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Embracing Messy, Beautiful Forgiveness (Part 1 of 2)

Embracing Messy, Beautiful Forgiveness (Part 1 of 2)

Lysa TerKeurst shares powerful and profound lessons she's learned about forgiveness in a discussion based on her book Forgiving What You Can't Forget: Discover How to Move On, Make Peace With Painful Memories, and Create a Life That's Beautiful Again. (Part 1 of 2)
Original Air Date: November 17, 2020


Mrs. Lysa TerKeurst: Many say love is a decision, and I agree in part. But for me, for us, love is also a feeling. It’s wild and free. Simple and sweet. Tender and fierce. And for the last several years, a desperate pursuit to fight for us.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Such beautiful words spoken at a 25th anniversary vow renewal ceremony between Lysa TerKeurst and her husband Art. And today we’re going to hear the story of that desperate pursuit that she mentioned in that clip as it involves forgiveness and restoration. I’m John Fuller. This is Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.

Jim Daly: John, there is so much in what we’re going to talk about. I’m really excited to get into it. Uh, not easy stuff, but really good stuff. C.S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” And isn’t that true? We want the happy ending, the beautiful vow renewal ceremony, but we don’t want to do the difficult, messy work of forgiving the person who’s hurt us so deeply. But forgiveness is essential in Christianity.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: We see that theme all throughout the Bible. Ephesians 4 says, “Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” Since no one gets through life without experiencing pain, I’m sure there’s someone you can think of right now who you are struggling to forgive. Let me ask you to lift that person up in prayer as you listen to this broadcast. Ask God to help you embrace the forgiveness that will set you free.

John: Yeah. Have that open posture toward God and what He might want to do here as we talk to Lysa TerKeurst. A very popular speaker and author and the president of Proverbs 31 Ministries. She’s married to Art. They have five adult children and three grandchildren. And, uh, today we’re going to be zeroing in on Lysa’s book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget. The subtitle is Discover How to Move On, Make Peace with Painful Memories and Create a Life That’s Beautiful Again.

Jim: Lysa, great to have you back at Focus. Thank you.

Lysa: Thank you so much. It’s an honor always to be with you. I always look forward to our conversations.

Jim: Yeah, I’m sorry it’s remote. It’s always fun to be together, but, um, grateful that you’re able to do this virtually. So, thanks again.

Lysa: You, too. Yeah.

Jim:  Um, a few years ago, you experienced what was probably the most difficult season of your life. For someone who may not know what happened, why don’t you give us just the rough top level view of what you’ve been through?

Lysa: Yeah. So, Art and I have been married for two and a half decades and, uh, we’ve raised five children. We have some beautiful in-laws with the people that our kids have married and then we have three grandchildren, so lived a very…

Jim: Okay, first of all, you don’t you don’t look like a grandmother, let me tell you.

John: (Laughter).

Jim: And I mean that – that is a compliment. But, man, you and Art, you shouldn’t be grandparents. You look too young.

Lysa: Thank you. Thank you. I will rub that in my heart and carry it with me today.


Jim: But continue. Sorry.

Lysa: Yeah. So, we’ve lived a very, um, just a wonderful, full life and built what – I feel like it’s a really beautiful legacy. Um, but about four and a half years ago, all of that really imploded when I found out that, um, Art had been struggling with some addictions that I was not aware of and then had also gotten, um, caught in some infidelity. And, um, I found that he was being unfaithful. And to say that I was shocked is an extreme understatement. I, um – I honestly felt a little maybe naively insulated from and protected from that because we did the good Christian checklist that you’re supposed to do. And I felt like the equation would be that, you know, if we prayed together and went to church together and did devotions with our family and went to the marriage conferences and did all the right things, we checked all the boxes, I felt like that that would sort of protect our marriage from this kind of devastation.

Jim: Yeah.

Lysa: Um, but unfortunately, we found ourselves knee deep in it. And it was not a quick story of restoration. As a matter of fact, I think, I was the last person standing at the end where I every expert, every pastor, every friend, even our kids all just said, “Mom, give up.”

