two healings there, both of which involved restoration through an individual heart change. Both John 5 and John 9 detail the miraculous redemption of a blind man’s sight and a paralyzed man’s ability to walk. In the healing of John 5, Jesus meets the immobilized man by a pool at Bethesda, asking him if he would like to receive healing. Instead of responding with a resounding “Of course,” the man complains that no one is around to help him into the pool. This is an image of all of us. Before forgiveness unravels us from our paralysis, we feel that other people must be involved. We think that before we can receive healing, those who’ve wronged us must be punished or at least ready to receive our forgiveness. This is a lie that regifts control to the one who caused the pain in the first place.

By reliving the wrong and failing to move beyond it, we place control into the hands of those who’ve wronged us and give them the power to impact our present. Forgiveness begins with a conscious choice to accept the blessing and healing God gifts each of His children with. It’s time to steal the power back from those who’ve harmed you and return it to God. Jesus fills a stream of forgiveness with His peace; once we step into it, the water ripples, and the gravel hedging our hearts in despair dissolves.

Forgiveness is an act of loyalty to God, not to the person receiving forgiveness. It’s not about your relationship with them, but your relationship with Jesus. You might not repair that friendship broken by betrayal or fix the relationship you had with a loved one. These relational details must be set aside from the process of healing. The author teaches that this kind of restoration is initiated by your decision to believe God’s promises and follow His design of forgiveness. Be careful not to fall for the trap of thinking that your own heart and disorderly feelings need to be set straight before you can seek God’s healing plan for your life; that belief captures you in a cycle of impossible renewal and constant disappointment. Without God, no one can ever be unraveled or fixed. 

Through the author’s experience of a devastating betrayal in her marriage, she recognized that forgiveness was a dual process of openly declaring one’s choice to forgive and actively working through a lifestyle intent on overcoming this hurt. Just because you have an off-day or lash out at a few words that prompted a painful memory doesn’t mean you’ve failed to forgive—it’s just another wrinkle in the water smoothing itself over, a reminder to return those coiled feelings and tumbling hurts to God’s hands. When you decide to forgive, you make your mark in the sand, and God works with you and through you to renew you.

2. Pain expands in silence. Write it down and speak it out.

Hurt happens. Despite the incessant pleading of your mind to swallow your pain and tie it all up inside, this habit of silence only increases suffering and anxiety. Following the author’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity, she sought the help of a Christian counselor. During therapy sessions with him, she wrote down the specific things for which she needed to forgive her husband and others involved. Then she laid those index cards face-up on the floor, and for each one, released a statement of forgiveness with the recognition that what she herself was unable to extend at the time, Jesus would take care of. In a visual testimony of this fact, she laid a piece of red material on top of each of the cards in acknowledgement of Jesus’s healing sacrifice. All of this points to the freeing truth that only when our thoughts, emotions, and pain are dragged into recognition—albeit kicking and screaming—can they be transformed. In the darkness of our solitary minds, they sit, linger, and wreak havoc on our peace.

Incredible power remains in writing things down and speaking things out; this is where forgiveness begins. The author notes that without recognizing the existence and the validity of one’s hurt in the presence of another person, people stagnate and get tangled up in their minds and their own means of fixing themselves. In this oppressive silence, pain is never addressed properly, and its hold over a particular person perpetuates a domino effect of suffering. We’ve all heard the saying, “Hurt people hurt people,” but it’s true and more dangerous than the simplified saying sounds. Suffering builds up inside a person until it leaks out into other relationships, dispersing its hurt into the hearts of others. If you’re struggling with feelings of resentment and anger over a past wrong, whether it was tiny or life-altering, bring a trusted friend or counselor in on it—give your pain reality to breathe so that healing can begin.

