Forgive and Forget?


“I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” I hear that declaration as a protest against easy forgiveness that waves away the offensiveness of the offense, suppresses the pain of the hurt, and covers the wound without disinfecting it. It’s such a nice little formula: forgive and forget. Does it not sound virtuous, even pious? In the background of my mind, I hear Jeremiah the prophet saying (for God) of the court prophets who served at and for the pleasure of the king, “They heal my people’s wound lightly, crying, ‘Peace, peace!’ where there is no peace.”

Normally, I would look at the bigger problem for people in general and Christians in particular: the shallow understanding of forgiveness. To forgive is not to excuse but to heal, not to deny but to affirm and confront, not to suppress but to expose and seek to mend. Forgiving is painful, and being forgiven hurts, too. Forgiveness heals damaged relationships, and when the relationship cannot be mended, it heals the wound of the injured person doing the forgiving. Too often and for too long, Christians have been asked to see forgiveness as a divine fudging of the records, a transaction the expunges guilt by divine authority. No, forgiveness is a special kind of healing, and when the injury goes deep, more than a religiously applied salve is needed.

Right now, however, I want to look at the second part of the formula, the advice or command to forget. This part continues to be troublesome even after the relationship has been restored well enough to be carried forward. What does it mean to forget? I cannot erase the memory from my brain. What happened did happen, and it hurt. How am I supposed to make myself forget it? Part of me might want to ask also, “Why should I?”

Here I find Hebraic thinking helpful. Language expresses ways of seeing and understanding. Hebraic thinking and speaking do not separate the intellectual from choices and actions. To hear is to respond in accordance with what has been said, not just to perceive sound. If I choose not to act, I have not heard. To know is to understand and care, not merely to comprehend intellectually. To remember is to act upon what is recalled to mind. My mind is a toolbox filled with memories, and which I select for use in a situation can make all the difference.

We retain aspects of this kind of thinking. If you say to me, “You didn’t remember my birthday,” it is not sufficient for me to reply, “Yes, I did, but I just didn’t get around to sending you a card.” When a wife says to her husband, “You didn’t hear what I just said,” the man is unwise to answer, “There’s nothing wrong with my hearing.”

When in the biblical book of Exodus, we read that God saw the sufferings of the Israelite slaves and God “knew,” we are not being told that God had finally perceived what was going on in Egypt, that the information about the slaves had made it through to God’s consciousness. We are hearing that God feels his people’s misery and has entered into their life of slavery. The message is about empathy not the logging of information.

When a psalmist calls upon God to remember God’s own steadfast love in the past and to recall the covenant promises God made to Israel, the plea is for God to choose those memories as the ones upon which to act in the present. I think the same kind of choice applies to forgiving and forgetting. What’s needed is not a memory lapse but a deliberate choice of which memories not to pull out of the toolbox for use.

Practicing anger will make me an angrier person. Practicing self-control will make me a calmer and more reasonable person. What I choose to practice actually changes me and my temperament one choice at a time. Likewise, I can choose what memories to activate for use, what experiences to relive in my mind, which wounds to reopen.

What is precious to me? What do I treasure? What memories do I store, feed, nurse, and keep ready for use to help or hurt, to respect or control the one or ones who gave me those memories? Which wounds do I, perhaps secretly, wish to keep festering? Do my treasured grudges keep me subconsciously gratified? Do I somewhat enjoy self-pity? Has being the one who was wronged become crucial to my identity, my self-understanding?

Like surgery or the cleaning out of a deep wound, forgiveness hurts in order to heal. As forgiveness heals the wound and, if possible, the relationship, forgetting is a repeated act, not of denial, but of refusal to keep reliving the pain so it feeds its poison into the present, refusal to keep the offense handy for use to hurt back or apply guilt to control the one supposedly forgiven. Neither forgiving nor forgetting is supposed to be easy or automatic, but the two are parts of one process of overcoming wrongs done to us.