forgive and forget – what does it really mean?

As we head into Easter, I’ve invited my friend Cayli Pankratz to share her thoughts on forgiveness. I got to know Cayli when she and her husband Stephen began leading a home-based Bible-study group through our church. I’ve always been impressed that she encourages those of us in the group to ask tough questions like “Is ‘forgive and forget’ actually biblical or just something Christians say?” and then helps us dig into God’s Word for the answers. A full-time mom, pastor’s wife, and lover of chocolate, coffee, and the outdoors, Cayli has a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has been a Bible teacher in various ways for the past 9 years. I think you’ll be encouraged by what she has to say!   

“I know I need to just forgive and forget, but…”

“I know that God says we should forgive and forget, but…”

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat with someone who was wronged significantly, was experiencing deep pain, and was saying words just like those through their tears.There is a whole lot of pain, complicated emotional and relational struggle, and possible implications behind that “but,” particularly when our wounds run deep. However, I want to point out that maybe we should first take a look at the former part of that sentence: God says that we should forgive and forget. Does He? We hear the phrase a lot, even (or maybe especially?) in Christian circles, but is the concept of “forgiving and forgetting” actually biblical?

It’s an interesting question. At first glance, the answer is absolutely!  In Scripture we see God saying that He has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12), and “I [God] will remember their sins no more” (Isa.43:25, Jer.31:34, Heb. 8:12). Not remembering is the same thing as forgetting, right? When I don’t remember the load of laundry I left in the washer and it sits for two days and mildews, the reality is that I forgot to put it in the dryer, and now I have to wash it again. When it comes to us humans, yes – not remembering is essentially the same thing as forgetting. But God is omniscient – all-knowing – which means that it is not possible for Him to forget anything and stay true to His nature as God.

So what does it mean that God “remembers our sins no more?” It is helpful to look at places in Scripture where God is said to “remember” in order for us to understand what it means when He does not remember.

Over and over again in the Old Testament, God is spoken of as remembering. He remembers Noah and the animals in the ark, and He sends a wind to cause the flood waters to recede. He remembers Rachel and Hannah’s plights as barren women, and He causes them to conceive. He remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while His people are in Egypt, and He sends Moses to bring them out.

In each of these cases, God’s remembering is followed by a direct and intentional action on His part.

Additionally, we are commanded by God to “remember” all throughout Scripture. The Israelites were to remember God’s law and obey it. They were to remember what He had done in bringing them out of Egypt. And Jesus set an example for us to remember His sacrifice through the regular practice of taking the Lord’s Supper. The Israelites didn’t forget God bringing them out of Egypt in the sense that they forgot it ever happened, and we certainly don’t forget that Jesus died on the cross! Yet, He calls us to remember in the sense that we are to intentionally call it to mind. We are to be dwelling on these facts, living in the reality of His rescue of us as His people. When Scripture speaks of remembering, especially God’s remembering, it means intentionally and purposefully bringing something to mind, dwelling upon it, and then acting upon it. God’s remembering is always followed by His action.

What, then, does it mean for God not to remember? Exactly the opposite. He purposefully does not call something to mind. He does not dwell upon it. And He does not act upon it. What incredibly good news for us! When God forgives us and “remembers our sin no more,” He hasn’t forgotten it like I forgot about my laundry. He intentionally chooses not to dwell upon it or call it to mind, and He has determined not to act upon it.

In Christ, He has removed our sins from us, paid for them Himself in full, and now says, “We will speak of this no further – it is finished!”

So, are we called by God to “forgive and forget?” Well, it depends on what you mean by that phrase. If you mean just let it go, move on, and try to act like it never happened – no, that is not a biblical picture of forgiveness or what it means “not to remember” sin. But we are called to be like Christ: we can choose to forgive someone, recognizing that they have committed a wrong against us but that Christ has paid for all sin and is the great and final Judge who is making all things right and new. We can then commit on a daily basis, purposefully and intentionally, not to bring the wrong to mind. And if it does come into our minds unbidden, we can choose not to dwell on it and not to act upon it.  We must be active in this, not passive. We intentionally do not dwell on the wrong, but instead, we actively set our minds on our God and His promises, such as His promise to work all things for our good – yes, even great wrongs that have been committed against us!

It is not easy. It is often painful, costly work. But Jesus has done that work for us: He has borne the pain and paid the cost, and He has taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). He is Redeemer, the One who takes all the shattered pieces and makes a beautiful new mosaic – more beautiful even than before the breaking.

And somehow, in the mystery of grace, our wounds become ebenezers – markers of remembrance – not of the pain, but of His goodness in and through it all.

One response to “forgive and forget – what does it really mean?”

  1. […] And a final word on those inevitable mistakes and shortcomings: learning to forgive each other and extend grace to your own self in the process is at the heart of good, strong marriages. If forgiveness is something you struggle with, check out my friend Cayli’s article on what it really means to forgive and forget. […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: