Spiritual Growth and Encouragement for Christian Women

Do You Have to Forgive and Forget to Get Over the Pain?

Do You Have to Forgive and Forget to Get Over the Pain?

We buried my mother on Mother’s Day weekend of my senior year in high school. My father remarried one year later. Before the wedding, my soon-to-be stepmother assured me that all she wanted was for us to be one happy family. After the honeymoon, she changed her mind. She emptied our home and lives of any remembrance of Mama and did all in her power to cut my sister and me out of Daddy’s life. This included sending my younger sister to a neighboring state for high school.

Some years later, I got the courage to crack the door and let my roommate know some of my loss. 

“You must not have really forgiven her,” my roommate gently said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s obvious this still hurts you. If you’d really forgiven her, you wouldn’t hurt anymore.”

I wanted nothing more than to be right with God and free from the pain. But my roommate’s well-meaning words only left me confused. I’d forgiven the best I knew how. Was she right? Did my pain spring from bitterness instead of loss?

Years spent counseling other women through their losses showed me I am not alone in experiencing lingering pain after betrayal. The Old Testament story of Joseph also shows this is normal. 

You may recall that Joseph suffered slavery and imprisonment because of his jealous brothers. When given the power to mete out justice, he offered mercy and grace instead. Yet forgiving his brothers didn’t eliminate his pain. Even many years after reconciling with them, he still wept when he remembered. 

Trauma by definition causes “great distress and disruption.” When you dismiss it by day, it haunts your sleep by night.

Teenaged Joseph had also lost his mother. Instead of one stepmother, Joseph had 10 jealous older half-brothers that wanted him out of their lives, as well as their father’s life. A caravan that bought slaves approached while the brothers argued over the best way to get rid of Joseph. They could earn a little silver and remove their brother from their lives and their father’s affection in one act. 

The psalmist wrote, “They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons” (Ps. 105:18 NIV). We can only imagine what else young Joseph endured during those 13 years he suffered injustice as a slave and prisoner in Egypt, all while missing his father and little brother. 

During a famine, 21 years after selling Joseph into slavery, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for food. They had no idea that the Egyptian ruler who spoke to them through an interpreter was the brother they’d betrayed. But Joseph recognized them.

Joseph held the power to have them lawfully tried and executed for kidnapping. Instead, after wisely testing his brothers to discover the state of their hearts, he revealed himself to them and stunned them—and us—with grace.

“I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here” (Gen. 45:4-5).

Did you notice Joseph didn’t minimize their sin? Yet he comforted them. He showed affection instead of revenge. He overcame evil with good. No one can doubt the sincerity of Joseph’s forgiveness. See Genesis 45.

Yet Joseph’s pain resurfaced at various times during his life. Notice his emotions in the following examples.

  • 14 years after being sold into slavery: When his sons were born he chose names for them that memorialized God’s grace to him in his suffering. Manasseh, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” Ephraim, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen. 41:51-52).
  • 21 years after being sold into slavery: When he overheard his brothers discuss how they’d wronged him: “He turned away from them and began to weep” (Gen. 42:24).
  • 22 after being sold into slavery: When he saw Benjamin: “Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there” (Gen. 43:30).
  • When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, “he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it” (Gen. 45:1-2).
  • He embraced them and wept over Benjamin and the rest of his brothers (see Gen. 45:14-15).
  • Joseph "threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time” (Gen. 46:29).
  • 39 years after being sold into slavery: His brothers ask for forgiveness: “When their message came to him, Joseph wept” (Gen. 50:17).

Godly Joseph had completely forgiven his brothers. He’d overcome evil with good. He’d wholly trusted God (Gen. 45:5-8). But the memory still hit an emotional tender spot. 

Joseph hurt because he’d been wronged—not because he’d done wrong.

Emotional pain doesn't necessarily indicate lack of faith or lack of forgiveness. It may reveal great loss. Just as physical trauma takes more time to heal than a surface scratch, deep emotional wounds take longer to heal than simple slights. 

We must always forgive. Forgiveness cleans our wounds and protects us from the complications of bitterness. It puts us in a place to heal. But healing takes time.

If remembering an old injury hurts, know that is normal. If jabbing a memory leaks anger and malice, clean the wound by forgiving again. By God’s grace, we forgive our enemies, and God heals us (see 1 Pet. 5:10). 

Forgiveness does not equal forgetting. If you don’t believe me, ask Joseph.

Debbie W. Wilson is an ordinary woman who has experienced an extraordinary God. Drawing from her personal walk with Christ, twenty-four years as a Christian counselor, and decades as a Bible teacher, Debbie speaks and writes to help others discover relevant faith. She is the author of Little Women, Big God and Give Yourself a Break. She and her husband, Larry, founded Lighthouse Ministries in 1991. They, along with their two grown children and two standard poodles, enjoy calling North Carolina home. Share her journey to refreshing faith at her blog.

Publication date: June 9, 2016

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