“You Must Forgive and Forget!” It is probably true for some people who were given that advice that they did get around to trying to forgive the people they needed to forgive. Perhaps many of them then tried to move on in life, trying not to keep focussing on those who once hurt them. But as counselling many folk shows, not all those who attempt that “cure” are actually helped by the advice. There may be in fact a real danger in using these particular words in giving counsel or advice to some people.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS OF SUCH ADVICE?
a). People can’t always easily “forget”
Most people will never forget all the hurtful things that have happened to them in life. Many things will gradually fade away as they learn to focus on them less and less. But there will be some memories in everyone that will remain with them throughout their lives.
I have been amazed over the years at the preciseness of memories in people to whom I ministered. A woman in her forties shared with me how she had been humiliated by a school teacher in an early primary school class. She was able to tell me the teacher’s name, the colour of the dress she was wearing, the type of flowers in the vase on her desk on that day, the names of the people in the class who laughed at her, and the exact words the teacher said to her. She also remembered just how she felt at the time. So not only were there memories of the facts about the incident but there were also memories of the feelings she experienced on that day. In addition she could recall the different feelings she had towards particular individuals.
It was not unusual in ministering to people in their seventies and eighties to find the same thing where people could remember vividly a day when they were embarrassed or humiliated publicly or experienced deep hurt. Many remembered the exact date. Others remembered the exact words. Others remembered the expressions on the face of the people who did the abusing. Others in more abusive situations could remember facial features or the smell of the person abusing them when they were very young children. Some of those older folk told me, for example, that when they smelt a certain smell, immediately in their thoughts they were back in the room where abuse occurred and experiencing much the same feelings of fear they had experienced then. Our memories are capable of storing minute bits of information about events long in the past.
b). Some people may never be able to “forgive and forget”
By the grace of God many people are able to come to the point where they see the need to forgive those who hurt them if they are ever going to move on in life. They might even have been acquainted with the verse where Paul says we must forgive one another in the same way Christ forgave us, Col 3:13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Every time they recite the Lord’s Prayer they are reminded of the need to forgive the sins of other people against them, Mat 6:12 And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors
What if we were to say to some of those people, “You’ve got to forgive and forget”? They know they are ready to forgive but they also know that they will never be able to forget many of the hurts they experienced nor the people who caused those hurts. So they cannot follow the two-barrelled advice “forgive” and “forget”. It is impossible for them. They might be ready to “forgive” but cannot “forgive and forget”. The advice could lead such people to despair saying, “I can’t really forgive those people because I know I will never be able to forget what they did!”
A BETTER WAY OF HELPING PEOPLE
Those who use the term “You’ve got to forgive and forget!” are mostly trying to help people to find some closure in their lives regarding the hurts they have experienced in life. Their motivation is good. in trying to help. It is the wording of the advice itself that may prove to be unhelpful or counterproductive.
In asking people to “forget” we are asking them to do more than God does regarding sin. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God “forgets” our sins. How can He as the Omniscient One who knows absolutely everything? If He “forgot” something He would no longer be omniscient, knowing all things.
However the Bible does affirm that God promises to “remember our sins no more”. This is different from “forgetting”.
- To “forget” means that a particular memory is lost temporarily or permanently. (Though some psychologists would say that nothing in the memory is lost completely and with the right stimulation may return).
- To “not remember” means that the person has the particular memory in their memory bank but chooses not to deliberately recall it. With regard to God’s promise to “remember your sins no more” it means that He knows all about our sin but when we ask for His forgiveness for some sin, He chooses not to bring that sin back against us ever again.
- Humans may never forget some sins committed against them. However like God and by His grace as believers, they may choose, in forgiving someone, not to deliberately recall it to mind, dwell on it and use it against the person again.
It may be better then to say to people we are trying to help “You do need to forgive the people who hurt you for your own healing, and God will give you the grace to do so”. We saw in the parable of the unmerciful servant that there are three elements in forgiveness, i) A decision to show mercy to the person who hurt us. ii) cancelling the debt owed and iii) letting the sinner go free (let off the hook of our unforgiveness).
Forgiveness begins with a decision but is not instantaneous. It is a process that has to be worked through. The eventual goal is that people need to forgive all those who hurt them and the sins those people committed against them. That is a process that requires time even though there may be some quantum leaps along the way leading to more and more healing and personal release.
“HEALING OF THE MEMORIES”
This is a term used in healing ministries around the world. People can forgive in spite of having painful memories. The expression “healing of the memories” doesn’t mean that the memories are taken away never to return. Memories are never entirely forgotten.
What healing of the memories involves is this. When people make the decision to forgive others, they are meant to forgive individuals of every sin they ever committed against them. They may begin with a blanket cover, “I forgive so and so of all the things they did which hurt me.” But the more specific the forgiveness becomes after that, the greater the healing will be. It means that when memories of past specific incidents arise, because they have been forgiven by the person specifically, there is less power in those memories to keep on hurting that person.
The healing comes not through forgetting what happened but rather having the power of the memories lessened and the accompanying emotions healed. Having forgiven someone, when the memory of that person returns it may eventually have none of the pain and shame associated with it any more. It means walking in the freedom of our forgiveness even if the offender never changes, never asks for forgiveness, and never softens in their attitude towards us.
The term “healing of the memories” is a good phrase to use provided that we understand what it really means.
SUMMARY OF THE 3 POSSIBLY UNHELPFUL TERMS
I have found it necessary to look at these three phrases in these last three articles because I have come to see that if they are misunderstood they can be unhelpful to say the least. In fact they may even be damaging to those having problems with forgiving those who hurt them.
I repeat that those who use the terms may be mostly operating from good motives and genuinely trying to help people. But the terms themselves are problematic. If we can convey the concepts people are trying to convey in ministering to people, in language that is less likely to be misunderstood, then it is worthwhile making the effort.
A very fine mature Christian woman heard my teaching on these three phrases and commented to me later, “For years I have been trying to forgive myself as people told me I had to do but it never made any difference to me. I was getting more and more frustrated that there must be something terribly wrong with me if I could not get peace after forgiving myself over and over again. At the seminar I recognised that I HAVE forgiveness in Christ for all my sin, and when I realised that, the peace came. Now I just thank Him for the fact that He has forgiven me in Christ. Now whenever I say or do something that I know is not of God I ask God to forgive me and immediately thank Him that He forgiven me in His Son. At last I am living in peace and not in frustration”.
SOME QUESTIONS FOR CONSIDERATION ON THE THREE PHRASES
1). If you have used the term “You must forgive God!” when trying to help someone do you think it would be worthwhile contacting them again to see what they felt you meant by using that phrase?
2) Are there any reasons why the term “You must forgive God!” should not be seen as verging on blasphemy?” What might those reasons be?
3) Do you personally live with a sense of remorse or regret? How could the teaching under the saying number 2 “You must forgive yourself!” help you to be rid of such remorse or regret?
4) A friend of yours has been given the advice that they need to “Forgive and forget and to get on with life”. It has distressed them deeply. How would you try to help them in their distress?