Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching a series on the Parables of Jesus and this past Sunday we looked at the two parables of the Two Debtors in Luke 7:36-50 and Matthew 18:23-35. (Click here to listen to the audio of that message)

Both of these parables deal with the topic of forgiveness; the first is focused on how God’s forgiveness of us affects how we relate to God, the second is about how God’s forgiveness of us affects how we relate to others.

The second parable is about a man who owes a massive debt to the king: 10,000 Talents.

A talent was a measurement of money which was equivalent to 20 years wages for a laborer. You can do the math: let’s say a laborer’s wage here in the US is $30,000/year. 1 Talent would be $600,000. This guy owed 10,000 Talents — which would be 6 billion dollars!

However, the king had mercy on him and forgave him his debt.

The men then went out and found someone who owed him 100 Denarii (about $10,000 using the above calculation). That man he demanded pay him back immediately, and when the man asked for mercy (just as he had from the king), he showed him no mercy. He choked him and then had him bound and thrown in debtor’s prison – a terrible fate from which there was no way out.

Upon hearing about this, the king brings the man in, scolds him and calls him “wicked”, then informs him that he will not be forgiven of his debt after all, and he will also be put in debtor’s prison, presumably for the rest of his life.
The parable ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

The message is clear: if you have been forgiven by God, there is no excuse for you withholding forgiveness from someone who has wronged you or hurt you in some way. In fact, the most severe warning is given to those who do refuse to forgive others.

So forgiveness is a big deal. A really big deal.

Why do people hesitate to forgive others? I think one of the reasons is because there is a lot of confusion about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t, and what it means to forgive.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about forgiveness — is that forgiving means forgetting: acting like what happened never happened.

That might be easy to do if it is a minor offense — but there are some things, such as major traumas, which people do not know how to forget, even if they wanted to. Furthermore, sometimes the expectation that forgiving means forgetting can be unwise and even dangerous.

For example: When I was pastoring in Hungary, there was a person from the US who wanted to work with us as a missionary — specifically, he wanted to work with youth, because we had a large youth outreach. BUT: he had recently gotten out of jail, and the reason he was in jail was because he had committed sexual assault against a… (you guessed it) youth.
In the US he wasn’t allowed to be around youth but in Hungary those laws didn’t apply. So, we told him: “Sorry, you can’t work with youth because of your past.” His response was: “Hey, I did my time, I repented. If my past sins are forgiven and forgotten by God, then why are you making an issue of it?”
Of course our prerogative was to protect the kids. And it’s just common sense not to put a person with a history of sexual assault against kids, together with a bunch of kids.

The thing is, this person would point to Bible verses like Hebrews 8:12 — where God says: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Or Isaiah 43:25, where God says to Israel, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

So…isn’t “not remembering” the same as “forgetting”?
Actually, no! It’s not!

When the Bible talks about God “REMEMBERING” something — it doesn’t mean that He forgot about it, and then remembered it, like: “I can’t remember where I put my keys.” Or “I forgot where I put my phone and then I remembered.”

When the Bible talks about God “remembering” something, what it means is that God focused his attention on someone or something in a given moment for a particular purpose.

For example: throughout the Old Testament, it says over and over: God remembered Noah. God remembered Abraham. God remembered Rachel. God remembered the covenant that He had made with Israel.

Does that mean that God was like: “Oh yeah — Abraham! I totally forgot about that guy!” Or “Oh yeah — I totally forgot about that covenant I made with Israel! Thanks for reminding me!” No. It means that in that moment, God turned his focus and attention to those people or that thing.

Notice that even the king in this parable remembered the amount of the debt he had forgiven the servant.

When it says that God remembers our sins no more, it doesn’t mean that He erases them from His memory — what it means that He will never focus on them again. He’ll never hold them over our heads or throw them in our face.

The message of the Gospel is that Jesus took your record or wrongs, and took his record of rights — and he scratched out the names on the top and wrote his name on your record and wrote your name on his record, and then he took the judgment before God that your record deserved.

What that means is that from a legal perspective, God has cleared our record and made it like we never sinned. But that doesn’t mean that He, as an omniscient God, has forgotten about them. One of the best verses about this topic is Isaiah 38:17, “for you have cast all my sins behind your back.” In other words: God has chosen to not look on them any more.

Many people struggle to forgive others, because they have been given this misconception that forgiving someone means that they have to forget about what happened to them and act like it never happened.
Maybe even you have experienced things which can’t be erased from your memory. Please understand that just because you can’t forget that something happened, doesn’t mean that you can’t forgive the person who did it to you.

Furthermore, forgiveness and trust are two separate things. Proverbs 14:15 says: “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.”

A lot of people confuse forgiveness and trust, and some people are unwilling to forgive, because they’re not ready to trust that person again. On the other hand, some people expect that if someone has forgiven them that they should automatically trust them again. That’s not true, in fact in some cases it would be very unwise — like in the case I mentioned above.

So, what is forgiveness then?

