Forgiving and Forgetting
“I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.” – Jeremiah 31:34
In my experience, when someone says, “I will forgive, but I will never forget,” it usually means: “I will never forgive.”
In his masterpiece, City of God, Saint Augustine says that, when we are redeemed in the world to come, we will still remember our own wrongdoing, but in a different way than we do in this life. In this life, we cannot remember our own wrongdoing without being pained by it. In the world to come, we will be able to recall events without remembering the pain associated with them. There will be a kind of forgetfulness. To be redeemed, then, is in some way to be spared the pain that can accompany recollection.
In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet announces God’s new covenant and makes a promise. God says, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). In forgiving, God chooses not to remember.
To forgive, something like forgetfulness is required. We are not expected to erase every memory of hurt or injustice from our cerebral “hard drives.” Rather, we are to forgive so completely that it is as if we have forgotten.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed that forgetting is the opposite of creating. In creating, you make something out of nothing. In forgetting, you make nothing out of something. He says that choosing to forget hurt or injustice suffered at the hands of another is like taking something and putting it behind your back—it’s still there, if you were asked about it, you’d have to grant that it exists, but you don’t look at it, it’s not between you, but behind you.
O God, help me to remember to forgive and, in so doing, to forget.
Martin B. Copenhaver is President of Andover Newton Theological School. His newest book is Room to Grow: Meditations on Trying to Live as a Christian.