Jim: Yeah. And what I appreciate about your book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget – first of all, it’s an amazing title. It just hit you exactly where you’re hurting. But it’s not so much about the events and what happened at the time, it’s that process of forgiveness and what you’ve gone through. And so, let’s pick that up from there. And, of course, there are women and men who have had to weather infidelity in a variety of different ways. People listening right now. Um, they may have just heard. They may hear next week that kind of news. And then there’s those that are listening that it occurred a year ago, four years ago, 10 years ago, and they’re still battling in that same way. So, I – as you speak to the audience, it’s all there. And I, again, so appreciate your vulnerability, your honesty to help people. And I think as we get into the story, that’s the goal here. And I know that your heart is to share what you’ve learned and the pain and the recovery that you’ve learned from Christ. So, it’s in that spirit that we get into it. Um, as you begin to heal and recover in that process, you say you thought you had forgiven your husband and others who hurt you. When did you realize that, that forgiveness wasn’t real? And how did you know? This is starting to scare me a little bit about people I’ve forgiven. Did I really forgive them? So…

Lysa: Yeah. Well, I think really when I say “it wasn’t real,” what I really mean is that I’ve had thoughts of forgiveness, but I’ve never had a marked moment that I could point to where I really stood before God and had that marked moment of forgiveness. And I had a misunderstanding that forgiveness and reconciliation, I always thought they needed to come together and because reconciliation wasn’t possible, I felt like forgiveness wasn’t possible. But even deeper than that, I think my resistance stemmed from the fact that I felt like if I forgave that, that was me saying what happened didn’t really matter or it hadn’t cost me so much emotionally. And it 100% did matter and I didn’t want to betray myself by saying that what happened was okay because I did not feel like it was okay.

Jim: Yeah, I mean, that is such a bundle of emotion. I can’t imagine. You know, some people maybe like I described a moment ago, the person that this – something similar has happened to where their spouse has been unfaithful. They think, well, bitterness is a normal response. I mean, this is something that we have to go through and, you know, they maybe haven’t forgiven, and they may not even realize that they still have that root of bitterness in them. So, what would you say to that person who’s still suffering and is still kind of wrapped around bitterness?

Lysa: Well, I would, first of all, point out the blessing of what bitterness reveals. Now, that may seem like some strange phraseology, because most of the time, our whole Christian life, we’re told bitterness is bad. And so, be patient with me as I get here. Bitterness is not where we want to park our heart, but let me point out something. Bitterness doesn’t often visit hard hearted or cold hearted people. Bitterness often moves into someone’s heart who’s quite tender hearted. It’s that person who threw their arms open wide and they dared to love deep, so they hurt very deep. And so, they’ve experienced tremendous loss and tremendous pain. And bitterness often moves into those spaces where we’ve experienced this loss and at first it feels like it’s kind of protecting us.

Jim: Yeah.

Lysa: Because if we hold on to resentment, we’re holding on to proof of how this other person hurt us, which reminds us to create some emotional distance there. So, at first it almost feels like this is the only acceptable version of boundaries that we can take or even the acceptable version of retaliation that we can take. It’s like I’ll show you, let me just create enough emotional distance. So, I never am quick to point my finger or wag my finger at someone who’s struggling with bitterness, because I say to them, “This is not an indication that you have a cold heart. It’s an indication that you have a hurt to heart. So let’s start with the pain.”

Jim: Yeah.

Lysa: “Let’s start there.”

Jim: That – it’s such a good point. And I appreciate the fact that you’re addressing it in that way, because this is a phase. I mean, that initial that initial wound, it’s what you got to go through. But I love what you say, not to park your heart there. And, of course, God’s not going to want you to stay in that spot. He’s going to want you to move along through bitterness, et cetera. You had a story in your book that I thought really illustrated this well. I think you were out with some girlfriends at a beach or something like that or – what took place?

Lysa: Yeah. So, it was when I was in college and, um, you know, a bunch of my friends had decided that we were going to go to a beach, and something happened on the drive there. And I got my feelings hurt.

Jim: (Laughter).

Lysa: And so, when we got there, I thought, well, I’m going to teach everyone a lesson, so I’m going to stay in the car. I’m not going to go to the beach. I’m going to stay here. I’m going to prove a point that they shouldn’t have said what they said. And instead of addressing the hurt, I just sat in that hurt and I allowed that hurt to turn into simmering resentments. You know, unhealed hurt that sits unattended too long in the human heart, has such a propensity to turn into versions of hate.

