Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Forgiving When It’s Difficult

Dannah Gresh: Sarah Mae knows a lot about forgiving someone who’s difficult to love.

Sarah Mae: When you’re choosing to forgive, what you’re really saying is, “God, I trust You. Like, I trust You with my life. If nothing changes, if my mom never stops drinking, she never stops being mean, I trust You. And . . . I trust You with her life because you love her too.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Forgiveness, for July 24, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: If you missed yesterday’s program, I want to encourage you to scroll back in your podcast feed or find it at Dannah Gresh sat down in the studio with Sarah Mae, and Sarah shared the poignant story of her own growing-up years and how the Lord mercifully showed her His love and grace.

We finished yesterday asking an important question: How does someone go about forgiving an alcoholic mother for years of neglect and abuse? That’s what we’ll talk about today. Let’s listen as Dannah and Sarah continue their conversation.

Dannah: I want to read Colossians 3:12–13 because it’s a good place for us to begin today as we think about forgiving people that maybe could still continue to hurt us. It says:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. [And then it says:] Forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven you [In case we didn’t get it the first time. And then it says:] so you must also forgive [just in case we didn’t get it the first two times].

So this is a command from God to forgive. Today we want to answer the question: How do you forgive when it’s a family member that was supposed to be safe, that was supposed to nurture you and love you?

I’m bringing up this topic of forgiveness because yesterday you unfolded just a really traumatic childhood, teen years, living with and without a very troubled alcoholic mom, going back and forth between your mom’s home and your dad’s home, not feeling like you knew where you belonged, feeling very, very lonely.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: And then your reaction to that was reaching out for love in all the wrong places. You ended up becoming pregnant. Your family pressured you into choosing abortion as an alternative to your crisis pregnancy.

Sarah: Yes. And the pressure was more from withholding than an active pressure.

Dannah: So, withholding of love?

Sarah: Withholding of love, withholding of affection.

Dannah: Withholding attention, nurture.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: So, fast forward. You get to college. You find the Lord. You’re growing in your faith. Were all of your problems fixed? Or were there still some issued to deal with at that point?

Sarah: One of the really sweet things about the Lord is that when you first come to know Him, you do think all of your problems are fixed. So there’s a sweet season of relief. I do remember having a sweet season of feeling like . . . an exhale. Like, “I am loved. I am seen. I am okay. I’m not alone.” That was really precious to me.

But, of course, then we realize that all of the sin patterns and wounds and history of our lives don't just disappear when we come to know the Lord. And so, because God is kind . . . Of course, these things continue to come up so that He can heal and free us. For me, they continued to show up.

When I was in college, my junior year, I got very, very, very depressed. It did not make sense to me why I was depressed, because I loved the Lord.

Dannah: Can I say something that’s come into my mind right now?

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: Yesterday, you told us that your emotions had turned off.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: We tend to think that when we become depressed or sullen, that that’s always bad.

But, to me, if I were in Sarah’s life—which, she was a junior in college—I’d be excited. When you started to feel that depression, I’d stay close to you. I’d nurture you. I’d love you. I’d make sure you were getting the care you needed. I’d triage: “Can I help Sarah? Or does she need to be with a professional counselor?”

But I would rejoice that your emotional system was waking up.

Sarah: I love that you say that! I’m taking a mental note of that right now so that when I see teens like this and young women . . .

Dannah: It can be a good thing. It’s a sign of things awakening that have long been dead.

Sarah: Yes, that’s exactly right. Of course, I did not know that then, but looking back, I can say that was the catalyst that got me help.

Dannah: So you’re depressed. You’re a junior in college going through depression.

Sarah: I’m making out with guys, going out, reverting to old habits. Even though I know it’s wrong; I hate it; I don’t want to do it. 

Dannah: And you love Jesus now.

Sarah: And I love Jesus.

Dannah: You’re in Bible study. You’re active in the Navigators.

Sarah: Yes. I know the truth. I know right and wrong. And that’s, I think, partly why I also felt so depressed. Like, “Why am I doing this, God?”

I just remember getting down on my knees on my apartment floor and just crying out, “God, if You don’t do something, I am done. I am wasting away. I don’t know why I’m doing these things. I don’t want to do these things. You know I love You, but I’m not acting like I should be acting.”

And that very same, I think it was the very same week, I had to get an internship for my degree. I was studying to be a counselor, so I needed to go find a counseling place to see if I could intern.

Well, I didn’t know any counseling places, but I did know there was this little place about two blocks from my apartment that looked like it might be a counseling place. So I walked down there and walked in the doors. I said, “Could I get an application? I need to do an internship.” They were like, “Sure.”

