Asking forgiveness: what if the other person can’t forget?

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What do you do when you’ve asked someone else for forgiveness and they say they’ve forgiven you, but can’t forget what you’ve done?

This is tricky. The statement, “I forgive you, but I can’t forget” can mean many different things — and it will be hard to get at what’s underneath the words without an explicit and uncomfortable conversation. Here, for example, are some of the possible meanings (whether conscious or not):

  • “I have forgiven you, but what happened was really difficult for me. It doesn’t take much to set off those same feelings again, and then the same old painful memories just seem to take over. I’m working on it, but it’s going to take time.”
  • “I told you that I forgive you because that’s the right and Christian thing to do. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Meanwhile, though, I’m not quite done making you feel badly for what you did.”
  • “When I said that, I did forgive you in the moment. But I’m still afraid that you’re going to hurt me again. And frankly, the way you’re pestering me about my forgiving you is telling me that you care more about your feelings than you do about mine — so maybe my fear is justified.”

You can see how complicated this might get.

Here are some things, therefore, to keep in mind, if you’re the one seeking forgiveness:

  • Your position is supposed to be one of humility. You may know what it’s like to have someone apologize to you when you sense they don’t really mean it. If you show skepticism or disdain, they may storm away in a huff, exclaiming, “Well! I said I was sorry!” If you find that response offensive (and rightly so!), then remember: when the shoe’s on the other foot, you don’t want to be that way either. You are the penitent asking forgiveness of someone who was hurt by something you did. Whether and when they say yes and mean it is up to them, not you.
  • Forgetting takes time and intentionality. “I can’t forget” isn’t necessarily a sign of stubborn refusal; to some extent, it’s how our brains our built. We remember the things that hurt us — that’s how we survive in the physical and social world. And typically, “forget” doesn’t mean that the memory has been erased, but that the person is no longer plagued by it. That takes three things: (a) time, (b) change on your part, in which you don’t do things to open the same wound again, and (c) change on the other’s part, namely the refusal to ruminate on their resentment, and the commitment to cultivating forgiveness whenever the memory arises again. (B) is the only one over which you have any control.
  • You have already been forgiven by God. One of the reasons for asking forgiveness is to repair the relationship. But every relationship has two sides, and you can’t compel the other person to respond in specific ways. Forgiveness only counts when it’s given in freedom. You may want forgiveness for your own reasons, but you must wait for it with patience and humility. Meanwhile, however, if your repentance is real, you can take solace in the fact that you have already been forgiven by a heavenly Father who still looks on you as a beloved child.

Does the question, “What do you do…?” imply the search for some strategy to achieve a desired response from the other person? That’s heading in the wrong direction. You’ve admitted to being in the wrong (hopefully, in a way that took appropriate responsibility without pointing fingers at the same time!). Now commit to being the loving and compassionate person you know God wants you to be, fall back on his love for you, and…wait.