Jim: Interesting.

Lysa: And so, I sat in that parking lot thinking I was teaching everyone this big epic lesson that they shouldn’t have treated me that way when in reality they all went off to the beach. They enjoyed a beautiful day. They enjoyed a picnic lunch. I sat in the hot parking lot walking around, stewing in my anger and my resentment and my bitterness. I didn’t eat lunch. I didn’t enjoy the beach. And at the end of the day, when we were driving home, I realized the only one who that day cost a lot was me.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: And I’ve never forgotten that day. Like, I didn’t teach them anything and my resentment toward them only hurt me.

Jim: Yeah.

John: Well, you’re listening to Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. And our guest today is Lysa TerKeurst. Um, this new book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget is really incredible. We’ll encourage you to stop by your website to get a copy. It’s at

Jim: Lysa, let me go to the reasons that you don’t forgive. I found it interesting that control is one of the reasons you listed. I wouldn’t necessarily even connect all of that. Why do grudges make us feel like we’re in control?

Lysa: Well, because it makes us feel like we have something that we can do to teach the other person the lesson that we feel like they should learn.

Jim: Huh.

Lysa: And it’s painful to think about someone hurting us and never learning the lesson of that, that they need to learn or that we think they need to learn. And so, there’s this sense of control, like if I hold a resentment against them, then I’m preventing them from being able to hurt me this same way. But even more than that, maybe I’m kind of teaching them a lesson they need to learn so they won’t hurt other people. But it’s a fake sense of control because no one ever really learns lessons from someone else’s resentment. That’s why I believe God says that we need to place all of that in God’s hands. We need to let vengeance be the Lord. The Lord says that He will avenge the wrongdoings done against us. And so, I just have to remember, God does His best work in the unseen. And I really learned this on the other side of this crazy situation that I’ve been through with Art. You know, I used to – when Art was in a really bad place and he was making choices that were so devastating to me, I used to think that he was just having the time of his life. But when I talked to him about those dark days now, that see – he seemed like he was so happy, he was saying, “Lysa, there is no happiness in living a life of sin.” The teeth of sin, it’s like a death grip on your heart.

Jim: Huh.

Lysa: And he said, “So, I had to make it look like it was awesome on the outside, but make no mistake, I was suffering on the inside.”

Jim: Yeah.

Lysa: And so, now that I know that, it’s like that’s, I think, why God tells us to pray for our enemies is because we don’t know how much they’re suffering when they’re making these choices that are outside of God’s will. We don’t have to see it, but we can know that it exists.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Yeah. And it’s, again, I mean, you’re just – you’re moving into those areas of our heart that we don’t think about – that it’s almost reactionary. It’s like, you know, when the doctor hits you in the knee and your – your leg jumps. It’s, you know – this is really good to think about it. It does lead me, Lysa, to ask – and this is where I would maybe struggle because I think I’ve – yeah, I’ve forgiven that person. I’m moving on. And it didn’t really seem like it cost me much. Um, why is that dangerous if you’re just doing the Christian platitude? You know, yep. That person hurt me, but you know what? I’m doing fine. Everything’s good. I’m moving on. Why should you troll a little deeper? (Laughter)

Lysa: Well, yeah, because forgiveness is always a decision and a process. And you don’t want to short circuit any part of this. You make the decision to forgive for the facts of what happened, but then you have to walk through the healing process to forgive for the impact that, that trauma had on us because there is an impact. Even Jesus, when He taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer, He called the wounding of another person a debt because there is an emotional cost to us every time we’re hurt.

Jim: Well, and it’s a good reminder to – to slow down, not go too quickly through that process. And I think that’s good. You mentioned your counselor. Uh, he sounds like an amazing professional. He took you through some powerful exercises. I think it had to deal with a note card or note cards and red felt. What was that about?

