Is Forgiving Forgetting? by Wendell E. Miller


What should a Christian do if he has forgiven someone
but cannot forget the offense?

Wendell E. Miller

Q. A former friend hurt me deeply, and I have tried to forgive and forget. I have asked God to help me to forgive, but I have not been able to forget. Does this mean I have not forgiven? How will I know if I have forgiven?

A. Many Christians believe that forgetting is an inseparable part of forgiving.

Quite possibly, this idea comes from the fact that God forgets our sins. The Scriptures say that God will remember our sins no more (Heb. 8:12). To "remember" or "not to remember" in Scripture refers to remembering or not remembering in blessing, or remembering or not remembering in vengeance.

The thief on the cross wanted to be "remembered" when Jesus came into his kingdom (Luke 23:42). His request was like that of a person in our day who wants to be "remembered" in a wealthy person's will, not merely by being thought about, but by being included among those who obtain financial benefits from the deceased. So, when we think about it, the biblical meanings of "remember" and "remember no more" are not so strange to our culture.

Further, God knows everything; so He cannot forget anything; or He would not know everything. In contrast, we know very little, and many things may slip our memory; but we do not have the power to forget. If we try to forget, the act of trying to forget will impress the facts even more firmly in our memories.

There are two prerequisites for knowing that you have forgiven: first, you must understand forgiveness (what the Bible says about forgiveness), and second, you must have forgiven (been obedient to God's commands regarding forgiveness).

Forgiveness is an act of the will in which a person relinquishes any "right" to get even with an offender. It does not necessarily have anything to do with "feeling" that the person has been forgiven. Again, it is an act of the will, relinquishing the "right" to "get even."

If another person asks to be forgiven, then, in saying, "Yes, I forgive you," all rights to "get even," or even to remind the offender of his previous offense, or to talk to others about it, are relinquished, unless talking about it is an act of love.*

Even if the offender does not ask for forgiveness, God's command is to forgive (Mark 11:25). This means praying and relinquishing to God, the "right" to "get even." Actually, we have no "right" to "get even." God reserves to Himself the right to settle all accounts (Rom. 12:19).

As an example of forgiveness, imagine that I owed you a sum of money, and you came to me to be paid. I gave you a long hard-luck story; and you sat quietly, not believing my story. Then I asked you to forgive me the debt. You thought to yourself, He will never pay me; so I will not lose anything by saying that I forgive him the debt. So begrudgingly you said, "Yes, I forgive you the debt." As you left theoffice, you got very angry at yourself for saying that you would forgive the debt. In a few days you decided to try again to get me to pay you. So you came in and asked to be paid. Then I said, "I do not owe you any money."

You had relinquished all rights to collect the debt by your act of forgiveness. You had not wanted to forgive the debt, you had not forgotten the debt, and you were angry at yourself because you forgave it. But you had forgiven it. You knew that you had forgiven it because we had made a verbal contract that I no longer owed you the money. I had asked to be forgiven, and you had granted forgiveness.

Notice in the example that your "feelings" did not agree with your verbal agreement to forgive. You may feel like you have forgiven immediately after forgiving, or it may be quite some time until you "feel like" you have forgiven. Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is a contract. Feelings may or may not change at the time that you forgive.

Another misconception about forgiving is that "feeling like forgiving" is a prerequisite for forgiving. Forgiving is an act of the will, a contract, that is volitional. You can forgive because God commands it; or you can refuse to be obedient to God's command; but there is no requirement for "feeling like" forgiving or for "wanting to."

There are at least six good reasons for forgiving, and none of these includes "feeling like it" or "wanting to." First, God commands forgiveness when asked (Matt. 18:22) and even whenever the offense is remembered (Mark 11:25); second, God proclaims that He is the One who has a right to "get even" and promises that He will "square all accounts" (Rom. 12:19); third, refusing to be obedient to God's command to forgive results in a breakdown in fellowship with God (Matt. 6:15); fourth, God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32), and we are commanded to follow His example and forgive others; fifth, we have offended a holy God more, and He has forgiven us more, than others could offend us (Matt. 18:23-33); and finally, there is the danger of chastisement (Heb. 12:6) if we will not forgive others (Matt. 18:34,35).

