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Can We “Forget” After We Forgive?

Can We “Forget” After We Forgive?

Often, forgetting the harm someone has done to you seems nearly impossible. Perhaps you know exactly what I mean. Many of us bear scars that speak of a painful time.

There are certain names, places and memories that are impossible to forget. It’s not that we want to remember what happened and go on carrying our wounds. The problem is we just cannot forget.

A friend of mine experienced betrayal years ago, and it has reshaped his life. Every day there are reminders all around him of what happened. He simply cannot forget. He beats himself up over this often because he has been told his entire life that he is supposed to “forgive and forget.”

What do we do when, like my friend, we have experiences that are so painful we cannot forget? If we cannot forget, how can we forgive?

Perhaps the story of Joseph can help us understand how to remember and forget when it comes to forgiveness. When Joseph was young, his father made no secret of the fact that Joseph was the apple of his eye. His brothers grew tired of the favoritism. One day, out of their jealousy, they kidnapped Joseph and sold him to traders, who then sold him into slavery in Egypt. While serving as a slave, he was accused of attempting to rape the wife of his master, and that landed him in prison.

It couldn’t get any worse for Joseph. He went from being the favored son of a wealthy landowner to rotting in an Egyptian prison. I can’t imagine how he felt every time he recalled what his brothers had done to him. How do you forget that?

But Joseph’s story did not end in prison. While there, he met one of the king’s men who had a dream no one could interpret but Joseph. Eventually the king’s man was freed from prison, and he did not forget Joseph. When the king of Egypt had a dream no one understood, the king called for Joseph. His ability to understand the king’s dream saved Egypt from impending disaster. As a result, he was promoted to second most powerful man in the country.

Good favor returned to him, and he eventually had a son of his own. He named his son Manasseh, which means to forget. He did this because God caused him to forget all the trouble he experienced in life at the hands of his brothers.

After his son’s birth, Joseph’s brothers showed up in Egypt, and when Joseph saw them he was moved in his heart. He said to them, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!” (Genesis 45:4)

Which raises the question; if Joseph forgot what his brothers had done, then why did he name his son a word meaning forget? How did he remember what he had forgotten when his brothers came to Egypt? 

It’s not that Joseph learned how to forget, but how to remember. His memory was, for himself and his brothers, a reminder of not only the wounds, but also of the beauty of forgiveness. This is why the story ends with Joseph and his brothers throwing their arms around one another and weeping.

We can all agree: This is not easy. In fact, it is tremendously difficult and painful. But maybe it’s supposed to be—consider the central symbol in Christianity: the cross. What does that do but remind us of the mess and brokenness that led Jesus to go there? Why does the Bible promise God will not remember our sins if Jesus has the marks of execution on his body?

Central to John’s vision of the life to come in the book of Revelation is the Lamb that looks as if it has been slain. How can God forgive and forget our sin that led to the death of His Son?

How is the Lamb, the cross, the execution marks on the hands and feet and side of Jesus symbols of forgetting? It is in this paradox we see beauty.

In the cross, we see the memory of our sin placed squarely on the person of God who removes our sin and the memory of pain. It’s as though God Himself says, “I’ll take your hurt—all of it—even the painful memories. This is what I did when I died for you.” 

Our hope lies in the reality that in the new world God will sit on a throne in a world in which the old order of things has passed away—all things are new—even our memories. Paul reminds us that we are new creatures and that the old has gone. What does this mean? 

It means that as much as you have been shaped by your hurt, your hope is in the already renewed life Jesus has given you. This life says that rather than pain shaping your past, you have been freed to remember the power and freedom of forgiveness.

It’s not that we dismiss the pain, or discount the difficulty of our journey. But it does mean we recognize that even our greatest wounds, deepest pain and greatest agony will one day be transformed into beauty by the God who wastes nothing.

And we should never forget that.

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