Forgetting or Forgiving?
The New Age Trojan Horse
by Tim Jackson & Christopher C. Warren
I wonder if you've ever been in a painful situation which you've felt powerless to change? The chances are you have. Have you ever been in a painful situation and pretended as though it had never happened, or that it wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time? Have you ever said to yourself, "It really wasn't a big deal, so there's nothing to forgive"? Or have you been in a situation where you think you have forgiven yet within you a terrible pain is still eating away at your heart?
I know of a woman who was brutally and methodically abused by her father. When asked about her life growing up, she responded, "It was a pretty normal childhood. Good times. Family vacations. The normal stuff." It wasn't until several months later that she began to release her stranglehold on the memories of abuse that continually terrorised her for nights and paralysed her relationships with men for 40 years.
Minimising the offence only served to stifle her growth toward facing the full force of the horrid reality she had grown up in. But it wasn't until she began to face the truth of the damage done to her that she felt the concrete around her feet loosen. Only then was movement toward godliness and a restored beauty of her womanhood a possibility.
It's No Big Deal?
Unfortunately this woman's initial attitude to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father is not unlike many Christians' attitude towards the seriousness of sin in general. They seem to think: "It's no big deal. Christ has paid for my sins so all I have to do is just stop." But is it really as simple as that? Did Jesus, when He was on the Cross bearing our transgressions, just "sail through" the work of atonement? Or was it, as the scripture reminds us in many places, the most excruciatingly agonising experience that body and spirit could ever experience? What about those who say: "It's no big deal. The atonement took place centuries ago. Jesus feels no pain now! It's all victory and glory!" But that also is a huge misconception. Though the price for sin was indeed paid for "centuries ago" the pain of its continuing reality in the world is still real to God otherwise He would not weep over us.
The chances are that if you take a close look at your life you will find that you have minimised many offences against you because you felt it was the only Christian thing to do. We all do it. "That's just the way Uncle Bill is. He really didn't mean it. You don't need to forgive him for that. Just accept him for who he is." "Don't take things so seriously. You're just too sensitive." "Don't expect so much of people." Familiar advice?
By such reduced expectations, forgiveness is viewed as an emergency tool taken out of the Christian's toolbox only on severe occasions, but certainly not on a regular basis.
Forgiving Too Easily?
Admittedly some go too far in the other direction. They seem unable to let go of even the smallest offences and feel they must always confront everything. That too is an obstacle to a healthy view of forgiveness. We must struggle to strike a balance between the destructive extremes of always or never confronting sin. Preoccupation with personal safety is the basis of both extremes.
Many believe that to forgive means to forget. They are likely to quote Jeremiah 31:34, which quotes God as saying, "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." The resulting logic is, "When God forgives us He actually erases our sins from His memory." On that basis such persons reason, "We are to forgive one another the way God forgives us. Since He has forgotten our offences against Him, we too will forget what we have truly forgiven."
Does God Forget Sin?
God, however, does not forget sin when He forgives it. From eternity to eternity He is the all-knowing One. He is the Author of Scripture, who breathed into the Bible a record of David's sin after he had been forgiven. The same is true of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Paul, Peter and the rest of the forgiven people of the Bible.
God is not seen as loving because He chooses to forget sin but because He chooses not to hold it against us. That is what the psalmist desired when he said, "O, do not remember former iniquities against us! Let your tender mercies come speedily to meet us, for we have been brought very low" (Ps.79:8).
God remembers that Rahab was a harlot, that David was an adulterer, that Moses was a murderer, that Abraham was a liar, that Paul killed Christians, and that Peter denied his Saviour and sometimes spoke words than were more demonic than godly. He remembers their sins -- not to shame them but to tell us the truth about those whom He loves to forgive and to restore to Himself.
The "forgive and forget" approach to forgiveness is an attempt to find a way to escape the hurt of the past. But it is based on a wrong assumption. God does not teach us to forget, but rather not to hold sins against one another. By His example, and by the help of His Spirit, He enables us to lovingly forgive even those wrongs we remember.
But though we remember the past the pain of it is washed away in forgiveness if we have truly forgiven. If we have only partially forgiven then either we will remember part of the pain or the full force of it will return as though we had not even partially forgiven. And in my experience the latter is quite common. It is true in repentance also. If we only partially repent then the sin remains within us and in all likelihood grows and multiplies again like a cancerous growth only partly removed. Repentance and forgiveness, to be effective, must be total and complete.
The Consequences of Forgiveness
Forgiveness has a double effect -- it releases the one for whom forgiveness is being sought and releases the one who is being forgiven. On a purely psychological level this is now becoming well-known. In her recent book, Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart, Robin Casarjian, a secular psychotherapist, advocates forgiveness as a means of helping people let go of old anger and resentment. It sounds good. But how is she defining forgiveness? In an interview she stated, "So often when people think about forgiveness they think about what it's going to do for someone else...What they don't realise is that forgiveness is really an act of self-interest. We're doing ourselves a favour because we become free to have a more peaceful life -- we free ourselves from being emotional victims of others" (New Age Journal, Sept/Oct 1993, p.78).
Unconditional Forgiveness: A Dangerous Trojan Horse
Many in our day have satisfied their legitimate longing for peace by adopting this unconditional approach to forgiveness. Forgiving for your own sake does relieve feelings of rage and bitterness. It does allow us to release ourselves from the bitter emotions of revenge. It does allow us to treat those who have harmed us in a manner that seems Christlike. But on closer inspection it is a Trojan horse that threatens to undermine the loving forgiveness taught in the Bible. The danger is that it changes forgiveness from an expression of love to a self-centred act of self-protection.
The Inseparableness of Repentance and Forgiveness
But doesn't God unconditionally forgive us? No. When He gives us the initial forgiveness in salvation, He does so on the basis of our repentance. He forgives us when we stop believing that we can take care of ourselves, and when we begin believing that Christ alone can save us by His own sacrifice and life.
The same is true of family forgiveness that comes into play once we become God's children. John makes it clear that God does not unconditionally release His sinning children from responsibility for their choices. He wrote, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn.1:9).
While it is necessary for us to love in order to show Christlike forgiveness, it is not necessary to forgive in order to show Christlike love. The answer is not to forgive unconditionally, but to ask the question, "What does love require?" -- love for God and love for those who have harmed us.
This page was created on 12 April 1998
Last updated on 12 April 1998
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