No close friendship or intimate human relationship has ever existed without some degree of pain. It is simply not possible for fallen human beings to function in interpersonal relationships without the ever-present potential for injury. It is an expression of our fallenness to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to protect ourselves from the possibility of personal pain or injury. Consequently, for a relationship to survive in an honest, healthy, and meaningful way, the individuals in the relationship must be involved in the process of forgiving one another on an ongoing basis. Tragically, many Christians’ understanding of forgiveness is very different from what the biblical authors intended to communicate. How Christians commonly define forgiveness is often a form of spiritualized denial.
Some time ago, a couple was referred to me by their pastor for Christian counseling. The husband’s most pressing concern was to enlist my assistance in straightening out what he saw as his wife’s problem. He wanted me somehow to set his wife straight by convincing her of the necessity of forgiving him.
Early in their marriage the husband had been quite flirtatious with another woman. His conduct had deeply hurt the wife. This brought out some genuine fears she had about his commitment to her, and she wanted to talk about what had happened. In response to her request to discuss the incident he angrily quoted Psalm 103:12, which reads, “As far as the east is from the west so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
He interpreted this passage to mean that when God forgives our sins, He has forgotten them. His understanding was that, to God, our sins no longer exist. He argued that since we ought to forgive each other in the same manner that God forgives us, his wife ought to forgive him by forgetting his sin. He interpreted her strong desire to talk about the incident as an unwillingness to forgive him, and continued by asserting that if his wife would only have faith and trust God, then God would completely remove any memory of the situation. Thus, she would no longer need to discuss his behavior. Her unwillingness to forget the situation and “let the past be the past” showed, in his mind, both a lack of faith and disobedience.
The more the husband tried to convince his wife to forget what had actually happened (by arguing that forgiveness meant to forget and that forgetting was trusting God), the greater his wife’s fears became, and the more she wanted to talk about it.
Even though this man’s perspective is not biblically sound, it is a perspective held by many Christians. Like this man, many genuinely sincere Christians believe that forgiving someone who has committed an offense against them means forgetting what has happened, and that this practice constitutes faith and trust in God.
I have lost count of the number of people with whom I have counseled who were fearful of God’s punishment and were crushed by a heavy weight of guilt because of their inability to forget their past. These people had been taught that God expects them to forget any injustice done to them. They believed that truly spiritual people were able to forget the past, and it seemed that almost everyone they knew was successful in doing this. As a result, they came to believe something was wrong with them that was not wrong with anyone else. This is a tragic and crippling misunderstanding of forgiveness.
In the Bible “to forgive” literally means, “to let go.” When someone commits a sin against another, they have committed an injustice against that person. Consequently, the offender has incurred a debt to the injured party. The New Testament defines forgiveness as “letting go” of one’s right to collect on that debt. In practical terms, forgiveness means deciding to let go of hurting back the person who has hurt you. This is not a matter of good feelings or a particular state of mind. It is a decision I make, a choice not to hurt back. It is not inconsistent with forgiveness or faith to remember having been wronged and experience the feelings of pain or anger, and at the same time choose not to hurt back the person who has hurt you. It may be a decision that I have to make over and over again—and, it has nothing to do with forgetting.
When I have been wronged by someone, it is dishonest and unreasonable not to acknowledge the injustice. It makes no sense to assert that I can actually “let go” of a debt when I am denying or forgetting that the debt has even occurred.
God is the author and initiator of forgiveness, and He is our model for how we are called to forgive. However, God does not forgive us by forgetting our sin. In fact, the Old Testament is a record of the history of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, and a significant portion of that history involved the sin of the nation and its rebellion against God. Certainly one of the reasons God inspired the biblical authors to record the history of Israel was so that later generations would remember what had happened in the past.
The Bible tells us that God is the sovereign, transcendent creator of all that exists. Nothing happens to us that He has not ordained. But He does not author the events and experiences of our lives and then forget that they ever happened. God’s purpose is that we learn from the experiences that He has willed.
