“People tell me that if I haven’t forgotten then I haven’t forgiven.” This barometer of forgiveness has brought an abundance of guilt upon those who have already experienced the pain of broken trust. As they try to piece themselves back together again, well-meaning people heap shame on the victim for not being able to forget. Somehow, the person is expected to just act as though the offense never happened.
The saying “Forgive and forget” is actually physically impossible to do. Our brains are wired much like a computer, except we don’t have a delete button. We can choose to minimize a file (painful memory) and it is out of our conscious memory. Psychologically speaking, we call this suppression. However, given the right triggers, any file (painful memory) can be maximized to full screen, often at the most inopportune times. For example, you have forgotten (minimized) that your older sibling taunted you throughout your childhood. As an adult, you find yourself in a business meeting and a co-worker begins to tease you. The anger begins to build and you have no idea why, but you can’t control it. The feelings from childhood become maximized and you end up yelling at the person. The pain is not really stemming from the co-worker’s teasing but the taunting of your sibling. Forgetting has not healed the pain. Forgiving your sibling, however, would ease the hurt and allow you to take the co-worker’s teasing in stride.
Those who feel guilty because they can’t forget may actually be in a healthier place. There are at least two benefits of not forgetting an offense:
- When the offender has repented and been forgiven, the relationship is strengthened. The event can actually be remembered as a turning point and can even be celebrated. Forgetting the offense would actually weaken the relationship because all that has been improved and strengthened would be lost.
- If the offender has not repented, forgetting can leave one susceptible to enabling the behavior, inviting similar offenses in the future. Remembering the offense allows one to set a boundary, sending a message that the offensive behavior is hurtful and has consequences. For example, in domestic violence the “forgive and forget” philosophy permits the offender to continue the abuse and the victim becomes more and more powerless. When the victim doesn’t forget, he/she may be empowered to set a boundary that can motivate the offender to repent.
So the measure of one’s forgiveness is not their ability to forget. In fact, forgiveness is more like having a scar. You can remember the event that caused the scar. You can even remember the pain and the healing process. However, that place no longer hurts. The event that caused the damage is in the past. With forgiveness, the wound has healed and can be touched without experiencing pain. So don’t forgive and forget; forgive and live!