Long on memory, short on mercy?

Original image by Sebastian Pothe
Original image by Sebastian Pothe

An elephant, they say, never forgets.  If that’s so, then people who have been hurt or offended by others can be a lot like elephants.

And we can be those people.  I’m willing to bet that right at this moment, with little effort, you can call to mind some personal slight you’ve suffered, some insult or injury that you haven’t forgotten.  The memory may be dim and inconsequential; the feeling of being victimized by someone else’s malice, selfishness, or ignorance has faded with time.  Or the wound may still be fresh, because you keep picking at the scab.

“Forgive and forget,” the saying goes.  “Love doesn’t keep a record of complaints,” Paul writes (1 Cor 13:5, CEB).

Really?  If we are to forgive as Jesus insists (e.g., Matt 6:12,14-15), if we are to be loving as Paul teaches, must we also forget?

About a year ago, I wrote a whole series of reflections on the phrase “forgive and forget,” so I won’t repeat all of that here.  Suffice it to say that we are “wired” to remember past injuries, in order to help us avoid future ones — and we would be a lot worse off if this were not true.  To remember that we have been hurt is not in itself a sin.  The question is what we do with that memory.  Forgiving doesn’t begin with forgetting; it begins with remembering well.  And if we remember well and consistently, the injury may eventually fade from memory.

Well, then, what does it mean to “remember well”?  It certainly does not mean bitterly nursing our grievances.  Nor does it mean saying, “Oh, forget about it,” as if the injury didn’t matter.  Nor does it mean putting on the appearance of forgiveness, then directly or indirectly reminding the other of his/her offense.

Instead, to remember well requires holding all of the following together:

  • Our sense of injury may indeed be justified, and we cannot simply wave away the injustice as if it didn’t matter.
  • Only God, however, is capable of seeing such offenses through blameless eyes; we ourselves are unjust, blameworthy, and sinful creatures who are constantly in need of the forgiveness and mercy of God.
  • We cannot, we must not, withhold from others what God has so freely and graciously given to us.
  • Through the Spirit of Christ, we stop counting people’s sins against them, because God has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-21) — we are the ambassadors of Christ to a broken world that desperately needs to know that forgiveness is possible.

We have long memories.  To some extent, that’s a good thing, because we are all, in our own ways, prone both to injury and to injuring others.  But we are also God’s representatives, ambassadors who embody a message of mercy.

If we’re going to be like elephants, let’s at least be wise elephants.