“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
— Jeremiah 31:31–34
The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.
— Proverbs 22:3
Is there ever a time not to forgive? According to Jesus, no, but there is always a time to act wisely.
Wisdom and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. In our forgiveness, we must exercise discernment. The battered wife who forgives her husband can choose not to return to his bed. The man who forgives the business partner who stole his fortune can choose not to form a new partnership with him. The adult child who forgives their parent for a childhood of abuse may choose to keep a healthy distance.
However, our fears tend to play on our emotions and tell us that forgiveness will ultimately lead to a return to the same situation that caused the pain in the first place, but it doesn’t have to. This is why, though there are many instances where the Bible exhorts us to forgive, it never tells us to forget. Why? Because forgetting the wrong (even if we could) would tear down the psychological guardrails that keep us from going to the same place again. When you walk through a low doorway and hit your head, your mind reminds you to duck the next time you walk through it to avoid that painful experience. If you forget, it will happen again the next time. If you never remember, you never learn. You are doomed to repeat the same mistake over and over again.
No, forgiving does not mean forgetting, but it does allow you to let go of its negative hold on your life. Interestingly, the Bible talks about God forgetting our sins. In Jeremiah 31:34, God says that He will remember the sins of His people no more. Does that mean that God forgets? If God is omniscient, He can’t truly forget. In “forgetting,” He no longer holds our sins against us and no longer needs to dwell on them. This is the same for you if you choose forgiveness. If someone asks you about a painful situation, you’ll still remember what happened and how it made you feel, but it won’t be something that haunts your consciousness. You’ll be able to recall it, talk about it, recount it, and then move on. It no longer controls you. You’ve made the decision to release it. You’ve made the decision to forgive.
What if the person who needs our forgiveness the most is the person we tend to withhold it from most often: ourselves? Can we choose to forgive even that undeserving individual? Yes, we can. Tomorrow we’ll see why.