It’s not possible to “forgive and forget”. The intent of the saying might be better stated as follows: “once you choose to forgive, don’t entertain unforgiving thoughts anymore. Instead, surrender them to a deeper place in your soul that most desires to forgive, and recommit to denouncing bitterness about the matter, even if pain arises from the memory of the hurtful words or situation.” Of course, there’s no alliteration in that, so it’s just not as easy to memorize. So, when you say “forgive and forget,” realize that you are forgetting only your temptation to resurrect unforgiving feelings, not the pain you went through or the wrong that was done. There’s such a difference.
In listening to an interview with Dr. John Townsend, co-author of Boundaries, I learned that there are stages to forgiveness when the hurt is deep. First there is the ability to identify how I was hurt and what it produced inside of me. Going beyond the identification of hurt and its impact, there is then a necessity to fully allow myself to experience the hurt rather than trying to protect myself from the pain of it. Next there is the stage of really looking at it accurately from God’s point of view and giving the offense “its day in court” …being able to declare in your own mind that it was wrong by God’s standards…not just your own. Thirdly, comes self-examination. Did I have any part in this hurtful situation? Do I own any of it? The answer may be “yes”, or it may be “no”. An honest look will uncover which is true. Finally, there may be a stage of grief where we just live in the moments of sadness, knowing that the wrong was done and there’s no undoing it. The effects are not erasable. Only the debt.
Finally, we release the debt from the “debtor” (someone who has sinned against us) and give God the rightful place of judging and assigning a consequence. If that person chooses forgiveness from God for their sins, then the debt is transferred to Christ and His work on the cross. If our offender does not seek our forgiveness or God’s, it is not up to us to determine whether or not we will forgive them. We, as Christians, are to forgive without condition. Only God can have conditions on forgiveness, and He has determined what those conditions are. When we choose to not forgive someone (even ourselves), we stand as judge in the place of God and raise the standard higher than His. It’s a very arrogant position, and one that pulls us out of right relationship with God and other people.
We may fail to see how our choice to not forgive affects the work of God in our lives and in the lives of others. When you live long enough, you can see unforgiveness play out over decades and how it hinders the work that God longs to do through us if we obeyed His command to love one another (and ourselves), and to forgive those who have harmed us or a loved one. One can also see it play out the other way where forgiveness has produced so much beauty and healing that it extends beyond the life of the forgiver. Forgiveness has an eternal legacy.
Forgiveness involves sacrificing our self-assigned “right” to hold someone accountable for the ways they hurt us. God never said we could do that. HE alone can hold someone accountable spiritually. Yes, there is a justice system we rightly apply when we have civil or criminal infractions that must be dealt with through a collective wisdom and moral societal code. I’m not talking about legal matters that we have been given jurisdiction over as human beings. I’m referring to trying someone in the court of our minds through judgment and unforgiveness when we ourselves are included in the sweeping, universal accusation that we all have sinful hearts that wound and damage others, and that do not always honor God as God (if ever).
IF we have failed to forgive, we have harbored bitterness, and unknowingly reaped the harvest of sour fruit that cannot be tolerated unless the sugar of forgiveness is finally added. IF we have chosen true forgiveness, we have planted seeds of love that will produce the sweetest crop of fruit that extends beyond our scope and ability to fully know.
Who do you need to forgive? Who is repeatedly on trial in your mind? A spouse who cheated? A parent who failed you? A relative who abused you or your child? A drunk driver who caused tremendous harm in your life? A sibling who did you wrong in the sorting out of your parents’ estate? A loved one who committed suicide? You, yourself, for doing something you believe to be unforgiveable?
So, to these hard things I raise the offered wine of forgiveness...that we would drink deeply of the once-sour grapes, pressed down and sweetened with the sugar of forgiveness, that somehow taste beautifully both bitter and sweet, reminding us that Jesus takes the distasteful and makes it something rare and valuable. I offer the toast for all of my fellow believers to Forgive and Remember…without condition.
Forgive and Remember…
…that God has told us without a doubt that we are to forgive as He has forgiven us.
…that the hurtful words said to you, or the hurtful acts done to you do not define
who you are. Your accurate identity is found in God’s words and actions.
…that unforgiveness wounds your heart over and over again, hindering God’s work.
…that clinging to unforgiveness does not change the situation or bring you any
sort of control, although it may feel that way.
…that evil can flourish in the soil of unforgiveness.
…that love can flourish in the soil of genuine forgiveness.
…that forgiveness for those deep or unending wounds may be a process.
…that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation will only occur if
the offender has repented and seeks to make things right with you.
…that you can forgive without ever being asked and without the other person ever
acknowledging they did something wrong or that hurt you.
…that unsafe people can be forgiven, but you can still have appropriate boundaries to protect against future harm if they are unsafe or untrustworthy.
…you’re not “letting them off the hook” for their wrongdoing, but rather that
you are handing the hook of justice over to God, the only fully righteous judge.
…once you’ve forgiven, you are free from the bondage of bitterness. Any weed of
bitterness that sprouts is to be pulled out immediately and cast away.
…to pray for that person with sincerity of heart, that God will forgive them too, and that
He will use the experience to further His kingdom (remember Stephen praying for his
persecutors as he was being stoned to death for his faith. His prayer on their behalf was
answered by Saul becoming the Apostle Paul).
…that forgiveness is extended to you from God without any payment on your part.
When you extend forgiveness, you cannot exact a payment from the offender.
True forgiveness must be complete and without reservation or debt.
…God works in very mysterious ways. By forgiving a debtor He will then do some sort
of Kingdom work that you otherwise would not see.
…You owe Him all your accounts because He paid all your debts to God with His own blood. Not letting your “debtors” be freed when you yourself have been redeemed is like a freed slave who enslaves another. They really ought to know better.
References: Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 6:14, 15; Col 3:13; Luke 6:37; Matthew 18:21-22; Proverbs 17:9