One of the questions that I’m asked repeatedly is this: Am I really supposed to forgive and forget? If you’ve been betrayed, abused, or hurt deeply, perhaps this question has haunted you for a long time. Well, like many good theological and relational conundrums, the answer is not as simple as we would like to imagine.
Unfortunately, the whole concept of forgiveness, in my estimation, has fallen on hard times. Any idea of forgiveness that deals with “healing ourselves” or “coming to terms with an unfair world,” “forgiving ourselves,” or even worse, “forgiving God”—which has become an emphasis in some therapeutic forgiveness—misses the point badly. True forgiveness is about being healed, but it’s about being healed by God and others in and through a process that begins with a particular transaction.
Consider the words of the Apostle Paul: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14).
We don’t talk a lot about Greek grammar and syntax around here (which I have to believe you’re glad about!) but sometimes it’s necessary. And here is one of those cases. The phrase “the forgiveness of sins” is, grammatically speaking, in apposition to the word “redemption.” And when a phrase appears in apposition to another it is best read as, “namely” or “which is.” This means that the literal reading of Colossians 1:14 is this: In Him we have redemption, namely the forgiveness of sins.
In other words, what we see is: Redemption is the forgiveness of sins. Or we can turn it around and say: Forgiveness = Redemption. We read the same thing in Ephesians: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
Forgiveness is redemption.
Well, what is redemption? Redemption is one of the most important concepts in the Bible. A little background helps. In the ancient world, a person could become a slave by any number of ways, for example, through financial hardship (sometimes people would sell their own family into slavery for money), through birth (some people were born into slavery), and through military defeat (losing at war). But the price for a slave’s freedom could be paid by another person, who, by remitting the appropriate payment, bought that person out of bondage.
That was redemption. Redemption refers to a purchase of freedom, the liberation from a debt. We’re not, of course, slaves in the way I just described, but we as human beings are born enslaved to sin. And every time we sin against God, we incur a debt against him. Not a financial debt. A moral debt. One of the most common ways to talk about sin in the Bible is to refer to it as debt. That’s the prevailing metaphor. The idea is that we have a moral obligation that we have not met.
Every sin incurs a debt and every debt demands payment. Even though God offers forgiveness freely, he makes it available at great cost to himself. God sent his own son to pay the penalty for our sins. Motivated by amazing love, God punished his sinless Son for us so that we could be forgiven of the greatest betrayal ever: Our revolt against the God who made us for himself. And when we repent and believe in Jesus—that he lived a sinless life, died on the cross and rose again for our sins—God wipes our debt completely clean, and stamps it “Paid” by Jesus.
Paul says this in Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
So forgiveness equals redemption, the liberation from a debt. That’s what God does for us. If you are in Christ, you have been once for all forgiven from your sins and released from your moral debt.
The whole concept of debt is a metaphor that’s used for our sin against one another as well. Every time you sin you incur a moral debt against the person you wrong. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and the whole story was finally playing out, they worried about what Joseph might do to them once he figured out their identity. Jacob, the boys’ father, instructed them to say to Joseph: “Please forgive the debts of your brothers.” When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he said, “Pray like this … ‘Father, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors (that is, those who are indebted to us).’”
Again, this is not financial, but a moral debt. When we sin against another person, we incur a debt against them. When someone else sins against us, they incur a debt against us. And when the person who sins against us repents, we cancel that debt owed to us by forgiving them. In following our Lord’s example, who instructed us to forgive others, even as God in Christ has forgiven us, we liberate from debt the person who sinned against us. Their debt is wiped out. They are pardoned of their enslavement. We welcome them back into restored relationship with us.
But are we to forget what they have done?
Ken Sande, in his book, The Peacemaker, says a person makes five commitments when granting forgiveness to another person:
“I will not dwell on this incident.”
“I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
“I will not seek revenge.”
“I will not talk to others about this incident.”
“I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”
Those are the evidences of true forgiveness. Notice, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily imply the elimination of consequences. Nor does forgiveness necessarily mean acting as though an offense never happened. Remember when the aforementioned Joseph received his own brothers, who had sold him into slavery and left him for dead, he was deeply moved and said to them: “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4).
Jacob didn’t hold his brothers’ offense against them. But it wasn’t as though he didn’t remember it, either.
Certainly, we do not actively keep a record of those wrongs committed against us, and nor do we let those grievances stand between us. We welcome into a restored relationship those who repent. However, we still exercise discernment. For example, if a person steals my wallet multiple times, spends whatever money is in there, and then comes to me and asks forgiveness, I will forgive … but I’m not likely to set down my wallet in front of them and leave the room. Likewise, if a teenage son repeatedly downloads pornography and asks for forgiveness, we absolutely forgive. But we may not want to give that same son the password to the computer.
Do we forgive and forget? Yes, in all the ways that I outlined. But for many people, some events, names, places, and memories are impossible to disremember. And those who have been hurt shouldn’t feel guilty at their inability to purge all traces of those events from their minds forever.
After all, while God forgives our sins and removes them as far as the east is from the west, the cross stands a reminder of our failures, shortcomings, sins, and the price that God paid in redeeming us: The substitutionary death of his only Son.
Should we forgive and forget? Yes … depending on what you mean by “forget.”