God’s Help for the Healing of Memories
Note to my readers: This is a full-length article, not the usual 1000 words or less post. It’s a deeply personal story of learning to forgive someone in my family. Due to the dysfunction and unresolved issues in so many families, Christmas is a time when bitterness often surfaces. Tradition forces many family members together. I sincerely hope my story ministers to you.
It happened in 1961, when I was eleven. Mom checked me out of school mid-day, leading me to a car driven by Henry, a man I didn’t know. For several days, we drove through three states, staying in cheap motels and eating at fast-food restaurants. Even for that era, I was naïve about sex, but I knew it wasn’t right for mom to sleep with someone other than my dad.
That first night, in the Cardinal Motel, as mom snuggled with Henry in another bed just five feet away, I faced the wall and wept. Confused, I asked aloud, “Don’t you love daddy anymore?”
“Yea, I do,” mom replied. “But I love Henry more.”
Henry finally convinced mom to ditch me. A couple days later, they drove back to a small town a half hour from my home. Mom phoned a friend and told her to call my dad and tell him where to find me. As dusk approached, they drove away, leaving me on a street corner to wait.
Dad, trying to keep his job at the cotton mill and take care of my older brother and me, was distraught and embarrassed by mom’s betrayal. One evening I kept pestering him with questions: “Why did mom leave us? When is she coming back? Will she ever be my mom again?”
That’s when dad snapped. He collapsed to his knees and bellowed, “Oh, God, I can’t take it anymore!” Weeks later, mom returned and apparently reconciled with my dad. But within a month she again left with Henry. When dad came home from work and noticed family photos missing, he figured she’d stay away for good this time.
I overhead a phone conversation in which dad wondered if mom were pregnant. “What does pregnant mean?” I asked him later. For the first time I heard basic details about sexual intercourse and how babies formed in a mother’s womb.
When she and Henry ran out of money, she pleaded to return home. Due to his vigorous opposition to divorce, dad gave her yet another chance. They engaged in numerous heated conversations behind closed doors. She asked us to forgive her, also voicing her regrets in front of our small country church. She stayed loyal to him until his death in 1978, nursing him through a protracted illness before he died at age 59.
I was wrong to think the grievous episode was behind me. The emotional wound caused by her adultery and abandonment started throbbing twenty years after her betrayal of dad. I was a married seminary student, with two young sons, when painful flashbacks started. The seminary and family responsibilities, complemented by a full-time ministry, drained me physically and mentally. The lack of margin and stressful schedule provided a prime opportunity for an unresolved hurt to surface.
Unable to sleep many nights, I’d suddenly see the neon lights of the Cardinal Motel with a huge red bird on the marquee, and feel all over again the anguish of that first night away from home in 1961. I’d see my dad drop to his knees and hear again his anguished cry. I’d see myself on that street corner, bewildered and hurt. The scenes replayed again and again in my mind, like an online video I couldn’t turn off.
Fiery anger toward my mother accompanied the flashbacks. One night while in bed I gritted my teeth, balled my fists, and imagined smashing them into her face. I clung to my wife and cried, “She had no right to do that to me!”
What could I do to defuse the anger and alleviate the pain? What follows is the slow, arduous process of healing I experienced.
A Timely Confrontation
At first, I viewed the mental replays and accompanying emotional trauma as the inevitable consequences of mom’s sin. I considered myself a victim who was finally releasing pain I had locked inside as a child. I concluded that the hurtful memories would run their course and I’d be okay after a while. But a couple months after the flashbacks began, my wife confronted me. “You haven’t forgiven your mom,” she declared.
“Of course I have,” I responded defensively. “She asked us to forgive her when she reunited with us the second time. I remember telling her that I did.”
Dolly was adamant. “If you had forgiven her, you wouldn’t keep reliving her abandonment nor feel all this anger toward her. You’re bitter,” she informed me, “and until you deal with your resentment the pain will persist.”
