Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Mt. 18:21-22)
Forgive and Forget
Forgiveness can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Even when the sin is slight and our hearts are open, forgiveness can be a challenge. Jesus’ call to forgive in passages like Matthew 18 becomes even more arduous when the wound is long and deep. When the offense makes your world seem to collapse around you or when it feels like the fiftieth time forgiving the same sin, we can be tempted to hold back and refuse to forgive. Yet, for those of us who follow Christ, his words are not a suggestion, but a command.
In working to forgive and in talking with others, one of the phrases I’ve been told to associate with true forgiveness is to ‘forgive and forget.’ A true Christian forgives and then ‘forgets’ the offense – acts like it never happened. Isn’t that what God does with our sin, so shouldn’t we do the same? We forgive and forget.
The longer I have lived and the messier life has become, I have grown dissatisfied with the phrase ‘forgive and forget.’ To ‘forgive and forget’, I was told, was like a reboot on the relationship. I forgive you, hit the reset button and we act like it never happened. Everything goes back to the way it was before. It has been forgotten, so we can essentially rewind time to before and keep going.
But does forgiveness work that way? Should it?
Can We Forget?
Life does not have a reset button. Forgiveness does not reboot the relationship and undo what has been done. We cannot ‘go back to the way things were’ because we are not the same people we were before the sin occurred. We are changed by it. When we are wronged or sinned against, we are changed by what has happened to us and we are changed through the hard process of forgiveness. God works in us and we are not the same as when we started. We cannot ‘forget’ in the sense of going back to the way things were before because we are not the same people we were before.
When we wrong someone, we are changed by being forgiven. Receiving mercy – by definition undeserved and cannot be demanded – changes us. We are not the same person we were before we wronged them and were forgiven. Through the journey of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, God changes both parties. To pretend life is the same it was is just that – pretend. So neither of us can truly forgive and forget that something happened.
So what does true forgiveness look like?
Forgiveness and Memory
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went away and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matthew 18:23-35)
In this parable, which immediately follows Peter’s question about forgiveness, forgiving your brother or sister looks like forgiving the debt they owe you. Whatever debt they owe or punishment they deserve for that debt, it is cancelled. But forgiveness also looks like letting go of the throat of our brother or sister. The servant was forgiven an unpayable debt by his lord, then seizes the throat of his neighbor. Forgiveness in this story looks less like forgetting and more like letting go. Letting go of the debt, yes, but also letting go of the anger and resentment, not swallowing it or burying it, only to have it surface later in destructive ways, but to truly let it go.
And what does it take to let it go? Sometimes, it means giving a voice to pain that had been buried and festering. Sometimes it means burying the hatchet and not telling the same story anymore. However, every time I think it involves being restored by being re-storied into the story of God’s gracious work in Christ.
The servant in this parable does not ‘forgive and forget.’ Neither the Lord nor the servant hits reboot on their relationship. In fact, memory plays an important role in the story. The lord remembers his previous mercy to the servant and goes so far as to remind him of it before executing judgment. The servant, however, forgets and then refused to forgive. His lapse in memory led him to be unmerciful to his fellow servant. The unforgiving servant, among other things, forgot what story he was in. He forgot that his story was one of forgiveness and mercy. He forgot and therefore remained unchanged by the grace and forgiveness he had received.
He was forgiven and forgot, but maybe the key is to remember. Maybe, for us too, the key is to remember. To remember that we are enveloped by grace when our debt is too great to pay. To remember being awash in the mercy of God that flows and overflows. And when we remember, maybe we can let go and grant mercy.
It seems to me that the key phrase here is letting go. While I agree that it is unlikely that we can simply forgive and forget…that would be a little too easy…I firmly believe that we are called to no longer hold our anger and resentment toward a person. I am often troubled when I hear someone say what is essentially the flip side of “forgive and forget”–the classic “I’ll forgive you, but I won’t forget.” While I agree that the actual act of forgetting may be difficult, when I tell someone that I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget, I am usually saying that I don’t forgive either…making certain the other person knows that I am still holding on to it, still using it as leverage, still lording it over them (no pun intended). In my experience, when I forgive and let go, I often find that I get the added bonus of forgetting about whatever happened most of the time. And the reality is that hanging on is really about building a shrine to my anger, righteousness or pain, which usually has negative health consequences.
I appreciate your thoughts on this. Just because ‘forgive and forget’ isn’t the right phrase doesn’t mean that ‘forgive and don’t forget’ is right. Like my example above, when we need to be forgiven, there can be the tendency to want to ‘forgive and forget,’ but when we have to do the forgiving, we are tempted to ‘forgive but don’t forget.’ I want to find a place where the offended can voice their pain and hurt in a way that seeks to heal, forgive, and restore the offender (i.e. Mt. 18:15-20), instead of hurt or punish. I want to avoid using cliches like ‘forgive and forget’ to avoid having tough conversations. I also want to find a place where the story of our sins doesn’t become our dominant narrative, but the story of God’s grace. I think sometimes that means we need to talk about what went wrong instead of just ‘forgetting’ about it, but other times, I think it means we need to stop retelling the same story about ourselves, but live into the bigger story of God’s grace.
I think the key phrase is letting go, but also what we remember. It isn’t that we need to ‘forget,’ but that we need to remember the right story, the true story. It is precisely when we forget the true story of God’s grace that forgiveness becomes almost impossible. By acknowledging how we have been changed by sin and grace, as well as remembering the power of God’s grace, we find ourselves in a better position to let go of our neighbor’s neck, instead of continuing to try and choke them.
Thanks again for your thoughts.
“Memory plays an important role in the story.” Yes. You’ve articulated some important things that have been mulling together on my (one of many) back burners for the past year, thank you. Thanks for your careful and respectful reading of this difficult parable, as well. Good work.
Thanks! I’ve been letting this percolate for a while and was glad for the opportunity to put it into writing. Even if everything doesn’t get worked out, I find I think more clearly when I’m writing. I’m glad my reading of the parable was helpful. May we both remember the story we live in.