Forgive and Forget

I appreciate Jerry Dunn’s book, God is for the Alcoholic. This text gives helpful insights about the danger of drunkenness and principles to help the alcoholic spiritually and practically. Dunn asserts that the family of the one struggling with addiction need to forgive him and extend fellowship and support.

“The first place the alcoholic should expect to find fellowship–at home–is usually the last place it is offered. I have heard indignant cries of those who have been hurt so deeply by their alcoholic loved one. ‘How can I offer fellowship to him when he has hurt me so much?’ The answer is found in the reply of the disciples when Christ told them they should forgive a person who had sinned against them seventy times seven. ‘Lord, increase our faith’ (Luke 17:4).”

Yes, it takes faith in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to show love and extend fellowship to those who have hurt us.

Later in this book I came across a similar statement that seemed to me to be exaggerated. In the context of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son, Dunn writes:

“…Many times a wife is bitterly disappointed when she discovers she cannot turn the clock back to the way things were before when they were first married. We must start with the situation at hand, which means forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving may seem easy. The forgetting is much more difficult. Remember, we have never forgiven if we haven’t forgotten.”

I confess that I was surprised by this last statement. How can we “forget?” Is this really a requirement for forgiveness?”

When I have been asked, “Do I need to forget as well as forgive?” I would usually reply that we cannot erase some offense from our memory bank, but we are to forgive the offender. So I have had misgivings about the morality motto, “forgive and forget.”

As I continued to read, however, I noticed that the author was not literally requiring helpers to ignore another’s past behavior. The role of tough love toward the addict has its place in the recovery process. (Otherwise, well-intentioned rescue efforts result in delaying the drug abuser’s personal responsibility through enabling.)[3]

As I pondered the concept of “forgive and forget,” the Scripture about the promise in the New Covenant came to me. In Jeremiah 31:34 God declares, “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

There it is again: forgiveness is coupled with “not remembering” the pardoned sin.

Yet, reconciliation requires that the offender admit the wrongdoing, accept responsibility, apologize and be willing to make restitution (if possible).[4]

Then what does it mean to “forgive and forget”? Consider these guidelines.

1. Forgiveness requires that you not use forgiven sin as an intentional reminder.

One way to get clarity on this is to consider the opposite action. How to people intentionally remember a past event? Often some memorial is erected, such as the positive one in 1 Samuel 7:12: Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Hitherto hath the LORD helped us'”(KJV).

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, is about puritanical Boston in the 17th century. It tells the story of a young single woman with an unexplained pregnancy being pronounced an adulteress and forced to wear a scarlet letter–A.

That is obviously an external reminder. So, I suggest that “forgive and forget” requires that you not mentally or materially set up a reminder about the forgiven person’s failure.

2. Forgiveness requires that you not use forgiven sin as a filter.

The Lord’s promise to “remember our iniquities no more” was emphasized through two New Testament quotations (Heb. 8:12; 10:17).

However, in The Scarlet Letter, the town’s people always viewed Hester through the filter of her infamous sin (as identified by the “A” on her clothes). Even so, it is easy to allow a person’s sin to be a kind of filter that skews one’s view of his/her identity and value.

Instead of looking through a filter stained with past failures, we should look at fellow believers through the lens of grace and faith. Paul affirmed the significance of our new identity in Christ:

“Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:16, 17).

The apostle addressed the immature, fleshly Christians at Corinth with a positive salutation. Note how it affirms the dignity of their position in Christ: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2,3).

To view the forgiven Christian loved one through a “stained filter” eclipses their true, spiritual identity. It tempts you to treat them as second class citizens. If so, he/she is more tempted to sink to the level of other’s expectations instead of living up to their potential.

3. Forgiveness requires that you not use forgiven sin as a weapon.

If we do not choose to decommission a memory of past failure, it will likely be called up for service when a conflict escalates to a war of words. When dirt from the past–forgiven sin–is called up and used as a put-down, it definitely being “remembered.”

So, we can conclude that using past sin/failure as an excuse to condemn, punish, or reject the offender indicates a lack of full forgiveness.

How can we be enabled to forgive from the heart? Only by experiencing our own pardon through the Gospel. Then as we abide in Christ–the ultimate Forgiver–He expresses His life through us as we believe. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption….And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:30,32).

What about you?

You can also consider how these three principles listed above can relate to yourself. If you repent of a sin but hold on to self condemnation as a cloak of remorse, you are “remembering” your own sin in a detrimental way. Instead, accept with gratitude your justification and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus (Rom. 5:1; Rev. 12:11). By faith, gaze on Jesus Christ as you Redeemer and Sanctifier.

In her book Tramp for the Lord, Corrie ten Boom had this to say regarding forgiveness: “It was 1947 … I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I like to think that that’s where forgiven sins are thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever … Then God places a sign out there that says No Fishing Allowed!'”

So, let’s remember to forget.

[1] Jerry Dunn, God is for the Alcoholic (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965, 1986), p.124

[2] Dunn, p. 154, emphasis added

[3] Dunn, Chapter 12

[4] For further study on distinguishing relinquishment, reconciliation and restoration, see the Grace Note: “Dimensions of Forgiveness.”

Copyright 2011 by John B. Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article in its entirety for non-commercial use with credit given.  Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version (copyright by Thomas Nelson).

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