Can You Forgive When You Cannot Forget?

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It is often said that we cannot forgive if we do not forget the offense against us. This has been preached from Christian pulpits and from secular psychologists.

The question we must ask is whether this is the teaching of Scripture. I don’t think that it is. Those who proclaim this teaching usually do so from a desire to demonstrate a desirable virtue. I am not questioning their motives.

Some are not so virtuous. Their motto is to “forgive the offense, but forget the offender ever existed.”

As Christians our direction comes from the teaching of the Bible and from the example of God himself. No greater example of forgiveness has ever been demonstrated than that of the God who is holy and just.

The son of a pastor in my home town was murdered by another man. In the aftermath of this heinous crime, the mother of the victim announced that she was forgiving the murderer.

Her example made people think hard about whether they could do the same thing if in her shoes. Would she ever forget her son? Could she ever forget that he was violently taken from her? Would she ever see this man without thinking of what he did? No! Not at all. She would always be able to recall her son, his killer, and the events of the crime.

She would, however, recall that God had forgiven her of her many sins and that she would act likewise.

The example of God’s forgiveness toward sinners is not characterized by God having a forgetful memory.

The prophet declares,

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
— Isaiah 43:25

Forgiveness is characterized by not remembering the offense.

Remembering Not Sin Is Different than Forgetting Sin

I know this sounds just like forgiveness is forgetting the offense. But it is not the same. To forget is to have no recall. Remembering not is to take no action based on what is recalled.

To understand this, let’s look at what the Bible means when it talks about remembering. The first time the Bible writes about God remembering is with regard to Noah. God had destroyed the wicked in the flood, “but God remembered Noah…(Genesis 8:1).”

God not only recalled that Noah was on the ark, but he acted on his behalf. That is what it means that he remembered Noah.

To not remember something is to not act on the basis of that something. When it comes to forgiveness, God recalls that we are sinners. But he does not act as if we are sinners. He acts towards us as righteous.

This is not due to our own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ which has been credited to us. So when God does not remember our sins, he is acting toward us as righteous instead of the sinner we are.

Forgiveness Is Loftier When You Do Not Forget

This example of God is actually a loftier virtue than if he declared us forgiven while having no recall of our sins. If he had no recall he would simply be treating us according to what we deserve. We deserve no forgiveness. We have sinned. When God forgives sinners, it is an amazing thing indeed.

If you offended somebody who suffers from amnesia, he may readily grant you forgiveness on the next day if you ask him. He has no memory of what you did to him. Treating you normally would not be a big deal.

But forgiveness is a big deal. It is as big as the offense. God’s forgiveness of sinners is huge because we have committed treason against the High and Holy God of heaven.

The Omniscient God Cannot Forget

Another reason that God forgives without forgetting is that to forget would violate one of the key attributes of his existence. God is omniscient or all-knowing. He knows all. He knows you better than you know yourself. Yet he still forgives knowing full well that we are evil.

If you have been severely wronged, you will really never forget it. The key is not to somehow find a mind eraser to make empty that memory file. The key is to treat the one who has wronged you as if they had not done so.

Has your spouse hurt you deeply by their sinful actions? Did you love them before they hurt you? Then love them the same way even after they have hurt you. That is forgiveness.

Since God still retains a knowledge of the sin he forgives in us, we can truly extend forgiveness to those who sin against us without forgetting the sin. We recall the offense, but choose not to treat the offender according to that offense. We treat them as if the offense never occurred even though we know it has. That is genuine, biblical, and godly forgiveness.

Our prayer might be one like the Psalmist who asked the Lord to both remember him but remember not his sins.

Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me.
–Psalm 25:7

Question: Is there somebody to whom you need to extend this kind of forgiveness? If so, there is no better time than now to follow the example of our God.