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Forgive and forget

30 November, 1999

Michael asks: “I have been hurt and let down by a close friend in the past. I am obliged to forgive that person, which I have done. But I cannot forget the pain she caused me, and I am reminded of it every time I see her. I relive the hurt all over again. Does this mean that I haven’t truly forgiven the person because I cannot forget what she did to me?” Fr McGuckian SJ replies.

You do well to link forgiving and forgetting. In forgiving the other person you have won the war. However, from what you say, you imply that you still have a battle or at least a mopping up operation on your hands. Forgetting is meant to bring closure to the distress and pain involved, so that both parties can let bygones really be bygones. As the injured party, by forgiving and doing your best to forget, you are trying to do something truly demanding especially if you have been hurt grievously. Indeed, you will rarely be asked to do anything more challenging in your life.

Reality of forgiveness
Obviously you have good will which is half the battle. You have chosen to live out the fifth invocation of the Our Father: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. The word ‘forget’ is not mentioned but it is part of the lived reality of forgiveness.

In minor misunderstandings, isn’t ‘forget it’ the normal expression used in reply when someone says ‘I’m sorry’ rather than the more formal ‘I forgive you’? It is the offender who is told to ‘forget it’. However in dealing with major hurts, it is often the injured party, who has had to do the forgiving, who has the greater struggle to ‘forget it’.

Unless I suffer from amnesia I will always remember something very unkind done to me. With God’s grace, however, I can choose to live as if it never happened. The operative words here are ‘as if’. When the memory of the hurt surfaces, which it will occasionally do, I can opt either to overlook it quickly, letting it dwindle away to insignificance or to linger over it morosely, allowing it to loom large and preoccupy me endlessly.

I can choose which lens of the binoculars of life to look through. The logic of forgiveness leads to using the small lens. To keep the large lens deliberately focussed on the hurt by, say, bringing it up in conversation with the offender or talking about it to others when the offender’s name is mentioned,  is very undesirable. It does nothing for, indeed damages, that peace of mind and heart which is the precious fruit of forgiveness.

This focusing is, to change the comparison, like burying the hatchet but carefully marking the spot. We can all learn from Sonya Jacobs, the American woman whose husband died in the electric chair. She has totally forgiven the woman whose false witness led to his execution.

Effort of will
Hamlet’s advice to his mother is applicable in situations where there is a struggle between our emotions and what we know to be the truly Christ-like thing to do: ‘Assume a virtue, if you have it not’. Even if we do not feel ourselves totally free from the fallout of a painful situation, in which we were the victims, if we act ‘as if’ we had totally forgiven and forgotten, sooner or later we will find ourselves at peace and free from any residue of negativity.

As limited human beings we do not have dictatorial control over our emotions – only diplomatic – so things usually take a little time. But, in fact, there may be no very prolonged struggle. It is surprising how a few steps in the right direction can quickly lead to peace: the workings of grace can be swift as well as gradual. One suggestion is occasionally to make the effort to say something good about the person.

It is clear from St. Matthew’s account of the Our Father that an issue of utmost importance is at stake here. The invocation about forgiveness in the great prayer is the only one Our Lord chose to comment on. ‘Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either’ (Mt.6:14-15).

Inner peace
The condition for being forgiven, something we all desire, is that we forgive others. The opposite also is true. If I do not forgive, I run the risk of not being forgiven myself. I have the awesome power of tying God’s hands in my own case. This truth made such an impact on St. Augustine that he said that the most important counsel or advice that one human being can give to another is to forgive. To help us provide this invaluable service to one another, the Holy Spirit strengthens us with the gift of Counsel in the Sacrament of Confirmation. For St. Thomas Aquinas the fruit and purpose of Counsel is peace.

In his great and consoling treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales tells us that God’s forgiveness includes forgetfulness, once we are sorry. He forgets the bad things we have done even when we remember them. But He remembers and rewards the good things we have done even when we have long forgotten them. And He is always ready to make excuses for us. ‘Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing’ (Lk.23:34).

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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