When it comes to forgiveness, it’s common to hear the phrase “forgive and forget.” It’s also common to hear people speak about not having a problem forgiving but having a big problem forgetting. So, it’s a good idea to stop and think about that phrase…forgive and forget.
How does one possibly forget a wrong done? I’m a pastor, and once, I walked in on a conversation between other staff members. It was a conversation about how I didn’t live up to their personal expectations. It was a rough day! They confessed their sin to me, and I forgave them. Yet, my memory of that day is crystal clear. What am I doing wrong? How do we put these things out of our minds? How can we erase the painful memories?
These are good questions. In order to get the right answer, it’s important we have the right definition of “forget.” And we’ll get that definition from the teaching of the Bible. The biblical concept of forgetting is not the same as me not stopping for milk at the grocery store because my mental recall failed (something that happens all too frequently). So, let me take you to two texts (one from the NT, one from the OT) to get a grip on what it means to forget.
2 Peter 1:9 – “For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”
Here we have a prime example of forgetting. Prior to this verse, Peter lists qualities that should be increasing in the life of the Christian: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. These are the qualities that will keep us from being “ineffective” or “unfruitful.”
But if we lack them, verse 9 says we’re nearsighted to the point of blindness, “having forgotten” that we were forgiven of our sins. Peter does not mean that our mind has gone blank…that information which was in our mind is no longer there. No, what Peter means is that we are living as if we had never been forgiven. So, “forgetting” something here means that this something (i.e.- the forgiveness of sins) is no longer affecting the way we think or live.
Jeremiah 31:34b – “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
If Peter’s “forget” didn’t quite land in your mind, then this verse will certainly help. Here, the Lord is speaking through Jeremiah about the new covenant…that new covenant which was signed, sealed, and delivered by the blood of Christ. Part of the blessing of the new covenant is the final atonement for sin. Our sin is fully and finally forgiven on the basis of Christ’s death in our place. We’re off the hook…we’re not liable anymore. And here, the Lord speaks of the fullness of this forgiveness when He says, “I will remember their sin no more.”
Certainly, we should not think that the all-knowing God loses track of our personal histories. Or that His memory lapsed. But if that’s the case, then how does God “remember…sin no more”? The answer is similar to what we saw in Peter. God does not “remember” sin…God “forgets” sin…in that our sin no longer affects His relationship to us. He does not remember our sin against us. He will not hold our sin against us; He will not make us pay. He has done everything necessary to make the payment for our sin in Christ, and no further payment is necessary. Because of Christ, our sin is forgiven and forgotten.
So then…what does the Bible mean to “forget” something? It means that the thing forgotten no longer has any bearing on the situation. Forgetting our sins have been forgiven means that God’s forgiveness is not defining the way we live. God not remembering our sins means that our sins no longer define God’s relationship to us. In both cases, there are things forgotten.
In our relationships with one another, we should think about forgiving and forgetting in the same way. When we forgive, we let people off the hook. We have experienced real pain, real hurt, but when we forgive, we are declaring that the other person will not be held liable for that pain. And truly, we are promising that we will forget it. We are saying that even when the events of this day come to my memory, I will not hold them against you. I won’t let the forgiven past dictate my relationship to you.
In extending forgiveness and making this promise, we’re not condoning sin anymore than God condones the sin He forgives and forgets. We are not saying “It’s okay” (which is the wrong way to respond to an apology, by the way). We are actually saying, “It’s not okay. My pain is real and deep, but because you are repentant, and because of the greater mercy I have received from God, I release you from liability toward me. I promise not to hold it against you (publicly or privately) from this point on.” In other words, “I forgive and forget.”
Rod and Staff Ministries
Thanks Toby, that was really helpful, and I will share your thoughts with my group of friends.