The brilliant Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig has a quote which says, “Love one another and you will be happy. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.”
Forgiveness, as a particular expression of love, is simple in principle but difficult when we are the ones who need to do the forgiving. None of us go through life without being betrayed at some level. As a result, we all need to learn about forgiveness for our relationships to prosper.
The divine nature of forgiveness is shown in the wonderful fact that it has universal relevance. Forgiveness applies to our personal relationships as much as it does to international relations.
But what does forgiveness look like? Specifically, what about the famous notion of “forgive and forget?” Is that biblical? Certainly it is not mentioned in the Bible, but is it implied? Doesn’t the Letter to the Hebrews say that God will remember our sins no more (Hebrews 8:12)?
The fact is that the notion of “forgive and forget” has been misused to the point that it has actually hindered relationships and reconciliation. On the surface it implies that to forgive is to say that the wrong inflicted was not that bad, it’s all ok and let’s just move on and forget about it.
But try telling that to the woman in Sudan who has just been raped and forced to watch her son be killed in front of her. Tell that to the wife who has just found out about her husband’s infidelity – again – and who doesn’t know whether or not she can go on living with him. And tell that to the races of people all across the world who have been oppressed for hundreds of years and “who need to just be patient and things will eventually change”.
To “forgive and forget” is to deny the reality of the wrongdoing. It is actually giving evil a power it does not have.
Miroslav Volf explains clearly why forgiveness is not about forgetting in the sense described above: “Forgiveness names the wrongdoing to let go of it. The thrust of forgiveness is the letting go of it. That’s why you need to name the wrongdoing.” To name the wrongdoing we need to remember it.
In Luke 23:34 we see Jesus uttering probably the most powerful words of forgiveness ever spoken. The fact that he utters these words in the moment of his greatest and most unbearable agony shows the power of what true forgiveness really is. He doesn’t say these words after his resurrection when he is about to ascend back to the glory of heaven. He does so when his pain is at its greatest. There is no forgetting in Jesus’ forgiving.
This is where we see the greatest potential for misunderstanding what forgiveness is. If we say that Jesus doesn’t forget when he forgives, we can think he is holding our sin against us. It’s a bit like Ronald Reagan’s oft-used quote, “Trust but verify.” “I forgive you, but…” is not forgiveness at all. Forgiveness has no qualifiers. It is unconditional.
For Jesus, forgiveness is all about the restoration of relationship. And he calls us to follow in his footsteps. Here’s how Martin Luther King explained it:
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt.
This is how God’s new world order is established. As Miroslav Volf says, forgiveness is a central element of reconciliation.
The reconciling of relationships through forgiveness must contain an element of remembering. Otherwise it is not true forgiveness; it is denial which does not triumph over evil. Desmond Tutu, in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, says, “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
Forgiveness – and the remembrance of wrongs committed – must be central if we are to avoid the mistakes of history. This is true whether it be in our homes, our boardrooms, or in the halls of political power.
The only form of forgiving and forgetting that the Bible endorses is when it is not an impediment to the beauty of restored relationship. As Volf goes on to say,
Non-remembrance is the outcome of successful forgiveness and reconciliation. As long as we remember, we have chiselled in the perpetrator that they are a wrongdoer. You will see them always as a wrongdoer and we give evil a power it doesn’t have. True forgiveness sees the wrongdoer as someone made in the image of God, loving them unconditionally, as God does. Non-remembrance is a crowning gift of new life.
Throughout Scripture, God leads by example in forgiving us wayward people. Passionately desiring relationship with us, God continual action, as described so eloquently by Isaiah, is that, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
It is in forgiving as God has forgiven us in Christ (Ephesians 4:32) that we help bring in the new world that Jesus has inaugurated. It is only in recognising and acknowledging the hurt we have caused God that God’s forgiveness of us is real. And it is in the pain of our oppression that our forgiveness of our oppressors has its greatest impact. To paraphrase 1 John 4:19, we forgive because God first forgave us. This is how God transforms the world.