Forgiveness is: Not seeking your own revenge.

It means no longer holding onto the thing which happened to you, but giving it over to God.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t seek justice if it’s a legal matter. In fact, in some cases, seeking legal justice is the best and most loving thing you can do, because it might be preventing that person from hurting another person in the way that they hurt you.
But even if you seek legal justice, to forgive someone means you are not vindictive! You let go of the desire to hurt that person back because they hurt you.

Forgiveness means: Not being consumed by the past.

Some people are hesitant to forgive, because they feel like if they forgive that person who hurt them, and they let it go — then that person got away with what they did! — as if by forgiving them, they’re saying that what that person did was okay!
But it’s important that we understand that forgiveness isn’t about exonerating the person who hurt you nor trivializing what they did, or saying it was okay — it’s about you letting go of that thing, and not letting it consume your life, not being angry or resentful towards that person, but trusting God that He has or will deal with it justly in the end.

The promise we have in Jesus is that God hasn’t just swept sins and wrongdoings, evils and injustices under the proverbial rug, but He has dealt with every single one of them fully and justly in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is in the light of that, knowing that it has been dealt with by God in Christ, that we can forgive receive forgiveness joyful and show forgiveness to others.

The Courage to Say “I’m Sorry”

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Probably you know what it’s like to have people you don’t actually know, but who you know of, because you move in the same circles and you have a lot of common friends.

Having been missionaries in Eastern Europe for many years, there are many people whom my wife and I don’t know personally, but we know of them, because we’ve been in the same places at different times, or we’ve met once or twice before.

During my recent trip to Ukraine, I met one of these people: a long-time missionary in Kyiv named Cara Denney. On this trip, however, I did get the chance to spend some time with Cara and really enjoyed getting to know her. We have a lot of friends in common, but this was the first time we’d ever really talked.

As Cara was telling me part of her story, she said something that was very profound: she was telling me about how she had a strained relaitonship with her mom for many years, but after she became a Christian, she was able to forgive her mother in light of how Christ had forgiven her.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

It was a few years after that, that her mother approached her, and finally apologized for the pain and suffering she had caused Cara earlier in her life.

Now here’s the good part: Cara told her mother at that point, “Mom, I forgave you years ago!” — to which her mom replied: “I know. That’s what gave me the courage to say, ‘I’m sorry’!”

“I forgave you years ago.”
“I know, that’s what gave me the courage to say ‘I’m sorry.'”

That story reminds me of a few things:

  1. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4)
    The fact of God’s love for us displayed in Him acting to save us through Christ — while we were yet enemies! (Romans 5:10) — shows us that God deeply loves us, and this kindness and love gives us the courage to come to him and confess our sins, knowing that they have already been dealt with in Christ and that we will be welcomed in and received with open arms by the Father.
  2. You don’t have to wait for someone to say they are sorry in order to forgive them.
    Some people will never say they are sorry. But if you hold onto resentment against them, you will be the one who suffers, not them! It has been said that holding onto resentment against another person is like drinking poison and expecting to other person to die. In the end you are only hurting yourself. In order to be free, you’ve got to forgive that person for what they’ve done against you, whether they apologize or not. And who knows, maybe like with this woman, the fact that you have already forgiven them will be the thing that gives them the courage to say, “I’m Sorry.”
    After all, God is the judge, and Jesus has already died for that sin – which means that justice will be served and/or has already been satisfied. Knowing this gives us the strength and the freedom to forgive.

Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting to other person to die. In the end, you’re only hurting yourself. Forgiveness sets you free.

For more from Cara, check out this article she wrote for calvarychapel.com: Where is God in the Conflict With Russia & Ukraine?

Does Forgiveness Simply Mean Suppressing Your Feelings?

In reading through some material for a class I’m taking on Christian ethics, I ran across an interesting discussion of the ethic of forgiveness, related to Jesus as Priest (part of that being that one role of priests in the Old Testament is that they were mediators of forgiveness between God and humans).

Here is the quote from Esther Reed in the book “The Genesis of Ethics”:

Christian ethics has much to share with – as well as to learn from – the survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence. A problem for both is that forgiveness is too often confused with passive acceptance of wrong, or the suppression of hurt and anger.

The supposed virtue of self-control, and the ideal of self-sacrifice or martyrdom, can lead women to believe that in accepting abuse and exploitation they are doing what Christianity, especially in its support for family values, requires. For neither, however, does forgiveness properly equate with sweeping wrong aside. Rather, it has regard for the specifics of a person’s situation and never trivializes any suffering endured. Anything less is what Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’, because there is no recognition of guilt and no call for genuine repentance.

I recently spoke about this very thing at White Fields Church – on the oft-missunderstood topic of ‘turning the other cheek’ and what that means, because it has often been taken to mean allowing people to walk all over you or permitting people to abuse you. I don’t believe that’s what it means – and I explained that in detail in a study titled “Loving Your Enemies” – the audio of which can be found here.