Forgiving and Forgetting

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Forgiveness. It’s an important step in healing when we’ve been wronged. This is true even in the world of secular psychology. For the Christian, the need to extend forgiveness goes even deeper. It’s the cornerstone of our faith. We have been forgiven, so we must forgive. Sometimes it’s a tall order though. Thankfully as Christians we don’t have to do it alone. Even when we feel like we just can’t forgive, we can draw on the power of Jesus to do the forgiving for us.

What is forgiveness?

The world’s view of forgiveness is a little bit different than the Christ-like forgiveness we as Christians are accountable for. Here’s one definition:

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.

Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.

Berkeley University Greater Good Website

The Bible says Forgiveness is:

  • Undeserved

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8

 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – Ephesians 2:8

  • Unrelenting

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-seven times.” – Matthew 18:21-22

  • Non-Negotiable

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.  – Luke 6:37

Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. –  Colossians 3:13

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32

Both definitions of forgiveness look similar, but there’s something in the psychologist’s definition of forgiveness that doesn’t quite line up with the Biblical definition. It might just be semantics here, but the psychological view stresses the importance of forgiving but not forgetting. This is where it takes a different trajectory from what we are called to do as Christians.  Colossians 3:13 tells us to forgive as the Lord forgave us.  Here’s what that looks like:

  • “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” – Isaiah 43:25
  • He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. – Psalm 103:12
  • Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more. And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. Hebrews 10:17-18

So for Christians, forgiving does mean forgetting. I don’t mean literal forgetting. Depending on the depth of the wound it will likely leave scars. I will remember the wrong done to me, but once I have forgiven it I cannot let the memory interfere with my love for that person. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we put ourselves in dangerous situations or set ourselves up for ongoing abuse. We must by all means do what we must to be safe. What we cannot do is hold a grudge. We have to extend the same grace that was extended to us through Christ. We still have to love them.

How the heck do we do this?

Sounds great, doesn’t it? If only it were easy. It isn’t. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, we don’t do this. We can’t. That kind of forgiveness is impossible for me to achieve. It goes against human nature. I just have to surrender it to God. I pray, and pray some more. I take all my pain and my anger and I lift it up to the sky and cry out for him to help me forgive. And he always has. Maybe not in that very instant but over time I have always managed to forgive the people who have hurt me so deeply. Since most of them were family members, we still have relationships. I still remember what they did to me, but when I look at them or talk to them I don’t have bitter feelings. I don’t sit there constantly thinking of the the thing they did to hurt me. It’s as far from my mind as the east is from the west. Not because of my own wonderful forgiveness skills. I’m just as human as the rest of us. It’s all because of Jesus. 

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