I’m reading the application, and on it was this very interesting question. It says, “What do you know about abortion?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know anything, so I better go get a book.”

So I go to Barnes and Noble, and an angel must have put it there, because why Barnes and Noble had this book makes no sense to me. It was called something like, Forbidden Pain: The Hidden Grief of Abortion, or something along this lines. It was a very academic book, like statistics of women who had abortions, and how several of them had PTSD or suicidal thoughts or acted out sexually or all these different things.

I’m reading it in this coffee shop with a notebook. I’m thinking I’m going to learn all these facts. And I’m just in tears because I’m going, “Oh, God, this is what You’re saying to me. You are speaking to me. I just cried out to You, and I think You’re talking to me about this.”

So I go back to this counseling office, and it turns out it’s a crisis pregnancy clinic, which I had never heard of. Basically, the theme of my story is: I never heard of that. (laughter) I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to have sex before marriage or that it was an option. Didn’t know all these things. I didn’t know crisis pregnancy centers existed. I would definitely would have had a baby had I gone into one of those.

Anyway, so I go in. I said, “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here for a job. I think I’m here to get help for my abortion.”

That’s when I met Ann Gail, and she took me through Forgiven and Set Free, which is a Bible study for post-abortive women. And I experienced all of the emotions.

I remember one time being so angry I threw the book across the room. I was, like, “This is so stupid! I’m not doing this anymore!”

Because you have to actually face the things that are the most painful, and the first time we go to do that, everything in us rages against it.

There’s the first, “Yes, I can face it. We can talk about it. I’m okay.”

Then there’s the actually grappling with what it means and the depth of the emotions.

Dannah: What was the hardest thing you had to face during that study?

Sarah: That’s a good question.

Dannah: Do you remember something specific you grappled with as you worked through it?

Sarah: I think recognizing that even though I knew it was a baby, I think facing the fact that it was MY baby. Like, this was my child that is now gone. I think to actually work through what that means, that I allowed this to happen, that was really difficult.

I have to say this here, because it’s so important. I was still putting all the blame on myself. So when I went through that counseling, I had zero thought in my mind that I had been pressured. “It was all my choice,” was what I thought.

Dannah: And there’s an element to that that you need to deal with.

Sarah: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. And so facing my own sin, my own choices, all of that. It wasn’t until about two or three years ago that I was interviewed on a podcast about death. They were asking me about my abortion. As I was sharing it, the podcast host said, “It sounds to me like you didn’t have much of a choice. It sounds to me like you were pressured.”

It was the first time that I realized that I was pressured.

Dannah: There were contributors.

Sarah: Then I was angry. I knew there was a whole new thing that God wanted to heal in me because then I had to forgive people in my life; whereas before, I had just taken all of that. That was appropriate and fine, but it wasn’t fully appropriate because it wasn’t the whole story. So that was new and interesting.

Back to the counseling . . . it was so good, so freeing, so healing, and so beautiful. Ann was kind and gentle. Then something happened that was just so of the Lord.

I remember at the end of the study saying to my counselor Ann, “I just wish I knew the sex of my baby. I just want to know so bad so I can name . . .”

Dannah: Was it a girl? Was it a boy?

Sarah: Yes. And she said, “You really just need to ask God that question.” I had gone and got my records and stuff from the hospital, so I could read about the body parts, what they took out. It was awful to read, but there wasn’t anything about the gender.

So I asked God. I just said, “Lord, would You please tell me? I want to name my baby.”

I had a dream that night. I’ve probably only had three dreams in my entire life like this where I knew it was from the Lord. It was very vivid, very clear. And in my dream, there was a little boy, and he was about six or seven years old. He had blonde hair and blue eyes. I was just crying, and I was saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And he said, “It’s okay. I’m going to see you again one day. And his name was David.” And so I have a son, and his name is David, and he would be in his twenties now. But I do believe that he’s with the Lord, and I will see him again one day.

Dannah: I might think you were crazy right now except I’ve heard many post-abortive women have dreams like that. And whether or not they’re God speaking to them, or just God using dreams to help heal their emotions, I don’t know. I do know that they come out of that with peace. These are perfectly sane, Bible-believing, Bible-studying women like yourself who find an incredible measure of peace when they say, “God, I really need to know. Was it a boy or a girl? God, I really need to know what should I name him or her?”

Sarah: Yes. I’m not flipping about dreams or prophecy or any of these things. I’m really not. Like I said, I can only tell you in my life probably three times where I felt the Lord was very clearly speaking to me in a dream, and that’s one of them.

So yes, like you said, I don’t know the ins and outs of that. I just know that for me, it was affirmed in my heart.

Dannah: We might not understand some things this side of heaven. Right?

