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Forgiving and Forgetting

October 1999 | by Eric Wright

While preaching on forgiving and forgetting, C. H. Spurgeon commented, ‘No one burying a mad dog leaves the tail sticking out!’ When we forgive, we bury the beast of bitterness. But too often we mark the grave so we can return to brood.

Jenny explained, ‘I can forgive her, but I can’t forget’. She knew that to accept her friend’s apology, for biting words uttered in anger, was only right. But deep inside she felt that to forget the incident would somehow diminish her strength of character. It would show that she was weak and wishy-washy. In her mind, forgiveness and forgetfulness are not the Siamese twins proclaimed by the gospel.

But who am I to point out this glaring inconsistency in another? Mary Helen and I love each other very much, with a love that grows deeper as the years go by. With thirty-eight years of marriage behind us, however, we still have our spats. Sometimes the iron of our independent personalities — which is meant to sharpen our companionship — generates sparks that ignite a smouldering fire. At such times we find ourselves unconsciously reaching back into our memories for some incident that we can use as a weapon. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. ‘You never do . . .’. ‘Yes, but you always . . .’ You fill in the blanks.

Divine forgetfulness

How can this be? The file marked ‘forgiven incidents’ should be empty! Whenever we forgive, the record of that event should go through the shredder. Unfortunately, our memories create a series of back-up copies, filed all over the place and written with indelible ink. And when the sparks fly, they glow with malevolent light.

Clearly, we need radical help — daily. Fortunately, we have it in the person of the Holy Spirit who dwells within all God’s forgiven people. At the core of his gracious ministry to us is the work of applying the blood of Christ to heal our personal hurts. As we submit to him, he slowly, very slowly, transforms us into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

That image includes a radical forgetfulness of past wrongs. The divine forgetfulness that we are to emulate is one of the most amazing attributes of our Redeemer. How enlivening, to meditate on the fact that God has cast our sins into the deepest sea and remembers them no more (Micah 7:19). He has removed them from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). What a God we serve!

Let go the rope

Embracing that process of transformation is not easy. Corrie Ten Boom struggled to forget a wrong. She had forgiven the person, but kept rehashing the incident at night upon her bed. After two sleepless weeks she cried out to God for help.

Help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor. When she related her problem to him, he pointed to the bell tower. He explained that after the sexton let go of the bell-rope, the bell would keep on swinging. DING, DONG, DINg, Dong, d-i-n-g. But the notes would get slower and slower and quieter and quieter until, finally, with a gentle ‘ding’, the sound stopped.

He said, ‘I believe it is the same with forgiveness. When we forgive we let go the rope, but if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we must not be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down’.

And so it proved to be with Corrie. She felt a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of ‘dings’ when the subject came up in conversations. But the force of the anger dissipated as her desire to hang on to the matter evaporated.

We must let go of the bell-rope of anger and bitterness. By an act of will, and a cry to God for help, we must turn from bitter thoughts the moment they arise in our minds. Sweet forgetfulness will gradually overpower the bitter memories and suffuse our lives with tenderness towards others.