Christians struggle with Jesus’s teaching about forgiveness: we are commanded to forgive over and over. But do we have to forgive AND forget? Maybe not…
This post originally appeared on the blog in 2014, where it stimulated quite a bit of emotion and conversation. The question has come up so often lately, however, especially in light of our society’s political polarization, that I wanted to update and pose it again for your contemplation.
We’re commanded to forgive those who trespass against us
Since the beginning of God’s relationship with mankind, God has spoken through his prophets about forgiveness of our sins.
The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him. (Daniel 9:9)
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? (Micah 7:18-19)
From Christ, we learn there is a response expected—required—of those who follow Him.
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6: 14-15)
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21)
We must forgive as we are forgiven.
Brilliant Christian writer C. S. Lewis reminds us, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” But in his classic Mere Christianity, he acknowledged the excruciating difficulty of this when he said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
But do we have to forget too?
I’m totally on board with our need to forgive. Even beyond my conviction that it is a command of Christ, there is an impressive body of psychological and biological research showing significant mental and physical health benefits of forgiving.
But somewhere along the line, the familiar cliché Forgive and Forget has given us the impression that not only do we have to forgive, but we also have to forget too. I’ve got trouble swallowing that we must also forget the wrong done to us. Some say what we’re supposed to do is forgive as if we had forgotten. But to actually forget? I was gratified to find that many writings on this subject agree this may not be possible nor, in fact, even desirable.
Tim Jackson of RBC Ministries (http://questions.org) says, “The phrase ‘Forgive and Forget’ is not found in the Bible…In one sense, it is impossible to truly forget sins that have been committed against us.” The memory of the wrong done to us doesn’t have to be erased from our mind for us to conduct ourselves in a forgiving way.
Psychologist Fred Luskin, Ph.D., a co-founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good, believes that forgiveness means changing the story you tell yourself about what someone did to you.
Theologian Lewis Smedes writes in his book Forgive and Forget, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
Reflections from the dark places
“Can I forgive when my then-husband pointed a shotgun in my face?” asked my friend Karen.
“I can forgive, but I’ll never forget.”
“Can I forgive my ex-husband for slashing my favorite party dress and leaving it displayed on the bed?” she reflected.
“Yes, I can forgive, but I’ll never forget.”
I also reached out to Denise Hisey, who has written honestly and movingly at her Inspired2Ignite blog about surviving and thriving after chronic, severe childhood abuse and alcoholic parents. Her journey through anger to forgiveness is truly inspiring. I knew she had forgiven her father and mother, but I wondered whether she felt it was necessary to forget too. She generously shared the following honest and insightful reflections on the choices she has made:
Forgiving my parents has been a journey of many layers. I have been asked by many people over the years, “Why can’t you just forgive them and forget about it?” Perhaps it’s been asked with the best of intentions, but this is an incredibly painful and dismissive comment.
Suggesting I forget what happened is akin to saying you don’t believe what happened to me. Finding a way to healthy forgiveness required two basic discoveries.
1) Trying to forget just shoved the pain down deeper where it did more damage. The price of trying to forget was acting out unprocessed anger and grief. It damaged every relationship I had. Facing what happened in a purposeful manner and walking through the anger and grief was critical.
Forgiving them didn’t erase what happened or my pain, but there came a sense of letting go that was incredibly freeing. Once I was able to process and forgive, I began restoring damaged relationships; even with my mom.
2) Forgiveness really has nothing to do with those that hurt me. It’s all about what goes on in my own head. Forgiving doesn’t mean pretending what they did was okay, or giving them permission to do it again. Forgiveness simply means accepting the facts: they hurt me and they are not the people I want or need them to be. As a Christian, it is also acknowledging our own need for God’s forgiveness.
To get there, though, I had the difficult job of giving myself the emotional space I needed. Because of the extreme nature of my dad’s abuse, I ultimately chose to estrange myself from my family. It was an agonizing decision that resulted in much criticism and resistance. In the end, however, it was one of the most significant ways I began paving the way to the freedom of forgiving.
My difficult past will always be a part of me, but my present is now very fulfilling, and my future looks even better because I chose to forgive but not forget.
Forgetting may waste what we could learn
Bad things can often be redeemed through what we learn or what we become as a result of the experience. If we forget completely, don’t we risk losing that opportunity for redemption? Like a child who learns not to touch a hot stove, surely we can learn things from being wronged that will minimize the chances of our being a victim again.
It’s a continuum, not black and white
Clearly, there’s a lot of gray area between wanting revenge and forgiving completely. Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., psychotherapist and the author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving, acknowledges that some resolution can occur in the middle when the victim can say, “I can never feel OK about these terrible things, but I’m not going to be vengeful.” Dr. Safer goes on to reframe what forgiveness might entail: “Forgiveness involves wishing the other well. You’re already there if you don’t wish them ill.”
It’s your turn
Do you think we should forget as well as forgive? Let us know in the comment section below.
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