When You Can't Forget
You have heard the expression, forgive and forget. This has been a popular prescription for how Christians should respond to those who trespass against us. Indeed, what is often explained as the evidence that we have truly forgiven those who have done us wrong is that we have put their transgressions out of mind. Negatively, the implication is that if you can’t forget their sins, you probably have not forgiven them. Are you familiar with this kind of thinking? Do you find it troublesome?
It is important for our emotional and spiritual health to understand some things about forgiveness, especially what it is not. First, forgiving others is not the same thing as excusing or tolerating the wrong others have done to us. Forgiveness does not mean accepting the person despite his transgressions. If you can say or think, “No problem,” towards another person’s behavior, forgiveness has not been given nor is it needed. The same is true if we can respond to would-be transgressors, “Forget it!” If you think they can forget it, so can you. In truth, forgetting transgressions has little to do with forgiving others who wrong us. If you can forget the slights or loveless things others have done, forgiveness is not needed. Conversely, forgiving others is what is needed when we cannot let the sin of another against us go.
Secondly, when it comes to the guilt incurred by those who wrong us, our forgiveness is not something they need. As with our guilt, theirs has been fully atoned for and forgiven in the cross of Christ. Often, we need to personally forgive others for our benefit, not theirs. Forgiving others is required when their transgressions cause us moral outrage, and we hurt. When friends betray us, when lovers have been unfaithful; when strangers have brutalized us in mind, body or both; these are the kinds of wrongdoing we simply cannot excuse, let pass by, or forget. We hate what they have done to us, and because we cannot let it go, we play it over and over again in our mind, and that is the real hell for us. We mentally relive what they did which brings continual turmoil and robs us of peace. They hurt us once, but we cause ourselves never-ending hurt and moral outrage by replaying their transgressions over and over. We need healing and peace, but time alone does not guarantee this.
When others do us serious wrong, and we withhold forgiveness, serious spiritual damage can result. What first were righteous judgment and anger can turn into hate, bitterness, and resentment. These sinful attitudes, in turn, can lead us to seek revenge and retribution. We can be tempted to respond like the unforgiving servant in the parable and throw our fellow servant into prison until he pays off the whole debt (Matt. 18:23-35). Jesus warns us not to condemn less we be condemned, and to forgive and we will be forgiven (Luke 6:37). Withholding forgiveness can destroy a repentant heart and question the sufficiency of the grace of Christ for both ourselves and our perpetrators. By forgiving others, our hurts are healed, and we keep our repentant hearts soft and well connected to the Law of love.
Lastly, we need to think of the healing power of forgiveness not merely as the result of the spoken words. Healing is a process; serious trespasses against us are often forgiven slowly. First, we judge those who sin against us as guilty. Judicial sentiment rises in our hearts with anger, and we pronounce the perpetrator guilty. This is because God’s Law is written on our hearts, and by this Law, we too will be judged and in need of forgiveness (Rom. 2:15-16). Then we hurt. When we are betrayed; when friends are disloyal; when anyone brutalizes us in any way; we experience and suffer great moral and spiritual pain. Then, with what Lewis Smedes has termed magic eyes, we slowly separate in our mind the offender from his offense against us. We must pray to receive these magic eyes. They are a gift of God that enables us gradually to see the guilty one as a weak and needy sinner just like us. We do not forget or excuse; instead, we see them as suffering from the same inherited selfish lovelessness that afflicts us, for no one lives but by grace alone. The forgiving work of the magic eyes takes time. It is done gradually, not something done overnight. And then in time, when and where possible, we can reconcile and come back together.
How are things concerning those who have trespassed against you? Are you suffering hurts and spiritual wounds from those who have done you serious wrong? Perhaps time has passed, but you are unable to let go of what they did to you. You cannot excuse them; you cannot pass over what they did; and, you cannot forget any of it. If such transgressions are continually haunting and hurting you, let me encourage you to pray for the magic eyes. Let the freedom of God’s grace to you produce the magic eyes that can extend grace to the transgressors, separating them from their wrongdoing, and free you from the anguish and hurt they caused because you can’t forget. Our Lord Jesus has suffered and died for your sins and those of all who sin against you. The cross is your guarantee that God’s justice has been executed for each sin, and none have slipped by His grace and mercy. In this complete atonement, you have the power of his grace to you to produce the magic eyes that can extend grace.
For further reading about the remedy of severe wrongs you have endured that elaborates what is presented here, I recommend Lewis Smedes’ excellent work, Forgive and Forget (New York: Pocket Books, 1984). The title (supplied by the publisher) is a misnomer. The author presents the importance of forgiveness precisely when you can’t forget.