Occasionally I’ve talked with friends who have feared they haven’t really forgiven the person who harmed them. “I keep thinking about the harm,” she might say. “It keeps hurting. So that makes me think I haven’t really forgiven.”
It’s not only a common feeling, but also a common accusation.
“You’re still talking about that? You must not have forgiven. You must just be bitter.”
After all, forgive and forget.
If you’ve forgiven, they say, then you will put it behind you and never speak of it again and never bring it back into your memory.
There are some Scriptures that are used to back up this assertion. So let’s see what they are, because I passionately believe it’s important to know and follow God’s Word.
1. Top verse, Hebrews 8:12. The Lord is speaking:
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.
If the Lord will forgive, they say, then His children should definitely follow Him in this same kind of forgiveness. After all, we do want to be like Him, right?
2. Almost-top verse. Philippians 3:13b-14. Paul is speaking, but most people would just assume that the first-person pronoun refers to the reader.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The past is the past, right? (Of course it is, just like “sin is sin.”) So since the past is the past, the argument goes, bringing any (past) incident up again acts like it’s in the present. Which is obviously a no-no, because we’re supposed to forget everything that’s behind. Get it?
3. Big one: I Corinthians 13:5d.
[Love] keeps no record of wrongs.
It’s important that you read this one in the New International Version, because other versions don’t translate it that way. (But this teaching appears to have become so engrained in the Christian culture that many people don’t even know that.)
So, the argument goes, if you keep a record of wrongs—such as writing down a list of the ways the unsafe person manipulated you, lied to you, belittled you, betrayed you, and physically harmed you—then it’s proof that you’re bitter and vengeful and obviously unforgiving.
These are the main three Scriptures, I believe, that are used to guilt people into thinking that it’s a sin to talk about the harm inflicted on them. (If there are other verses so used, we can discuss them in the comments.)
But of course these Scriptures need to be examined more closely, with context and word meanings.
1. Hebrews 8, in describing how the New Covenant is better than the Old, quotes from Old Testament Scripture Jeremiah 31, which refers to a new covenant coming in “those days” (the days of the book of Hebrews), in which the Lord says,
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
This is the context in which the Lord then declares:
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.
There is a changed heart there, a changed heart wrought by the Lord Himself. He will remember the sins no more of the people He has transformed.
This Scripture, in fact, does show us exactly how to follow the Lord in “remembering sin no more.”
It does not consist of refusing to think about the harm an unsafe person has done.
It does not consist of receiving flowery words and promises, which many harmful people are very good at delivering.
But rather it comes in seeing a transformed life, when the offender has repented and been truly changed by the power of God, showing long-term fruits of repentance. When the life transformed by the power of Jesus Christ is shown over the course of time (some have recommended more than two years in some cases, to demonstrate that the change isn’t faked), when the offender is willing to acknowledge the harm done (and if it is a crime, to receive just consequences), then reconciliation can take place, which is different from forgiveness.
Does that mean the one who was victimized has forgotten the offenses?
That’s unlikely but not really even a part of the equation. It only means that in spite of the offenses, a new life can begin. The offended one then won’t bring the offenses willfully to mind (“remember” them) and won’t continue talking about them (except to draw the contrast between the old and the new). Because why would she? A whole new life has begun.
2. I sure do hate it when Scriptures are taken out of context. The context of Philippians 3 is Paul’s list of earthly accomplishments followed by his declaration that those earthly accomplishments have no power to accomplish his righteousness, which is all found in Jesus Christ.
This discussion has nothing to do with dealing with the harm others have caused you in the past. Nothing. Elsewhere Paul does talk about the harm others have caused him in the past (such as in II Timothy 4:14-18 or II Timothy 4:10), so it’s quite clear he’s willing to recount these “past” things.
The beauty of Philippians 3, that all our righteousness is in Christ and none of our righteousness is in any of our works (even forgiveness!) is truth that none of us can afford to miss. Don’t let people confuse you into thinking it’s talking about anything other than that.
3. The NIV has troubled me before with its misleading translations (one of which I talked about in this post), and “love keeps no record of wrongs” is another example.
The “love keeps no record of wrongs” verse is translated in the King James “thinketh no evil” and in the English Standard Version “is not . . . resentful.”
About this verse snippet, Robertson’s Word Pictures (link), says:
Taketh not account of evil. . . . Old verb from logos, to count up, to take account of as in a ledger or notebook . . . with a view to settling the account.
That is, another way to say this would be “love doesn’t want to retaliate or seek retribution,” NOT the way the NIV translation is interpreted as “love ignores evil behavior.”
It’s actually preposterous and often very dangerous to think that if a friend of yours loves a harmful person, he or she should ignore the harmful things being done. Sometimes writing down the harm that has taken place (a “record,” if you will) can be a step toward actually saving a person’s life. Even though love will not want to retaliate, love dare not ignore evil behavior.