Her words shifted my focus away from mom’s sin and toward my own sin of resentment. Instead of continuing to view myself as a victim, I saw my responsibility before God to obey Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness…be put away from you.” In a heartfelt prayer, I confessed my bitterness to the Lord. Owning up to my responsibility to Him was a crucial beginning to the healing process, but it was like the first step of a mile walk.
The flashbacks continued. The hot anger had cooled, but I still felt a raw, open wound of the spirit that sapped my joy and my ability to concentrate on studies or work. Out of sheer desperation, I prayed every time a hurtful memory surfaced, pleading with God to heal the past and remove any lingering animosity toward my mother. Each prayer brought temporary relief, then pain resurfaced and prompted another episode of besieging the throne of God.
While attending class or at work, I whispered sentence prayers. During the night, when flashbacks most often occurred, I escaped to the den where my out-loud prayers wouldn’t disturb my family.
While on the way to work one day, the heartache ramped up and a torrent of tears made driving unsafe. I pulled the car off the road and once again begged the Lord to assuage the pain. I kept claiming the promise of Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.”
Taking my despair to the Lord on a recurring basis began providing a healing balm for my wounded spirit. Just as a flesh wound heals over time due to repeated applications of antibiotic ointment, the Holy Spirit began healing my emotional wound in response to repeated cries for help. I felt a gradual loosening of the bonds that had wrapped themselves tightly around my damaged heart. My wife noticed a more joyous countenance.
Later, close to a year after the flashbacks had started, something happened to convince me that the healing process wasn’t over.
An Unexpected Mandate
I moved my family from the Midwest to a new ministry within a hundred miles of my boyhood home in the south. A visit to my mother from my new residence put me on a route that ran through the small town where she and Henry had abandoned me. As I approached the intersection where they had left me twenty years earlier, I saw the very spot where I stood as an 11-year-old, waiting for dad to arrive.
Surprisingly, fresh pain welled up inside me. I began sobbing uncontrollably. My grip on the steering wheel tightened as convulsions racked my upper body. Rather than anger, I felt an intense heartache, a deep sadness of spirit as if I were still the eleven-year-old boy, wondering if I would ever see my mother again.
I viewed the emotional eruption as a setback. Had God revoked His answer to my prayers? Had I been naïve to think the traumatic experience was behind me? Had I overlooked some responsibility of my own?
A few days later, during my quiet time, I posed all those questions to the Lord. I tried to make sense of what had happened on the drive to visit mom. That’s when the Holy Spirit gave me a clear, but unexpected mandate: “Ask your mom to forgive you!”
I debated with the Lord. Why tell mom about my bitterness? She was an anxious, emotionally-fragile woman. Wasn’t it enough to confess to God? And why seek her forgiveness of me? She was the one who had sinned grievously against me and other members of the family.
Yet the Holy Spirit impressed upon me that my bitterness constituted not only a sin against God, but also a sin against my mother. The resentment explained my lack of affection for her over the years. My phone calls and letters had been infrequent. I had seldom prayed for her. He convinced me that I owed her an apology for not extending the forgiveness she had requested two decades before.
I almost talked myself out of apologizing to her. Would my confession grieve her unnecessarily? Could I make her understand that the current issue was my sin, not hers? Could I say with honesty that I forgave her? Yet I knew I had to follow through on another step to the healing of the memories.
I chose to write her a letter, concluding that a phone call or face-to-face encounter would be too emotionally charged for the unhindered communication of my thoughts. (I typically advise face-to-face dialog in such cases.) Before penning the letter, I made a deliberate choice, empowered by God’s Spirit, to forgive her. The habitual prayers I’ve already described had softened my heart enough to facilitate forgiveness of her.
In the letter, I told her I had finally and unequivocally forgiven her, and asked her to forgive me for harboring bitterness for so long. The bulk of the letter focused on my sin, how I was now the one in need of her forgiveness. Days later, she called to say, “Of course I forgive you.”
Since I wrote the letter late in 1981, not once has an agonizing flashback occurred. Not once have bitter feelings buffeted me. No longer does the drive to my hometown cause a panic attack near the drop-off spot where she and Henry left me.
