Forgiving without Forgetting

Forgiving without Forgetting

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
–Ephesians 4:31

President Dwight Eisenhower once described his unique method of forgiving those who had wronged him. He said, “I make it my practice to avoid hating anyone. If someone has been guilty of despicable actions, especially toward me, I try to forget him. I used to follow a practice–somewhat contrived, I admit–to write the man’s name on a piece of scrap paper, drop it into the lowest drawer of my desk, and say to myself: ