If forgiveness is contingent upon the ability to forget past hurts then who can forgive? Memories of painful past offenses are often seared into our mind. The adage “forgive and forget” may represent a popular way of construing forgiveness, but it usually does not reflect reality. Biblical forgiveness is not so much about absent mindedness as it is an intentional choice not to dwell on those memories. In particular, forgiveness is a refusal to bring up the memory of past offenses to the offender, to others, or to self.
Forgiveness means I will not bring up this sin again in order to use it against those who have wronged me. Forgiveness means the sin that separated us has been addressed, that repentance has been demonstrated, and forgiveness has been sought. In forgiving the offending party, then, we are relinquishing our right to hold this against the other party. From this point forward we will refuse to use past offenses as a weapon in conflict, or as tool to condemn. This is not to suggest that we can never discuss past issues or that we must pretend like they never happened. There are ways to speak about past offenses that are loving and ways to use past offenses as examples. The key distinction is found in the phrase “in order to use it against.” Forgiveness will not allow past sins to be used as continual labels, like a scarlet “A”, against those who have repented.
Forgiveness means I will not bring up this sin to other people. Jesus calls us to forgive from the heart (Matt. 18:35). If we continue to gossip about or slander those whom we say we have forgiven we are simply indicate a heart that is still bitter and resentful towards them. This is not forgiveness. We may speak of another person’s sins in order to garner the sympathy of others or to stir up our own feelings of anger again. Neither motive is compatible with genuine forgiveness from the heart. Forgiveness wants what is best for the offender, and coloring other people’s perception of this person by retelling their sins is not a concern for their good.
Finally, forgiveness means I will not bring up this sin to myself. If I am struggling with the previous two elements of forgiveness then I am likely struggling with this one. Stirring up the memory of past offenses in my own mind is a sure way to bring it up again to others. Of course, this is not easy. Painful events can become lodged in our memories. We must daily, at times, remind ourselves that we have forgiven the other party of these offenses. We must also remind ourselves of all that God has forgiven us of, in Christ. Replaying offenses over and over again in our minds will not enable us to forgive “from the heart.”
These three elements of Biblical forgiveness are foundational for fulfilling the call God has given us to forgive as we have been forgiven (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). We are to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1), and that applies especially in the realm of extending grace and forgiveness to those who sin against us. Now, these elements do not take into consideration legal matters, or natural consequences. You may forgive someone who must still face the natural consequences of their decisions, this is especially true when those consequences include criminal charges. These elements also do not necessitate that reconciliation occur. Reconciliation is a process of rebuilding trust and that takes times and demonstrative fruit. In some cases, in this broken world, forgiveness may be granted and reconciliation may never occur. Those are important details and nuances to keep in mind as you move towards others in forgiveness.
Forgiveness is less about how we feel and what we remember, than it is about what we choose to do. Forgiveness that is from the heart is about an intentional decisions not to bring up past offenses to those who wrong us, to other people, and most especially to ourselves. How are you doing at forgiving others?