Remembering, Yet Not Holding Against: Why Forgiveness is Not Forgetting (But Sorta Kinda Is)

You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. (Matthew 5:9 The Message) 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (George Santayana)

Before I say anything, let me just confess that everything I am about to say, I suck at. So, I say it from within the belly of the beast, so to say. 

You’re, no doubt, familiar with the phrase, “Forgive and forget.” It’s used by wellmeaning people to simply say, “Let’s not hold our grievances against each other, and move on.” It’s also one of those phrases that gets used by certain Christians as a misinterpretation of Psalm 103. “As far as the east is from the west, that’s how far the Lord has forgiven our sins! What that means, dear friend, is that if you’ve been forgiven, God no longer remembers the sin you committed.” I’m not denying the Lord’s grace here, but the same book that contains Psalm 103, also contains the scene in John where Jesus shows Thomas the scars in His hands, feet, and side. In other words, it’s a safe bet that Jesus does not have divine amnesia when he looks at his wrists, so that when he sees the scars that bare the evidence of what he did to redeem the world, he asks, “Where did those come from?!?!” It’s a much safer bet that Jesus, being all knowing, remembers even the most insignificant sins that he has forgiven. Instead of forgetting them, he is not holding them against us. 

WHAT’S THAT MEAN FOR US? 

Since I dare say that it is impossible for an all knowing God to forget, it’s equally impossible for us mere mortals to forget whatever was done (or not done) to us. Trying to forget is like asking your brain not to function as it was intended. Asking a wounded person to forget what was done is like asking a quadriplegic to forget their paralysis. But in a sense, it is easier to understand the physically wounded more than the emotionally or mentally wounded; however, all three are wounds nonetheless. And some wounds cannot be forgotten. In fact, I’ll go a step further, and say, some wounds need to remembered!!! 

And that can throw some people for a loop. Whatta ya mean remember? That’s not forgiveness! And that’s when it’s wise to remind such commentators that forgetting is not forgiving. And if forgetting is forgiving, then what does that say about the slogan “9/11…Never Forget!”? 

The hardest thing to grasp about forgiveness, is that it does not distinguish between the easy to forgive and the difficult. Regardless of the wound, forgiveness asks the same thing: Don’t hold the wound over the person’s head. To be sure, it does not deny the severity of the wound, it doesn’t make the wound suddenly moral or ethical, and it certainly doesn’t change what has happened. It is admitting that justice is not necessarily what we think it should be. From experience, I can tell you with certainty, if you are looking for a specific kind of justice, in a specific time frame, you will be looking for a very long time for something that may never come. And you may actually risk becoming the very person who wounded you. 

Hence why we must never forget. 

THE PARADOX OF REMEMBERING 

To give credit where it is due, everything I’m about to say comes from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. I’ve written about this before. Volf saw his country torn apart by a civil war rooted in religious superiority (My God is better than yours, so you deserve to die!) Words cannot describe the atrocities done during that time — in the name of God, no less. And he warns: Be careful that we do not make the oppressed into oppressers themselves, in the name of getting justice against their oppressors. 

Volf describes the paradox of forgiveness. It is both forgetting and remembering. We “forget” so that we no longer hold a person’s sins against them. But we also remember so that such sins do not happen again. For example, it can be said that a sex offender registry is actually an act of mercy for both the offender and the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is to say to both the neighborhood and the offender, “Remember what this person is capable of. Neighbors, be mindful. Offender, keep yourself in check.” Because forgiveness is also not a guarantee that the forgiven will not then do exactly what they’ve been forgiven of, again. Keeping one’s guard up until trust is earned is not being unforgiving, it’s merciful protection. 

Volf does not use the term “forget” in the same sense as those who would say, “Forgive and forget.” Instead, he is saying, “No, no. What they did actually happened, and is reprehensible. But you may not be the best person to pursue a justice that is also just. Hence why Christians, of all people, can only defer to God for perfect justice. It’s an act of divine mercy, and a trust in that divine mercy to say, “Vengence is thine!”

