Forgive and forget? What do the Scriptures say?

“Mom! Sean won’t give me back my bear,” my daughter yelled. This same scenario plays itself out between our children almost every single day. The children bicker and argue and when my husband or I ask them to make up, they refuse to, at least for a time. Usually we have to sit them down to help them see eye-to-eye or better yet, heart-to-heart.

“Why should I forgive her?” my son once asked after an especially difficult argument with his sister. “Because we love each other,” my husband and I replied. “Seriously?!” he said, exasperated. “Yes, we are a family, we love each other, and we have to forgive,” we reminded him. “Well, I’m not forgetting it,” he said. Sound familiar?

In the Gospels, the command to forgive is clear. But what does it say about “forgiving and forgetting?” Let’s take a closer look.

It’s important to know that the phrase “forgive and forget” is not found in the Bible. Forgiving someone does not mean that we ignore what happened and how it affected us. Or that we wholeheartedly restore trust, especially when it would be unwise, imprudent or unsafe to do so. We are not asked to delete painful and harmful experiences from our memory, since remembering the pain of past hurts can help us to choose more wisely and to avoid occasions where we may be hurt unnecessarily.

If the phrase “forgive and forget” means that you move on with your life for the sake of the love you have for Christ and others, that is a great step toward healing the wounds caused by the offense. But if it means that you pretend that the hurt never happened, that would be unwise.

For example, a good friend may have betrayed you. You can forgive them but decide not to be in a close committed friendship with them any longer. That is OK. You can also decide to forgive the person and continue to build trust one encounter at a time. That is fine, too.

But what happens if you continue to hold onto the hurt and hold a “grudge” against the person?

In Hebrews 12:14, we are told that those unwilling to forgive will find their relationship with God hindered and the seeds of bitterness sown in their life. We are reminded that love keeps no record of wrongdoings (1 Cor 13:5). This may sound a lot like “forgive and forget,” but a distinction is made between remembering past hurts and holding grudges.

Painful memories can last for years, but forgiveness is a gradual process and does not contradict the need for people to own their mistakes and face the consequences of their actions. Saying sorry is one step but not the only step involved. So how do you know if you or someone else is truly sorry?

For true contrition, there are four steps involved:

  • Admission of wrongdoing.
  • Sincere expression of sorrow.
  • Asking for forgiveness.
  • Resolve with God’s grace to not sin again.

Jesus emphasized how important it is for us to forgive those who do not realize they have done us wrong, and even those who have not repented for what they have done. We see this especially in the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do” (Lk 34:34).  And God made forgiveness for us dependent upon forgiving “those who trespass against us.”

We have all depended on another’s forgiveness. Most importantly though, all of us are dependent on God’s continual mercy and love towards us. When we forgive, we find true freedom, joy and lasting peace. And that same answer that I give to my children is a good reminder for all of us: we forgive because we love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We forgive because we are family. We forgive because we are loved.

Stanz is director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay.