“Forgive and forget” may be one of the most unfortunate phrases that has somehow seeped into our cultural dialogue. It makes forgiving someone a very difficult (and potentially risky) task. It asks the person who was harmed or betrayed to somehow make believe that one of the most terrible moments in their life didn’t happen. In essence, to “forgive and forget” means that the offended party should somehow mentally undo the damage the other person has done. Not only is this virtually impossible, it is unwise.
It might come as a bit of relief for you to know this: God has never instructed us to forget the pain of betrayal or deception. He also never instructs us to immediately restore that person to a place of trust. He does, however, instruct us to forgive them.
Mark 11:25 (NLT)
25 But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.*”
But when the Bible instructs us to forgive, it is always talking about it in the sense of “forgiving” a debt. This means that the act of forgiveness is tantamount to telling the person who hurt us that “you don’t owe me anymore.” There is a huge difference between canceling a debt and pretending it never happened.
As a matter of fact, when we feel obligated to somehow erase the fallout of someone else failure, we’re likely to feel as though we’re carrying an impossible burden. There’s a reason for that. When a person sins, there will always be consequences.
Galatians 6:7 (NLT)
7 Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant.
You can’t “unplant” the seeds the other person planted, and you can’t change the laws of the universe so that they don’t harvest consequences. They might wish you could, but you can’t carry that burden. And you shouldn’t. Consequences, while tough, are great teachers. They help people come to their senses (Luke 15:17), and motivate them to behave better in the future.
For example: if a wife finds her husband viewing pornography, she can forgive him (“You don’t owe me for this…”), but she should never be expected to immediately forget his actions, or immediately trust him again. There will be consequences for his behavior, and one of those consequences might be that regaining her trust will require effort and change.
Think for a moment about the parable of the prodigal son. This young man insisted on getting his inheritance early (because his dad wasn’t dying fast enough) and move as far away from home as possible. There in the “far-off land” the Bible tells us he spent all his money living a party lifestyle that would have really disappointed his father. Eventually the son is broke, destitute, and longing for home. After returning, the father accepts him as a son, forgiving him for his terrible behavior.
But just remember, the father cannot restore him. He cannot give him back the inheritance that he squandered in the far-off country. That money is gone. And I can prove it. Look at what the father says to his older brother:
Luke 15:31–32 (NLT)
31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ”
This is what real forgiveness looks like… the father is saying “It’s time to celebrate!” because the younger son has come to his senses. But on the other hand, the father is telling the older son that all of the remaining inheritance is his.
The lesson here is that you cannot be expected to magically recreate what another person’s sinful actions destroyed.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that trust in a relationship can’t be rebuilt. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be compassionate toward a person with a truly repentant heart. It simply means that you can forgive someone, and yet still be wise about how to move forward with that person in the future.
Undoing the past isn’t an option. Letting go of the past is about the best we can do, and even that isn’t easy. Ask anyone who has been through the grieving process and they’ll tell you that getting through grief is a journey that is neither fast nor simple. And if you’ve been truly hurt by someone, the process of grief is your next stop on the road ahead.
The story of the past can’t be re-written, but it can inform you about how to structure your future. If you’ve been betrayed or deceived by someone, take some time to ask God for wisdom about how to proceed. Consider seeking help from wise, unbiased, and trustworthy counselors. Then take the long look. Relationship wounds don’t heal instantly. Don’t expect yourself to bounce back from a major betrayal—this won’t be better tomorrow. Instead, keep in mind that the goal is long term healing.
Ultimately, know that God is with you and that He will never let you down or betray you. He will walk with you through this, and you’ll come through stronger on the other side.
Hebrews 13:5b (NLT)
…For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.”*