“I have tried and tried to forgive him. I want to forgive! But I just can’t seem to forget. Now, I’m so afraid of being hurt again by someone else.”
Ugh, that’s a hard place to be, and anyone who’s gone through pain and betrayal can probably relate. In fact, after this dear woman shared her dilemma with a group of us gathered to study the Bible and pray, more than a few ladies began to nod in agreement.
These were dear sisters who loved the Lord, and their pain ran deep. They sincerely desired to be obedient to God’s command to love others and practice forgiveness, but they felt stuck because the memories of hurt and betrayal were still not healed.
What we learned that night was this: Forgiving and forgetting are not the same, nor do they need to be.
You forgive someone by faith, but the hurt still needs to heal. Sometimes we put ourselves under a lot of pressure not only to forgive but also to erase what happened from our memories. However, our memories don’t have an erase setting, at least without some kind of serious damage to our brain, and the more that strong emotions were associated with something from the past, the deeper the groove that event cuts into our memory. Forgiving the one who hurt us begins the process of healing by releasing us from the power of that hurt, but sometimes there’s a scar left behind that needs attention.
It’s like what happened to a live oak in my backyard. When our kids were small, I’d helped them tie a homemade rope ladder to a branch so I didn’t have to run outside to give them a boost every time they wanted to climb. Eventually the kids moved on to other adventures, and as busy moms do, I completely forgot about that rope. The trailing end had been pulled up into the limbs the last time the kids climbed, and as the rope weathered to gray, it became camouflaged for the next eight years until we were having our trees checked by an arborist a few weeks ago.
“Ma’am, there’s a rope up there. If you don’t remove it, it will strangle the limb.”
While I steadied the ladder, McLeod spent about 30 minutes cutting away the knotted rope because it was now buried an inch into the branch. Guess what? There’s quite a scar there. But now, the branch will heal and flourish because it’s no longer being strangled by something painful that I did to it.
That’s what forgiving others does for us: it cuts us loose from the stranglehold of what someone has done to us. See, when people wrong us, they essentially tie themselves to us through the debt they now owe us. When we forgive them through the power of Christ who forgave us for every sin against Him, we cut that tie. It doesn’t mean no wrong was done nor that there won’t still need to be restorative work or even restitution under the law, but we are no longer bound up in demanding that a fellow broken person undo what can’t be undone.
But what about the scar left behind? The pain other people caused us, and for that matter the shame, guilt, and regret of our own failures, tends to linger, doesn’t it? We are hard-wired to remember, and even when we try to force memories down deep, our beautifully created minds will try to bring them to the surface anyway, forcing us to deal with them because they continue to cause pain.
And that’s not a bad thing. Here’s why:
If you were to forget the things that happened in your past, they could never be used by God to help another person that’s going through something similar. We need that pain, those memories, to drive us even closer to “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
What we want, then, is to be free and healed from the stranglehold of pain, unforgiveness, bitterness, fear, or shame, while at the same time giving God the green light to redeem those hard things for our good and his glory (see Romans 8:28).
After all, Jesus kept his scars after the crucifixion, not so that he could rub it in the faces of his crucifiers that he would never, ever forgive them for what they did. Indeed, he cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The scars were his proof to his disciples and to all of us that he really did do what he promised: he went to the cross to purchase our forgiveness and conquer death once and for all on our behalf.
Scars, then, are not open wounds. When we move forward through forgiveness and then allow God to do the work of restoring us, our scars become victory stories of healing and redemption.
That’s worth remembering.