Could it be that when God calls us to trust Him, He is calling us to trust Him to take the circumstances that He has authored and determined and make them disappear? I think not. If we forget these experiences even though (or because) they are painful, then we fail to trust God and fail to be instructed as God intended.
Forgetting the reality of what God authors in our lives is not faith, it is unbelief. If we hold to the notion that forgiveness means to forget, we are spiritualizing our wrongful desire to forget our pain and calling it faith or trust. In so doing we are rejecting the truth that God is the author of all that happens, the painful as well as the pleasant.
Understanding forgiveness as forgetting is contrary to faith and reason, and it goes against how God created us. God designed our minds in such a way that we might remember what happens to us; our minds are like computers with unlimited memory. When we are unable to forget the past it does not mean that we have not forgiven the person who wronged us, or that at that time our forgiveness wasn’t genuine, or that we lack faith. It simply means that we still remember the experience, and the feelings associated with the injury, although perhaps we would prefer to be able to forget it. It means that the memory and pain are still there.
Dan Allender, in his book The Wounded Heart, writes, “Forgiveness built on forgetfulness is a Christian version of a frontal lobotomy…to be told, the past is the past and we are new creatures in Christ, at first relieves the need to face the unsightly reality of the destructive past. After a time, however, the unclaimed past presses for resolution, and the only solution is to continue to deny. The result is often a sense of deep personal contempt for one’s inability to forgive and forget.”
The problem we have with forgiveness does not have to do with forgetting the past. Rather, our problem with forgiveness is our strong resistance to viewing ourselves accurately. Our willingness to forgive—letting go of our right to collect on the debt owed to us when we have been injured—is directly related to our self-perception. That is, the extent to which we recognize our own need for forgiveness is the determining factor in our ability to forgive those who have sinned against us.
If my perception of myself is that I am the kind of person who requires little forgiveness, then I will not be the kind of person who lets go of hurting those back who have hurt me. On the other hand, if my perception of myself is that I am the kind of person who requires all the forgiveness that I can get, then I will be the kind of person who will forgive. Jesus makes this point in Luke 7:36-50.
Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him. And He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined. And behold, there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume. And standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet, and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answered and said to him, “I have something to say to you.”
And he replied, “Say it teacher.”
“A certain money-lender had two debtors; and one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him more?”
Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
And he said to him, “You have judged correctly.”
And turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.”
And those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?”
And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
In this account Simon, a Pharisee, is concerned about Jesus’s interaction with this woman. He says to himself, “If this man were a prophet (of God or from God) He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
Jesus responds to Simon with a parable. In the parable the Pharisee is the like the debtor who owed only fifty denarii, and the woman is like the debtor who owed five hundred denarii.
The Pharisee sees himself as the kind of person who has only a very small debt to justice when it comes to his need for forgiveness. In other words, his perception of himself is that he’s not such a bad guy. On the other hand, the woman sees herself as the kind of person who has a very large debt when it comes to her need for forgiveness, a perspective shared by both Jesus and the Pharisee. In other words, her perception of herself is that she is a sinner in great need of forgiveness.
This is especially evident in Jesus’s statement, “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
In this verse, Jesus is saying, Simon, you have little awareness of your need for forgiveness. Your belief that you are not such a bad guy, that you have only a small debt to justice, is reflected in your lack of responsiveness to me. This woman’s perception of herself reflects an accurate awareness of her need for forgiveness. She recognizes that she is the kind of person who has a very large debt and, as a result, responds to me.
To the extent that we recognize our own need for forgiveness, as did the woman, we will respond to Jesus. If on the other hand, our self-concept is like that of Simon, then we won’t be responsive to Jesus.
