A few years ago I had a couple come in for counseling. They were an older couple, much further down the marriage path than my wife and I. As a young pastor it’s always intimidating to give advice to someone who is that much older than me.
The husband started talking about all the ways in which he had been a bad husband. His short fuse, his fowl language, his yelling, the neglect to his wife sitting next to him and the children they had raised together. As he continued to share his story, of what had been and a life he wish had been, there were tears and regret in his eyes.
His wife had emotions that were visible in her eyes. But they weren’t of regret or relief to hear her husband of more years together than I was years old share how wrong he had been and how determined he was to be better. There was only anger.
Anger for the life she had hope to build with him. Anger over the forgotten anniversaries, hours mopping up after his nights of him coming home drunk from work. Rage over having to raise their children almost entirely on her own.
And who could blame her? Who, if they had taken her place, would not in some small corner of their soul feel little more than contempt for this man?
But there was more in her eyes than anger. There was also hurt. A hurt that only seemed to deepen with his confession and commitment to do anything to save what was left of their marriage.
At one point in our conversation his wife turned to him, just before the dam of tears was ready to burst from her eyes, and said to him, “God may want me to forgive you, but I will NEVER forget!”
In moments like these it’s hard to know what to do as a pastor. But as a man I saw the lesson life always tries to teach us but she had very easily missed:
Holding on to hurt hurts.
People who say they forgive but won’t forget never really do. What you are really saying when you say something like that is you are going to prolong the punishment of the one who hurt you. You are going to hurt them as much and as long as they hurt you. And for the person who never forgets, they will also never forgive.
No one, including God, expects you to actually forget. Short of serious brain damage that isn’t possible. But forgiveness was never really about forgetting in the first place. It has always been about freeing yourself from the hold of bitterness in your heart because bitterness hurts all of you. In many ways bitterness may be the deadliest emotion of all because it poisons the mind, body, and soul.
I keep in touch with that couple. They are making progress, one slow step at a time. She still holds her grudge, only letting small pieces go at a time like feeding crumbs to ducks at the pond.
And him? He is actually working on his marriage and keeping the commitments he talked about that day in my office. His stride is freer these days because he hasn’t let go of his hurt one crumb at a time. He’s thrown the whole loaf into the pond and isn’t looking to get it back or go back to who he was. Ever.
Forgiveness isn’t about releasing the one who wronged you because they deserve it. It’s about releasing yourself because you do.
Who do you need to forgive?