I’d be disingenuous if I said the memory hasn’t spawned moments of sadness or tears. But the rancor and sudden volcanic eruptions of rage-filled emotions don’t remain.
In an ideal world, my letter to mom would have served as the climactic ending to the story, closing the emotional wound for good. Yet we exist in a fallen world, where, long after dispensing and receiving forgiveness, painful consequences remain.
This sobering realization crystallized more than twenty-five years after I wrote mom the letter. A downward spiral of depression and emotional fragility prompted weekly visits to a Christian counselor. Memories of mom, who had died several years earlier, didn’t prompt me to see the counselor. I was grasping for what I called “cope-ability.” I wanted relief from vacillating moods, from extreme sensitivity to stress and an exorbitant need for recognition and affection.
I wanted to know: Why am I so possessive and demanding with my closest friends? When they don’t reciprocate with the same level of commitment or affection that I lavish on them, why does disappointment envelop me and I feel so unloved? Why do I lack social confidence and find it hard to believe others can love me unconditionally?
One counseling session came on the heels of my birthday. My closest friends, who had demonstrated their love time and again over the years, hadn’t acknowledged my birthday this time around. The let down and hurt I vented to the counselor amounted to a juvenile overreaction. I threw a colossal pity party! His response to my outburst was a hinge on which my self-understanding turned.
In previous sessions, the counselor’s probing of my past had uncovered mom’s betrayal, and the inner upheaval she had caused. After I vented frustration about my friends’ neglect, he connected her abandonment to my insecurity as an adult.
“What she did came at a crucial time developmentally, in your preadolescence,” he explained. “That’s when a child most needs a mother’s nurture, unconditional love, and a stable environment. The emotional trauma she precipitated explains, at least in part, why you’re so needy now. You expect a lot from others because you need them to help you keep feeling loved and worthwhile, a need that wasn’t fully met in your formative years.”
I discovered that even healed emotional wounds leave scars that sometimes itch. Past painful episodes subtly shape our attitudes and behaviors for years to come.
Then the counselor shifted the spotlight from mom to me. “The past trauma will always affect you. Everyone has an emotional tank that needs filling through others’ affirmation, but your tank capacity will always exceed the norm. Yet your past doesn’t have to control you! You’re a responsible adult now. With God’s help, live more proactively and look for needs to meet in others, instead of waiting on them to meet your needs.”
For days I pondered the counselor’s admonition. I asked the Lord to help me “man up” and take more initiative in loving others.
One result was a commitment to send hand-written letters every couple of weeks to the out-of-state friends who had forgotten my birthday. Every letter offered prayers and Bible verses to encourage them in a challenging ministry, and reminded them of my love and commitment to them.
God’s Spirit had challenged me: “Do you really love them, or are you merely using them in a vain attempt to verify your own self-worth? Authentic love doesn’t hinge on their response to you.” Over the next few years, those friends repeatedly thanked me for the soul-strengthening words in my letters.
I’m still too reliant on others’ affirmation, yet perhaps I’ve inched a bit closer to emotional maturity. To the steps I’ve cited for the healing of memories—my wife’s intervention; confessing bitterness to God; persistent prayers for pain relief, and asking mom to forgive me of resentment–I add another: the grace God disbursed through a trained Christian counselor.
Occasionally, I still scratch the emotional scars from my childhood experience. But the itch is less intense as time passes. Indeed, “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
*From my story, what is the primary insight you gleaned about forgiving someone?
*How did God speak a personal word to you through this story and the healing process I experienced?
*To give the Holy Spirit fuel to work with for those moments when bitterness surfaces, memorize Ephesians 4:32. There, Paul insists that our basis for forgiving others is the forgiveness we’ve received due to Christ’s death on the cross. We can give what we’ve first received: grace.
*Has the Holy Spirit brought someone to your mind who needs your forgiveness? What will you do about it?
“Release from Resentment” was first published on the website of the excellent Christian periodical for women, Just Between Us. I have not previously used it on my penetratingthedarkness.com blog.