Sarah: Exactly.

Dannah: So, Sarah, take us to the work of forgiving your family, because I think that’s some of the hardest forgiveness work we do. Right?

Sarah: Oh, absolutely. They are the ones who are supposed to love us, nurture us, where we’re supposed to be safe. Right?

Dannah: Yes.

Sarah: In an ideal situation, this is how God created family. When that doesn’t happen, it just disrupts everything. And forgiving, even though it may be commanded from God to us, it can take years in time.

So there can be the declaration, but I still think there is this process of living it out well because we don’t just say it. “I forgive so-and-so.” Let me just tell you my story.

I felt like God very clearly was saying, “Do not sever this relationship with your mom.” Because I hated her. I mean, I really hated her. I wanted to cut the relationship off completely.

I do think that there are times in life when there is such a toxic or dangerous relationship that you have to set a boundary by cutting it off. In this situation, God was telling me not just to forgive her, but to keep loving her and to stay in relationship, which I did not like. But, I wanted to follow God.

With everything it was, “Lord, what do You say about this? How do I proceed? What do I do in accordance with Your Word and Your guidance?” And what He did, and how He’s done this through my life is, He would bring me to other wiser people. I would receive some kind of counsel that led the way.

After I dealt with my abortion, I found a lot of freedom from being honest, facing it, seeking forgiveness. I had a sweet season for a while, then, of course, something else came up.

Dannah: I think God is gentle with us. He doesn’t make us deal with the whole thing at once.

Sarah: No. We couldn’t. It was overwhelming.

Dannah: It was like onion layers of healing.

Sarah: That’s exactly right.

Dannah: So, “Let’s do this layer,” and then He lets you rest. He lets us heal in waves, and then rest, and then heal, and then rest.

Sarah: Yes. Sanctification is what I call it.

Dannah: It’s what the Bible calls it.

Sarah: That’s what this is, really. It’s Him continuing to make us holy.

Then I started to realize, “I hate my mom, but I’m really, really sad that I don’t have a mom.” One year she didn’t send me a birthday card, and that small act devastated my little-girl heart.

Even though I didn’t like her, even though we would try and talk sometimes, it never ended well. My heart longed for a mom. My heart longed to be nurtured. I was so jealous of my friends who could call their moms up and talk to them or who could ask relationship advice or who would cuddle on the couch with them when they watched a movie. I didn’t have any of that, and it just broke my heart. When I finally realized that, after all the anger, I was just really sad.

Somebody gave me advice to go see a counselor. So I took myself and my mother issues to this counselor. I just said, “I want a mom.” I poured it all out, because at this point, I’m feeling everything. I’m not numb anymore. I’m feeling all the feels, and I’m sad.

Dannah: And I would say, “Praise the Lord!” because that helps you deal with it, if you choose to deal with it.

Sarah: Right. But, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I’m with this counselor, and I’m expecting her to say, “You can have a mom. Maybe you’re going to have somebody who’s going to mother you,” or da-da-da-da, you know, all the things I want to hear.

But she doesn’t say that to me. She says, “You need to mourn the loss of a mother because you did not have that, and when we don’t have something, it is worthy to mourn. It is worthy to grieve because it’s the process of facing reality.”

Dannah: Yes. “There’s a time to grieve.”

Sarah: That’s right. And how that relates to forgiveness is, I could forgive my mom in words, and I could make that choice. But until I actually grieved her as though she died and accepted the reality that I did not have what I so longed for . . . I mean, I mourned that as though she died. I had to cry, feel the emotions, go through all the feelings. It was very, very painful.

But what that did was, it allowed me to release her from the expectations I had on her to be a mother to me, and instead, to love her as a human made in the image of God. I knew when God was calling me to love her, a part of that had to be that I had to grieve the loss of her. And then I could love her without the expectation that she would give something back to me in return.

After choosing, “I’ll trust You. I will forgive her. Now, show me how to live this,” because choosing to say it and live it are just two different things, I think.

Dannah: I think you’re making a very important point. The mourning process is a factual truth of saying, “This is how you hurt me.” Until you do that, you can’t really forgive someone. You have to admit.

Sarah: “The truth will set you free.” Right?

Dannah: That’s right. “The truth will set you free.”

Bob and I have a marriage counselor named Pete. He calls it, “Little-X forgiveness.” Instead of getting the “Big-X,” which is real issue. For example, “I forgive you of the “Big-X”—this is because you weren’t there when I was lonely. This is because you didn’t put boundaries up for me in relationships. This is because you drank in front of me. This is because you were angry when you were drunk.” And, of course, I’m talking about some of the things you shared with us yesterday about your mom.

Sarah: Right.

