Forgive and forget? Why remembering is essential to forgiveness



I have a real issue with the words “forgive and forget”. Well, the words are fine - forgiveness is essential to my faith and forgetting is pretty easy when you have as bad a memory as I do. But put them together and this platitude becomes problematic.


What is forgiveness?


I guess we need to define our terms before this article will make any sense. To sum it up, forgiveness is a response to a wound. There are a million ways in which others can hurt us or those we love - psychologically, emotionally, physically, financially, etc. - and there is no way (apart from time travel) of undoing those wounds once they have been inflicted. Just like a physical wound, these wounds require time and responsible care in order to heal.


Forgiveness is an ointment without which the healing is never really complete. The prescription is simple: we must choose to stop holding onto bitterness, grudges, and personal vendettas and recognize the humanity of the other person as made in the image of God. Note that this is totally different from excusing or justifying their behavior (although it can include those if the wrong was only a misunderstanding).


Forgiveness is also entirely the wounded party’s choice. It is not contingent on anything the offender says or does. (Although this is a topic for another article, there is a big difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. The latter is the one that requires cooperation from both sides.) It is a choice because it does not happen on its own. Time and contemplation will prepare us to make that choice, because there is always a journey to get there, but ultimately there has to come a turning point where we choose to let go. Granted, we might need to come back to that turning point again and again as the bitterness creeps back in, especially in the case of repeat offenses, so it’s not necessarily always a one-time thing. In other words, we usually have to continue to choose forgiveness over and over again.


Why would we forget?


Now, let’s define what we mean by “forget”. I think that the intent behind this phrase is to say that we should “forget” it in the sense of totally letting go of it, releasing any hold that wound ever had on us. I’m totally on board with that, but like I just explained, I think that’s (part of) the definition of forgiveness. “Forget” is too messy and ambiguous a word to be paired with forgiveness, because forgetting usually implies, well, not knowing it ever happened - or at least acting as though it didn't. And if it never happened, then what has really changed?


Because forgiveness does change us. It grows and matures us. It helps us become more spiritually whole and genuinely patient and loving with those around us. It also changes others. When that forgiveness is extended, whether or not they accept it, they are faced with something that is counterintuitive to natural human interactions, and they have to make their own choice as to what they will do with it. Sadly, those who want to prolong the rift in the relationship often choose to receive forgiveness as pretentiousness, passive aggressiveness, or false piety - but again, our forgiveness is not contingent on their response. We can only try to extend that forgiveness in the most truly loving way possible and then hope for the best.


For me, true forgiveness actually requires remembering. When we forget, we rob ourselves of the chance to extend true forgiveness, because there is no longer a choice to be made. There’s nothing to be forgiven if we don’t remember it ever happened. Forgiveness is far more powerful when we know what the other person has done and we choose to extend it - and continue to extend it - anyway.


Does God forget?


Maybe I should have started here, but I think it’s a great place to end. Even though it has often been taught that God forgets all of our sins once we are cleansed and made holy in Christ, I emphatically disagree. I don’t think it is accurate, and if I had a choice, I would strongly prefer a God who remembers it all and has chosen to forgive me anyway.


I’m disturbed by the idea of a God who doesn’t remember my sins. It just brings up too many problematic questions:


Am I so unlovable that you have to forget everything I’ve done just to adopt me into your family?


Is your unconditional love actually conditioned by means of voluntary amnesia?


If you don’t remember my past, do you really know me?


I realize I’m bordering on making a straw man argument here. I understand why people say that God has forgotten all our sins (see the first paragraph of the previous section), and there are a handful of Bible verses that can be pulled out of context as proof texts, usually based on a faulty definition of what the word “remember” means. It should be obvious that this doctrine actually contradicts the very idea of an omniscient God, but we often just hold both ideas together in a kind of Orwellian doublethink and chalk it up to “mystery”. If you’ve read any of my work before, you’ll know that I’m perfectly fine with mystery when it comes to the divine, but I don’t think we need to create this particular one.


Rather than the idea of a God who willingly erases his memory banks of what I’ve done, I am far more comforted by knowing that this God is fully aware of it all and has still chosen to accept, embrace, and adopt me into his little family. She’s a loving mother (his/her words, not mine), and I’m constantly aware of the fact that my own mother never forgets a single thing I’ve done. Yet still she continues to love and embrace me in spite of the good and the bad.


Here’s my point: let’s drop “forgive and forget” from our collective vocabulary. Let’s stop propping it up as the ideal, as though true forgiveness means never mentioning the wrong ever again. In fact, I can think of a lot of people who use this phrase as an excuse to sweep it under the rug and ignore the problem altogether, to the point that “forgive and forget” becomes pathological.


Instead, let’s choose to look the grievance - and the offender - in the eye, acknowledge them, and release them. It’s not just for them. It’s for us. If we choose to remember, then that forgiveness will become more meaningful. It will be more transformative. It will empower us to move forward in a positive direction, dealing with later events in a more constructive way as we let our response be informed by (but never controlled by) the past.


Remember that just because you remember, it doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven.


©2019 by Corey Farr.