What ‘Forgive and Forget’ Really Means

Forgiveness does not entail pretending that offenses never happened.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief” (c. 1566)
Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief” (c. 1566) (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

I once heard a solid old Jesuit preach a homilette — one of those small sermons that crops up right after the prayers of the faithful or just before the final blessing, when Father remembers he forgot something — on the topic of the phrase “forgive and forget.” This phrase (which some incautious parish committee had inserted into the prayers of the faithful) was, the good priest pointed out, problematic. Forgiving is not the same as forgetting, and to suggest that the two are necessarily paired is dangerously misleading.

Yet the conflation of “forgiving” with “forgetting” is all too common, and the misapprehension is one that colors all of public life. Once upon a time, the worst thing that could happen to a person was that their private sins be found out; the most embarrassing punishment was to be placed in the stocks where all your neighbors could see you and learn (if they didn’t already know) what you had done. Today, in the pillory of Twitter and Facebook, many people outed for politically incorrect or morally abhorrent behavior rushes to stock themselves, hoping that a suitable quantity of abject groveling may leave them with some semblance of a reputation.

The move is now so common, however, that its sincerity is rightly suspect. The penance of public abasement may have had a value when it was dreaded, when judges and confessors administered it remedially. When it becomes the reflexive gesture, it is reduced to gesticulation.

Still (the advocates of public apologies say) it is a good thing for those of us who are offended, those of us who have been hurt, to “forgive and forget.” No Christian should harbor a grudge. How else dare anyone say “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?

Daring words indeed. But again: to forgive and to forget are not the same thing. The judge who sentences a man to life in prison has not necessarily refused to forgive him; he has simply determined that the prisoner’s character requires remediation, or society protection. The parent who sends a child to their room to “think about” the nasty thing they said to Aunt Jessica is not necessarily unforgiving; they genuinely want their son or daughter to take five and come to a child’s-level understanding of how their words were hurtful. Forgiveness and punishment can and do coexist. Otherwise the Catholic doctrine of purgatory would be risible on the face of it.

Even on the level of one adult to another, person-to-person, where there is no clear authority and no possibility of redress, it is not always reasonable to insist on the forgetting of injuries. Some injuries are too terrible to be forgotten and, if the grace of God did not move the victims to forgiveness, too terrible even to be forgiven. Yet God’s grace does operate in such cases, in instances of heroic charity like Maria Goretti’s; and it operates not to erase nature — “Let me remove your memory of this assault” — but to supernaturalize it — “Let me teach you how to love in spite of this assault.”

It is easy, in the glaring light of such examples, to forget that their lesson applies to daily injuries as well. The coworker who stole your lunch; the man who cut you off in traffic; the kid who most definitely KNEW that they weren’t supposed to draw on that … You’ll forget these things by this time next year, probably.  But it would be spiritually healthy to forgive them long before that.  (“Forgive us our trespasses …”)  Indeed, the entire point of such seemingly trivial annoyances is to use them as hoisting up places (a phrase I am sure St. Thérèse never used, but with which she would hopefully agree). Life is an adventure; and the game of this particular adventure is not to allow yourself to become grumpy. Heroic cheerfulness.  But of course, there is no heroism in good cheer if there are no accidents or injuries to be cheery at; and thus “forgetting” an injury in the ordinary sense of the word is in fact unhelpful. But cheerfulness itself is another kind of forgetfulness, and a better one. Not “Let us never speak of this again” but “I get it; I’ve been there too.”

And having “been there too,” even the cheerful soul will (again, if they have any authority or power in the matter) sometimes realize that their forgiveness must come with a dash of something that stings. If creditors are not really justified until they have forgiven, surely debtors are not justified until they have truly atoned.