Dannah: Until you say that, forgiveness isn’t really the full forgiveness. So you minimize.

Sarah: That’s right. And then you’re passive aggressive.

Dannah: You’re not really able to be free until you get it all out. And that’s what the grieving process does.

Sarah: I’m so glad you said that. It’s so true, because we can say the words, “I forgive.” Right? We think we mean it. But if we don’t actually deal with what we’re forgiving, then we’re not really forgiving. I don’t want to say false forgiveness, but you’ve got to sort of know what you’re really forgiving.

Dannah: Right.

Sarah: Part of that is what you just said, it’s that mourning and grieving of the actual “Big-X.”

Dannah: One of the things I do with women when I’m praying with them to forgive their parents is, I’ll just say, “Let’s just close our eyes, and let’s just trust God’s Spirit to bring up every hurt there’s ever been. I just want you to say, ‘God, I choose to forgive my dad for ___. I choose to forgive my mom for ___.’ If it takes us an hour, do it until you run out of stuff.”

And the look on their faces when they’re finished with that prayer time, you’d think that that might make them feel more angry or bitter and it might surface things up, but it’s like taking the trash out of their heart and just taking it away.

Sarah: Yes. I like how you said that.

Dannah: It’s really important to call the sin that your parents have committed against you what it is—a sin.

Sarah: Yes. And that’s hard. We don’t want to do it. I mean, we do in some. . .when it’s so obvious, we do, but the less obvious sins of our parents, we don’t want to say what it is because then we think we’re dishonoring or not loving our parents. But you have to acknowledge the truth in order to be set free.

Dannah: Yes. God takes this really seriously. He says in Mark 11: “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sin.”

So He’s saying, “If you are trying to talk to Me about stuff, but you haven’t talked to Me and dealt with the unforgiveness in your heart, we can’t talk.”

Sarah: “I don’t get you.”

Dannah: This is really serious. It’s important that we slow down and forgive our moms, forgive our dads, forgive our siblings, forgive our grandmas. And those are some of the hardest people to forgive.

Sarah: Yes. I would say to the person listening who is really struggling in a complicated or toxic or manipulative or gas-lighting or whatever relationship: Give yourself the time and space to grieve and feel what you’re really feeling. You don’t have to make it pretty. You don’t have to have pretense. God already knows what’s in the gut of your emotion. You don’t have to put a pretty bow on forgiveness.

Let yourself actually feel what you want to feel. That’s okay. You’ve got to get through it, and you’ve got to just feel the real. I don’t know how else to say it. Grieve it. Feel it. Cry it out. Do what you’ve got to do. Give yourself the time and space to do it.

And then, you get up, and you say, “Okay, God. Let’s go forward.”

Sometimes the grief is going to hit you again. And when it does, just let it have its process. Don’t fight it.

Dannah: So while God’s working in your heart, teaching you the process of grieving and forgiving, He’s working in your mom’s heart, too.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: You were fairly estranged, or you were struggling to maintain relationship during these years as God is discipling your heart in the healing and forgiving process.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: And your mom is writing in her journal still.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: And her journal entries have changed from, what I would say, rantings to prayers.

Sarah: Yes. That’s a good distinction.

Dannah: In 2002 she wrote:

Journal Entry: Dear Lord, please forgive me for drinking a lot and being too late to go to church services to honor You and praise You and for punishing myself for not being there. Please also forgive me for smoking so much and for all the fear I have about my job future. Thank You for being here in my loneliness. Help me to get with the program, to do for You what I’m here for.”

Dannah: That’s a deep prayer.

Sarah: I know.

Dannah: That’s a deep prayer from a woman who’s struggling with alcoholism. Right?

Sarah: Yes. I think this was written shortly after the time that I’d taken an actual break from her, like a six-month, no talking break because I needed to get my head straight.

This is after going to the counselor and learning how to forgive her. I also fell apart because I went to visit her and this whole situation happened, and everything blew up. I was, like, “I’m on the journey here, God, towards forgiveness, but I need to take time away to get my own self emotionally and spiritually healthy.” Because like I said, I didn’t know what was up or what was down.

Dannah: It’s important to say, forgiving doesn’t mean becoming a doormat.

Sarah: Right. Exactly. And this is what led me into what I learned next, which was how to set boundaries. Because first came the choice that I would obey God and love and forgive her. And then it was, “Okay, but how?”

And then it was, “You’re going to have to mourn the loss of what you did not have,” the process of facing reality.

And then it was, “Okay, God, I will love her as a human made in Your image, but now what? How do I do that without, like, wanting to stab her?” 

Dannah: So you’re still struggling sometimes with anger.

