Forgiving and forgetting

Years ago I found myself in a Bible study group. I didn’t want to be there and I could have just said no, but that’s for another post. Suffice it to say that as much as I disliked the experience, my participation there was yet another impetus for me to listen to God’s forgivenesslib_590_473call to me.

The ladies who participated were sincere and very nice. And all of them knew way more than I did about the Scriptures. I found that intimidating at first, but I also learned that all of us can see something different in a particular scripture passage depending on the context, what we’re experiencing in our personal and professional lives, and how the Holy Spirit is opening the passage to us. There are certainly correct and incorrect interpretations of scripture. But there are more passages, I think, that must be continually interpreted and whose interpretations will change as we mature in our reading of the texts and as we mature in how we view God’s work in the world.

So we were going blissfully along, meeting weekly, studying individual books of the Bible, and using a companion resource to assist us in our interpretation. It was unavoidable, then, that we would eventually come to the issue of forgiveness.

In both Testaments, forgiveness is a major issue of discussion. For instance, in Jeremiah 31:34, we read “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” It seems that when God issues forgiveness, God also wipes the slate clean and seems to completely forget that whatever we did to tick God off or hurt God is completely gone from God’s memory. At least that’s the example that God is setting for us. I don’t think for a minute that God had a short memory. But I do believe that what this passage means is that God won’t hold whatever we did against us – once God has forgiven us.

There’s a passage in the Second or New Testament where Jesus states, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:22

And here’s the rub, this seems to be a forgive and forget situation too. It would seem that Jesus is saying if we forgive, then we must forget.

That’s where the ladies’ Bible study fell in into a bit of mayhem. We talked candidly about our own ability to forgive and our unwillingness to do it. There may have been a person who said she had a circumstance that she had been unable to forgive. And I remember saying that I could forgive, but there were certain circumstances that I could not forget.

The lady diagonally across the table from me looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Then you haven’t forgiven. If you forgive, you must also forget.”

This Bible study episode came back to my mind during Sunday School a few days ago. The teacher point blank asked the question, “But can we say we have truly forgiven if we cannot forget?”

And I, with little hesitation, responded with a point blank, “Yes.”elephant_2278

You see, I was dumbstruck by the woman at the Bible study table who was so absolute in her determination that we must forget the hurts perpetrated upon us or we have not reached deeply enough inside our souls to forgive. So over the years I’ve had to think about this a lot. We’re not God, after all. While hanging on to grudges is certainly wrong (for Pete’s sake, it’s water under the bridge; let it go!), I’m not sure it’s even wise to forget some of the things for which we have provided forgiveness.

I have seen so many physically and emotionally abused people continually return to their spouses, to their siblings, to their partners because they have been encouraged to forgive and forget. And when they forget, that’s when they head right back into those abusive situations. Forgetting impairs their ability to walk away. Telling them to forgive and forget leaves them feeling that the abuse is somehow their fault because they fall short in the forgetting part of the command.

Any of us may have been exposed to a war-time situation where we have lost someone we love. Yes, it is necessary to forgive those who kill, but by remembering that loss and how it happened, we are informed to make better decisions later about war and our participation in it.

I know a woman who was severely beaten and permanently disabled in the midst of an armed robbery. She has forgiven. Her disabilities, however, have not only kept her from forgetting what those young men did to her, but in the midst of forgiveness and her remembrance, she has physically met with the men as part of a restorative justice program where they are given the opportunity to express their sorrow after they hear her forgiveness. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t. But by hearing her forgiveness and remembering what they did to her, she has been allowed to move on with her life and the door has also been opened for them to come to terms with their own.

We all know our own issues with forgiveness. Some just plain don’t struggle with it at all. They hold on to that pain, that grudge for years and years. The irony, of course, in not forgiving is that we are only hurting ourselves, not the person who hurt us in the first place.

But for those of us who do struggle with it – and I’m very willing to say while I seldom hold a grudge, I have had some times in my life where I have tussled mightily with forgiveness – once we do offer the forgiveness then I believe we must make yet another decision about whether we will forget the malice, spitefulness, and heartlessness committed against us.

Forgiving and forgetting are two completely separate issues.

Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It’s easy enough to understand that first phrase. If we forgive someone, they are forgiven. The second part of that phrase, however, is misinterpreted to mean “…if you remember the sins of any, they are remembered and, therefore, you have not forgiven.”

Jesus isn’t talking about remembering the sins at all. He is simply reinforcing the need to forgive: “If you do not forgive the sins of someone, they are not forgiven.”

All of us hurt one another all the time. I venture to say that most of those are unintentional. We may not even be aware that we have hurt someone. For that reason alone, we should be willing to step up and forgive those who hurt us. We are all errant in our relationships with one another. And we must forgive so that we can move on with our own lives.

But to forget those situations where our injuries are so profound is sheer folly. Yes, we must forgive even those, but we should not forget them. Remembering how we were hurt helps us to avoid that kind of unfathomable hurt again, and it gives us an empathy for those who are also hurt and who do the hurting. God does not ask us to be gluttons for punishment.

