When someone has done something to offend or hurt us, should we just “forgive and forget”? The answer is yes to forgiveness, but no to forgetting–if “forget” in any way means denying injustice or suppressing negative emotions without working through them.
Unwanted and uncomfortable memories will come. The question is what we do with them. As Christians, we should not try in some simple fashion to forget, but to remember well. As Greg Jones has written:
the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ gives people a new perspective on their histories of sin and evil, of their betrayals and being betrayed, of their vicious cycles of being caught as victimizers and victims, so that they can bear to remember the past well in hope for a new future.
I suggested in the last post that the Lord’s Prayer is one way to think about what this might mean. That’s not to say that we use the prayer like some kind of magical incantation when we’re upset. Rather, the prayer, or perhaps one like it, should both cultivate and express a particular understanding of our lives. Here is what Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt 6:9-13, NIV)
When it comes to the matter of forgiveness, how can this prayer help us “remember well”?
First, it should help us remember that forgiveness is not optional. As noted in the last post, immediately after the prayer Jesus warns, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt 6:14-15, NIV). That should be enough to make the point.
Yet we can also see it in the prayer itself. We’re used to “daily bread” prayers: Lord, I need this, and I need it today. But who among us thinks of forgiveness as a necessity–something that ranks up there with the food we need to survive and deliverance from temptation?
Second, we remember that we are in constant need of forgiveness ourselves. We do not, we cannot, presumptuously take salvation for granted. Our sins have been forgiven, yet we still sin. And God’s purpose isn’t to populate heaven with people who once upon a time mumbled a Jesus prayer but whose lives show no evidence of being transformed by grace. Followers of Jesus must come to God in humility, knowing their own sinfulness and need.
That leads to the third and final point, the one that makes sense of the rest: the prayer should help us remember that our vocation as disciples is to embody the coming of God’s kingdom. The prayer gives us the big picture: it’s all about God and his holiness; it’s all about the coming of his kingdom.
When I hear recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, it usually comes off like this: “. . .thy will be done. . .pause. . .on earth as it is in heaven.” It makes me wonder if we really know what we’re saying. “Thy will be done on earth”: Lord, we know that your will is done perfectly in heaven; may the same be true here on earth.
The kicker is this: we can’t pray that prayer, and mean it, unless we’re also willing to pray for obedience to God’s will in our own lives. And that means, among other things, forgiving our debtors, those who have not yet done anything to make up for the ways in which they’ve wronged us.
You may have noticed that the NIV’s translation, “as we also have forgiven,” differs from the more familiar “as we forgive our debtors.” That’s because the tense of the original verb indicates something that’s already been done; the picture is of someone coming to ask God for forgiveness, having already forgiven others. Now that’s obedience.
None of this, of course, makes forgiveness a religious ritual by which we earn God’s favor. Rather, we forgive because we “get it”: we understand what God has done and is doing. The prayer resets our vision on a daily basis, opening up the narrow boundaries of resentful self-preservation to the wide-ranging, far-reaching work of restoration that God is doing through his kingdom–including the restoration he will do in our own hearts and minds, if we submit to it.
Forgive. But don’t try to forget. Instead, remember that forgiveness is not optional to the life of discipleship; that we are always in need of it ourselves; and that obediently living out the presence and truth of God’s reign is job one.
Think about it: what would change if, whenever resentment and hurtful memories surfaced, we remembered well and faithfully?