Q: Lysa, what inspired you to write your book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget?
A: I was inspired to write the book because I was struggling with forgiveness and I knew that the Bible said that we needed to forgive but I was confused about exactly, practically, how do I forgive? And when do I know I’ve really forgiven? And then what do I do with the resistance that I have around forgiveness? And if I forgive, is that me saying that what happened was OK? Because I don’t think that was OK. And does that mean I truly have to forgive and forget? Because I don’t think that I’m going to ever forget some of the things that have been done to me. But probably the biggest of all is I want to be obedient to God in this. But how is it that I’ve been a Christian for so long and I don’t really understand the ins and outs of forgiveness? And so, I went on a two year journey, mainly for me, to better understand what the Bible actually says and does not say about forgiveness.
Q: How big of an issue is unhealed pain in people’s lives, and what kind of damage can it cause?
A: What I’ve learned in forgiveness is that it’s both a decision and it’s a process. And it is good for it to be both. So we make the decision to forgive, and that’s to be obedient to God, but sometimes our feelings haven’t yet caught up to that. So there’s still a place to process our pain and that’s part of the process of forgiveness because with every wound there’s a fact and there’s an impact. The fact is let me forgive you for the facts of what happened, but the process is going to be a long time forgiving for the impact, because the impact leaks into our life slowly. If you’ve ever forgiven somebody and then thought, OK, good, I’ve forgiven, but then you’re driving down the road and you get triggered with a memory or triggered in some kind of pain and then all of a sudden it’s like, wait, am I a forgiveness failure? Or did this forgiveness thing not stick or did I not really mean it? So I feel like we get very, very confused in that situation. But what we have to realize is, no, when I forgave for the facts of what happened, no one can ever take that away from me, but now I have to walk through the process of forgiving for the impact. And if you look at the Lord’s prayer, almost half of the words that Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s prayer was around forgiveness. And Jesus calls those hurts or wrongs done against us debts. And I think that’s very interesting because if somebody creates a five-dollar debt, like inconveniences you, you can probably forgive them and it’s kind of like a non-event in your life. But if somebody does something that is, you know, brutally betraying or so deeply wounding that it’s unchangeable, the unchangeable can feel unforgivable. That’s like a five-million-dollar emotional debt, right? So it’s going to take a lot more time to process those wounds.
Q: Why is it important to understand that forgiving is necessary for our healing even when the person who hurt us won’t change or say they’re sorry?
A: Well, first of all, I want to say for whatever that situation is in your life, I’m so sorry that you’ve walked through that because I know it can be so, so hard when someone has done something that’s clearly wrong and yet they never acknowledged the pain they’ve caused you and they never said that they’re sorry. That can be so, so hard, and I want to acknowledge that pain. But I will also say, it’s time to stop suffering because of what this person has done to you. And it’s good to just put a stake in the ground and say, “I deserve to stop suffering because of what this person has done to me and I am no longer going to be held hostage by choices they may or may not ever be willing to make.” For me, it was important that forgiveness wasn’t a last resort, but one of the first steps of healing that I took. Because it was me saying that even if this other person never ever changes, I’m not going to attach my ability to heal to someone’s choices I have no control over. So I detached my healing from the person who hurt me. Otherwise, they’re just going to keep hurting me over and over and over every time I think about it.
Q: How does the Bible define what forgiveness is differently than what many think forgiveness is?
A: I used to see forgiveness as an unfair gift that I had to give to the people who had hurt me the most. And I didn’t want to give a gift to the person who hurt me, because I just didn’t understand it. But when I started studying what the Bible actually says, I learned that forgiveness is actually God’s provision for the hurting heart to be able to heal. And forgiveness doesn’t originate with us, it actually originates from God. And as God’s forgiveness flows to us, we must simply cooperate with it so it can flow through us to other people. So forgiveness is not based on my determination, forgiveness is based on my cooperation with what Jesus has already done.
Q: What did you learn in your own forgiveness journey that really brought healing to your heart?
