Forgive and Remember
As I sat down to write about forgiveness, I had already planned to write about the absurdity of the phrase “forgive and forget.” In the world of Christianity, this is often treated as the gold standard. If you want to please God, we say, you must forgive and forget—no matter what was done to you. But just before I started writing this article, I logged onto Facebook. It was September 11, and almost every post on my newsfeed that morning called us to “never forget.” On September 11, 2001, something terrible was done to our nation. We were brutally attacked. Many felt the attack with physical consequences. We all suffered emotional ones. We were traumatized as a nation. And yet we always say “never forget.” Why? In the days following the tragedy, the nation came together. We discovered unwavering strength and a stronger community. And even now, for those of us who lived through it, this horrific tragedy bonds together on some deep level. Our not forgetting serves a purpose. I want to make the case that the same is true in our personal lives.
Just like the mass trauma experienced on 9/11, most of us will face personal trauma in our lives that is perpetrated on us by someone else. For many of us, the perpetrator will be someone we love. For others, it will be a stranger. For some, it will be an institution, like the church. But I submit that, when someone who has been hurt in a way that will forever mark their path, telling them to forgive and forget is cruel and unwise. Forgiveness is an essential part of a healthy life. Forgiveness means choosing to let go of vengeance and let go of the anger and darkness in your own heart. Forgiving someone is a beautiful thing indeed. Hate in your own heart will grow like weeds until it chokes out every last bit of joy. But forgetting what happened to you is not only impossible, it is inadvisable. Let me explain why. We are programmed to remember. And when we remember, we can work through what happened. “Forgive and forget” is really just code for “suppress and suffer.” When we suppress our feelings and our hurts, they will never heal. Emotions are annoying that way. You can try to stuff them down, but they are still there. You know it when you get alone in a quiet room or when you have unexplainable chronic pain in your body. Emotions will be dealt with in one way or another. We get to choose if we are going to deal with them healthily.
Remembering what happened to you allows you to grieve and to feel and to work through the pain. And once you’ve done that, you can integrate what happened to you into who you are as a person in a beautiful way. When you remember what happened to you, you remember the strength you had as you overcame it. When you remember what happened to you, you are much more likely to use your story to help someone else who has experienced similar pain. What happened to you should never define you, but it will refine you in ways that can add beauty to the world, because God is in the business of redeeming the most horrible things. But this doesn’t mean that what happened to you wasn’t horrific. It doesn’t mean that what happened to you was okay. Forgiveness is a personal decision on a personal timetable. We cannot demand someone to forgive something horrendous and expect this to be an instant occurrence. And forgiveness doesn’t mean that whoever harmed you should have no consequences. If someone commits murder they must face legal consequences, even if the family of the victim forgives them. That is the nature of life. A repentant person will own what they did and welcome the consequences. If we tell people to forgive and forget, implying that they should allow the person/people/institution who harmed them to walk away with no accountability, we are giving poor counsel.
Advising reconciliation when there is no repentance is equally cruel. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not codependent. Forgiveness is a choice one person makes. Reconciliation requires a choice and an effort by both parties. And it requires genuine repentance on the part of the offending party. Repentance and consequences are usually out of our hands, but we can set boundaries and keep distance from perpetrators. Being a Christian does not mean returning to the same abuses over and over because we have the heart of Jesus. It means we love everyone, even the offenders. But love does not negate consequences. Just ask every parent you know. Can there be restoration and reconciliation even for offenders? Absolutely. But it will never erase what happened.
One of the hardest things about remembering your pain is learning how to make it a part of you without becoming bitter and cynical. I believe that the people who can create healthy boundaries and speak out against injustice without becoming cold and cynical are heroes. I have come to believe that the most beautiful people in the world are those who have endured great darkness and still insist on seeing the light. They shine the brightest. This is the healing work of the spirit of God. When we take our pain to him, own it, work through it, and determine that we will keep our inner light, it is holy work. And we can help one another in this work. If we become bitter and cynical because of what was done to us, we are victimized twice. Allowing pain to define us will lead to more pain. We must honor our pain by remembering. But then we must remember that we survived it, we were strong, God was with us, and we still have so much light to offer. Don’t let anyone permanently take your joy. It’s yours. Remember, you are still here, and you have a light to shine. The world needs your voice.