Morning friend,

Loved all the interaction on the blog last week on emotional abuse. It’s so validating to know you are not alone and you are not crazy. Here’s another tactic that abusive individuals often use to guilt trip someone into silence around the offense. “If you forgive, then we can’t talk about it anymore. You have to forget.” Is that true?

Today’s Question: My husband keeps telling me I have to forget the past if I’ve genuinely forgiven him. He says that I have not really forgiven if I haven’t forgotten his sin. I don’t want to make him feel bad, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget what he did. Am I wrong?

Answer: Counseling 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.”

Christian counselors and pastors are also guilty of using these same phrases 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. 

[Tweet “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.”] Below are three reasons why you should not forget the past.

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 you to stay aware that you never want to return to where you were. It also keeps you both vigilant, so you don’t slide back into the old habit patterns that created the problem in the first place. 

For example, Tom, one of my former 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 respect her “no”.

John has not allowed his past to instruct him (about himself) but Sally has learned something from it. John may have learned not to hit her again (due to his fear of legal consequences), but Sally fears 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 pastor 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 (see Proverbs 25:19). 

3. Forgetting the past could put you and others in continued danger. Over the past few years, we’ve read numerous stories of church leadership covering up the sexual abuse of children in their congregations.

None of us know all of the details of these situations but, for whatever reasons, whether to protect the church’s reputation from ugly scandal or misapplication of Biblical forgiveness and forgetting, the leadership closed their eyes and allowed other children in their congregation to be vulnerable to a known sexual predator.

[Tweet “Sin always, always, always has negative consequences.”] Sometimes the consequences are short-term but other times they are permanent. 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 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 to put others or ourselves in harm's way.

When a person guilty of a painful or repetitive sin keeps pressuring you to forgive and forget, pay attention. He is doing so because he is unwilling to do the hard work to learn from his mistakes. He is unwilling to be empathetic to the pain he’s caused you.

Instead, 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 you 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.

[Tweet “Godly forgiveness does not mean or require forgetting.”]

Friend, have you been told you’re wrong for “not forgetting the past?”

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21 Comments

  1. R on February 9, 2022 at 9:57 pm

    #1 — Try forgetting is impossible unless you have dementia or amnesia.

    #2 — Sounds like hubby wants to deflect the blame for his sin back onto his wife.

  2. Moon Beam on February 10, 2022 at 9:32 am

    How about this one. Abuser tells new people the reason why I left him is because I want to live in the past. He says he WAS abusive, and pulls out the Duluth Model power and control wheel to show people all the things he did to me. He says, I did everything on this wheel to my wife. But I am the 1 in a million who is healed. This “healing” occurred at a very public, very expensive, soul cleansing, faith rival. Apparently, it was an instant healing. He got a signed certificate from the psychiatrist who runs the event in Pennsylvania.

    Ha! Yet, the family of his next victim has gathered and hired a private investigator to get their loved one away from him. Targeted, groomed and isolated a new woman and moved her from CA to PA. A massive intervention is underway. She says he is her “hero.” He says, “Deserves a new wife! One who will live in his present glory!”

    • Leslie Vernick on February 10, 2022 at 10:32 am

      Moon Beam, I used to live in PA. It’s a big state but who is the psychiatrist who signed that “healing” document? I’d be curious if I know him. You can PM if you’d prefer.

  3. Rachelle on February 12, 2022 at 9:52 am

    I’m in the number 2 situation, and he is basically saying if I’m not willing to work on our relationship without forgiving and forgetting the past, then the balls in my court to tell him next steps. He’s trying to get me to say divorce, I guess. His overall mentality, his lack of empathy and lack of heart change are my main concerns. I told him it’s not fixable, then I felt bad, but he started financially threatening me and our son, so I feel confident in my decisions now.

    • Kristi on February 26, 2022 at 10:38 am

      Rachelle this sounds exactly like what I’m going through as well. There’s an issue of pride and lack of empathy. There’s no balance in our family/home life. It’s all one-sided. HUGE indifferences – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, character, morality, personality.

  4. Shurley on February 12, 2022 at 11:20 am

    I’m so tormented, confused. I cant talk to husband about his long term affair (s) for fear of his verbal , physical abuse. He has lied about affair in many ways as has been found out. I need answers and he says he has told everything. I know its not true. Haven’t been able to heal, really forgive. I’ve been stuck so long. People say not to want details but he is not remorse like, repentive. He is being good to me but I feel he needs to be accountable I know REALLY not much and he won’t come clean just tries to buy me things, Venice unless I bring anything up. HELP PLEASE. Ive given six years living separately to getting answers and healing.

    • Caroline Abbott on February 14, 2022 at 5:24 pm

      If your husband is not willing to share details, and is not repentant, it will be difficult to continue in relationship with him. Yes, you can forgive, but that doesn’t mean he automatically gets access to you.

  5. Shirley on February 12, 2022 at 11:25 am

    Does accountability mean answering questions of affair needed by spouse when you know full truth not told?

    • Autumn on February 15, 2022 at 6:59 am

      An affair is enough of a reason to end the marriage. Who care how many details he divulges. You can’t trust him. He committed adultery. Goodbye, liar.

