This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”
What do we do with our memories after we forgive? We wish Morpheus from The Matrix would offer us the blue pill that allows us to become blissfully ignorant of the offense that is sticky in our minds because it is associated with so many events, people, and places that are important to us. But in the absence of that possibility, we must learn to “remember well” after forgiving.
Admittedly, this brief reflection is too short to do the subject justice. But for so many of us, we have never heard this question addressed. So, a full treatment of the issue would be overwhelming. What you have here is an introduction. At the end of this reflection, a resource is recommended for a deeper dive into the question.
We will consider four aspects of remembering well. These four aspects are sequential. Each of the earlier aspects set up the later ones.
First, remembering well means remembering accurately. Forgiveness does not revise history. God is a God of truth. Much of the Bible is the recording of historical events, many of which were the epic-ally sinful actions of God’s people. It is not like God to say to us, “Just pretend like that bad thing never happened.”
As we seek to remember accurately (something we will never do perfectly), we need to begin to differentiate events from emotions. Both are real. Both were experienced. Each influences the other. Metaphorically, if you imagine a movie, events are what you see on the screen and the words the actors say. Emotions are the soundtrack playing in the background that adds depth to the actions and words.
We naturally realize that events impact emotions. It is less intuitive, and often a point of defensiveness, to acknowledge how emotions shape memories. Remembering accurately means we can create a list of the things that were said and done, and that we can make a separate list of the things that we felt in response.
We will never be able to separate emotions from the experience. This is an artificial, yet still important, distinction. Emotions are a part of our experience. But we can strive to understand which parts of our memory were exaggerated, muted, deemed irrelevant, or made central due to our emotions during an experience. This helps us do the next thing.
Second, remembering well means remembering wisely. We remember in order to be able to respond. Every history teacher started their class with the axion, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” Initially, it should be self-evident that we remember to respond wisely to the person who hurt us. That is why we’ve spent several reflections on trust being a proportional virtue and examining how wise trust develops.
But remembering wisely doesn’t just prepare us to respond to the person who hurt us. Remembering accurately also helps us respond wisely to our future reactions. Remembering accurately allows us to identity many things:
- We identify things we could have never known. This helps us let go of false guilt.
- We identify things that raised concerns, but we chose not to respond to them. This helps us be wiser in future, similar situations.
- We identify ways our current responses are heightened or muted now. This helps us understand when our emotions are more rooted in the then-and-there than the here-and-now; a distinction that helps us responds wisely to the present and continue to healthily mourn the past.
Accurate memory helps us understand ourselves at a deeper level and respond to our emotions more wisely.But remembering wisely doesn’t just prepare us to respond to the person who hurt us. Remembering accurately also helps us respond wisely to our future reactions. Click To Tweet
Additionally, remembering accurately helps us respond to God wisely.
- Misremembering makes a mess of emotions like guilt, shame, and regret. These are emotions we naturally bring to God. The less accurate we are in assigning these emotions to a situation, the more it interferes with our relationship with God.
- Misremembering impairs our ability to receive God’s comfort. Often, we try to repent for things that were not our fault. This gives us the sense that God sees us with condemnation rather than compassion when life is hard.
- Misremembering makes the application of the Bible feel dangerous. If we enact good, biblical principles in situations for which they were not intended, they do not work. Sometimes they make the situation worse. We begin to feel like God and the Bible failed us.
Third, remembering well means remembering gracefully. Calling bad things bad (i.e., remembering accurately) and having proper boundaries (remembering wisely) is not punishing. Although a person who is not fully repentant will often claim that it is. Remembering gracefully means we want the person who hurt us to know both the full conviction and full forgiveness of God for their sin.
The first part of this is easy. We want the person who hurt us to experience conviction. If our desire stops there, however, it is not remembering gracefully. Remembering gracefully does not revoke any precaution that remembering wisely entails. Remembering gracefully does not require folly from me, but it does mean desiring that every sinner (including the one who hurt us) would be redeemed by Christ.
Where does that start? It begins by being able to say, “My experience of heaven would not be tarnished by their presence.” I will resist the impulse to make God choose: me or them. While we don’t have that power, we can take that emotional stance. Next, remembering gracefully can choose not to be resentful of good things that happen in the life of the person who hurt us. Actually, this gives the person who hurt us less power over our life, and is liberating for us.
Where does it go from there? As every counselor says, “That depends.” It goes as far as wise trust (see reflection 14 in this series) deems appropriate at the pace of your healing and restoration.
Fourth, remembering well means remembering with hope. Some of us get overwhelmed at the idea of remembering gracefully because we feel rushed. This is where hope comes in. We don’t need hope for a finished journey. A college student does not say, “I hope I graduate high school.”Some of us get overwhelmed at the idea of remembering gracefully because we feel rushed. This is where hope comes in. We don’t need hope for a finished journey. A college student does not say, “I hope I graduate high school.” Click To Tweet
Hope means there is an important road ahead and that we believe, with God’s strength, we will eventually complete that part of our journey (Philippians 1:6). Remembering with hope means that we do not give the darkness of past pain the final word on our life. Remembering with hope means we believe the light ahead is brighter than the darkness behind is bleak.
Remembering with hope trusts that God will wipe away every tear in heaven (Revelation 21:3) and looks for the ways in which God is proving himself good in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13). Remembering with hope has the courage and integrity to be honest about our doubts. It brings those doubts to someone we trust, God, for reassurance. That is what every psalm of lament is.
Now you may say, “I get it. This is helpful. But it’s incomplete. It’s not enough.” You are right. If remembering well is where you are stuck on your journey of forgiveness, I would recommend the book The End of Memory by Miroslav Volf. Miroslav, now a professor Yale, writes about his experience of forgiving “Captain G,” his chief interrogator for 8 years while being a political prisoner for being a Christian and “Western sympathizer” in the former communist Yugoslavia. He provides an excellent, sensitive, and gospel-centered consideration of what to do with profoundly painful memories like these after forgiving.
Questions for Reflection
- Before reading reflection, if someone asked you what they were supposed to do with painful memories after they’ve forgiven the person who hurt them, what would you have said?
- Which of the four aspects of remembering well captures where you are in dealing with painful memories after forgiving? If you have forgiven multiple intensely painful experiences you may be at a different place with each one.
 You can read an excerpt from this book at bradhambrick.com/volf1.