Sarah: Right. Because when somebody starts to say something mean to you, I can go, “I don’t have an expectation that she will be a mother to me,but it hurts me what you are saying.”

Dannah: Right. You can have an expectation that she would be respectful.

Sarah: And I can have an expectation of myself to go, “You do not have to take this.” Like, I am not responsible for her responses to what I tell her. I’m choosing to set boundaries for my life.

But I did not know anything about boundaries. So one day I’m sitting in class, and there’s this alcohol counselor, and he comes in. He’s talking about whatever he’s talking about, and I run up to him at the end of class—because all I heard was an alcohol counselor. I say, “I have no idea how to deal with my alcoholic mother. I want to stay in relationship with her, but I don’t know how to do that in a healthy, safe way for both of us.”

And this is what he said: “If I have a ball in my hand, and I throw it to you, what are you going to do?”

And I said, “Well, I’m going to throw it back.”

And he said, “Okay, so you’ve chosen to play the game.”

And I was, “I guess.”

And he goes, “This is what you’re doing with your mom. She throws something at you—’You’re mean. Why don’t you see me anymore? You’re—whatever it is.’”

Dannah: “You didn’t call me.”

Sarah: “You didn’t call me.” All these manipulative not like nurturing, loving, “I really miss you” kind of ways.

Dannah: Right.

Sarah: And he goes, “You don’t have to throw the ball back. You don’t even have to catch the ball.” He gave me some really practical things to say to her because if I would engage my mom, it would just go downhill. Like, there was no stopping it.

For me to say on the phone when we’re talking, “Mom, I’m sorry. You’re being unkind now. I’m going to have to hang up the phone.” And don’t give her a chance to respond. Just hang up the phone.

Now, this sounds really harsh, but when you’re dealing with a manipulator, and you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t take “No” or “Stop,” this is how you have to handle it at first.

Dannah: Well, and I would say to that, that if that sounds harsh, you maybe should listen to yesterday’s program where we really did unpack some of the struggles that your mom was facing and some of the abusive behavior.

I would also say maybe have accountability when you’re choosing to do things like that because it is easy to use that even as a reaction. That could be a way that you’re playing the game.

Sarah: Right. That’s very true.

Dannah: So you have to have accountability as you’re navigating through this relationship, wouldn’t you say?

Sarah: Exactly. For sure. Get yourself into some counseling or have a safe friend or a mentor, because it can become a power trip. The goal is you’re basically protecting yourself.

If someone’s punching me in the face, I’m not going to let them punch me in the face. I’m going to walk away or put my arm up or whatever.

When I first did this, of course, she was so angry. But I had to do it. But what it did was eventually she would learn to hang up then. Like, when I would say, “Mom, I have to go.”

The counselor said, “Every time you don’t have to say, ‘You’re hurting me,’ when this is happening. Sometimes you just say, ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got to get going,’ or ‘I have to be somewhere,’ or whatever it is. And you just hang up the phone. You don’t even have to say, ‘You’re hurting me.’”

Dannah: It’s not reactive.

Sarah: Right. You don’t have to do that. Eventually they’re going to see I’m not okay with this. And that was really important to me because it really did teach me how to stop throwing the ball back, how to stop playing the game with her. It was just an emotional entanglement that would just keep getting more tangled if I didn’t stop.

Dannah: I’m thinking about a Bible verse that I think fits here, kind of as a checkpoint for us as we’re working through those complicated relationships. It’s from Romans 12:18 where we’re encouraged, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with one another.”

So there’s this expectation in God’s Word that when we have troubled family relationships, He wants us to do everything we possibly can to live at peace with them. So our job is the peace.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: Now, that does include healthy boundaries.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: It also includes staying in relationship as much as we can.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: And then the next verse says: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”

It’s God’s job to correct. It’s God’s job to say, “You hurt Sarah.” It’s God’s job to say, “When that happens, are you noticing that you lose relationship and communication with Sarah?” It’s His job to do that.

So I like how you said, “I don’t necessarily always have to say, ‘That hurt me, Mom,’ and just to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go.’”

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: That’s a healthy way. Her emotions are going to pick up on the trends. Right?

Sarah: Exactly. And that is what happened. At first she was angry, but then it just became our rhythm because that’s what eventually just happened.

Dannah: Sarah, there’s so many other details to this story as you worked through the forgiveness of your mother, but if we could jump to the beauty of the story, which is the restoration, because God was working in your mom as He was working in you.