 (Just for the sake of argument, think about the last thing for which you demanded justice. What was the “crime” committed? And what was your desired solution? For me, the crime was a person driving too slow. And my desired solution was to see the car and its occupants blow up in a raging inferno. So I think it’s safe to say that I am not the best person to decide the fate of the one who has wronged me. And how many times have we seen that even the criminal justice system is incapable of a just justice?) 

It takes much more than a simple blog to get into the nitty gritty of this. Someone will always have a worse wound. There will always be the mystery of how to get there. (This is why I’m thankful for God’s mercy, and that his acceptance is not based on our record. Because, as I said before, I don’t do so well with this. And if he accepted me based on my ability to forgive, he wouldn’t!) 

I honestly cannot tell you how to get from Point A to Point Whatever when it comes to forgiveness. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a step by step process for forgiveness. It’s more like the concept of time in Doctor Who (it’s not linear, but squiggly!) But I can tell you that setting your sights on a specific justice, at a specific time is an absolutely fruitless endeavor. It won’t be enough justice. And it won’t be fast enough. To that end, forgiveness is all up to you, while trusting in God’s mercy. I’ve experienced this first hand. 

A few year ago, a pastor and his elders spiritually and mentally abused me. They attacked my wife and marriage, my reputation, and by the end of it all, my sanity and sense of reality. (Check out the term Gas Lighting.) To this day, they don’t think they did anything wrong, so they have not made any attempt at an apology. To this day, they think I am bitter and angry, and am holding a grudge. (One of them even asked a year later why I was having such a bad year — face, meet palm.) What I want to happen has not happened, and probably never will. So what am I supposed to do? I can sit around, and hope that today will be the day, and shake my fists at the heavens its delay (something I have done). Or I can release myself from the responsibility of getting justice. So I have forgiven them. But I will not forget, because I do not want to be their victim (nobody likes using that term, btw) again. “Forgetting”, yet remembering. 

LAST WORDS

I know how hard forgiveness is. I know the tedious redundancy of having to forgive the same person again, because the scars are all too eager to remind you of the damage done. And as I said way back at the beginning, I suck at it. 

But I have also seen way too many people seeking vengeance this year. I have seen way too much tit for tat retaliation. I have seen way too many people berate a person’s character simply because that person called a leader a “disrespectful” name. I have seen way too many people justify their retaliatory actions, because the offender is “stupid.” It’s not easy. But it is well worth the effort. If for no other reason than the health of your soul. Let’s be peacemakers, instead of retaliators. 

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Exposed

“So you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” Malachi 3:18

How this passage comforts you depends largely on what “team” you’re on.

If you see this world as full of sinners who hate Yahweh, this passage gives you hope that he will fry those evil people like sausages. No longer will you have to endure the heartache and frustration of people who mock Jesus with their words or actions or even inactions. God will show ’em. And sinners will be exposed for what they truly are. 

If you’re like me, if you’ve seen so much hypocrisy in the church that you want to scream, this verse gives you hope that the fakery will come to an end. Liars and posers will be exposed for what they really are. 

And ironically, even this team has two sides.

One side believing that those who called themselves Christians, but who never obeyed God – antinomian posers – will be exposed. 

And the side I’m on: Those who believe Christian talking heads (celebrities, if you will) will be exposed for their deception. This election season, I officially had to move James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr to this list. Coincidently, they each belong to the first group above (those comforted by the thought that sinners will be exposed). They each teach their followers that they must be conservative Republicans. And this past election they unwittingly (though the jury is still out on that) told Christians that they don’t need to trust that gut feeling called their conscience, or that common human decency doesn’t matter, so long as that person runs on a Republican ticket, or is a baby Christian who promises to put conservative judges on the Supreme Court. (Because apparently that is the full extent of “biblical values.”) 

Bringing it back…

The truth is, all  these things will be exposed! 

Real sinners will be seen as they truly are. 

Nominal Christians (people who are Christian by name only) will be exposed. 

Hypocritical leadership will be exposed. 

But also, thankfully, so will genuine believers. So will the peacemakers and mercy seekers. So will the radically gracious. So will the ones who put so much trust in Christ’s righteousness, that they were willing to be branded as heretics. 

We will all be exposed as the people we truly are – good, bad, ugly, or beautiful.