Forgive and Forget About It

Forgive and forget. 

Someone asked me if this was in the Bible. After a pause, I shouted, “I think I know what my next blog will be about!” Truth be told, I thought it was a principle found in the Bible. I mean, shouldn’t we forgive as God forgives us, forgetting others’ sins “as far as the east is from the west”? How can we call ourselves Christians if we don’t forgive and forget?

The Bible speaks often of forgiveness, but forgetting the sins of others is relatively rare. Jeremiah 31:34 concludes, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” The Hebrew word for “remember” has to do with the action that results from bringing someone or something to mind. A rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant to us so that He will “remember” His promise to “never again” flood the world and “destroy all life.” (Genesis 9:15) In other words, God does not get amnesia and need to be reminded of things He said, but when He “remembers,” He acts according to His promises. In the case of sin, he chooses to no longer “remember” our sin, sparing us from acting out His wrath that we would have deserved if not for His merciful “forgetfulness.”

Matthew 18:21-22 is often used concerning forgiveness.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Whether it should be translated “77 times” or “490 times” is beside the point; the point is that we should not keep count of the times that someone has sinned against us, but should extend mercy to him/her as God gives us mercy. The common misunderstanding is that there should be no limit. The ensuing parable shows that there is a limit. After the king forgives the servant for a huge debt, the servant does not forgive a fellow servant for a small debt and, after the other servants appealed to the king, the servant was confronted.

“Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Notice that the fellow servant asked for forgiveness. Most scholars believe that repentance is implied when Peter asked if he should forgive his brother. A very similar passage in Luke 17:3-4 reinforces this belief. “So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” Since repentance is required in the Luke passage and the fellow servant repents in the ensuing parable of the Matthew passage, it is reasonable to assume that repentance is required as part of forgiving fellow servants of the Lord. The fact that the king punishes the servant rather than giving him unlimited mercy is the most compelling proof to me that true repentance is necessary in order to forgive and forget. If Jesus intended to convey unlimited forgiveness, the king would have forgiven the wicked servant at the end as well.

My point is this: we should give mercy and forgiveness to all that ask just as God gives mercy and forgiveness to us. Some may never repent. Someone who beats his wife can even sound sincere when he asks for forgiveness, but if he continues to beat her, he has not repented and she should not be forced to “forgive and forget.” Others might bully us or continually insult us and discourage us. We need not subject ourselves to such abuse. If someone calls us “brother” or “sister,” then it is our responsibility as a community of believers to confront those who sin, so they might repent and be restored and forgiven. Forgive and forget may have alliteration and clever rhythm and rhyme reminiscent of the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his prime, but it is not humanly possible to forget the past. Only God can truly forget sins.

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