Occasionally I’ve talked with friends who have feared they haven’t really forgiven the person who harmed them. “I keep thinking about the harm,” she might say. “It keeps hurting. So that makes me think I haven’t really forgiven.”
It’s not only a common feeling, but also a common accusation.
“You’re still talking about that? You must not have forgiven. You must just be bitter.”
After all, forgive and forget.
If you’ve forgiven, they say, then you will put it behind you and never speak of it again and never bring it back into your memory.
There are some Scriptures that are used to back up this assertion. So let’s see what they are, because I passionately believe it’s important to know and follow God’s Word.
1. Top verse, Hebrews 8:12. The Lord is speaking:
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.
If the Lord will forgive, they say, then His children should definitely follow Him in this same kind of forgiveness. After all, we do want to be like Him, right?
2. Almost-top verse. Philippians 3:13b-14. Paul is speaking, but most people would just assume that the first-person pronoun refers to the reader.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The past is the past, right? (Of course it is, just like “sin is sin.”) So since the past is the past, the argument goes, bringing any (past) incident up again acts like it’s in the present. Which is obviously a no-no, because we’re supposed to forget everything that’s behind. Get it?
3. Big one: I Corinthians 13:5d.
[Love] keeps no record of wrongs.
It’s important that you read this one in the New International Version, because other versions don’t translate it that way. (But this teaching appears to have become so engrained in the Christian culture that many people don’t even know that.)
So, the argument goes, if you keep a record of wrongs—such as writing down a list of the ways the unsafe person manipulated you, lied to you, belittled you, betrayed you, and physically harmed you—then it’s proof that you’re bitter and vengeful and obviously unforgiving.
These are the main three Scriptures, I believe, that are used to guilt people into thinking that it’s a sin to talk about the harm inflicted on them. (If there are other verses so used, we can discuss them in the comments.)
But of course these Scriptures need to be examined more closely, with context and word meanings.
1. Hebrews 8, in describing how the New Covenant is better than the Old, quotes from Old Testament Scripture Jeremiah 31, which refers to a new covenant coming in “those days” (the days of the book of Hebrews), in which the Lord says,
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
This is the context in which the Lord then declares:
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.
There is a changed heart there, a changed heart wrought by the Lord Himself. He will remember the sins no more of the people He has transformed.
This Scripture, in fact, does show us exactly how to follow the Lord in “remembering sin no more.”
It does not consist of refusing to think about the harm an unsafe person has done.
It does not consist of receiving flowery words and promises, which many harmful people are very good at delivering.
But rather it comes in seeing a transformed life, when the offender has repented and been truly changed by the power of God, showing long-term fruits of repentance. When the life transformed by the power of Jesus Christ is shown over the course of time (some have recommended more than two years in some cases, to demonstrate that the change isn’t faked), when the offender is willing to acknowledge the harm done (and if it is a crime, to receive just consequences), then reconciliation can take place, which is different from forgiveness.
Does that mean the one who was victimized has forgotten the offenses?
That’s unlikely but not really even a part of the equation. It only means that in spite of the offenses, a new life can begin. The offended one then won’t bring the offenses willfully to mind (“remember” them) and won’t continue talking about them (except to draw the contrast between the old and the new). Because why would she? A whole new life has begun.
2. I sure do hate it when Scriptures are taken out of context. The context of Philippians 3 is Paul’s list of earthly accomplishments followed by his declaration that those earthly accomplishments have no power to accomplish his righteousness, which is all found in Jesus Christ.
This discussion has nothing to do with dealing with the harm others have caused you in the past. Nothing. Elsewhere Paul does talk about the harm others have caused him in the past (such as in II Timothy 4:14-18 or II Timothy 4:10), so it’s quite clear he’s willing to recount these “past” things.
The beauty of Philippians 3, that all our righteousness is in Christ and none of our righteousness is in any of our works (even forgiveness!) is truth that none of us can afford to miss. Don’t let people confuse you into thinking it’s talking about anything other than that.
3. The NIV has troubled me before with its misleading translations (one of which I talked about in this post), and “love keeps no record of wrongs” is another example.
The “love keeps no record of wrongs” verse is translated in the King James “thinketh no evil” and in the English Standard Version “is not . . . resentful.”
About this verse snippet, Robertson’s Word Pictures (link), says:
Taketh not account of evil. . . . Old verb from logos, to count up, to take account of as in a ledger or notebook . . . with a view to settling the account.
That is, another way to say this would be “love doesn’t want to retaliate or seek retribution,” NOT the way the NIV translation is interpreted as “love ignores evil behavior.”
It’s actually preposterous and often very dangerous to think that if a friend of yours loves a harmful person, he or she should ignore the harmful things being done. Sometimes writing down the harm that has taken place (a “record,” if you will) can be a step toward actually saving a person’s life. Even though love will not want to retaliate, love dare not ignore evil behavior.
There are many examples in Scripture of the people of God refusing to ignore evil behavior and getting themselves to a safe place, even without retaliating. David would be one prime example—a man who over and over in the psalms kept a record of wrongs that had been done against him by his enemies, even those who pretended to be his friends.
So how would I advise a friend who is struggling with feeling like she can’t forgive because she hasn’t forgotten?
When no crime was involved in the pain an offender caused, I might say, “Look, you’re willing for the person who hurt you to go his way without ever repaying the [metaphorical or actual] debt he left you with, and you hope the best for him, right?” (Such as, you hope he’ll come to the Lord and repentance.)
It’s very common for one who has been harmed to respond positively to this question.
I might say, “But look at your arm. Metaphorically speaking, do you see the huge infected wound on your arm from the harm he inflicted on you? Do you see that you still need to get help for that? It still needs to be tended, to receive salve, sometimes to have infected places dug out, which will be painful. If it’s not tended, it can become gangrenous. While it’s healing, you’re not going to be able to use your arm for a pretty long time. In fact, you may never regain full use of it.”
Imagine then that the people of God to look at the huge wound on her arm and say, “You’re still talking about that? You must not have forgiven. You must just be bitter. After all, forgive and forget.”
This would be either very ignorant of how the body works, or in fact downright cruel.
And of course the same is true for trauma wounds, as anyone who has studied trauma understands.
But even if fellow Christians are ignorant or cruel, the person who has been wounded needs to understand that dealing with her wound does not indicate lack of forgiveness! In fact, her very life depends on recognizing and dealing with it.
In a case in which a crime has been committed against the person asking about forgiveness, well, I just have to say I am continually stunned at how many crimes in this very country of mine, which I love, go unreported, or if reported, ignored, while the victim of the crime is blamed for it.
As crimes continue to be allowed more and more in a civil society, the powerful will increase in their terror while those they terrorize will increase in suffering. (We’ve certainly seen this in corrupt nations like Colombia.)
Is it unforgiving to say that? What a ridiculous notion. It is simply longing for the justice that produces a safe society. Our God is a God of justice, and He expects His people to be a people of justice.
In the case of crimes, “forgive and forget” increases the danger in our society.
The only case in which “forgive and forget” even remotely approaches anything true is in the case of genuine repentance, not just in words, but in a transformed life.
That, after all, is what Christianity is all about.