As we fast forward to the year 2008, your mom is still journaling, she’s still talking to the Lord, or about Him, and she writes:

Journal entry: “Praise the Lord! I’ve got to say that no vodka is a very, very special and huge blessing to my quality of life. That’s where it all started my new life and ways of living. God is transforming me into the being He created me to be only this time I’m armed with experience and lessons only life can reveal. Before it’s all over, He will show me the path I was created to tread. He’s here with me, and I feel it. I not only feel it, I know it. It’s so exciting. I feel like a child, mouth agape, seeing this world for the very first time. Praise the Lord!”

Dannah: So God’s working in you. God’s working in her. He’s working in you to forgive. He’s working in her, really, to repent and stop medicating with alcohol. How did He bring that together, and how does this story end?

Sarah: Well, I have to say this because it’s so important, just briefly, on forgiveness. When you’re choosing to forgive, what you’re really saying is, “God, I trust You. I trust You with my life. If nothing changes, if my mom never stops drinking, if she never stops being mean, I trust You. And I trust You with her life because You love her, too. And so I’m obeying You and forgiving her and staying in relationship because I trust that You have me and You have her, no matter what.”

The surrender is to a trust. And how that ties into this is because then you can go forward going, “I can’t fix my mom. I cannot fix our story. But, God, I trust You with what You will do with it.”

I never stopped praying. One of the things I’ve learned in college ministry, we were presented with a challenge to pick an impossible prayer, or a couple of impossible prayers, and you pray those every day.

And mine was that my mom would stop drinking and follow the Lord. I just kept praying it. I didn’t even think, “Maybe this won’t happen.” I think there was a part of me that’s, like, “Well, that will never happen! That is impossible!” (That’s why it’s an impossible prayer.) But I kept praying it.

Anyway, so life goes on . . . graduate college . . . get married . . . have children. And one day I get this phone call. I’m in relationship with my mom, but it’s very tender, it’s very separate. It consists of phone calls, maybe every few weeks that are just brief. Every now and then we would try and see each other, but it was real short.

I hadn’t seen her for years at this point, and I get a call. It’s this nurse from the hospital where my mom is living, and she says, “Your mom is in the hospital. She has stage 4 of cirrhosis of the liver. She probably has a month to live, if that. You need to come and get her affairs in order.”

And I’m, like, “What? Can I talk to my mom?”

And they said, “Yes.”

So they put my mom on the phone, and I said, “Mom, what? You’re in the hospital? What?”

And she said, “God told me to stop drinking.”

And I was, like, “Come again? What? Did I hear that right?”

And she said, “Yes. I got up in the morning to make my vodka drink that I make every morning, and I was standing at my sink. I heard a voice tell me, ‘Put that down. You don’t even want it.’ And I poured it down the drain.”

But because when you drink hard liquor for twenty years, you can’t just stop drinking alcohol because your body goes into detox and shock and all these things. So she basically detoxed on her own for a few days. She basically hallucinated. She’d see rain in her hallway and people laughing at her out the window until eventually she passed out.

Somebody found her. I don’t know why they had come to her place. Somebody who can come to her place. Maybe she didn’t answer the door, or whatever it was, they found her passed out on the floor. They took her to the hospital, and now she’s in the hospital. She’s quit drinking, but she’s got stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver, and she’s going to die in a month.

Okay, great! Like, she stops drinking, “yay,” but she’s about to die—like, “What, God?!!”

So I fly down to help her to get her affairs in order. I’m praising God that she’s stopped drinking, but simultaneously, it was, like, “She’s about to die.” So I go down there to visit, help get her affairs in order. Now, it’s still a rocky relationship, and essentially, she does not die. But the doctors are, like, “She’s probably going to die in a couple of months.”

So I said to my husband in Pennsylvania, “I think we should move my mom in with us.” Which is just, like, psycho in my mind! My husband was, “What? Are you crazy?!”

We had just bought a house, and we had a playroom for the kids. Basically, I said, “Well, we could just make that my mom’s room.”

So she moves in. My husband gets shingles because of the stress. And, of course, she’s telling me how to parent, which is, like, “Oh my word, Lord!”

Dannah: So it’s still not easy.

Sarah: “Jesus, take the wheel, this is not working.” But she’s in hospice care, so the nurses come every day. They take care of her, and all that.

Then at one point, after living with us for about a year, she starts acting really, really weird. I call her hospice nurse, and the nurse says, “This is it. She’s going into hospice facility.” (And you don’t go to the facility unless you’re going to die.) So we’re in the facility. My mom’s not responsive.

I’m going through this roller coaster of emotions because I’d grieved the loss of her as a mom, but now she’s maybe actually going to die, and this is so emotional. I’m at the Hospice, and I leave the room for a minute to go to the cafeteria, and I come back, and my mom’s not in the bed. I walk outside, and my mom’s sitting outside on the porch at hospice smoking a cigarette! She’s, like, fine. So they release her from hospice.

