We Must Forgive

By Ruth Johnson

By the time I was thirty years old, I had experienced every type of brutally scarring abuse. Yet that heartache has no power over me at all. It’s as if the tragic loss caused by those overwhelmingly painful years has never occurred. None of the suffering I experienced even matters to me anymore.

This is my story about how this amazing transformation became possible.

From a very young age, I never felt completely safe with anyone. Frightening nightmares terrified me whenever I tried to sleep. An irrational panic consumed my thoughts. Fear imprisoned me. Haunting memories bombarded me. Remembering the painful, graphic details of the terrible things that had happened to me and my brother and sister constantly replayed in my mind. Rage simmered inside me. At times it came out in uncontrollable explosions of destructive anger.

Thoughts of killing myself consumed me.

No one knew about the terrifying abuse I was living with or how I felt about anything. Emotional honesty didn’t feel safe at all.

All of this caused me to shrink back from reality. I isolated myself. There was the smiling person people saw in public, and the disturbed one who lived inside of me. The stress of all this began to affect me physically. A doctor told me I had the beginnings of many serious health issues and I had better do something about what was going on in my life that could cause all this damage.

But, as I listened to him warn me, I saw no way I could get free from the torment I was hiding from everyone. After being betrayed and violated, over and over, as a child by those who were supposed to be safe for me to trust, fragile places on the inside of me had died a long time ago. The damage felt irreversible. In the midst of this personal nightmare, I never thought it would be possible to put all the hurts from my past behind me, and not have them control my life anymore. Yet, that transformation did happen. What took place is a message of hope for all who ache to be set free from devastating pain and fully enter into the fullness of the Father’s destiny for them.

These are the insights that helped me to find my way there….

No child wants to hate his parents. When we do, something dies in our soul that we seriously need to become whole. That death remains until we forgive. If we refuse to, this choice is deadly. It can cause us physical illness and even thrust us into the alarming, dark shadows of being emotionally disturbed. Yet, a long time before I became a Christian, I made up my mind I’d never forgive my parents for the horrible things they did to me. Consequently, when I was saved in July 1973, the agony of my pain didn’t stop. It actually got worse because I refused to stop being bitter. The poison of this destructive choice affected every part of my life. Through my toxic example, my daughter learned that the way you react to people who hurt you is to hate them. Eventually, that hatred included me. My disastrous decision to not forgive catapulted me to the brink of a serious mental collapse.

After I had been a Christian for about two years, my world came crashing down all around me. I heard voices, but no one was actually speaking to me. Late at night I was afraid to walk past the living room. I was sure that a man was lurking in the shadows waiting to attack me. But whenever I rushed to turn on the lights, no one was there. I often woke up in a cold sweat from terrifying nightmares. In these haunting dreams, my ex-husband kept coming back to kill me.

During the day, a chilling apprehension obsessed me. Every time my children walked outside to play, I shuddered with “out of control” fear that they would be killed.

After one of these attacks of anxiety, I retreated to my bedroom. As I lay rigidly on my bed, I was convinced that someone was coming stealthily down the hallway toward my room. My heart raced and my body stiffened under the cold sheets. I was too terrified to make a sound. I strained to listen for footsteps. But there was only silence, except for my muffled breathing. I pulled the blanket tight under my chin and stared at the partially opened door.

“He’s going to kill me”! I screamed within me as I frantically gripped the blanket. “I know there’s someone out there and he’s going to kill me.”

I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. My disturbed mind was convinced that an intruder was there. The alarming history of insanity on both sides of my family now raced through my mind.

“I’m going crazy,” I thought, “just like so many people in my family. I’m going to end up like one of them. I’m losing my mind!”

My life was spinning out of control. The evil forces that were trying to destroy me kept battering me with terrifying thoughts. I felt like I was suffocating in a dark tunnel of frightening panic. I tried to stop the downward spiral. But, I couldn’t push back the darkness that was now overtaking me. I was painfully aware that at any moment I could cross over into a place of so much mental confusion that I wouldn’t be able to come back to reality.

“Oh God,” I cried out. “Help me! Please help me”!

The Father’s response was immediate.

But, it wasn’t comforting like I had expected.

