The Bible’s Viewpoint
Forgive and Forget—How Possible?
“I SHALL FORGIVE THEIR ERROR, AND THEIR SIN I SHALL REMEMBER NO MORE.”—JEREMIAH 31:34.
THOSE words recorded by the prophet Jeremiah reveal something remarkable about Jehovah’s mercy: When he forgives, he forgets. (Isaiah 43:25) The Bible further states: “Even as Jehovah freely forgave you, so do you also.” (Colossians 3:13) So as Christians we should imitate Jehovah’s forgiveness.
However, some important questions arise. When Jehovah forgives, does he actually not remember our sins anymore? And when we forgive, must we forget in the sense of being unable to recall? Can it be said that unless we forget in that way, we have not really forgiven?
How Jehovah Forgives
To forgive involves letting go of resentment. When Jehovah forgives, he does so completely.* The psalmist David wrote: “[Jehovah] will not for all time keep finding fault, neither will he to time indefinite keep resentful. As far off as the sunrise is from the sunset, so far off from us he has put our transgressions. As a father shows mercy to his sons, Jehovah has shown mercy to those fearing him.”—Psalm 103:9, 12, 13.
The completeness of God’s forgiveness is further explained at Acts 3:19: “Repent, therefore, and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out.” The expression ‘get blotted out’ comes from a Greek verb (e·xa·leiʹpho) that means “wipe out, erase.” (See Revelation 7:17; 21:4.) The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains: “The image expressed by the verb here and perhaps elsewhere is most probably smoothing the surface of a wax writing-tablet for re-use ([compare] ‘wiping the slate clean’).” When we repent of our sins, Jehovah wipes the record clean. Does that mean that he no longer remembers our sins? Let us consider an example recorded in the Bible.
When King David committed adultery with Bath-sheba and later tried to cover it over by arranging for the death of her husband, Jehovah sent the prophet Nathan to reprove David. (2 Samuel 11:1-17; 12:1-12) With what result? David sincerely repented, and Jehovah forgave him. (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 32:1-5) Did Jehovah forget David’s sins? Not at all! The Bible writers Gad and Nathan later recorded the whole incident in the book of 2 Samuel (completed about 1040 B.C.E.) shortly before David’s death.
So the record, or memory, of David’s sins—as well as the record of his repentance and subsequent forgiveness by Jehovah—lives on, for the benefit of Bible readers to this day. (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11) In fact, since “the saying of Jehovah [as contained in the Bible] endures forever,” the record of David’s sins will never be forgotten!—1 Peter 1:25.
How, then, can it be said that Jehovah wipes the slate clean when we sincerely repent of our sins? How can we understand Jehovah’s words: “I shall forgive their error, and their sin I shall remember no more”?—Jeremiah 31:34.
How Jehovah Forgets
The Hebrew verb rendered “I shall remember” (a form of za·kharʹ) does not mean simply to recall the past. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, it can mean “mention, declare, recite, proclaim, invoke, commemorate, accuse, confess.” The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament adds: “Quite often, in fact, [za·kharʹ] implies an action or appears in combination with verbs of action.” Thus, when Jehovah says of his wayward people that he “will remember their error,” he means that he will take action against them for their lack of repentance. (Jeremiah 14:10) Conversely, when Jehovah says, “Their sin I shall remember no more,” he is assuring us that once he forgives our sins, he will not bring them up again in order to accuse, condemn, or punish us.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, Jehovah explained the sense in which he forgives and forgets: “Now as regards someone wicked, in case he should turn back from all his sins that he has committed and he should actually keep all my statutes and execute justice and righteousness, he will positively keep living. He will not die. All his transgressions that he has committed—they will not be remembered against him. For his righteousness that he has done he will keep living.” (Ezekiel 18:21, 22; 33:14-16) Yes, when Jehovah forgives a repentant sinner, he wipes the slate clean and forgets in the sense that he will not take action against that one for those sins at some future time.—Romans 4:7, 8.