Excavate all those dusty memories stored away in the back of your mind. In order to understand who you are now and why you operate under certain beliefs or assumptions about the world, you must recognize who you were then. Tiny, seemingly insignificant instances maintain a huge affect on your thinking now, pinning you to a particular perception of yourself, other people, and even God. The author talks about experiences from her childhood on the playground to illustrate this point. Never the one with the right clothes or the most money, she was often mistreated by her classmates. As a result, she learned to hide herself, making herself a quiet, blank page. Experiences like this one and beliefs gathered from such aren’t filed away neatly in some cranial storage cabinet; they follow us throughout our lives and impact our seemingly distant realities.

Put your pain onto paper, and share your suffering out loud. Not only does this process unlock forgiveness, but it also enables you to better assess your past experiences and the present consequences they maintain on your mental and emotional wellbeing. What lie or past hurt has been capturing you in its net? Where is it coming from? Grab a pen, and begin to heal.

3. Use your emotions as a barometer, not a compass.

Feelings can be deceptive, dragging us along unhealthy, self-destructive routes. They can also be constructive—oftentimes, our emotions indicate areas in our lives and experiences that need to be uprooted and reassessed. In moments where the anxiety bites and bitterness obliterates any sense of calm, listen up. The author advises people to grow attentive to particular situations, people, times, or topics of discussion that turn them into cyclones of concern. When this happens to you, track the feeling to its root, and excavate the underlying cause of your disturbance. Oftentimes, this reaction is tied to an experience which harmed you in some way, causing your past to crop up into your present and poison your reality and relationships.

As a child, the author withstood the trauma of sexual abuse from a neighbor, an experience which colored the way she perceived her reality afterwards. Her nightmare grew into her daily experience as she developed the tendency to assume that she was a magnet of negative circumstances, a perspective that robbed her of joy in situations thereafter. She was always waiting for something to crumble, expecting her own body to be at the base of the rubble. This belief developed a hold in her life, one that she needed to track down in order to identify the seed that took root and stretched into the tree of a jilted perspective. Forgiving the man who wronged her was an excruciating process, one in which she had to put the man into God’s control rather than her own. But in doing this, a part of her stolen perspective was redeemed, and the man’s harm over her life began to dissolve. 

Your past experiences give form to your present outlook. Your emotions function as a barometer for assessing potentially flawed perceptions that grew from harmful circumstances. In recognizing which of these experiences is keeping you pinned to your pain, you can identify who in your life you need to forgive. Then you can begin the process of enabling God to work through you and within your circumstances. Emotions shouldn’t coordinate your actions, habits, or view of life. Instead, emotions can be incredibly helpful tools to diagnose areas of your experience that need attention and moments of hurt that extend into your present, impacting the way you approach relationships, forgiveness, and yourself.

Doing the difficult work of digging through damage enables you to bring greater authenticity to your relationships. As the author points out, vulnerability is an essential component of a loving and deep relationship. Honesty with yourself and your past is necessary to be authentic with your spouse, best friend, or loved one. When you learn to communicate within the context of a greater understanding of the perspectives that bound you in the past, then the peace and healing of forgiveness is that much closer. Each of us is a collection of components we barely even recognize. Instead of following our emotions like oppressive blueprints that only build more pain, we should treat them as footprints that reveal to us where we are coming from and the experiences in our lives we need to forgive.

4. Limits are healthy—they allow you to bring your best to a relationship and to the process of forgiveness.

A crucial component to a biblical lifestyle of forgiveness is establishing proper limits in relationships. Oftentimes, it might seem that forgiveness hinges on one’s ability to demolish borders and allow people into every area of one’s life. But more often than not, failing to demarcate boundaries leads to unhealthy relationships in which forgiveness is difficult to foster. In unbalanced relationships, one person is constantly drained, spinning every which way to help the other person. Meanwhile, that other person fails to correct their behavior and see the impact it maintains on others. This is not ideal. Sometimes, before a person can even entertain the idea of moving forward with the process of forgiving someone, she must recognize the impact the other person exerts on her mental, emotional, and spiritual health. 

