9/11 was already 13 years ago; Columbine was 15, the SPU shooting, just a little over a month. My grapplings with forgiving the perpetrators of these attacks have been delayed and are not nearly as in my face as they certainly are for the parents and families of those that were lost in those horrors; still, it has seemed impossible – an affront to my sense of justice, even – to “forgive” the murderers even as I grieve for all families who are now one member short. Beyond this, the present day is seeing unprecedented destruction of the beautiful world God wrought from nothing and sustains and I think…how can I “forgive” those who willfully damage the trees and skies and seas? On a much smaller scale, my friends and I inflict hurt on each other inadvertently but often. I probably have forgotten specific hurts I’ve experienced from friends; the potential to be hurt – and thus, the need to forgive – persists as long as relationship lasts. As Henri Nouwen writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly.” I certainly can’t forget the environmental devastation – the carelessness we’ve fostered as a species is before me in the trash I see on the streets (which I admittedly don’t always pick up), the beer bottles my husband and I have fished out of the lake on the 4th of July while kayaking, the cigarette butts I witness being tossed nonchalantly out of car windows is constantly in my face. I will never forget Columbine or SPU or 9/11.
So why is “forgive and forget” such a common phrase to say? I’ve heard it tossed around like a coin into a fountain even though we all know forgiveness isn’t easy or supposed to be and even though we all know we won’t really forget our devastating hurts (none of these fluffy, well-meaning exercises here, for example, really seem like they help the forgetting part even as they may aid in the healing part). God does not remember our sins (Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 8:12) but I wonder if God actually forgets them, either. The resurrected Jesus still bore the marks of His crucifixion – what are scars if not our body “remembering” our hurts?
The word “remember” is an active one, though. It is to keep something in your mind or cause something to come back to mind. When we say God does not remember our sins, we are saying, essentially, that God does not keep a record of wrongs. We are not saying that God forgets. Forgetting seems to be a passive action anyway – the act of willful forgetting is an oxymoron for things do not slip our minds on purpose, especially injuries, but accidentally. The advice “forgive and forget” trades on the idea that forgetting is a volitional activity when it usually isn’t (how exactly do you will yourself to forget something if the very act of thinking about it is what we call “remembering”?).
It is rather forgiveness that is volitional and it cannot be done without God’s help. We forgive for ourselves more than for the one that hurt us – sometimes, the one who hurt you will never know of your forgiveness. How can we forgive something that hurt so much, like Columbine? I will speak for no one besides myself (there are many books and articles written by the families of victims and friends of the perpetrators whose words have much more power than mine; I recommend Walking in Daniel’s Shoes by victim Daniel Mauser’s father Tom). For me, I think we forgive because it hurts so much. I think we forgive because we can’t forget – not intentionally, anyway.