This post was originally published on ChristianCounseling.com.
Working for over 30 years with couples attempting to recover from serious marital sin, I have often heard one of them say, “Why can’t you just forgive and forget?” or “You’re holding onto the past? Can’t we start with a clean slate?” or, “God says that we’re to forget the former things. Each day is a fresh start.”
Biblical counselors are also guilty of using these same phrases with their counselee’s usually when the one who has been sinned against feels stuck and is unable or unwilling to be silenced and continues to bring up past offenses or hurts in the counseling session.
There is a time for putting the past in the past, but doing so doesn’t mean forgetting the past, it means healing from it. We must never forget the past because…
1. The past is instructive. The past reminds both sinner and sinned against that sin is always painful and destructive to someone. Remembering helps both of them stay aware that they never want to return to where they’ve been. It also keeps them stay vigilant so they won’t slide back into the old habit patterns that created the problem in the first place.
Tom, one of my clients, reminds himself every day that he is an alcoholic. To forget would mean disaster. One wrong decision could wreak havoc on his entire present life that he has worked so hard to rebuild. He attends weekly meetings and joined a men’s discipleship group where he remembers what it was like to be lost, drunk, hopeless and helpless and what it feels like to be rescued by Christ. He never wants to go back to his old life. Remembering he’s an alcoholic as well as a new creation in Christ, helps him know what to do when the lure for just one drink sings her deceitful song.
2. The past is often still the present. John swears he’ll never hit Sally again and feels insulted that she won’t let go of her “irrational fear”. He wants her to reconcile and trust him again. It’s true that John has not hit Sally for over eight months. But John continues to demonstrate attitudes and actions that are rude, selfish, and inconsiderate. He is consistently unable to empathize with Sally’s feelings, and unwilling to hear her dissent.
John has not allowed his past to instruct him (about himself) but Sally has learned something from it. John may have learned not hit her again (due to his fear of legal consequences), but Sally knows John’s heart has not changed. He continues to minimize his offenses, refuses to follow the counselor’s treatment plan, and is still ruled by his own desires rather than by Christ. Sally can’t and shouldn’t forget the past because if she chooses to stay with John (or is told by her counselor she must), their past as a couple will continue to be her present reality.
John demonstrates no new history (fruit of repentance) to give Sally any other data points in which to rebuild safety or trust. To trust his words when his behaviors don’t match them is foolishness, not godliness.
3. Forgetting the past could put you and others in continued danger. Recently the media has been covering a story chastising the silence of the church leadership at Covenant Life Church, and former pastor Grant Layman, because they did not report allegations of rape and sexual abuse and withheld incriminating information from the police.
We are not privy to all of the details of this case but for whatever reasons, whether to protect the church’s reputation from ugly scandal or a misapplication of Biblical forgiveness and forgetting, they closed their eyes and allowed other children in their congregation to be vulnerable to a sexual predator.
Sin always, always, always has negative consequences. Sometime the consequences are short term but other times they are permanent. I hope if someone molested one of your children, no matter how much he or she repented, I hope you would never allow him or her unsupervised contact with any of your children or anyone else’s children that you know. You may forgive him or her, but you must never forget.
When we as biblical counselors, encourage someone to forget, we are asking him or her to do the impossible. God gave us our memory for a good purpose.
Remembering keeps us humble. We need to be honest with ourselves. Remembering helps us stay alert to the places where we are weak and most vulnerable so that we invite wise people to help us change, as well as help us “see” ourselves more clearly (Hebrews 3:13).
Remembering keeps us vigilant to our blind spots so that we are less likely to repeat serious sin and trash our lives and hurt those who live with us.
Remembering keeps us wise, so we don’t become repeat victims or continue put others or ourselves in harms way.
As a biblical counselor, when a person guilty of a terrible or repetitive sin keeps pressuring his or her partner to forgive and forget, pay attention. They are doing so because they are unwilling to do the hard work to learn from their mistakes. They are unwilling to be empathetic to the pain they’ve caused. Rather, he wants to be free from the pain he feels and put it all behind him. In addition, he is unwilling to be held accountable by his spouse and wise others, who know what’s going on, to call him into awareness when he is getting close to the edge of repeat destructive behavior.
Forgiveness does not mean or require forgetting.
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I never heard that remembering keeps us Humble, Vigilant, and Wise. What an awesome way to honor the past for the lessons it wants to teach us.
I’ve been officially divorced after 14 month separation. As I reflect on the past actions of 20 years, I have a clear path moving forward. It’s not out of bitterness or unforgiveness that I remember. It’s out of protection for myself. I cannot forget because I’m not called to live in danger.
Also, thanks again for noting how significant actions are and not just words. We are so often told to trust, to be better, to do more, but without actions, how can we?