However, if there were only one reason to forgive others--the command of God (Mark 11:25)--then forgiveness should be done as an act of obedience, and "feeling like it" would not be necessary.

Jesus did not "feel like" going to the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane, His feelings were screaming, "No! I cannot do it" (Luke 22:44). He was sorrowful (Matt. 26:37,38). He prayed that He would be able to avoid the cross (Mark 14:35). Then, in spite of His feelings, as an act of the will, He committed Himself to the will of the Father (Mark 14:36), and He endured the cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2). His determination to do the Father's will and to suffer and die as the Sin-Bearer kept Him on the cross, when legions of angels would have rescued Him (Matt. 26:53).

Where then do we get the idea that God is more pleased by obedience when we "feel like it" and when obedience is easy than when we do not feel like it and obedience is hard? Who loves most: he who does for another what is easy, or he who does for another what is hard?

Clearly, being obedient to God by forgiving another is no more dependent upon "feeling like it" than the obedience of Jesus in going to the cross when He did not "feel like it." In this, too, He is our example.

The feeling of anger toward a forgiven person may, or may not, subside immediately upon forgiving the offender. Also, the feeling of anger may come back to a lesser degree from time to time; but eventually, the fact of forgiveness overcomes the fact of the offense, and the memory of the offense loses its power to cause negative feelings.

But be sure that you have prayed, turning the penalty of the offense over to God. Sometimes Christians only pray, asking God to help them forgive. He may honor this kind of prayer; but His command is to forgive. So be obedient and pray, relinquishing all "rights" to "get even."

If the angry feelings do not subside, or if they come back from time to time, pray, telling God that you have been obedient to his command to forgive, that in obedience you have turned the offense over to him, that He has promised to square all accounts, and that you know that He will square all accounts. Then ask him to change your feelings toward the offender in His good time.

While you are waiting for God to change your feelings toward the offender, obey another of God's commands; and it is likely that He will change your feelings toward the offender as you are obedient to this additional command.

He has commanded that you love your enemy (Luke 6:27,28). This Scripture passage does not mean that you must "feel good" toward your enemy (the one who has offended you). Instead it means that, as an act, or acts, of the will, you dedicate yourself to doing good for him, without regard to how badly you "feel" toward him.

Jesus gives three ways to love your enemy. The first way to love your enemy is to do good things for him. That is, to do good and helpful things for him or to provide good or necessary things for him. The second way to love your enemy is to "bless him." "Blessing him" means complimenting him or saying good things about him to others. Be careful that your compliments and what you say about him to others is truth and not flattery. The third way to love your enemy is to pray for him. Pray for God's will to be worked out in his life. Pray for his good, not for God to change him according to your desires.

There may be situations where it is inappropriate or impossible to do good things for an enemy, but it is always possible to pray for an enemy as long as he lives.

Do not let your feelings control you. Instead, be obedient to God's command to forgive. Be obedient to God's command to love your enemy. Leave the feelings to God. You may be surprised how quickly He will change your feelings toward the offender. But if He does not choose to change your feelings as soon as you would like, you can still be obedient to His commands, and he will be pleased with your obedience.

*Editorial Note: Neither vertical forgiveness (releasing the penalty of the offense to God through prayer--Mark 11:25) nor horizontal forgiveness (releasing the offense to a repentant offender--Luke 17:3-4) require that the offended person act as if he has forgotten, if love demands otherwise. For a detailed study of all six kinds of forgiveness, see Forgiveness: The Power and the Puzzles by Wendell E. Miller.

Copyright 1986 by Wendell E. Miller
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J.H said...

that's actually very true and being a christian minority, living an opressed life, sometimes it's hard for me to forgive. But you are right sister, we must obey God's first and love, bless, and forgive our enemy.

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