    • JoAnn on February 15, 2022 at 3:00 pm

      Shirley, accountability means that he has someone that he must be open and honest with whom he must answer to for his behavior. Be accountable with. You don’t necessarily need all his details, but if he is really repentant, he must talk to a spiritual advisor or a counselor about what he has done. Your concern, Shirley, is that you can’t trust him, and it is up to him to prove himself trustworthy to someone, whether it’s you or someone else. His multiple affairs give you good reason to leave him, but be sure you get legal help for that.

  6. Denice on February 12, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    Thank you again for continuing to write these articles Leslie. I was a part of you Conquer group years ago when my husband and I were separated on a restraining order due to my husbands drinking and abusive behavior when he drank. He repented and stayed sober for almost 3 years. He began drinking again last May and it took about 6 months for him to return to the abusive behavior. I am drained by this. My children should not be going through this again. I have looked into some legal action for separation but I pray that I won’t have to do this and that he will leave willingly – but I doubt he will. I’m 42 and tired of dealing with these demonic situations. Living this way is neither wise, prudent nor displaying the fear of God. I hate being in this predicament but due to my husbands lack of healthy boundaries I must set up additional boundaries and take further action to protect my girls and I.

  7. Lisa on February 12, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    This is so clear! Thank you for saying it so well!
    For years I have been told that my remembering is “keeping score,” that I am obviously not forgiving, that my undealt-with pain is “between me and God” (very emphatically, because it’s obviously a result of my sin of unforgiveness!) and this just adds more pain on top of what I already deal with! I am so sick of this trash! — not least because I KNOW God gave us memory for a reason. So thank you for all you do. Your words have been so encouraging and I am so blessed to have heard what you have to say.

  8. LD on February 13, 2022 at 6:51 am

    Doesn’t God forgive us when we confess our sins and then repent (turn way from them)? Jesus said, “Go, and sin no more.” Logic tells me that if God requires not just confession but also repentance, then shouldn’t we?

  9. R.D. on February 13, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    It is somewhat concerning that both in L.V.s response and in the comments nobody has brought up The Bible and what The Bible has to say about the situation. (Other than a couple of stretched references)

    While is no mention of “forgive and forget” in The Bible, I think 2 relevant verses would be 1 Corinthians 13 where it says that love does not hold on to a wrong and in Luke 17 where we are told to repeatedly forgive if our brother repents we are to forgive him again and again even 7 × 70 times.

    So the question is, has he repented? In which case if he truly has then then you need to forgive him and not HOLD his failures against him anymore, (not quite the same as forgetting but similar).
    On the other side of that, if he has repented, are you still using his failures against him? Maybe that’s why he feels you have not forgiven him.
    Obviously we don’t know all these answers.

    Working on a marriage when someone has serious broken thier vows is difficult, yet we all sin, we all make mistakes and we don’t ever want our mistakes used as weapons back against us and we obviously especially don’t want that to happen if we truly have done everything we can to never make those mistakes again (even though as humans we might make those mistakes again) if your husband is repentant do your best to put his failures behind you for the sake of the marriage, If he isnt repentant, forgive for your own heart and spirit before the Father, and hold him accountable to get it together.

    true contrition and repentance needs:

    Admission of wrongdoing.

    Sincere expression of sorrow.

    Asking for forgiveness.

    Resolve with God’s grace to not sin again.

    • Leslie Vernick on February 15, 2022 at 11:22 am

      Actually R.D. I did bring up things in the BIble about this topic but here are a few more for your consideration. The Apostle Paul who wrote the Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs words, also had some tough relationship situations of broken trust. One was with John Mark – (see Acts 15:36-41) and the other was with Alexander the Coppersmith. In both situations, Paul did remember the “wrongs” that were done to him and in one case he restored his relationship with John Mark ONLY after John Mark proved himself trustworthy (see 2 Timothy 4:11). But with Alexander the Coppersmith, that relationship was not restored and Paul warned young Timothy to watch out for him because he did him great harm (see 2 Timothy 4:14) . So Paul wrote these words, “Keep no record” yet he also remembered. You say true repentance means admission of wrongdoing, sincere expression of sorrow, asking for forgiveness and resolve with God’s grace not to sin again. I love that. But John the Baptist reminds us that words are not enough. He told the religious leaders Prove that you have repented of your sin by the way you live – your fruit/actions also change. (Matthew 3:8-10). We all sin and make mistakes for sure. And some of those mistakes have life long consequences. Broken trust may be one of them. TO put a the burden to “trust” someone again on the one who has been betrayed, especially when broken trust has been a pattern is unbiblical and cruel. God puts no such burden on people.

      • Dawn on March 17, 2022 at 10:01 am

        Thank you for the clarification. I will study these Biblical examples.

  10. Caroline Abbott on February 14, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Thank you for this blog Leslie. I agree with all you’ve said. Often Christians think they are quoting the Bible when they say “forgive and forget” but that is not found anywhere in the Bible. I recommend people forgive and remember. This doesn’t mean that they hold onto bitterness, but it does mean they can be realistic about what they can expect from the other person. If a person has deeply hurt us by breaking his marriage vows over and over, we can still forgive them, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily stay in relationship with them. Here are some more thoughts I have on this topic:
    https://carolineabbott.com/2018/09/how-to-forgive-the-unforgivable/

  11. Autumn on February 15, 2022 at 7:03 am

    The best forgetting you can do is to forget the love bombing. The sweet, charming man was a ploy to manipulate you. Remember the harm and the evil do you can get out of denial. Forgiving is easy when you see the evil and his sick mind. It’s all about him. It was never about you.

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