Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Forgive and Forget Conundrum

by Suzie Johnson

“I’ll forgive you, but I won’t forget.”

How many times have you heard that expression? Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.

I’ve often said I don’t hold a grudge. And I tend to forget the bad things that have happened to me – unless they hurt a family member. But even then I am quick to add that I’ll still forgive them.

Really, Suzie? Really? It doesn’t work that way.

“You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins under foot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” ~~ Micah 7:19

I can think of few specific instances where I reached a point of forgiveness, but didn’t forget. Each one involved someone hurting a person I love.

The Situation: A man in a position of authority hurt my son physically, when he was a young boy, by forcing him to pick burning hot rocks out of a fire pit. My son was scared, his hands were burned, and it was traumatizing to both of us. I reported it to those in charge, and asked God to help me forgive the man. Then I repeated my story half a dozen times. By the time I was done telling the story, ugly bitterness began to build in my heart.

But didn’t I say I’d forgiven the man? Had I really?

The Test: I worked in a place where the man was a client. Though I worked there for years before I ever came in contact with him, I knew it was only a matter of time. Probably eight years after the incident, he came in with an emergent issue. I was his first line of contact. How would I treat him? Thankfully, with God’s strength, I was able to treat him exactly like I treated every other client; with a smile, with compassion, with professionalism.

However, as soon as he was on to his next line of contact I went straight into the break room. My heart thudded against my ribcage and I was shaking inside. It was growing difficult to catch my breath.

Bitterness still held a place in my heart. How could I feel this way if I’d forgiven him? Clearly I still had a bit more work to do.

“…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” ~~ Psalm 103:12

The Situation: After one of my family members was diagnosed with cancer, she was fired from a job she loved because the boss thought she was too frail to do the job. She wasn’t frail, and she was more than capable of doing the job. She was devastated. She became depressed. I became angry. And once again, I grew bitter as I recounted the story.

The Test: My husband and I were in a restaurant having dinner with a friend. The couple who fired my family member came in and walked past our table. As they disappeared into the secondary room of the restaurant, I immediately commented on their presence in the restaurant and proceeded to tell our friend about the situation. Unfortunately, the couple was no longer in the secondary room. They were walking back past our table. Had they heard me? I was mortified.

But wait. Why did I care if they heard me or not? They hurt someone I loved. Why be ashamed?

I was gossiping about them. Not only was I gossiping, but I recognized the bitterness spewing from my heart. Where was my forgiveness?

It took two other situations, each worse than the previous, before I figured out that “I’ll forgive but I won’t forget” doesn’t really work for me. By not forgetting, I’m holding on to it. By holding on to it, I’m not really forgiving.

I must do both, just the way God does both. When he forgives me, he casts my sin into the sea of forgetfulness. He doesn’t dwell on it. He forgives, he forgets.

How can I do less for someone else than God does for me? If I want forgetfulness from God, I must in turn do the same for others.

I believe the act of forgetting is essential in order to forgive in a way that is pleasing to God. It’s also beneficial to us, both to our physical and mental health, to our relationships, and to the very essence of our lives.

What do you think? Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve “forgiven but not forgotten”? Does the act of not forgetting eat you up inside? Can you really forgive if you haven’t forgotten?

Suzie Johnson’s debut novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, is out now from White Rose Press of The Pelican Book Group. Her second novel, True North, will be out later this year. She is a regular contributor to the Inkwell Inspirations blog, a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. Suzie and her husband are the parents of a wonderful grown son who makes them proud every day – even though he lives way too far away. Suzie and her husband live in the Pacific Northwest with their naughty little cat on an island that is definitely not tropical. You can visit her at the following places:


  1. This might be the toughest job of all. I know it takes time and it's certainly easier to forgive something done to ourselves than it is to forgive pain and injury to our loved ones. True forgiveness is the goal, but we have mercy as we move forward toward it. We go day-by-day learning to be more like Christ. It would take a miracle of the Holy Spirit working in us to have Christ-like forgiveness immediately. I'm not trying to justify it but I believe it might be the most difficult steps of growth we take.

  2. I don't think you're justifying it, Deb. I think it's very true that it's a process. And much harder if our loved ones are suffering. And I'm ever so grateful for God's mercy and grace as I struggle in that area.

  3. Suzie, my husband and I recently went to a marriage...workshop, I guess. (Shorter than a conference, but fun.)

    Anyway, one section was about the difference between male and female brains. Men's brains are very compartmentalized. They can actually forgive and forget better than women because they can lock that pain in a compartment and never open it up again unless something happens that causes them to go back. Not saying it's healthy or that they won't get ulcers trying to pretend that box of pain isn't there. It's just the way they are designed.

    Women's brains are much more integrated. Think of a bowl of spaghetti with the offense being one of the noodles. It's just very hard to ignore that one noodle because it's threaded through so many other parts of our brain.

    Men can seem uncaring because they have the ability shut their pain away and pretend it's not there. Women have a much harder time compartmentalizing because so much will remind them of the pain.

    I thought that most enlightening, and it explains why the old "forgive and forget" is often more difficult for women than for men.

  4. Oh wow, Suzie, you and me, both.

    Like CJ says, I try to forget, but then something triggers the event and I hurt all over again. :(

    Thanks for posting this.

  5. Wow, CJ. That's interesting. It makes sense. Isn't the brain fascinating?

  6. You're welcome, Anita. I'm good at blocking things out if they happen to me. Most of the time. Not so good if it hurts people I love. I'm still struggling on working through that.

  7. I've actually experienced a few situations where after counseling, I had a hard time remembering something, especially remembering the feelings associated, but it's kind of weird too.

    Must be nice for stupid people, they forget everything. Or as CJ said, a man.

    Honestly, just because God can throw things away and forget them, I'm not that it means we can. We're not God, and I'm not sure that He wired us they way, although I agree that in some cases it might be beneficial. In others, though, we need the caution and wisdom that comes with experience.

  8. I like your point, Dina - wisdom that comes from experience. We wouldn't have that wisdom if we forget everything.

  9. I can honestly say that there are things I haven't forgotten (old hurts) but they don't create any emotional response for me anymore.

  10. Great post, Suzie. Thanks for being so transparent with us. Clearly it's a huge issue for all of us.

    There are a lot of things I can't seem to forget. There are other things I beg God just for the will to forgive, since I have such a hard time letting go.

    I love what CJ said about noodles. Makes complete sense.

  11. Susie, I had a situation where I had to beg God for helo forgiving, too. It's not often easy to forgive, and we sure can't do it alone. Even if we think we're doing it alone, we really aren't. Same with the forgetting. :-) Thanks, Susie.


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