I’m laughing because it’s just my mom had nine lives! She’s living with us, and finally, after almost two years, we say, “Mom, you’re not going to die. You have to move out.” (laughter) “You’ve got to go!”

I remember my husband taking her to the doctor, and all my husband heard was, “You’re essentially okay.” Like, that part of your liver, I guess, is regrown or something. I don’t even know.

Dannah: Wow! It was kind of miraculous. Huh?

Sarah: It was miraculous. It was insane.

But my husband said, “I just heard, ‘You can live a normal life.’” And he was, like, “That’s it! You’re gone!”

And so, because we loved her, but she was still . . .

Dannah: A lot of work.

Sarah: A lot of work. Yes.

So she moves out. We try to convince her to live near us so I could at least see her and take care of her, but she insisted on moving to Florida. She lives nine more years, sober. She has a pool at her apartment complex, swims every day, living the life, doing Bible studies. I mean, just insanity.

But the one thing that never happened was she would never acknowledge how she had been with me. If I ever brought it up or she was real sarcastic . . . She was way better now that she wasn’t drinking, but she was still . . .

Dannah: Do you think it was just too painful for her to bring that up or to acknowledge it?

Sarah: Well, she said, “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” kind of things. I mean, she was rough around the edges.

But one day my husband said, “I think you need to go and visit her because you really don’t know how long she has.”

And I was, like, “Oh, come on. She’s going to be one of those women that smoke and live until she’s 120.”

And he says, “I really think you should go visit.”

And I’m, like, “Okay, fine. I’ll go visit.”

So I fly down to Florida where she’s living. We’re sitting in her living room, and she says something . . . I know better by this point. I’ve done this. Done the work of forgiveness. Done the work of healing. Have zero expectations. I just love her the best I can. But she says something that sets me off. I have a moment where I just go, “Mom, don’t.”

And for the first time in my life, she says, “I’m sorry I did that.” And then she said, “I’ve been praying, and God wants me to tell you some things. I’m really sorry that I wasn’t the mother that you should have had.”

I about fell out of my chair! This was like hearing somebody say that there’s a dinosaur walking by outside. It’s so unbelievable. Think of the person in your life right now that you think would never say the thing or . . .

Dannah: . . . apologize.

Sarah: Or apologize, or whatever it is. This is what that is like. I’m just shocked. I can’t even respond. It’s that shocking. Only God could have done that. I’m just, in my mind, praising the Lord, “God! Thank You!”

I know God did that because she would only go on to live for another year. That is a sweet gift that I know we don’t all get, but for whatever reason, and my mom’s obedience, she did that. She apologized. And it was a really special closure for us.

Dannah: My heart is overwhelmed with this thought: You got to be a part of your mother’s redemption story.

We all want to have a redemption story, but it’s a lot of work to be a part of God’s hands and God’s feet and God’s heart in helping Him aright someone else’s redemption story. Your forgiveness towards your mother and your trust in God enabled you to do that.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: Now, after your mom went to be with the Lord was when you finally got to read these journal entries.

Sarah: Yes.

Dannah: One of the journal entries I find really touching, especially when you see the progression from the alcoholic, the angry woman, the, I guess, sort of self-centered woman who’s really caught up in her “Woe is me! Woe is me!” to a woman who’s quoting Scripture, writing prayers. She wrote this in one of her last entries, one of her later entries.

Journal entry: Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darknesshave seen a great light;those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,on them has light shone.”

The verse above exemplifies the beginning of an incredible new journey that began when the doctor announced I only had two days of life left within me. According to him, the cirrhosis of my liver had progressed to the point of no return, and there was nothing that could be done. Thus I began on a path in the shadow of death leading me daily away from the darkness and toward the light in the most unexpected, Spirit-filled, eye-opening, gracious, joyous journey I have ever had the pleasure to experience.

So powerful is my journey that it is impossible for the mind to wrap around, no words to express the many endowments. Jesus is with me every step of the way, and the truths He uncovers for me each day are overwhelmingly awesome. It is no less than a miracle that this is happening within me due to His teachings.”

Dannah: What I find so beautiful about this particular entry is that she writes about you, Sarah, and she writes about your little sister. She praises Him for saving them from her. And then as she signs it off and thanks the Lord for protecting you from her, she signs her name, “Susan Potts, the mother of a most precious and special daughter, Sarah Mae.”

Sarah: It’s so insane.

Dannah: How did that feel when you read that? I mean, when you read that, what happened?

Sarah: I have to say a couple of things here.

First of all, it’s shocking, and I know I keep saying the word “shocking.” But that was overwhelming, like, “Is this really, really real?”

Dannah: It’s miraculous.