“Ruth,” He told me, “you must forgive everyone who has ever hurt you; especially your mother. The hatred toward your mother is the bitter root that is destroying you.”

I resisted.

“After everything my mother has done to me,” I vehemently said, “I have every right to hate her. I’ll forgive everyone else, but I will never forgive my mother!”

But God warned me: “If you don’t forgive her, your hatred will destroy you. And I won’t be able to help you.”

I jumped up from my bed, stood in the middle of the room, and shook with loud sobs. My mind was already dangerously close to slipping away from me. I couldn’t go on living the way I was feeling for another second. I was determined to hang on to life as I lifted my arms like a young, trusting child.

“Oh God,” I cried out. “I don’t feel any forgiveness toward Mom. But, I will do what You are telling me to do. I choose to forgive her. In the name of Jesus, I forgive her.”

At first, I said these words completely by faith.

I felt nothing at all.

But, as I made the decision to speak them over and over, my feelings toward my mother changed. Suddenly vivid scenes from my childhood flashed through my mind. I recalled her bending over the kitchen sink, moaning in pain; being stiff and white as a corpse on her bed in her darkened room, her countenance clouded with despair; lying collapsed on the kitchen floor, unable to speak; screaming at me every time I tried to talk to her, “Shut up! Leave me alone,” pushing me away whenever I tried to be close to her. I covered my face with trembling hands and wept as I faced with full honesty how much all this had hurt me. I then told God all about it, holding nothing back as a lifetime of pain exploded out of my soul.

Suddenly, something amazing happened.

My heart began to ache for my mother. Instead of seeing her as the person who had caused me so much suffering, I was able to look at her through the eyes of the Father. Compassion for her hopelessness pierced my heart. She knew I was suffering all those years when I was growing up. But she was in too much pain herself to have anything left to give to anyone. It took all she had to just survive.

Moments later, a healing I never thought was possible began to touch the most broken places in my soul. “I not only forgive her, Lord,” I then told Him, “but for the first time I can finally say I love her. I forgive everyone who has ever hurt me, even though I have no feelings about doing that. I’m just deciding because I don’t want to hang on to any of it anymore.”

I learned I could do all this by choice when I read these surprising words:

You must change your heart and life.” Acts 3:19 NCV

“I am kind to you so that you will change your heart and life.” Romans 2:4 NCV

“So choose this day a blessing or a curse. I urge you to choose life in order that you may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19 NASB

I’ll never forget how it struck me that God didn’t say, “Feel this day a blessing or a curse.”

He said, ”Choose!

He also didn’t say that He was in charge of doing all the changing in me.

He put a lot of that responsibility on me.

Then, as I decide to obey His Word in my choices, He can come in with a flood of help, just as He promises in these incredibly reassuring words: “There is no one like the God of Israel. He rides across the heavens to help you, across the skies in majestic splendor.” Deuteronomy 33:26 NLT

What’s sad is many people think that if they don’t feel it, then it’s not real forgiveness. As a result, they are trapped in their bitterness, with no way to end it. So I’ll always be grateful that the Word makes it clear we only have to decide to forgive. This decision can set us free from hatred, even if we feel nothing at all.

But, for me all of this was the easy part.

After I forgave my mother and everyone who had ever hurt me, I was only able to move on with my life when every day, many times a day, I made the determined decision to not let my mind go back to thinking about the past. I learned I had to do this from Paul when he declared:

“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do. Forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14 NLT/NASB

Paul even explained what we have to do so that we are able to “forget,” since even after we forgive those destructive thoughts can still come at our mind and trouble us all over again if we allow it. Through these practical instructions I began to understand that Word-based “forgetting” means refusing to think about the hurts anymore:

“Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and a good report. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9 NLT/NASB

“Cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God. Bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5 KJV

As a result of learning all this from Paul, every time the oppressive remembering of past hurts tried to bombard my mind, I did all I could, just as fast as possible, to stop those thoughts “in their tracks.” At the same time, I changed what I was thinking about to a “good report” such as:

What I was grateful for

A scripture that helped me to have peace

Simple, from the heart, childlike words to God about how much I love Him

The Father helped me see that I also had to stop talking about the hurts because, “The words I speak can cause death to come on my life and emotions.” Proverbs 18:21 NCV If that damage happens, the horrible pain can torment us all over again. Then, we have to battle the haunting memories and what a waste of emotional energy that is. I know because there were times at the beginning of this new way of living when I did allow myself to talk about the old “stuff.” But, I learned very quickly that this was a big mistake and it was awful to have to fight against all the old stuff until I got back to a place of peace again.