There are many examples in Scripture of the people of God refusing to ignore evil behavior and getting themselves to a safe place, even without retaliating. David would be one prime example—a man who over and over in the psalms kept a record of wrongs that had been done against him by his enemies, even those who pretended to be his friends.
So how would I advise a friend who is struggling with feeling like she can’t forgive because she hasn’t forgotten?
When no crime was involved in the pain an offender caused, I might say, “Look, you’re willing for the person who hurt you to go his way without ever repaying the [metaphorical or actual] debt he left you with, and you hope the best for him, right?” (Such as, you hope he’ll come to the Lord and repentance.)
It’s very common for one who has been harmed to respond positively to this question.
I might say, “But look at your arm. Metaphorically speaking, do you see the huge infected wound on your arm from the harm he inflicted on you? Do you see that you still need to get help for that? It still needs to be tended, to receive salve, sometimes to have infected places dug out, which will be painful. If it’s not tended, it can become gangrenous. While it’s healing, you’re not going to be able to use your arm for a pretty long time. In fact, you may never regain full use of it.”
Imagine then that the people of God to look at the huge wound on her arm and say, “You’re still talking about that? You must not have forgiven. You must just be bitter. After all, forgive and forget.”
This would be either very ignorant of how the body works, or in fact downright cruel.
And of course the same is true for trauma wounds, as anyone who has studied trauma understands.
But even if fellow Christians are ignorant or cruel, the person who has been wounded needs to understand that dealing with her wound does not indicate lack of forgiveness! In fact, her very life depends on recognizing and dealing with it.
In a case in which a crime has been committed against the person asking about forgiveness, well, I just have to say I am continually stunned at how many crimes in this very country of mine, which I love, go unreported, or if reported, ignored, while the victim of the crime is blamed for it.
As crimes continue to be allowed more and more in a civil society, the powerful will increase in their terror while those they terrorize will increase in suffering. (We’ve certainly seen this in corrupt nations like Colombia.)
Is it unforgiving to say that? What a ridiculous notion. It is simply longing for the justice that produces a safe society. Our God is a God of justice, and He expects His people to be a people of justice.
In the case of crimes, “forgive and forget” increases the danger in our society.
The only case in which “forgive and forget” even remotely approaches anything true is in the case of genuine repentance, not just in words, but in a transformed life.
That, after all, is what Christianity is all about.
Joseph’s brothers wronged him greatly by selling him as a slave. Later he forgave them, say, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”
He did NOT pretend his brothers meant well. Nor did he minimize what they had done or deny it ever happened.
One of the worst Christian films I ever saw was Loving the Bad Man. It offers an insensitive message to rape victims. If you don’t immediately and easily forgive your rapist, visit him in prison with the baby he sired, and fall in love with him (really) you aren’t a real Christian. Ugh!
Rebecca, You referenced the nation of Columbia as an example of powerful, evil people causing suffering. What suffering are you referring to? Do you perhaps mean to say Venezuela, which as so much correct suffering?
Venezuela has had it too. I mentioned Colombia because I’m very familiar with stories from that country, since one of the missionary books I wrote is based there. The guerillas and the paramilitary and the military made a war zone out of the whole country for many years, with such atrocities as, for example, cutting off all of a Christian leader’s limbs while forcing his family members to watch.
So-called ‘christian leaders’ use this rubbish all the time to avoid accountability for their abusive behaviour. They ignore very real grievances against them by simply saying their victim is just “bitter and unforgiving”. It’s a guaranteed “get out of jail free” card, because all their loyal followers will nod their heads and say how sad it is that the victim refuses to “forgive and move on”.
Yes, so one of my goals is to help those victims of abusers and their loyal followers untwist their thinking, be able to look at *these same Scriptures* again and see that that is NOT what God was saying. Not not not.
How do we help a person who continually brings up her pain? How do we help her work through it to receive healing from the trauma so that she can move forward?
That’s a different matter from forgiving.
Working through the pain and trauma is something Christians can help with in a variety of ways, including counseling, listening, believing, and continuing to point the person to Jesus. With the work I do of prayer ministry (I’m trained in the Immanuel Approach), I have the privilege of seeing some beautiful results, with help and healing coming into people’s lives.
For many, there is trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma. Many have experienced trauma day after day and/or night after night for a large portion of their lives. This would often then, for me in my prayer ministry, necessitate patiently bringing each part of her to Jesus to experience His love, salvation, and healing. It can involve listening to the painful stories in all their excruciating detail, if the person wants to tell them, and not flinching or turning away, and then helping her take all that pain to Jesus for Him to heal. He is a Master at doing this–I’ve been privileged to witness it.
That’s not to say all the pain will be healed quickly. When there are many deep wounds, full healing take time, as each wound is carefully cleansed by the gentle Shepherd. Sometimes the trauma is extremely complicated, affecting many parts of the person, reminding us of our great need to rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment. As the person is trusting in Jesus, I don’t expect to be the only one hearing from Jesus–I expect her to be able to go to Jesus too and hear His voice and discern directly from Him what’s true and real and what she should do. Sometimes this also involves fragmented parts of her needing to do the same thing.