In fact, my ex said that he went through with the divorce and started dating because I “never believed he changed the whole year.” How he was kind to me and I never believed him.
You know what I said?
“I was waiting for actions.”
He said, “ACTIONS?”
Grace and peace to us all.
I’m going to hold myself from getting a tattoo that says
“Remember = humility, vigilance, wisdom.
Just a great post, thank you so very much.
Vikki, If your husband was anything like mine during the separation and divorce, his abusive ways didn’t change or may have even been worse. All of these things about forgiving and forgetting were said to me at one time or another. When I would say that forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or just starting over the whole “You’re not forgiving” thing would start all over again. He still does not understand the difference. We have been legally divorced since November of last year and persists in calling me. I think just to make me aware that he is still out there. Apparently, I can remember the past, but am incapable of remembering that he exists unless he reminds me every few days. Leslie, thank you for this reminder. I believe I have forgiven him, but I will never forget. Remembering keeps me safe and stronger with God’s help.
Brenda! I was just praying for you this a.m.. Lifting you up for making it 15 months, for continued healing. 🙂 All this doesnt chamge that I still love him ( bangs head against wall) but that I value me now and not just the marriage or him. I am in the process of not trying to understand but move forward one step at a time. He wanted me as a friend. No thank you. Please pray that I let go and live. Will keep remembering you in prayer as well.
Yes!!! Thank you for this reminder. I have heard so many teachings that say forgiveness means forgetting. I have struggled with guilt feelings because I am unable to forget. I have been married for 30 years to a husband who has hurt me maybe beyond repair. I keep looking for those signs of “repentant fruit” and the fruit of a surrendered life to Christ. Remembering the past sin and hurt keeps me living in reality instead of a world of pretending things are ok. Thank you for this reminder.
Thanks for your letter, Sandy. Wow, it could have been written by me. I also have lived with an emotionally abusive husband for 30 years. I didn’t realize how he controlled me with the silent treatment until recently. I just thought that was the way he was and I had to make the best of it. Since reading this blog and gaining strength, I probably would have continued in the crazy dance for many more years. I also felt so guilty for feeling unforgiving when I actually think I have forgiven him, but I can’t forget. I love your last line about living in reality instead of pretending things are OK. I have more hope now knowing that I’m not some crazy unforgiving person. With God’s help I will continue to grow stronger and not lose my voice ever again.
Thank you so much for good sense. It is so freeing. Thanks again.
I LOVE YOU!!
I saw the title of your post and wanted to cheer. My own husband in recovery from a life long porn addiction agrees. He has never asked me to pretend its all forgotten. Shortly after he made his full disclosure and our marriage was still trembling from the aftershocks, he said this: “I don’t get these people who say they walked away and never looked back. What a waste. I never want to forget where I’ve been, and how far I’ve come. I never want to forget the devastation that life brings. I never want to live that way again. I hope I never forget. ”
Indeed, how will anyone have a testimony of we are never to mention what has happened in the past?
Caroline- what a gift your story is to my heart. Thank you for sharing! You are obviously blessed to have each other!
Forgiveness does not mean or require forgetting. This is something the X doesn’t get and I have said many times. The past continued on once I separated. It even got worse in many ways. I wasn’t there for him to throw things at or stop me from leaving during his rants, but the verbal abuse was horrible. After 15 months, he is down to calling every couple of weeks, will say whatever he comes up with quickly and say good bye. I think it may be just to remind me that he’s still there. I certainly won’t. I still take notice of my surroundings thinking he will show up like he did in the past. I won’t forget.
Must be the same guy!! I continually get asked, “can’t we just be friends?”. I say no, we were never friends. A friend is someone you can talk to without abusive answers and accusations.Thank you for your prayers. I will keep you in mind.
I’m in a state of confusion on this matter on behalf of my sister in law who has been separated from her narsasistic mentally abusive husband for almost 2 years. Me and my husband attend the same church as him and refuse to greet him because we believe all he is doing is trying to get character witnesses for the trial to get custody of their children. We believe he’s just trying to get custody to be in control and get her back or get back at her so he can look like the victim or “changed” man of God. We can’t understand how he can act like this in church and be a part of mission trips and all kinds of things in church but cover up income so she can’t get half and come up with debt that she’s to pay half of and manipulate the kids into thinking its mummy’s fault why they can’t be a family. There’s obviously more to this story but my point is the bible says we are to forgive as Christ forgave us. Are we walking in unforgiveness by refusing to have any dealings with him; not because his past but what he’s currently doing?
Thank you for the permission to remember. I’ve said over and over that history repeats itself and the mindful watch for the evils of the past to keep them there. Remarried,a a 25year narcopathic abusive marriage, and both a childhood of abuse as scapegoats, we’re floundering. Forgive and forget demanded before I have even been able to process what’s happened. I love him but I m worried. Suggestions appreciated.