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.