Help me Forget!
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
We’ve all heard the admonition to “forgive and forget,” but sometimes that is easier said than done. Author and pastor Dan Willis says Christians need to learn to do both if they want to find freedom from the past hurts in their lives.
In his book, Freedom to Forget, Willis offers readers a practical guide about how to let go of the pain, anger, and unforgiveness. With short, easy-to-read chapters, the book offers many powerful principles to help people find freedom from their past.
By forgetting, the author says he doesn’t mean that we pretend nothing bad has ever happened to us. It doesn’t discount the pain that we’ve been through. Forgetting, he says, means failing to recall the hurt and choosing to stop dwelling on it, which allows us to move on with our lives.
How do we go about forgetting past hurts? Here are a few suggestions from Willis.
Lose the details.
Often when someone has hurt us, we replay the scene over and over in our minds. Something that happened years ago can still sting as deeply as if it happened yesterday, because we are constantly rehearsing the details. As a result, we can never get past it.
For instance, Willis says, consider a woman whose husband left her. “She remembers exactly what type of shirt he had on. She remembers the cutting words he said. She remembers how he told her she wouldn’t amount to anything,” Willis says. “She has focused on that so many times, repetitiously, until the details are etched in living color.”
We have to retrain our brains, he says, to stop focusing on the details of the hurt. One way to do this is to get out and serve other people. Help someone in need. Reach out to a friend who is hurting, and listen to their problems. Serving others can take our focus off of ourselves and our pain.
Give up the need to understand.
Many people fail to move past their hurt because they get caught up in asking God why He allowed it to happen to them. Or they try to analyze why the person who hurt them acted the way they did.
Letting go of the past, Willis says, means coming to terms with the fact that we may never understand the reason for our pain.
Willis said he learned this after being estranged from his father for 15 years. Having been hurt by his father, he says he focused on analyzing his dad’s actions. Anything that went wrong in his life, he says, he blamed on his father and the “dysfunction” that his dad created when he left the family.
Then one day, while he was praying, God showed him that his thinking was flawed.
“What I had focused on was trying to understand every reason why this had all gone down like that,” Willis says. “And what the Lord spoke to me that afternoon was this: 'If you never understand here on this earth, I have a plan that when you get to Heaven, I’m going to let you know all about it. We can sit down for eternity and we can talk about why, but you’ve got to get here first.'”
Extend true forgiveness.
As Christians, we know we are called to forgive those who hurt us. Because we know that, Willis says, we often are quick to extend surface-level forgiveness. We confess that we forgive them, and we want to forgive them, but that forgiveness sometimes doesn’t extend deep into our hearts.
Often we find ourselves still dwelling on the hurt that the person caused, or we still feel anger toward them. These are signs that we have not completely forgiven them.
“It’s not even about them at that point,” Willis says. “It’s about where you’re at. You haven’t moved on. They have continued to control you until you can forgive them. So there has to be a watermark for me to know, okay, I think I have, but how do I know for real?”
He believes that watermark is when you get to a point where you can bless them, as the Bible instructs.
“Jesus said that you have to bless those who have hurt you, and persecuted you, and scandalized your name,” Willis said.
But this point may not come quickly. Often we have to work through those issues in prayer and by meditation on God’s Word, he says. We will know we have truly forgiven once we have the ability to sincerely bless the person, not with an artificial kindness, but with a heartfelt kindness.
Willis suggests sending them a card if they are still alive. If they are not living, he suggests visiting their grave and confessing out loud that you forgive them and you bless their memory.
“I think to verbalize it, to confess it, even if you can’t get to that person if they’ve died, just to confess it and to speak it,” Willis says, “that power of confession brings a ton of release into a person’s life, and you know then that you have truly forgiven.”
Remember it’s always a choice.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when trying to move on from hurtful events in your life, Willis says, is to realize that experiencing healing always involves making a choice. And that choice not only affects our emotions, it has powerful effects on our physical health as well.
Unforgiveness and anger cause stress to the body, which can result in illness or even premature death. When people say, “I can never forgive this person,” or “I can never get over this hurt,” they are hurting themselves physically as well as spiritually and emotionally.
“I’m sending myself to an early grave with that kind of confession,” Willis says. “When you say, ‘He hurt me so bad, I can’t. I’ll never do it. I can’t overcome this,’ understand what you are really saying is, ‘I choose to die.’”
Every time we say, “I can’t,” he says, we are contradicting God’s Word that tells us we can do all things through His strength.
“The Bible says choose life,” Willis says. “Life is a choice. To live is a choice. To be happy is a choice. To be content is a choice. All of those things are not just something that abstractly happens to a positive minded person. It’s something that happens to a person who has made the choice.”
Willis says it is a choice that he had to make when he decided to forgive his father.
“Personally, I’ve made the choice; I’m going to be happy. I’m only coming through this life one time, and I’m not going to let somebody put me in bondage,” he says. “After I overcame the situation with my father I decided that was it. It’s a matter of coming to the understanding that I want to live, and I have to stop confessing things that are going to cause me to die.”
Think like a child.
If we want to see a model of true forgiveness, Willis says, we should observe the lives of children.
“Children have the immense capacity to have joy and to learn how to forget yesterday, and to embrace their today,” Willis says.
He tells a story about an event that happened with his son, Chad, when he was 6 years old. One day while his son was playing with a neighbor, the two had an argument. They had been “hunting” around their suburban Chicago home, and had come upon a squirrel that had been hit on a nearby road. They had decided to take their road kill to the taxidermist, but before they could, the neighbor ran off with the prized squirrel. When Willis arrived at home, he found Chad in tears.
“Dad, Jeff stole my road kill!” the youngster told his father.
Willis was on his way to another appointment and couldn’t offer help immediately, but he assured his son that the next day they would go to the neighbor’s house and settle the dispute.
To his surprise, the next day when he returned home he found his son and the neighbor playing together once again. They were joyfully climbing a lilac tree. Obviously the rift between the two had been repaired.
“I got out of the car,” Willis says, “and I said, ‘Chad, come down out of that tree!’ I said, ‘What’s the matter with you? I was supposed to go get a hold of that little boy. We were supposed to go get your road kill. What’s wrong here?’”
“And he said, ‘Dad we’re setting bear traps.’"
" Now, mind you we live in a concrete jungle in Chicago, but these little boys are setting bear traps.”
“And I said, ‘But Chad, what happened to the road kill?’ And he looked up at me, and I’ll never forget what he said. He said, ‘Aw dad, who cares about road kill when there’s lilac trees to climb?’”
It’s a lesson that we would all do well to remember.
“In our lives I think we’ve been in the pursuit of dead stuff, stuff that could never be resurrected, that is just destroyed,” Willis says. “We’ve forgotten that God has put beautiful fragrant things right in our front yard, and it’s important to forget the road kill. We have lilac trees to climb.”
Want to learn more about letting go of past hurts? Check out Willis' book, Freedom to Forget.
Dan Willis is the pastor of The Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Chicago, Illinois. He is also the host and executive producer of the Emmy-Award-winning reality show Inspiration Sensation.
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