A: Well, I think probably the biggest thing that has been evident is that even though I’m still going through some really hard things, I have more lightness, more peace, more joy and it doesn’t even quite make sense. But I know it’s a by-product of my obedience to God. And I think God has been so clearly saying to me, “Lysa, your heart is just too beautiful of a place for bitterness, resentment, and anger. And if you don’t let forgiveness, and the process of forgiveness, heal you, you’ll start to turn into somebody you don’t want to be. But the opposite is also true, if you do let forgiveness have its full way in you, you’ll turn into someone more beautiful than you ever thought you could be.” And I’ve seen that in my life. I think my friends and my family would say, “We are perplexed by the peace and the joy in Lysa’s life.” Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days, that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad moments, but the general sense of my life is that I have more peace and joy than I’ve had in a really long time. And I think forgiveness is a big part of that.
Q: Why is allowing bitterness so dangerous?
A: Bitterness doesn’t just want to be a feeling, it wants to take over your feelings. Bitterness leaks out of us like acid. Sometimes when you have bitter feelings you can start to feel like, “Well, I’m just a bitter person. I’m not a very forgiving person.” I hear people label themselves this way and I think that’s very dangerous, because bitterness actually reveals some things about a person that are amazing – and I know that this sounds kind of strange, but just hang with me here… Bitterness doesn’t show that that person has a cold, hard heart. Bitterness actually means that that person has a tender heart: they dared to throw their arms open wide, they loved deeply, and they got hurt deeply.
Bitterness doesn’t often visit people who have a limited potential in relationships. Bitterness often is the exact opposite – it visits people who have great potential for relationships, it’s just they’ve been hurt so much. And so, if you find yourself with bitterness sneaking in, don’t use that as a weapon to beat the tar out of yourself and just say, “Well, I’m just not good at this stuff.” That’s not true. You actually have tremendous potential, but you’ve got to tend to the hurt that’s driving the bitterness. (And all bitterness is driven by hurt.)
So what do we do about the bitterness, right? First of all, we recognize it. While I was writing my book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget, I started making a list. I thought it was going be a short little list of the hidden places bitterness is hanging out in your heart and you didn’t realize it. The list is SO LONG! And I was very clear in the book and I just said, “If this list is stepping on your toes, please don’t think that I’m doing this intentionally – I’m too busy trying to manage my own hurt feet right now.” Because the list stepped on my toes too and bitterness was really hanging out in a lot of unsuspecting places in my heart. So we recognize it, we call it what it is, and then we’ve got to tend to it. Hurt that sits unattended too long in the human heart turns into versions of hate.
Oftentimes, we believe that what happened to us and the pain we experienced is so pointless, and bitterness just seems like an obvious parking spot for pointless pain. But what we have to realize if we look at Revelation 12:11, it says that the enemy is defeated by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony. And I think it’s really important that we allow the pain that we’ve walked through to comfort other people. That is all over the Bible. You know in Corinthians it says that the God of all comfort comforts us so we can comfort others in our pain. And I think one of the most profound ways to comfort other people is to share our stories and to share our testimony so that they know they’re not so alone. And then it gives you a redemptive parking spot for your pain. You can put your pain in redemption rather than in bitterness because you’re watching God use it for good. And I don’t think we need to be so scared of our stories, like, “What are people going to think? And what does this mean about me?” If you are a redeemed person walking in victory, then you should be eager to share your story so that it can help other people and so that you have a redemption parking spot for your pain.
Q: Why is it imperative to acknowledge the feelings we have that are keeping us from forgiving someone?
A : Because I think if we deny our feelings, then we’ll have to fake our way through forgiveness. While we don’t want our feelings to be dictators, they are amazing indicators. Like the check engine light on your car dash, you have to pay attention to what is it indicating and then tend to it.