Healing from trauma can be a long process. But it’s a very rewarding missionary work, and I’m privileged to be able to be participating in it.
Thank you. Yes, this person has indeed had a history (and is currently) filled with the trauma of which you speak. And I listen. And I want to say “put it behind you”, but I know she needs to talk, because I, too, have been abused and I know it takes time and her abuse is far deeper and more numerous than mine. And I am still trying to heal as well. I was just wondering how to nudge her forward. Some items seem to weigh her down needlessly. Holding on to it feeds her anger. And I’m uncertain of how to help her over that hurdle. But God will give wisdom. It seems the life of the abused is learning to live with the triggers and learning how to handle responses responsively.
Beyond needing to talk, though, and beyond needing to learn coping mechanisms, which are both important, she needs to learn how to actually take her pain and trauma to Jesus. Questions like “Do you want to hold on to this pain, or do you want to be free from it” can help, because certainly a person needs to want to be free from the pain before the healing can truly begin. This is too big a discussion for the comments section of a blog post (!) but there truly are answers and ways for her to move forward if she wants to. She can find full healing in the personal presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Yes, this is so painful.. when someone you trusted previously, all of the sudden throws this accusation at you ‘You have not sufficiently dealt with that and you need to repent’! It was a real betrayal – that was a brotjer I had trusted, he had been a dear friend, a man of God and a father of three godly sons – perhaps it was not so easy for him to understand what kind of situations someone single might have.
He assumed that because of I was so hurt and heartbroken, I must have previous unforgiveness in my heart..about previous disappointments. It was like that same familiar accusation was thrown at me, again.
I tried to explain to him that no amount of dwelling in the past (a.k.a ‘dealing’ with it -) would make the newer disappointment any less hurtful. If someone comes and hits me in the face – I can forgive the person, but if the same situation occurs again, and another person hits me on the same spot, it is going to hurt again. No amount of forgiveness will make me immune to the pain.
I practically lost that friend, and others, because of some disappointments in the past years, and not only that, but they also labeled me as ‘less than’ – the bitterness card was skillfully played at me, and I was not even given a chance to defend myself. Communicating in such scenario is no longer possible, everything one says can and will be used as evidence againts the one who’s been labeled…
It was almost harder to recover from the loss of those friendships than from the initial trauma and heartbreak.
Thankfully, I am slowly coming to see that God is beginning to use that pain.
This is a heartbreaking (but all too familiar) story. But I am so thankful to hear that you’re seeing glimmers of hope about how God is using your pain. Much love to you, NGI.
It’s always best to look at scripture in the context of verses around it and even chapters. Sometimes, I think we just don’t have enough time to do this on our own, so we look to others to tell us how to think about scipture, which isn’t cool. And so, I agree with you. Too often we take things out of context and then beat people over the heads with them.
I also come form another frame of thought, as survivor; we may be able to forgive but we also might need to remember so we can have wisdom about how to interact with someone in future. For something like forgiving someone for not repaying a debt, I remember so that I can stop giving them money. And when it comes to childhood sexual abuse, I may need to remember in a health y way so that I have wisdom regarding the molester. For instance, if he was still alive, I wouldn’t let my molester near any child of mine or a child I knew.
I also think about how forgiveness is for us, and not so much for the abuser. Without forgiveness, it’s like repeatedly being abused. However, the remembering may still be with us even after forgiving. It will be how we can help others forgive.
Excellent thoughts. Thank you!
This is a post from a pastor…
” Of course you can’t forget,” I usually reply. “the more you try to put this thing out of your mind, the more you will remember it. But that isn’t what it means to forget.” Then I go on to explain that “to forget” means “not to hold it against the person who has wronged us.”
We may remember what others have done, but we treat them as though they never did it.
it is this last statement I have a BG problem with. It appears off….
Well, to “not hold it against” someone often means, to them, not seeking to warn others about the evildoer or seek any redress of grievances (as in the way the widow asked of the unjust judge). And those things are unrelated to forgiveness.
[…] This is another way people try to make the victims bear the weight of the perpetrator. If you have struggled with this, I highly suggest clicking here, as Rebecca Davis unpacks this better than I will. […]
I do thank you indeed for this wonderful article, as well as the response to “positive” people. I have the greatest difficulty with the “John Wayne Christians” who shoot from the hip and clobber you with accusations of negative thinking and lack of forgiveness. Extremely irksome. I have bookmarked both of these articles. Bless you
[…] tell them to put the past in the past (like Paul forgot “those things that were behind” in Philippians 3, never mind that he wa…), rebuking them for continuing to have flashbacks and nightmares, telling them that these […]
[…] I also wrote briefly about Philippians 3:13 three years ago in “How to Handle Those ‘Forgive and Forget’ Scriptures.” You can read that article […]
[…] —“Forgive and forget.” […]