It is apparent in reading this passage who has been forgiven much and who has been forgiven little. Simon is self-deceived and self-righteous. His perception of himself is that he is made of different stuff than the woman. He sincerely believes he isn’t the sinner; she is. In contrast, the woman is humble and not deceived about herself. She is a sinner and knows it. But in the midst of our own experiences our self-perceptions are not so accurate, and it is difficult to see ourselves with clarity.
As Christians most of us would confess that we are sinners; it makes for sound doctrine and good theology. But when push comes to shove, is it our perception that we are different from others? Different from the prostitute in this passage? And when we are injured, how do we see those who injure us? Are they different from us? We are like Simon the Pharisee if we view ourselves as the kind of people who have a very small debt to justice when it comes to needing to be forgiven. We are also like him if we look at him and conclude that we are somehow different from him.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus makes an important connection between my letting go of hurting someone back who has injured me and to my being shown mercy and forgiveness by God. He states, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Literally, Jesus is saying fortunate are those who show mercy because they will have mercy shown to them.
Broadly, mercy in the New Testament means to show kindness to someone who doesn’t deserve it. In the context of the Beatitudes, mercy means to forgive those who have hurt you, to let go of hurting them back. So if you forgive those who have wronged you, then you will have mercy and forgiveness extended to you. If on the other hand, you are not willing to show mercy and forgiveness to those who have hurt you, you ought not expect mercy and forgiveness from God.
It is a natural thing to want to respond to an injustice. When someone commits a sin against us and injures us, they have committed an injustice against us. However, we commit an injustice ourselves if in our response our intent is to do the person harm. In this case, our response is nothing but revenge, and if we act in a way that is contrary to someone’s well being, it is wrong whether it involves revenge or not.
Determining what is in the best interest of another person is a difficult process, especially when that person has wronged us. Acting in someone’s best interest may involve confronting him with his sin, it may involve saying nothing, or it may even involve taking legal action, perhaps to emphasize the seriousness of the situation when a person refuses to acknowledge it. However, taking action simply to hurt someone would be wrong.
If I claim to be a person who is trusting God for mercy and forgiveness and yet I am unwilling to extend that same mercy to those who have hurt me, then I am contradicting what I am asserting to be true about myself. If I am not willing to show forgiveness I am like Simon the Pharisee. I am trusting that I deserve to be forgiven. Sure, I’ve done things wrong, but who wouldn’t forgive me? I’m an OK person, I’m not like the woman.
It is only when I am faced squarely with my own sinfulness and the reality of my own debt to justice that my need for mercy becomes evident. When I have come to depend on God’s mercy, then that trust transforms my outlook toward other people, including those who have hurt me. As a result I can’t possibly justify withholding mercy or forgiveness. My only option is to work toward forgiving those who have injured me.
Jesus is saying, fortunate are those who understand their own need for mercy and forgiveness and are trusting in God’s mercy and forgiveness. Fortunate are those whose genuine trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness can’t help but work itself out in granting mercy to those who have hurt them. Those people are fortunate because they are going to get the mercy and forgiveness for which they are trusting God.
In conclusion, it is very understandable why many Christians have understood forgiveness to mean forgetting. We all would like to forget that we have been hurt; it is painful to remember those times. However, if our practice is to use forgiveness as a means to forget our pain, then we make the goal of forgiveness simply to feel better, and we are using forgiveness in the same way an addict would a drug. The goal of forgiveness is to express our trust in God for His acceptance of Christ’s death on the cross as payment for the debts that we have incurred to Him. That faith requires that we face squarely into our own undeserved need for forgiveness and mercy. God has designed reality such that forgiveness is not an easy process. Our best efforts to forgive are contaminated by our desire for revenge, by our desire to avoid pain, and by our desire to see ourselves as different from those who have wronged us. God has so authored reality that we will struggle to forgive those who have wronged us. This difficult position between trying to do the right thing and not being able to do so is precisely the life-long process that God has willed for those who follow Him. His intent in this process is to mature and authenticate our faith in Him and not in our own devices.