Driving home late at night in the midst of a heavy downpour, as if the earth itself was shedding tears for her, the author pondered her heartbreaking discovery and a new issue that arose within it: What do you do when someone else’s actions are negatively impacting you and those around you? Where do you go? While the reconciliation that took place between her and her husband within their marriage was winding and difficult, they overcame. But before any of that could take place, the author needed to realize something—if she continued to place more emphasis on her husband’s wellness than he did, neither of them would ever be able to experience healing and forgiveness. Constantly spending yourself on other people and those whom you’re trying to forgive seems like a selfless act, but it exerts dire consequences on your wellbeing and that person’s healing. True restoration exists between the individual and God. It doesn’t matter how badly you want a loved one to grow free from some behavior, if she doesn’t want freedom herself, she will never attain it.

Two behavioral signs of moving beyond healthy boundaries are habits of controlling or enabling a person’s behaviors. Instead of trying to coordinate every aspect of a person’s healing, the author recommends practicing compassion towards the situation. Similarly, be wary of rubbing up against the edge of your individual limits by providing for someone so boundlessly that their negative behaviors are encouraged. If you find yourself growing fed up with someone or frustrated with her actions, take a step back—you may need to lay down clearer, healthier boundaries for yourself. Only then will you be able to provide the relationship with the energy, kindness, and authenticity it deserves. Only then will you be able to experience forgiveness in its most refreshing fullness. We aren’t bottomless pits of generosity, but God is—He is boundless and He will steer both you and the person you must forgive back on the path of renewal.

Setting boundaries is easier said than done, but it’s necessary. Bring kindness and understanding into this process as you speak with certainty about the parameters you’re establishing. Whatever these boundaries look like for you, whether they're with a loved one, a coworker, or a friend, be sure to remain firm in your resolution. Staying attentive to your limits enables you to bring genuine love and openness to your relationships.

5. We can’t grab God’s peace, but we can open our hands to receive.

Amidst the turmoil of a city revolting against him, Paul wrote about peace. Romans 8:12 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This direction seems ridiculous in light of the events surrounding his life at the time. And still, Paul saw peace not only as possible, but as the only means to live healthfully in the way God intended. Many of us walk around brooding, steeped deeply in pain, anxiety, and bitterness. Instead of allowing bitterness to dig us deeper in the dirt of our discontentment, we should allow it to act as a signal to follow and uproot the underlying issue. To disentangle ourselves from the bitterness that wraps us in unforgiveness, use the sadness of loss. The author encourages people to soak in the presence of loss, whether that’s one’s own or someone else’s. Practicing this is difficult and painstaking, but when we allow the sadness of our own loss to be reopened through empathizing with that of another person, the stiff cement of resentment and unforgiveness begins to crack.

The greatest wisdom the author imparts is the power of humility. Only when we lower ourselves before God in the knowledge of His control and goodness, surrendering our desire to make things right and seek vindication with our own hands, do we allow His peace to enter. Pain recycles pain. If we wallow in our hurt and mentally rehearse scenes in which we get justice for ourselves, we fail to take advantage of the gift of peace and the healing of forgiveness. The author writes that, “The antithesis of peace isn’t chaos. It’s selfishness;” it’s choosing our own desires over the promises God offers. The trick is that what we think we desire turns out to be the polar opposite of what we really want: The dream of getting justice for ourselves is a nightmare of instability and pain. Being humble invites God’s peace and healing.

In Matthew 6:9-15, Jesus instructs us in how we should pray. Oftentimes, we fill our prayers with requests, dreams, and the (not so rare) complaint or two. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we might be missing a couple key parts of a biblical prayer life. In the prayer Jesus models for us, the acts of confession and forgiveness are prominent. In order to forgive others, we must ourselves be brought to forgiveness and the gracious mentality it creates. Through recognizing the parts of ourselves and our situations that need forgiveness, along with those parts we ourselves need to forgive, we grow closer to the life of peace Jesus desires for those He loves. 

Forgiveness is something everyone needs to work on, but taking daily steps toward the idyllic practice of peace that Jesus displays is worth the work. He wants for us nothing less than a life that embraces the vivacity of His love and the entirety of His healing. You were born for bigger things than anger, resentment, and restlessness. Exchange it all for His peace and feel the weight fly.

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