Last week we considered the difference between forgiveness and mercy. Along the same lines there’s a phrase we often hear that’s associated with forgiveness, and it’s one that gives many people trouble.

“Forgive and forget.”

That’s it. That’s the phrase. That one little expression has been the bane of many who have been wronged by someone over the years. They understand the need to forgive; they appreciate the mental (and even physical) toll that we endure when we don’t forgive, but knowing that forgiveness means forgetting often makes offering forgiveness a bridge too far.

It might help us, first, to remember what was said last week

The way I treat the sinner in question has to reflect the way God deals with the sinner in question.

Last week that was said in the context of whether or not we should—or even could—forgive someone who has wronged us but not repented of that wrong. The answer was, and remains, no we should not. But let’s flip the script and consider what happens when that one who has wronged us does repent. Obviously, then, we are commanded to forgive them. Failure to do so puts us on the wrong side of the Lord and on the wrong side of the one who wronged us in the first place; we’d end up the person needing to be forgiven by them!

And yet, what does forgiveness look like when we do it? Obviously we don’t have the power to remove sins from their soul’s record, so what are we doing when we forgive? As a matter of fact, what we’re doing is forgetting. That’s all we can do. When I forgive the one who has wronged me I am actually just “forgetting” the wrong that they did against me. What that means, how that works, and why that is done are the things many have failed to understand.

Never forget that we have to treat people in a way that reflects how God treats them. Does God “forgive and forget” sin? He sure does…

“…For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah 31:34b

How does God do that? How can God do that?

This is where people get tripped up. See, I can forget all kinds of things. I don’t remember what I got for my tenth birthday in 1994. I have forgotten that. It happened. I got something (probably clothes) but I have forgotten what it was. God, however, doesn’t technically forget anything. He can’t. He is an eternal being. He exists yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is not bound by space or time. He is just as much watching me type this sentence as He is scripting the ten commandments from the cliffside of Horeb, 3,500 hundred years ago. I can’t forget what I’m doing while I do it because it’s not even committed to memory yet; it’s still happening as I type!

God cannot forget, therefore. And yet He promises to do just that when I repent and He forgives. What’s the deal?

“Forgiveness” as the Bible defines it is a legal term, not a psychological one. Imagine a person who has committed a crime, gone before a sympathetic and generous judge, and been told “case dismissed.” The judge knows what you did. The judge remembers what you did. But the judge is not going to hold what you did against you any more. The past has not changed. On the contrary, you will always have been a criminal. What changed was not the past, but the present! You are not now a criminal. That’s Biblical “forgiving forgetfulness.” That’s “remember sins no more.” It means God will not bring them up again, to use them against you in judgment anymore.

Question: If my forgiveness is supposed to reflect God, the how am I supposed to “forgive and forget”?

Answer: The same way God does.

He knows what I’ve done, but He doesn’t hold it against me. He treats me as though I never did those things. There is no awkwardness. There is no distance. I am totally restored to the relationship we had before I ever messed it up. That’s how God forgives and forgets, and it’s the same way I must. I’m not going to be as perfect at it as God is, obviously, but my goal still will be to forgive as I have been forgiven, and to legally forget the crimes of those who have wronged me, and repented of those crimes, the same way God has done for me…

And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

~ Matthew