I do not think that forgetfulness is necessarily helpful to forgiveness. Of course, neither is holding a grudge; but forgiveness, as part of a loving and generous outlook on relationship, depends upon an honest assessment of where we are together; and a deliberate, willed or otherwise fake forgetfulness is not conducive to honest and difficult, real reconciliation; nor, where reconciliation is neither safe not desirable, to the harder work of forgiving a serial or abusive offender.
Indeed, the worst abuses of this phrase often come in the midst of ongoing, abusive relationships, where “one more chance” is played off against “forgive and forget” in the quest for a better future in a present spiralling out of control.
Countryman makes a useful distinction between “single incidents of wrongdoing between people who have had a strong relationship, [between whom] there can sometimes be a fairly easy reconciliation and restoration,” and “habitual patterns [which] will not normally yield to such immediate solutions… Forgiveness, here, needs to respond to the whole pattern… it will say, ‘If there’s going to be a future tethered the two of us, it has to be a nonabusive one.’ … The only forgiving and loving thing here is to demand change.”*
I think that a corollary of Countryman’s argument is that the forgiving is done only when the abusive relationship is in the rear view mirror. It is almost impossible to forgive someone while they are in the act of harming us, however quickly afterwards a saint might find the grace. It is equally hard to forgive from the middle of an abusive relationship. Clear-sightedness, the kind that aids true forgiveness, takes just a little bit of perspective.
Forgiving does not demand forgetfulness; in fact, quite the opposite. If we have forgotten the hurt, what need is there to forgive?
Through Jeremiah, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews, God speaks of forgiving sins and remembering them no more (Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12). Does this mean that God forgives and forgets? Or does refusing to remember our sins mean that God refuses to let our future relationship be defined by them; that this will not be at the forefront of any future conversation, nor the first thing that is thought of when we come to the mind of God? That, perhaps, is a different and more positive prospect than pretending to forget, attempting to rewrite a past that is indelible, but whose colours need not bleed through, which does not have to define the future.
Refusing to remember first the worst aspects of a relationship, of a person’s behaviour, even as we struggle for an honest and true way to love and forgive them, may be something we can get behind without the need for pretence or selective memory.
Forgiveness is not a parlour trick, nor sleight of hand; it is not done with smoke and mirrors, and it is not pretending to forget. It is the hard work looking reality in the face, and forgiving it anyway; forgiving it enough, perhaps, to care enough for the future of the relationship to demand real, unflinching, change; the kind we might call repentance.
I had intended exploring this phrase in light of the difficulty of forgiving one who has forgotten hurting us; I will return to that theme, but it seemed important, first, to address to issue of recognizing, realizing, and remembering abuse. Forgiving those who have forgotten will be up next.
*L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 84