Forgive and Forget?

By The Rev. Alan F. Steinke, LCSW-R

A task of the first therapy session is the collaboration of the client and therapist to identify treatment goals. The most frequent goals center around alleviating anxiety, depression, and relational tensions. Infrequently named as a goal is “forgiveness,” although it is often later identified as the desired outcome. That which disturbs the mind is often the need to forgive or be forgiven.

Literature brims with reflections about forgiveness. Alexander Pope: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Oscar Wilde: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Mark Twain: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” There are innumerable others, but one in particular is at once ubiquitous and unhelpful: “Forgive and forget.” Like most aphorisms this one is intended to be wise and valuable. Obviously I value forgiveness, but I take issue with the forgetting part. It sounds as if forgetting is required to make forgiving valid. But forgetting is not likely, and it is not natural.

Our brains have been designed to recall and remember. Life itself is primarily memory. What we experience in the moment is exactly that—momentary. What we envision for the future is exactly that—visionary. Forgetting abrades the natural function of the brain to remember. For this reason, forgetting is very hard if not impossible work. Ironically the command to forget makes forgiveness all the more unlikely. Many think: “I know I cannot forget the hurt in my heart, nor the selfishness in the heart of the offender, so why bother to try to forgive? The best I can do is feign forgiveness, or maintain unforgiveness out in the open or in hiding.” Choosing to forget a bad experience is repression. When we repress, the bad experience is buried in the brain, but it does not die, because it has been buried alive, and festers until in gains enough strength to burst over into consciousness more robust than ever.

Psychologist Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet wrote: “Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers through the true yet painful parts.” Remembering graciously eschews forgetting, denying, hiding the truth. Scripture refers to many sinful behaviors that have not been forgotten: the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3), the sin of King David (II Sam. 4), and the sin of the adulteress (Jn. 8). In each case God remembers the sin and the sinner, but He remembers graciously. To remember graciously is to remember without vengeance, vitriol, or vituperation. To remember graciously is to remember with compassion, empathy, and mercy. Author William Young wrote: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” Sin has us by the throat. By remembering us graciously on the cross, Jesus has loosened the grip of sin forever.

When we remember graciously we look at the offender differently—not as a beast–but as one like us: human. When we remember graciously we look at ourselves differently—not as victims—but as like Christ: victorious.

“Forgive and forget.” There is a word for that. Unnatural. It is time to take that phrase and shake it up and change it to: “Remember graciously and forgive.” There is a word for that. Love.

Pastor Alan Steinke counsels children, teens, couples and individuals at LCC’s Mineola site 

Call the Lutheran Counseling Center at 516-741-0994 or 1-800-317-1173 or e-mail us at for more information or to set an appointment. LCC has nine counseling sites in and around metropolitan New York. 

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