With Christmas just 17 days away we are entering the time when families are in the midst of finalizing the last details of their Christmas celebrations. For those harboring long held resentment or carrying great anger, the celebrations can be a time of great turmoil. On the one hand, they desire to have a great time celebrating the holiday, while on the other seeing that one person or group of individuals instantly brings to mind the offenses long past rushing to the forefront as if they happened mere moments ago.
Inevitably, someone will try to provide some advice about how they just need to forgive and forget. This mantra sounds like good advice. On the surface, this adage seeks to provide people with simple advice about how to move forward with life after they have experienced a great offense. But upon further examination, one cannot life out this advice because it is flawed on at least two levels, each having to do with the second half, forget.
We encounter the first problem in when we acknowledge that we cannot willfully forget anything. The human brain, for all of its incredible capacity and ability, does not come with a delete button. You cannot unknow something. I could tell you that my favorite color is blue and then tell you to forget what I had just said to you. If I then asked to say my favorite color you may claim not to know, but that would be disingenuous unless you suffered from short-term memory loss. Over time the vividness of events may fade, but you cannot willfully forget something.
Perhaps the greatest example of the mind’s storage and recall capacity is its ability to bring things to mind in unexpected ways. Certain sensory stimulants may trigger a memory long stored in the recesses of the mind, and in an instant, the memory and its associated emotions are is as vivid as if the events happened the day before. While one may seek to put the past in the past and forget about them, a single event, smell, phrase, etc. can trigger a memory place a memory front and center in an instant along with all of the emotions and baggage associated with it.
Our inability to forget leads us to the second shortcoming of this mantra — it assumes that people can move forward as if the past never happened. Once something bitterness in our memory, we adapt our behavior in response to the new information. We may try to forget an event or pretend that it did not happen, but it has left an indelible mark on us. We may not be aware of all of the events or experiences that influence our relationships, but we can be sure that where such significant pain is involved it actively affects the way we behave toward that person.
So if we are not able to forgive and forget, with what should we replace this mantra?
Forgiveness is the ceasing from resentment toward another. Forgiving someone means that we must consciously cease resentment someone for a great offense, even if perpetrated years in the past. Additionally, we may realize that our forgiveness was imperfect and must, therefore, forgive someone several times over the years. Rather than trying to sweep resentment under the rug, we must actively choose to cease it all together. Forgiveness is not easy because we are fallen, and our sinful nature desires to dwell in bitterness. However, the Lord calls His people to a life of forgiveness just as He has shown us forgiveness in Christ.