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  • Writer's pictureBenjie Shaw

Forgive and Forget... Or, Not

I've heard many confessions in the past. As a minister, it comes with the territory. But I was taken aback by the young man who sat across from me who, in sharing that his wife had recently cheated on him, was beating himself up over the fact that he was having a hard time moving on from the hurt.

"I can forgive her," he said. "I want to forgive her and I will... but how am I supposed to forget this?"

Why "Forgive and Forget"?

The idea of forgiving and forgetting wrongs is ingrained into our consciousness as the ideal, especially if you're a person who claims to follow Jesus. Forgiveness while still desiring accountability or a process to restore trust is often labeled as "harboring bitterness" or "not really forgiving."

But is it? Try as I may, I've yet to find any hint that the notion of forgiving and forgetting is biblical.

The best I can do is the idea that believers are to emulate the kind of forgiveness God shows to us when He forgives us of our sins. Jeremiah 31:34 describes a future day when, after God has forgiven His people of their sin, "I will remember their sin no more."

What is "not remembering" if not forgetting? Another possible translation of the Hebrew word zakar, translated here as "remembering" is "to call to mind."

Better than Forgetting

"To call to mind" is, I think, a better translation of zakar in this verse because of the justice of God. If God forgets our sins in the sense that, after we repent, He can no longer remember our sins, then God's justice is minimized. For example, if a person decides to steal thousands of dollars from an older person's retirement account, is never caught, never makes restitution, but later repents, does God simply forget that the action ever happened? If so, does that mean that God is unconcerned about the hardship endured by the older person from whom the money was initially stolen? After all, once the person repents God "forgets" that person's sin in the sense that He can no longer recall that it happened.

"To call to mind" also elevates the role that forgiveness plays in interpersonal relationships. Because some offenses are difficult to move on from, choosing forgiveness even when it is impossible to forget the harm done elevates the role and power of forgiveness in relationships. Choosing to not hold an offense against someone takes Jesus' admonitions to forgive the sins of others as God has forgiven us seriously while recognizing that actions also have consequences.

It's also important to remember that reconciling a relationship, while always a goal of forgiveness, is understood in Scripture to maybe not always be possible. Romans 12:18 instructs us to "if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Reconciling a relationship might require temporary conditions on the person who has wronged you in order to re-establish trust. If that person is unable or unwilling to meet those conditions, then it's possible that you've done your best to live at peace with them but they are unwilling to live at peace with you. Justice is still important in relationships, not in the sense of being punitive, but of recognizing harm and redressing it out of love and repentance when necessary.

In the case of the young man whose wife committed adultery, an extreme level of trust was broken. To rebuild his trust in her, she had to abandon an activity that she enjoyed but was also associated with the person with whom she had committed adultery. Her desire to repent of her sin and her love for her husband compelled her to make the sacrifice. It was not a punitive measure that he insisted on for her penance. He informed her that this would be a good step to demonstrate both her repentance and her commitment to restoring their relationship. She agreed and willingly walked away from the activity. As a result, justice was done in the relationship. A wrong was committed, hurt was expressed, repentance was expressed verbally and in action, and the young man chose to not hold the wrong against his wife.

I'm happy to report that, after walking through a difficult season that included counseling, the couple is happily married and doing well today. But they aren't doing well today because the husband forgot what his wife did. He is still very conscious of it and suspicion does crop up from time-to-time. But he has chosen to forgive in the sense of not holding an offense against his wife. He is walking in forgiveness in the truest sense of the word.

More Than a Formula

Forgiveness is often spoken of broadly and generally as ideals for followers of Jesus. Whenever we are wronged, we are led to believe that we are to simply turn the other cheek and allow for the person to strike our other cheek. But when we dig deeper into the entirety of the biblical witness on the issues of harm, sin, forgiveness, and justice, a more nuanced picture emerges. There is likely not one canned response that is appropriate for all instances of harm across all of time and space.

As followers of Jesus, we should strive to harbor no ill will towards anyone for harm committed against us or others. There are certainly times when we endure injury or harm from others and simply turn the other cheek. But if the person (or group) committing the harm remains unrepentant and continually perpetuates harm, individuals are under no compulsion to persist in relationship with them. In fact, remaining will likely only increase the probability that others will be harmed in ways similar or more severe than the harm you have experienced. Biblically speaking, we can think of this in a similar fashion to Paul's instructions to the church at Corinth to deliver an unrepentant man "to Satan for the destruction of his flesh" (1 Cor. 5:5). "Flesh" in this sense does not mean his literal body, but the sinful nature evident by his lack of repentance. In essence, Paul's instruction is "since he chooses sin, let him reap the consequences of sin apart from the protection that fellowship with God's people provides."

An important caveat: doing your best to live at peace with others and resolving to not live with bitterness or anger in your heart presupposes that you are actually doing everything to live at peace with others that you can. This means that we cannot simply write off a person or a group without first attempting to confront them about their sin or the harm that they have committed and providing them an opportunity to apologize and repent. Jesus himself offered instructions on this matter in Matthew 18. Confront the offending party privately first. If they will not listen, take one or two other witnesses and again privately confront them. If they still will not listen, Jesus instructs us to "tell it to the church," which can mean different things in your particular context. But what it doesn't mean is to eviscerate the person publicly.

Exceptions certainly exist. For instance, if a crime has been committed then by all means involve the authorities quickly. Cases of abuse likely also require more rapid escalation. But the vast majority of interpersonal grievances fall under the jurisdiction of Jesus' command to first confront privately. If we cannot at least take that step then we are not doing our best to live at peace with others.

In an age where cancelling others is top of mind, God's people are called to radical reconciliation when possible. But reconciliation is a two-way street that involves confessing, repenting of, and redressing wrongs in order for relationship to be restored and full. Anything less is cheap, inauthentic, and unsustainable. It's also not biblical.

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