The Two Sides of Forgiveness

Written by Drew on March 12th, 2007

Everybody wants to forget some of the past. We all sin and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Thankfully, God saves by grace, and Christians enjoy the cleansing power of the blood of Christ (1 Jn. 1:7). This forgiveness is the only way we can keep the past from haunting us like a ghost.

But forgiving is not the same as forgetting. I know that we say “forgive and forget,” but is that really possible? According to the dictionary, “forgive” means “to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.)…to cease to feel resentment against.” But nothing is said about forgetting. There’s no magic wand to erase the part of our memory that contains our mistakes.

God has promised, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12). But can we take this to mean that he literally forgets what we have done? How do we harmonize that position with God’s omniscience? An omniscient God cannot forget anything. Therefore, we must understand his promise to mean that he will treat our sins as if they never happened, not that he wills himself into a selective memory lapse every time someone becomes a Christian.

Dealing with our past, then, entails our faith in God’s promise that he will choose to act and feel as though we never sinned, even though he knows we really did. We can believe this promise because it comes from a God who never lies (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). In fact, it is only when we accept this promise that we begin to heal. Through faith we can finally lose consciousness of our past sins (see Heb. 10:1-4).

Christians learn to accept God’s promise to forgive them, but this is only one side of dealing with our past. The other side is more difficult–learning to treat the wrongs others have committed as if they never happened.

Victimization has become a popular way to deal with the past. Perhaps this development owes its existence to several decades of psychotherapy telling us our problems are not our fault. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to understand we are victims, but only if we learn to use that information to help us move on. If by removing the blame we also try to alleviate ourselves of the responsibility, we turn ourselves into selfish little monsters who go through life waiting on things to get better simply because the world owes us something.

Think about what the hip-hop industry has done to urban America. More than a genre of music, hip-hop is an excuse for continuing down a downward spiral. Brandon McGinley of The Daily Princetonian writes,

…hip-hop perpetuates a psychology of victimization that is not conducive to socioeconomic progress. Messages identifying a problem (often associated with a group of people, such as law enforcement) but providing few practical solutions serve only to deepen outrage with no constructive outlet for those boiling passions. Furthermore, it leads communities to wallow in self-pity rather than making concerted efforts to improve their circumstances within the confines of a very free and capitalist economy that is not tilted against them nearly as steeply as they are led to believe.

Another example is what is happening in the radical Islamic communities. Advocacy groups like the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) foment rage among their constituents by pouncing on anyone who says something that might be construed as insensitive and demonizing him as someone who wants to destroy the entire Islamic faith. By making young Muslims feel like victims and stifling the discussion about Islam, CAIR and groups like do nothing but create outrage and incite more violence in an already volatile world.

Churches are full of bitter people who cannot move on because somebody hurt them. What are they waiting for? An apology? Once that is given will they really be satisfied? The answer, more often than not, is no. Bitterness gets into the soul making it difficult for a person to reconcile his differences with others, even when they ask for forgiveness.

It’s important that we emphasize God’s willingness to forgive, but we rob ourselves of the ability to heal when we omit the commands to forgive others. There are two sides to forgiving past sin (Mt. 6:14-15). Only when we acknowledge them both do we find the peace we are seeking.

“Let all bitterness…be put away from you…” (Eph. 4:31).


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