“I will forgive, but I will never forget.” It’s tempting to think of “forgiveness” as somehow equivalent to a legal acquittal. It’s why it’s often so difficult to overcome past hurt. Yesterday, we discussed the way that the forgiveness makes reconciliation ideal, though there may be circumstances in which reconciliation is simply not possible.
We looked at David Brooks’ fourfold process of reconciliation:
- Pre-emptive mercy
- Confession and repentance
- Reconciliation and re-trust
Again, when true repentance does not happen, then forgiveness cannot lead to true reconciliation.
“Ok,” you might be thinking, “but how do I know if my offender has truly repented? And how do I react if my offender repeats the same offense?”
These are great questions, and ultimately are tied to our central question: does forgiving mean forgetting? That is, if my offender wrongs me again, should I not see this as part of a larger pattern of sin or abuse?
Let’s look at what the Bible says about God’s forgiving of human sin:
“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25)
Does this mean that God “forgets” human sin?
Assume for a moment that the answer to this question is “yes.” If God forgets sin, and I don’t, then don’t I now know more than God? But that’s simply not possible—nor is it necessary. No; God says that he “will not remember.” God doesn’t forget human sin; he chooses not to remember sin.
So how might we apply this to the famous passage from Corinthians?
“Love…is not irritable or resentful…” (1 Corinthians 13:5)
Some older translations actually deal with the Greek just a bit better, saying that love “does not keep record of wrongs.”
We’re talking, of course, about the “judgment” phase of Brooks’ process. There are two extremes we must avoid here:
- Minimizing the offense: Brushing it aside as “no big deal,” “it won’t happen again,” or “that’s just the way men/women are.”
- Maximizing the offense: Seeing the offense as part of a larger pattern of misbehavior: “You never listen to me” or “You always do this.”
Neither extreme deals realistically with the actual offense, therefore neither extreme is a straight road toward repentance. One of the great tragedies of domestic abuse is that women often too quickly enter into re-trust without a genuine change on the part of their abuser. This is—at least partially—why Rowan Williams, a former church official from South Africa, reminds us that “forgetting” an offense can actually be quite damaging:
“The monument at Auschwitz to the Jews killed there has the inscription, ‘O earth, cover not their blood.’ There are things that should never, never be forgotten…real forgiveness is something that changes things and so gives hope….If someone says to me, ‘Yes, you have hurt me, but that doesn’t mean it’s all over. I forgive you. I still love you,’ then that is a moment of enormous liberation. It recognizes the reality of the past, the irreversibility of things, the seriousness of damage done, but then it is all the more joyful and hopeful because of that.”
As Christians, forgiveness should push us toward reconciliation, but only if the offense has been dealt with. The problem, of course, is that our offenders will often repeat their trespasses. What then?
- In some cases, an offender repeats his crimes because his repentance is This person may be in process, but stumble along the way. This is especially true if that offender is consumed with some addicting behavior such as alcohol or pornography.
- In other cases, an offender repeats his crimes because his repentance is entirely absent. An abuser may do an excellent job at manipulating others into seeing his/her greatness, but ultimately they’ve only gotten better at hiding their offense.
What might this mean?
- First, even if your offender is seeking help, there may be times when repentance needs to be total before trust is re-offered. This is especially true in cases of domestic/child abuse, when the presence of an offender can actually do further damage if his/her healing is less than total.
- Second, this also presents the essential value of community. For instance, if your spouse is caught with pornography, and vows not to repeat his/her offense, the surest sign of that commitment is personal accountability with another person.
- Third, this also means that we might have to deal with the pain of repeat offenses as we lovingly walk with another person along the path of repentance. Each time will be a new occasion for confrontation and healing.
- Finally, there may be times when we realize that our offender’s repentance has been haphazard—or absent. In those times we have to step back and reconsider whether a true relationship will be possible until true repentance takes place. This is at least partially why the Bible labels divorce as permissible in the context of marital infidelity.
We cannot possibly cover every circumstance in a series of devotionals. I only hope that this has been at least a good starting point to thinking about what life looks like in community. For some of you, this means that reconciliation is possible; for others of you your journey can only go as far as forgiveness. But if you experience a rift between yourself and another Christian, then remember that even if you can’t be friends/spouses now, you will be spiritual siblings forever. There will be a day when all repentance is made complete when we become perfect in the presence of the Savior.