Being imperfect, we can never forgive in a perfect sense as Jehovah does; his thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than ours. (Isaiah 55:8, 9) To what extent, then, can we reasonably be expected to forgive and forget when others sin against us?
How We Can Forgive and Forget
Be “freely forgiving one another,” urges Ephesians 4:32. According to lexicographer W. E. Vine, the Greek word rendered “freely forgiving” (kha·riʹzo·mai) means “to bestow a favour unconditionally.” When offenses committed against us are minor in nature, we may have little difficulty granting the forgiveness. Keeping in mind that we too are imperfect enables us to make allowances for the shortcomings of others. (Colossians 3:13) When we forgive, we let go of resentment, and our relationship with the offender may not suffer any lasting harm. In time, the memory of any such minor offense may well fade away.
What, though, if others sin against us in a more serious way, deeply injuring us? In extreme cases, such as incest, rape, and attempted murder, forgiveness may involve a number of issues. This would be particularly true when there is no acknowledgment of the sin, no repentance, and no apology on the part of the offender.* (Proverbs 28:13) Jehovah himself does not forgive unrepentant, hardened wrongdoers. (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26) When a wound is deep, we may never succeed in completely putting what happened out of mind. However, we can be comforted by the assurance that in the coming new world, “the former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.” (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:4) Whatever we remember then will not cause us the deep hurt or pain that we may now feel.
In other instances we may need to take some initiative to settle matters, perhaps by talking to the offender, before we can forgive. (Ephesians 4:26) In this way any misunderstanding can be cleared up, appropriate apologies made, and forgiveness extended. What about forgetting? We may never completely put out of mind what was done, but we can forget in the sense that we do not hold it against the offender or bring the matter up again at some future time. We do not gossip about it, nor do we completely avoid the offender. However, it may take some time for our relationship with the offender to mend, and we may not enjoy the same closeness as before.
Consider an illustration: Suppose you confide a deeply personal matter to a trusted friend, and you later learn that he divulged it to others, to your great embarrassment or hurt. You approach him to talk things over, and he is very sorry; he apologizes and asks for forgiveness. Hearing his sincere apology, your heart is moved to forgive him. Do you easily forget what happened? Likely not; you would no doubt be very cautious about confiding in him in the future. Yet you do forgive him; you do not continually rehash the matter with him. You do not harbor resentment, nor do you gossip about it with others. You may not feel as close to him as you did before, but you still love him as your Christian brother.—Compare Proverbs 20:19.
What, though, if despite your efforts to settle matters, the offender does not admit his wrong and apologize? Can you forgive in the sense of letting go of resentment? Forgiving others does not mean that we condone or minimize what they have done. Resentment is a heavy burden to carry; it can consume our thoughts, robbing us of peace. Waiting for an apology that never comes, we may only get more and more frustrated. In effect, we allow the offending person to control our emotions. Thus, we need to forgive others, or let go of the resentment, not only for their benefit but also for our own so that we may get on with our life.
Forgiving others is not always easy. But when there is sincere repentance, we can try to imitate Jehovah’s forgiveness. When he forgives repentant wrongdoers, he lets go of resentment—he wipes the slate clean and forgets in that he will not hold those sins against them in the future. We too can work to let go of resentment when the offender is repentant. There may, however, be instances where we are not even obligated to forgive. No victim of extremes in unjust or cruel treatment should be forced to forgive an unrepentant wrongdoer. (Compare Psalm 139:21, 22.) But in most cases when others sin against us, we can forgive in the sense of letting go of resentment, and we can forget in the sense of not holding the matter against our brother at some future time.
See the article “The Bible’s Viewpoint: How Complete Is God’s Forgiveness?” in the December 8, 1993, issue of Awake!, pages 18-19.
Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 1, page 862, says: “Christians are not required to forgive those who practice malicious, willful sin with no repentance. Such become God’s enemies.”—Published by Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Picture on page 9]
Joseph and his brothers