Lysa: Absolutely. So, you know, we talked a little bit earlier about how important it is to not just think like, okay, I forgive that person, but to really have a marked moment of forgiveness. So, I remember I showed up at his office one day and I looked terrible. It was during a particularly crazy, chaotic, hurtful season where Art and I weren’t even speaking. You know, we were separated for over two and a half years, so this was not a short journey through pain and suffering for us. This was a very long journey. And, um – and so, I showed up at the office and he looked at me and he said, “Lysa, do you want to heal?” And I said, “Yes, I want to heal.” And he said, “Today is a great day to start working on forgiveness.” And I thought to myself, are you crazy? Like, I can’t possibly forgive because I haven’t had that epic moment where Art stands in front of me and says he’s sorry. I don’t even know that he’s sorry for what he did or that he thinks what he did was as wrong as it was. And so, no, I can’t forgive. And my counselor said, “Okay, Lysa, let’s just start with your pain.” So, he handed me these three-by-five cards and he said, “Write down one thing on each card of how you’ve been hurt in this situation.” And I said, “Okay, I can do that.” So, I wrote card after card after card, and there was probably 30 to 40 cards…

Jim: Wow.

Lysa: …That suddenly were just lined up in my counselor’s office. And when I turned back and looked at him and I – I pointed to these cards, I said, “Do you see how much pain I’ve been carrying?” And he did the best thing in the world for me. He said, “I believe you. And what’s been done to you, Lysa, is so hard and it should not have happened.” And so, my counselor told me, go card by card by card and just say, “I acknowledge this pain that this person caused in my life and I am making the choice to forgive them. And whatever my feelings will not yet allow for, the blood of Jesus will surely cover it.” And then my counselor handed me these pieces of red felt and I just laid them down on every single card. And so, as God’s forgiveness flows to me, I must just lean in and cooperate with it and let God’s forgiveness flow through me to other people so that it’s so much more about what God has already done, not based on my feelings.

Jim: But, Lysa, I could so relate to the – the counting of wrongs, right? You keep a list. I can only imagine. And, you know, this person, whoever that might be, that’s the 14th thing they’ve done to me. And you even have it cataloged. You know the number. And, you know, some people are just wired in that direction. And the Lord clearly is saying don’t keep a record of wrongs, right?

Lysa: Mm-hmm.

Jim: He doesn’t want you to be in that mindset. And that’s what you’re really addressing, which is so healthy. But it requires us to get out of our flesh. And that’s what’s so hard. Lysa, people don’t know your background all together, some may – you’re – the people that follow you and you have a large following of people through Proverbs 31 ministries. But, um, your ability or inability to trust men started at a young age. To fill in that blank, if I may, I mean, you had, uh, I think it was a neighbor who was abusive when you were a young girl and then, of course, your dad abandoned the family. That right there is such a heart wrenching story. You to this day have not heard from your father. Is that accurate?

Lysa: Yeah. So, I have not heard my father’s voice since I was in my early 20s and, you know, I’m 51-years-old, so we’re going on almost 30 years since I’ve even heard his voice. And that is painful, and it is hard. And, you know, the story I could easily tell myself is I’m not worthy. I’m not worth loving…

Jim: Right.

Lysa: …You know, someone loving me. I’m not worth someone staying for, you know, and – and yet, that would be a false perception that I have about myself, because it doesn’t at all line up with who God says. God says I am worthy. And what happened to my relationship with my dad was a choice that my dad made based on his brokenness, not based on something that was wrong with me. But that’s such a good example, Jim, of how many of us carry those faulty perceptions and beliefs about ourself, about others, and about God because of unhealed hurt and trauma in our past.

Jim: Yeah. And, you know, again, in part – and maybe we can do a little analysis on this with me. Even as a young boy – and, you know, we have similar, but not too similar in terms of our backgrounds of abandonment by a parent, et cetera. Um, but for me, I always seem to have a sense, Lysa, that it was on them. I – somehow the Lord protected my heart. I didn’t own my dad’s mistakes. I didn’t own the fact that my mom died when I was young. I just thought it was circumstantial. And I – I can only say I felt that, that now I could say that was God’s grace in my heart. But it is an amazing thing. I’ve never felt like that was my fault. I always was able to put it on them. But it does make me challenge myself, saying, okay. Have I truly forgiven those things? So, it’s a bit of a quandary for me because I think I’m strong in that, but it makes me retrace my steps to say, okay, have I truly forgiven my dad for abandoning the family?

Lysa: Hmm.

Jim: And, you know, I got to think about it because I don’t want to have a false perspective about that and just do the Christian thing. Yeah, I’m fine. I’m good. But I do feel like I was healthy enough to say, hey, that was his thing. I don’t know what he was dealing with. I don’t feel like it was my fault. Does that make sense?

