It had been several years. The dark clouds that hovered over my family and my ministry had faded into the background, the wispy remnants of another season. And then, all of a sudden while I was speaking with an old friend, those hurts and betrayals came rushing back, fresh reminders of the pain inflicted by a former friend and mentor. Immediately, I was back fighting those same battles. Hearing those same ugly whispers. Treading that old familiar ground. I thought I was done forgiving the person who had so brutally and inexplicably slandered my name and nearly torpedoed my ministry. But, alas, I wasn’t.
All of a sudden while I was speaking with an old friend, those hurts and betrayals came rushing back, fresh reminders of the pain inflicted by a former friend and mentor.
We are often encouraged—sometimes by well-meaning fellow Christians—to forgive and forget. But I wonder if that is possible. I wonder if it’s even biblical. How can you possibly forget when someone betrays you? I’m not talking about petty insults and regular annoyances. I’m talking about brutal and difficult pain. And is forgiveness really forgetting? Did Joseph actually fail to recall those fearful nights in prison? Did David really block out of his memory the images of Saul chasing after him? Did Paul truly stop thinking about the brothers who’d left him to his chains?
God, we are told by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 43:25) and the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 8:12), “will remember [our] sins no more.” At first glance, it seems God just forgets our sins. But does He? I’m not so sure.
The word remember, both in Greek and Hebrew, carries a bit more of a holistic meaning than simple recall. Consider, for example, when Moses writes of God in Exodus 2:24: “So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” It’s not as if God suddenly recalled that He had made a covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Did I promise them something? I’m sure I wrote that down somewhere. Oh yeah, here it is. God doesn’t do that. We forget. We fail to recall. We have slipping, fallen, fragile memories. But God? “His way is perfect” writes the psalmist (Psalm 18:30 NIV). So what does it mean that God remembers? It means God acts. So when Isaiah and the author of Hebrews say God will no longer remember our sins, the idea is that He won’t act on them anymore. His judgment, meted out on the crucified Jesus, has been satisfied. God is no longer judging us for our sins.
In fact, I find comfort in the idea that God has not forgotten my failures, that He knows each and every time I have fallen short. God sees every blemish and yet doesn’t judge and doesn’t condemn because the judgment and condemnation already happened when Christ bore my shame. This is what we are doing every time we lift the cup to our lips and partake of the bread. We are, in a sense, reliving—not forgetting—our transgressions, and yet we are celebrating God’s refusal to remember, to act against them. Which brings us back to our own forgiveness. It’s modeled after and fueled by Christ’s forgiveness of us. “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other,” Paul urges the Ephesians, “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
God empowers us to forgive, because we cannot forget.
But this is harder in practice than it reads on the page. Just when we think we’ve put our hurts behind us, they come back. They lurk in the recesses of our mind. They float to the surface every time we hear that song or see that image or walk past that home. This is why, when Peter asked how many times we’re to forgive, Jesus answered, “Seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Most of us read this as the Lord giving His disciple some impossible math. Jesus, however, was not giving Peter an equation, but a lifestyle. Forgiveness is a rhythm.
We are never the same after pain. It always leaves a scar, an indelible mark on our soul.
We tend to assume that those deep and difficult hurts afflicted on us by others have a life cycle: We are hurt, we forgive, we move on. But we are never the same after pain. It always leaves a scar, an indelible mark on our soul. Forgiveness doesn’t erase that mark. Rather, it gives us a way to accept it and not let it drive us to a life of bitterness and revenge. It is a way to free our soul from the prison of despair.
Jesus was actually teaching Peter to build a habit of repentance. Day after day, week after week, year after year, for a lifetime. Jesus knew that for Peter and for all of us, the sting of our hurts doesn’t ever fully go away. It drifts back, sometimes when we least expect it, offering us the opportunity to then press in on the forgiveness we’ve been given by Christ.
Peter would come to understand this forgiveness more after the cross. This time, it was he who was the offender. The once-stalwart apologist became a craven sellout, trading loyalty for a few moments of acceptance. And then, in his final betrayal, he caught the eye of his Lord and the tears gushed out. He’d failed Jesus in the most public and humiliating way. And yet it would be Jesus who would demonstrate His forgiveness for Peter in that long walk on the beach in John 21 where, inexplicably, the risen Savior asked the disciple to shepherd His new covenant people in the church.
Ironically, Peter would not only be tuned in to the rhythm of forgiveness, but would also have to, for the rest of his life, daily draw on God’s own forgiveness of him. Every time a rooster crowed—part of the ambience of daily life in the first century—the apostle would be reminded of his own perfidy and God’s sustaining grace. And so it is, God doesn’t forget. We don’t forget. God forgives, and we forgive.
Only the outpouring of God’s wrath on His own Son can provide us with the moral framework to offer our own extraordinary grace toward our enemies.
This reality—that I don’t have to give forgiveness in a big, one-time event that erases my painful memories—was incredibly freeing. Ironically, it is the memories that drive me to forgive. They remind me of my own frailty, of hidden patterns of unbelief, and of God’s own gracious longsuffering toward me.
Forgiving the way Jesus urged Peter to forgive is impossible unless we regularly revisit that scandalous scene outside the city gates of Jerusalem. Self-help and meditation and bloodless religion cannot move us from bitterness to freedom. Only the outpouring of God’s wrath on His own Son, and only the defeat of sin and death in the resurrection, and only perfect justice can provide us with the moral framework to offer our own extraordinary grace toward our enemies. Do this often, Jesus said, in remembrance of Me (Luke 22:19).
Of course, a life of forgiving can, over time, begin to heal our wounds. I still recall the hurts from those many years ago. Interestingly, as with Peter, the increasing reality of my own deep sins against others has slowly turned some of my anger to sadness toward the former friend who hurt me so deeply. And I am looking forward to that day when I will see the end of my remembering, when the necessary rhythm of forgiveness will no longer be needed, when Jesus will wipe our tears away and all will finally be made new.
When I’m triggered again by ugly thoughts and difficult memories, I can whisper a silent appeal for power to forgive. I’ve come to accept this as a feature, not a bug, of the Christian experience. I’ve stopped wondering why I’m not “over” the things I think I should be “over.” But I also don’t have to let my hurts form a bitter crust around my heart. I don’t have to carry the weight of my own sense of vengeance.
There will be a day when seventy times seven is over. When my fallen heart and mind will no longer revisit and relive and reimagine the darkness. When the light of Christ will illuminate and perfect us in glory. In that day, our hearts will marvel in awe at the way God wove the horribleness of sin into a tapestry of sovereign grace, how He superintended all of the hurts and pains and injustices and directed our slippery steps toward home.
Photograph by The Voorhes