Must I Forget to Forgive?

Morning friend,

I just returned from a great women’s retreat “He Makes All Things New” with Called to Peace Ministries. It was wonderful to meet some of you in person and be able to give you a real hug. I’m a little worn out after speaking 7 times and doing two interviews so for this week’s blog I answer a question that I’ve been asked a lot, but it’s a past blog post I wrote for Christian counselors. You might want to forward it to your pastor or counselor so they stop telling you to forget the past.

Why We Must Never Forget Even When We Do Forgive

Leslie Vernick

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 love keeps no record of wrongs.” or “That we’re to forget the former things. Each day is a fresh start.”

Christian counselors are also guilty of using these same phrases with their clients, 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.

[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.”] 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 AA 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 “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 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. We have all heard and read about stories of gross negligence, injustice, and oppression when church leaders have covered up for the abuser and villainized the accuser. This misapplication of grace enables the abuser to continue his abuse and harm. When we tell victims to forget the past, we put them in greater danger.

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. You may forgive him or her, but you must never forget. That would be irresponsible, foolish, and potentially dangerous.

When we encourage someone to forget, we are asking him or her to do the impossible. God gave us our memory for a good reason. [Tweet “Proverbs reminds us that to put our trust in an unreliable person is like walking on a broken foot or chewing with a broken tooth.”] In other words, not smart.

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.

As a Christian counselor or pastor, when a person guilty of a terrible or repetitive sin keeps pressuring his spouse 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.

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

Friend, Have you been told to forgive and forget in the past by someone or believed that’s what God required?


  1. Jane on May 19, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Thank-you for all you did at the retreat. You will never know how what you spoke into my life at the retreat is changing me for the better. I even confronted my separated husband on the way home about the intentionality of his behavior and how it stems from a desire or enjoyment of his power and control and gave him clear and recent examples of how I still see this in him. I told him that as long as he does not own that part of his behavior I can not reconcile safely and that this is why he needed to continue in counseling. He was quiet and accepted what I had to say. He did not necessarily agree but I believe it planted a seed of truth and more than anything I felt strong enough to actually confront this (albeit over the phone). Being truthful with him about his behavior and what I know about it was scarier in the past and was still hard and scary in the present but now I feel strong enough with God’s help to be more honest with my husband about how I feel and about the truth. So again, thank-you for everything. I believe I am more whole now than I have ever been though I still don’t know how to fill in the I am… bubble yet, that is my next personal project.

    I hope you recover well and rest up. You deserve a long bath and a relaxing night on the deck of your mountain home.

  2. Ann S on May 19, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you for this blog. My husband wanted me to forgive and forget, while he insisted on keeping the other woman in our business, a non-essential part-time job for her, so that no one would ever find out what happened. He was also clearly unwilling to do the hard work. There was no accountability, nor the desire for the necessary long term hard work, only superficial short term solutions he proposed hoping everything would just go back to “normal.”
    Thank you for reminding me that it takes two. This blog helped reinforce my very hard decision to leave my marriage of 45 years.

    • Moon Beam on May 26, 2021 at 4:01 am

      Ann, it takes time to process what happened to you. After you leave, invest in yourself so you can heal from your traumatic experiences. Join Patrick Doyle Life or Natalie Hoffman’s Flying Higher. Two groups to help those brave and smart enough to remove themselves from unsafe fools. Read Romana Probasci’s book on healing after abuse. Slowly, you will heal and discover peace and freedom. God will send comfort in delight ways. Look for it and document every little kindness in a journal you can read over and over..

  3. Carla on May 19, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    how would you “remember” a forgiven infidelity? I used to bring it up all the time and now after 6 years, I don’t bring it up because things are so good between us and I feel very secure.

    • JoAnn on May 19, 2021 at 8:09 pm

      Carla, that’s right: once the situation is resolved, then you can leave it behind and forget. You are fortunate that now things are good between you, but when there are lingering issues, it can be good to remember so you don’t make the mistakes again.

  4. Hope on May 24, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    I’m 60+ and privately planning an exit from my 30+ years marriage. I’m grateful for my amazing counselor, but this is still a very lonely (and scary) journey. I’m in Conquer, do the monthly calls, but don’t feel comfortable doing FaceBook. Any words of hope from those who have left long marriages to start over?

    • JoAnn on May 24, 2021 at 7:19 pm

      Hope, if you read some of the entries in the archives of blogs, you will see lots of stories from women who left Abusive Marriages. I have always been so encouraged to read how the Lord has mercifully provided for the abused wives after they have left. The healing can really begin once you are out of the fog of abuse. May the Lord bless you as you move forward in Him.

    • Moon Beam on May 24, 2021 at 11:56 pm

      Once you have done your work to get out of your abusive marriage be committed to continue counseling through the grief stage. This takes a few years, but along the way you get the profound gift of freedom. Peace comes like a soothing wave and it lasts and lasts. Eventually you stop thinking about him and your situation. You make a life for yourself that is based on your interests. People see you and they like what they see. No one yells at you. No one berates, demeans or manipulates you. Life is better than you ever could have hoped for or imagined. God sends the Holy Spirit to minister to you and your faith grows through the whole process.

      • Hope on May 25, 2021 at 6:14 pm

        Thank you, JoAnn and Moon Beam! I’m really trying to keep my eyes on Jesus and on the good new life ahead for me. Some days I’m not very brave, others I am!

        • Moon Beam on May 26, 2021 at 4:07 am

          Have you read Dr. Ramona Probosco’s book? Keep educating yourself on abuse as you push through with the process of disengaging from the poisonous words you have heard for decades. Those comments were destructive and manipulative. Push them out of your brain with truth. Get good safe people in your life you mirror your real value. That will stabilize your brain when you revert back to imagining the person you thought your husband was, the man he pretended to be. It was/is all a lie. His sinful self was hidden to the world. You know the real man, walk away from that unapologetic evil man with confidence.

          • JoAnn on May 26, 2021 at 11:02 am

            The book is “Healing Well and Living Free from an Abusive Relationship.” Excellent resource.

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