Lysa: Absolutely. And so, you know, I gave three categories. Like, what does this say about ourselves? What does it say about other people? What does this say about God? So, if it wasn’t a hardship in your perception about yourself, it may have been a hardship that was created, like, why would God allow that to happen?

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: Like, it would be easy, Jim, at certain parts of your life for you to say, why would a good God have allowed this chaos to happen with my parents, you know? With my mom dying and my dad abandoning the family? Like, why – if God saw that, like, why didn’t He prevent it? Isn’t God fully capable? And so, it was important for me to dig into that, because that is where so many people walk away from either having faith in God or they just don’t trust Him.

Jim: And, you know, right here, we’ve got to say so we don’t end with an open wound, how did you forgive those abusers? How did you walk that back and say, okay, even though they caused me this pain, I’m going to forgive them? What was that process?

Lysa: Well, for me, I had to recognize the only way that those people who hurt me so deeply could have ever possibly done that is if they themselves had experienced some kind of horrific abuse or wounding or devastation at some point in their life.

Jim: Yeah.

Lysa: Because hurt comes from an experience with hurt. And so, I couldn’t have compassion on that man that brutalized me, but I could have compassion on him as a probably young boy getting brutalized himself. And when I realized where that hurt came from, it didn’t come from his desire to hurt me. It came from him acting out of his own unhealed pain. So, I had a hard time having compassion on the person that hurt me. But I could have compassion on the pain that he surely experienced in order to have done what he did.

Jim: Yeah, and that, you know, speaks right to John 10:10. We often mention this, John, that, you know, that Scripture says “the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. But I’ve come that you might have life and life to the full.” And, uh, that’s at the core what you’re talking about, that we as humanity – Lysa, we have these wounds and we grow up and we don’t know how to manage them. And then you can turn around and begin to wound others around you. And it’s powerful. And, of course, you’re talking about it in several different contexts, but probably most deeply in your own marriage and what’s happened there. And we want to come back next time and continue the discussion and talk about that healing power of forgiveness and what you and Art have been able to achieve in that way. And I – I really want to turn to the listener, Lysa, and just again reach out to them. If they’re experiencing that kind of broken trust in their relationship, in their marriage, that we have a place called Hope Restored, which if you’re in that place where your marriage is at the last knot of that rope and you’re thinking about divorce even, call us. Let us talk to you about the potential of working together to save your marriage and do many of the things that Lysa is talking about, which is to equip you to deal with your marital relationship in a new and fresh way, to give you the tools to see things differently. And that’s what you’re really talking about, Lysa, is how to find the depth of forgiveness that brings hope and brings a change in the relationship, even though you may not forget the wounds. And I would love to continue that way. Can we do that, Lysa?

Lysa: Absolutely.

Jim: Okay, let’s do that.

John: And in the meantime, do contact us about information regarding Hope Restored. And if your issues are broader and beyond marriage, we do want to encourage you that we have caring, Christian counselors on staff here and we can set up a time for you to have a consultation with them. Um, I’ve used their services and spoken to them about some difficulties we were experiencing. You can do the same. It’s a free service supported by our donors and our number is 800-A-FAMILY. 800-232-6459. And, uh, the link is at

Jim: John, let me also mention Lysa’s great book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget. I mean, this is one of those must reads. It’s going to equip you in your walk to do a much better job in your relationships, not just with your spouse, but in a complete 360 degree circle – your kids, everybody. And, uh, you know, if you can join us, be a part of the ministry of Focus financially for any amount, just send a gift and we’ll send you a copy of Lysa’s book as our way of saying thank you for being part of the ministry. And again, if you can’t afford that, get in touch with us. We’ll trust others will cover the expense of that. Let me also mention we have a great year-end match. So, every gift you make will be doubled and together then we help twice as many families and marriages. So, again, give today to Focus on the Family.

John: Mm-hmm. And again, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And the link is at And on behalf of Jim Daley and the entire team, thanks for joining us today. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we continue the conversation with Lysa TerKeurst and once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.

Today's Guests

Cover image of Lysa TerKeurst's book "Forgiving What You Can't Forget"

Forgiving What You Can't Forget

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