At first, hanging on to my breakthrough was exhausting. I had to stop my thoughts and change them to a “good report” an unbelievable number of times all day long, because my mind had such a life-long habit of endlessly rehearsing the hurts.

To help me, I wrote down a few verses and kept them with me wherever I went. Then, whenever I was taken off guard by one of these really difficult moments in my mind, I was immediately able to read them. I also memorized a few that helped me the most whenever I thought about them. At night, when I had troubling dreams, I could wake up and easily change what I was focusing on to those comforting verses. Yet, I also discovered that no matter how diligent I was in dealing with the damage from my past, I still could get hit unexpectedly with disturbing reminders. At first, whenever that happened, it felt like everything was just as bad as it used to be. Sometimes this caused me to question if I had truly forgiven or even if I had actually been healed.

So, as fast as possible I told myself, that all of this was a horrible lie and a vicious, demonic attack to rob me of my peace. I also very firmly reminded myself, that if I allowed these lies to stay in my thoughts, I would be dragged back into a place of torment and darkness, and I would be doing that to myself.

Just as quickly as if someone had thrown a hot potato at me to catch, I learned to stop negative thoughts by refusing to let my mind think them.

What’s really encouraging is that as time passed, these struggles became less intense.

They occurred less often.

Gradually, being whole and healthy became my new “normal.” The poisonous venom of my hatred was gone. In all the caverns of my soul where resentment once reigned, a light now shined.

This took care of the past.

Yet, then I had to learn how to deal with new, significantly painful moments that occur in the present. For example, Mom never changed the way she treated me. Her rejection actually got worse. For example, I would drive five hundred miles to visit her. After I had been with her only a few minutes she would abruptly say, “You can leave now. Goodbye.”

Each time, her pushing me away brought back an avalanche of all the pain from a lifetime of her doing this to me. But, I remembered to react to the hurt as if it was a “hot potato,” by forgiving so fast that bitterness didn’t have the power to get back into my heart and rob me of my peace. Likewise, during those new times of devastating sadness and a raw sense of loss in my relationship with my mother, I also firmly reminded myself:

“No matter how much I want Mom to love me, I can’t make that happen. I will only be destroyed if I open the door again and allow myself to need her love. So I choose again to run to the kind love of God.”

However, I also had to put the new mountain of horrible grief behind me. I was able to do that by once again being completely real with myself and with God about how devastated I felt. Then, just as soon as I could, that same day if at all possible, I passionately obeyed the Father who told me:

Forget all that. It is nothing compared to what I am going to do.” Isaiah 43:18-19 NLT, Philippians 3:12-14 NLT/NASB

These choices made it possible for me to swiftly shut the door on any new rejection from Mom and not allow it to have any power over my life. These decisions also kept me from feeling, all over again, that I had a gaping hole in my heart where a mother’s love needed to be. But, my mother was so determined to push me out of her life that even as she faced her death, she had no room in her heart for me. She ended her days just as she had lived them, not wanting to know me or even say goodbye to me by telling my sister to never let me know she had died. To fulfill that promise, she completely disappeared from my life. I had no idea how to find her or mom.

I didn’t even know that my mother was gone until eight years after her death.

No words can sufficiently capture how much this hurt. Yet, as I have been describing, I had learned what to do when new hurts happened. Clearly understanding this is what protected my heart. Therefore, I knew how to get to the other side of the overwhelming grief so that I could be at peace again.

The damage from her abandonment in no way was able to poison my soul. Instead, I was able to put the crippling sense of loss from this final, brutal rejection behind me and, once again, embrace where the Father wanted me to go in my life. As I did what breathed comfort, life and hope back into me was the rock solid realization that I am loved by the best Dad in the whole world. And I have a home and a safe refuge for my heart in the kind and tender heart of God.

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