This series was refined and enhanced to become Making Sense of Forgiveness, published by New Growth Press in 2021.

Memory after forgiveness is a dicey subject. We want to believe that God forgets our sin after we repent. We would even like to be able to forget sins other people commit against us after we forgive. But we get angry and defensive when someone implies we should “be over it by now” or that remembering pain is the same thing as bitterness. Often, we’re not sure how to unscramble this egg.

Hopefully, by this point in our series, we’ve developed enough trust that we can walk together a bit more slowly on this delicate ground. Too often, these conversations get rushed. Being hurt and rushed at the same time is a combustible combination.

Let’s return to our foundational premise – we are to forgive like Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). So, we ask, “What is God’s memory like after he forgives?” Hebrews 8:12 quotes Jeremiah 31:24 where God says, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more.” Is this an omniscient (i.e., all knowing) God promising to erase memories?

At one level, obviously God hasn’t erased the memories, or he wouldn’t remember the iniquities towards which he had been merciful. It doesn’t make sense that a God who knows every event of our lives (Psalm 139:1-16) could forget our sin. In 2 Corinthians 5:10 we learn that when we get to heaven Christians will stand before Jesus and give an account for how we lived, both the good and bad parts of our lives.

So, what is God promising? He is promising to be merciful and that after forgiveness when God sees us, he does not view us through the identity of “sinner” but through the identity of “adopted child.” God promises to “not remember” our sin – that is, not have our sin at the front of his mind – when he sees us.

The promise of forgiveness means that we never have to worry about what is on God’s mind when he looks at us. Our eyes can gaze into God’s eyes when we pray without a sense of shame or condemnation.

That is the kind of forgiveness we are called to strive towards. Like every other part of our Christian maturation (fancy word, sanctification), it is a process. What we want to talk about now, is how do we make progress towards forgiving like Christ forgave us in the area of memory.

Like every other part of our Christian maturation (fancy word, sanctification), forgiveness is a process. Click To Tweet

We start by realizing the God doesn’t change teams when we need to forgive. It is easy to feel like God is on “our team” when we were hurt. That is, we feel like God is compassionate towards us. But we often feel like as soon as the shock of the offense is over and forgiveness becomes a possibility, that God changes teams. It’s like God’s disposition moves from compassionate to demanding. This reflection should help us understand (and hopefully feel) that this is not true.

Next, we realize that our goal is much humbler than forgetting. Our goal is simply not to define this person by their offense when we see them or think about them. If we see friend, sibling, parent, or coworker instead of liar, cheater, coward, or drunk and can be merciful towards them, we are forgiving like Christ forgave us.

So, your first question is not, “How do I forgive?” but, “Who is this person? What role do they play in my life?” In several future reflections, we will grapple with the restoration of trust. At this stage, we’re not implying that forgiving means total trust. That would be “forgive and forget” by another name. We’re simply saying there is more to this person than the pain they caused, and its healthy for us to remember that.

Our next question is, “What is a base level cordiality with which I relate to someone in that role?” Remember, we’re talking about a process. The answer to this question is a first step in that process. We shouldn’t get so intimidated by the fifth, seventh or thirteenth step in the process that we fail to take the first. We’ll learn some things taking the first step that will determine the direction of the second and third steps.

Spend some time at cordiality. A repentant person won’t rush you. See the person for who they are rather than what they did. A repentant person responds to grace with appreciation. Allow God to generate warmth in you from the appreciation in them. Their repentance is a process, just like our forgiveness. This means that progress in one person should encourage progress in the other. This pacing allows us not to demand that our friend fully “get it” and prevents from demanding that we completely “forget it.”

Hopefully, you can see this as a good thing. Good for you. And, good for the person you are forgiving. If your friend is having a hard time getting this choreographed dance of forgiveness and repentance, invite them to read this reflection. If they say its dumb and rush you, then you’ve vetted that they aren’t repentant. They feel entitled to your trust. But, if they see how progressive restoration mirrors progressive forgiveness, it will open up much better communication and expectations for both of you moving forward.

Let’s loop back to the question of forgetting. How close can we get? The answer will vary from person to person and offense to offense, but there is a background dynamic to what we’ve been discussing that merits being brought to the foreground for a moment.

How does memory get ingrained? Repetition. The more we repeat something in our minds, the more ingrained the memory becomes. This means that one measure for bitterness is the degree of detail we remember about the offense over time. Greater memory requires frequent rehearsing.

What was our strategy above?

  1. See the person as a person, not as their offense.
  2. In mercy, relate to them at a base level of cordiality based on their role.
  3. Allow their response of appreciation to develop more warmth in you towards them.
  4. Let this process facilitate healthy restoration over time.

Do you see what is absent from this strategy? Rehearsal of the offense. Ironically, fixating on the reality that you need to forgive makes it harder to forgive.

Ironically, fixating on what you need to forgive makes it harder to forgive. Click To Tweet

“How is this safe?” you (wisely) ask. If the other person is not repentant, that shows up at Step 3. You refrain from moving forward based on their lack of healthy repentance. You can respond wisely and still maintain the emotional benefits of Steps 1 and 2.

Jesus did this frequently. He invited people into relationship but would not accept disingenuous or manipulative engagement (Luke 6:46-49). Jesus was willing, even eager, to forgive. That’s why he came to Earth (Philippians 2:1-11), but if someone’s actions revealed a duplicit heart “he did not entrust himself to them” (John 2:24). Sometimes Jesus even did this with people he was fond of (Mark 10:20-22).

I hope you realize that this means you can trust forgiveness. When we’ve been hurt, sometimes we mistrust the idea of forgiveness as much as we mistrust the person who hurt us. One of my goals for our journey through this series is to help restore your trust towards forgiveness so that you can know the freedom and healing God wants to give you through forgiving.

When we’ve been hurt, sometimes we mistrust the idea of forgiveness as much as we mistrust the person who hurt us. Click To Tweet

Questions for Reflection

  1. If someone asked you, “Does God really forgive and forget? If so, is that what he expects of me?” How would you respond?
  2. When have you experienced or seem someone begin to “mistrust the idea of forgiveness as much as we mistrust the person who hurt us”?