God gave us feelings through which to experience life and we have all kinds of experiences. We’re happy, we’re sad, we’re mad. For me, it takes me a hot minute to decide, what am I really feeling here? Like I have this personality where I’m like wait, wait, am I feeling mad or am I sad? And wait, is this really about this, or is it about this other thing over here? And so I really have to sit with my feelings, I have to process them, and I have to ask myself, what are these feelings telling me? And often if I have a really bad reaction over something, I get triggered in pain, because that still happens, and if I do, where I feel like this panic sense of like, almost paranoia or agitation or anxiety or whatever, my counselor has taught me, when it’s hysterical, it’s historical. And what that means is if you have an out of proportion reaction to the offense in front of you, there’s usually a history of unhealed pain in the past that’s also being pulled into this present-day moment that’s multiplying the impact of this emotion.
Q: Talk about the importance of disengaging our coping mechanisms in the healing process.
A: I think we have to recognize that some coping mechanisms are good, they help us cope in the moment. But a coping mechanism taken to an extreme can become an addiction and then that’s going to lead you into a whole realm of craziness. So I was in a therapy group one time and everyone had to go around talking about their coping mechanisms. I was like, wow, who knew that people had so many ways of dealing with their pain? And the therapist got to me, and I was like, “I don’t think I have a coping mechanism, maybe that’s my problem, maybe I need one. I mean there’s been lots of good suggestions given here today.” And so she looked at me and said, “You absolutely do have a coping mechanism, Lysa.” And I was like, “Well what is it?” And she said, “You tend to want to hyper-spiritualize everything instead of processing it.” And I was just like, ow, that hurts. And she said, “Instead of sitting in it, you just want to immediately take the pain and go, ‘But God’s gonna use it for good!’” And God is gonna use it for good, but if I have that as my excuse to never properly deal with the pain, then I’ll have these unhealed things in my life that still need to be dealt with. And so both/and is what I need. Yes, God is going to use it for good and I need to go see my counselor and work through this. So I think we just have to be careful because the enemy can sometimes use coping mechanisms to compound our pain. And I’m seeing that a lot with the pandemic. I mean, instead of having a show that we watch once a week, oh no, now we’re watching ten a day. Now it’s just like, the next episode starts in 10, 9, 8… And it’s easy to get sucked in and live vicariously through false characters rather than really sitting in our own life and really processing and listening for the Lord’s voice. And you can see it with all kinds of things like drinking or prescription drugs. You can see it even with people-pleasing, it doesn’t have to just be a substance. It can be this pattern of life where you are trying to get legitimate needs met. But a coping mechanism, when taken to an extreme, meets your legitimate needs in an illegitimate manner and that’s where the line is crossed.
Q: In your book, you talk about the significance of looking for the possibility of hope. Tell us about that.
A: When you’re going through a season that requires you to be long-suffering, I think it’s easy to get into this pattern of expecting the next bad thing rather than looking for the next good thing. I had a revelation about this when one of my kids was talking about getting a certain car. I’d never seen that car before, but as I was driving around that day, I noticed six in the parking lot and then one passed me and then one sat at the red light beside me. And I thought, “Did everybody decide to go out today and buy that car and drive them around me?” But I realized that hose cars had been all around me all the time, but because I wasn’t thinking about them, it never occurred to me to pay attention to them. And that’s the way I think hope is. You know, I think sometimes if we’re going through something that’s so hard we start to forget to look for hope because we’re just bracing for the impact of the next hard thing. But joy and hope and peace, they’re around us. They are God’s gifts to us. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” So I think we’ve got to be better joy-seekers, truly looking for sources and evidence of joy and peace. God has them all around us, we just have to recognize them with great intentionality.
Q: How is vulnerability a key part of having a healthy relationship, and why is avoiding it only hurting ourselves?
A: That’s a great question, I think hand-in-hand with vulnerability goes empathy. And when I look at the emotional health of a relationship, to the extent that both people can truly be empathetic and there’s no secrets, and there’s no lying in the relationship, those are not only signs of a healthy relationship but the sign of two healthy individuals. And so vulnerability comes when you can stand before another person and not be afraid that they’re lying to you, that they’re keeping a secret and that you can be assured that they had the appropriate ability to be empathetic. And that doesn’t mean they’ll understand what you’re feeling, but it does mean that they’ll pause and they’ll listen. But before vulnerability you have to have truth and you have to have transparency. And you have to have empathy and then vulnerability is possible.