Sarah: Right. This is a miracle—an actual miracle. A changed life is a miracle.I felt it even more because there were so many layers and so many things. But when I read these journals, I lost it.

I can remember after she died, I was still in Florida, and I found all these journals. I just sat and just read them. I remember getting in the car and driving down the highway. It’s probably very dangerous to be an emotional woman driving down the highway. I was just bawling and screaming because I was so filled with a sadness, actually, that I didn’t know these things. I couldn’t ever go back then and say, “Tell me more, Mom,” or “I didn’t know you were so lonely,” or “I see what God’s doing, and I should have invested more time with you.”

I took her for granted at the end. And that’s just a harsh truth.

Dannah: But what a sweet conversation you’re going to have in heaven with her one day.

Sarah: Yes! There was that sadness of, “I didn’t know any of these things.” But then, you’re right, there was this beauty of reading this journey that my mom was on. This is the point of this whole idea of the complicated heart, you don’t actually know a life. Like, you don’t actually know what’s going on behind the scenes.

This is why we love people. This is why we show compassion, because Jesus knows all these things that we don’t even see.

But to actually be somebody who gets a glimpse of that, being able to watch this woman’s journey that I didn’t know. I could see the outside, how we see everybody, but then to see it in her own words over years, it just is mind blowing. It’s joyous, and it’s sad. It’s so many things, and it just, honestly, made me want to love everybody because you have no idea what’s going on.

I’ll just give this quick example: One journal, she talked about how nobody liked her at work, and she couldn’t understand. And I’m thinking, You probably reeked of alcohol and were being sarcastic to people and telling them what to do like you do to me. I can see why people didn’t like you! But to her, she was in such denial.

I think she mentioned alcohol twice in all of her journals, she was in such denial. But to her, she’s going, “Why don’t people like me?”

Dannah: She was hurt.

Sarah: She wants to be loved. She wants to be seen. She wants friends.

Anyway, the whole thing is so miraculous. I wish I would have known earlier to celebrate with her, but God is so good and so kind, and I will get to celebrate with her one day.

Nancy: Forgiveness can be hard, hard work, but the results are so worth it.

We’ve been listening to a helpful conversation between Sarah Mae and my co-host Dannah Gresh. You’ll find links to Sarah’s podcast and blog at

Now, all of us have had issues where we were hurt. And we were tempted to hold on to that hurt and to respond in bitterness and unforgiveness. As you’ve been listening to Sarah’s story yesterday and today, maybe some person or situation has come to your mind, someone who hurt you deeply, and you just haven’t been able to move past it. Maybe you’ve struggled to get free from the emotional prison that that situation or that person has kept you in. You may have become a prisoner to the person who hurt you.

Over the years I’ve talked with so many women who are in bondage to resentment and bitterness and just don’t know what to do to get free. Well, several years ago I wrote a book called, Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom.

Now, I want to make clear that choosing forgiveness doesn’t make the situation go away. It doesn’t automatically erase all the hard memories or the pain of your past. But forgiveness will set you free from bondage, bondage to what others have done to you, bondage to those people, and bondage to your own bitterness and resentment.

I have seen the Lord powerfully use this message of forgiveness to open prison doors, and to release women into a whole new life of freedom, even if the person who hurt them never changes.

If you’re in need of experiencing the freedom that forgiveness can bring, or perhaps you’ve experienced that freedom, but you know somebody else who’s wrestling with bitterness from the past, we want to send you a copy of this book, Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom. We’ll be glad to do that as our way of saying “thank you” when you send a donation of any amount for the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

You can read the book for yourself, and then you can pass it on to someone else. Be sure to ask about the book Choosing Forgiveness when you contact us with your donation. And let me just say that as we approach the end of July, your donation at this time will make a big difference in the lives of women who desperately need the message of God’s love and forgiveness in their lives.

To make your donation, visit, or call us at 1–800–569–5959.

Now, next week, continuing with our July theme on practical wisdom, we’re going to take a closer look at how we can study God’s Word. On Monday and Tuesday we’ll hear from a new friend, Dr. Venessa Ellen, and then from my longtime friend, Kay Arthur, on Wednesday and Thursday. I hope you’ll catch it.

Thanks so much for joining us today. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, encourages you to choose forgiveness. The program is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Teacher

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love for Christ and His Word is infectious, and permeates her online outreaches, conference messages, books, and two daily nationally syndicated radio programs—Revive Our Hearts and Seeking Him.

She has authored twenty-two books, including Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free, Seeking Him (coauthored), Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together, and You Can Trust God to Write Your Story (coauthored with her husband). Her books have sold more than five million copies and are reaching the hearts of women around the world. Nancy and her husband, Robert, live in Michigan.