Forgiving is one thing. Forgetting is something else entirely that requires an intense contemplation of whether it is for everyone’s best interests or not – and how it honors God.

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11 comments for “Forgiving and forgetting

  1. Julie Overman
    March 25, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    Wise as serpents, innocent as doves. Good work, Gretchen.

  2. Susie Thornton
    March 25, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    I, too, am struggling with this forgiveness issue and for something not even done directly to me. Our daughter was abused physically, emotionally, mentally, financially – – every way possible – – by her ex husband. Just when I think I have worked through the forgiveness thing, we attend another legal procedure, through which he smirks and seems totally unrepentant, and I am back where I started. I hope she never forgets what he did to her (like she could!), but I refuse to let this person steal my peace for the rest of my life. I will keep working toward forgiving him, but only with God’s help will I be successful. I appreciate your pointing out the differences in these two issues in this excellent post.

    • March 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      Knowing just the basics of this situation, my heart just broke open again as I read your summary, Susie. I know I won’t forget what he did to her and to her children. And, yes, struggling with forgiveness is all right even as you and she must continue to remember. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Barb Wales
      March 25, 2015 at 6:10 pm

      Susie, I too have to wrestle with this. My daughter was abused, physically assaulted 3 times during a pregnancy with him. She has chosen to stay with him. He is a felon, having assaulted police officer and serving time for the domestic violence. I can’t stand to look at the son of a bitch and may God forgive me,when I struggle with forgiving him. Even more so, I can’t forgive his parents,who enabled my daughter, and used their “faith in God” to indicate that Julie could forgive and forget, and that God would cure peter, if only Julie would stay, and blah, blah, blah.

  3. Barb Wales
    March 25, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Wow, where do I begin, I’ve struggled with this concept. I’ve been encouraged to do a bible study on this topic,but have yet to agree to do it. I believe I’ve learned to forgive some folks in my life. I have yet to get to the point in believing I’ve forgiven the jerk who has been abusive with my daughter, And I certainly will NEVER forget what he did. To me, forgetting means we’ve wiped the slate clean, no grduges, no bringing up the past in the present. Forgetting means that the relationship can be restored perhaps as it was — but that it is also safe to do so. I agree with you Gretchen Lord Anderson, that forgetting is putting oneself in harms way in some circumstances in abusive relationships, or where one party has so significantly altered the terms of the relationship, that it would be harmful to not remember, Forgiveness is something we can give ourselves to help let go of the hurt. However, if the one who hurt me is unable to alter behavior and I’m in a relationship of some sort, I’m going to remember and do what I need to do in order to protect myself. God wiped our slates clean, but also asks that we follow him, love each other, make conscious decisions to live without harming others, I don’t believe God has in mind that we forget — he wants us to forgive, but he also wants us not to hurt, and to allow us to not forget when forgetting could harm us so much more,

    Hmmmmmm, maybe I need to facilitate a bible study on this.

    • March 25, 2015 at 6:06 pm

      Barb, thank you for sharing as well. I know the basics of your situation as well and I am grateful that you are willing to open up and lend support for others who are reading this post and feeling at a loss or in the midst of struggle. We have a good conversation going here!

  4. Merrie Miller
    March 26, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    This blog opened up so many feelings and posed so many questions by other readers that I don’t have to express my own shallow efforts at forgiveness. A woman who did me wrong many years ago has since become my friend and I have to admit that I have grown to like her but I don’t trust her. Is that possible?

    You are so good at putting difficult biblical concepts into our modern vernacular, Gretchen. I love reading your blog.

    • March 26, 2015 at 10:10 pm

      Merrie, I think you’re posing a question that falls into the same realm as forgiving/forgetting. But you are demonstrating for us that a friendship can still be found within the ashes of hurt and harm. Yes, I think it’s possible that she can be your friend and you still not trust her. You have apparently forgiven but not forgotten. But your lives are not over yet. Maybe the trust is in there somewhere too. Thank you for your willingness to count her among your friends. And thank you for you kind words to me. I think the Holy Spirit gets the credit for any ability I have to convey biblical concepts. 🙂

  5. Jennifer Swier
    April 6, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you for your post Gretchen. I am in agreement with you on this matter. I can forgive a person who has sinned against me and choose not to continue to place myself in harms way. God does not call us to remain in abusive cycles. I think forgiving is about releasing a person from eternal consequences for sin. Just as God has forgiven us; we forgive others. As Jesus states following his teaching the disciples how to pray in Matthew’s Gospel: “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.” Christ says nothing about remaining in harmful relationships. So I can forgive a person who has sinned against me but not necessarily place my confidence or trust in them. LoveIn’ Christ, Pastor Jen Swier

    • April 6, 2015 at 10:41 pm

      Thank you for reading, Jen, and for your thoughtful comments. The depth of our conversations together every week is growing thanks to your willingness to weigh in. I do appreciate your time.

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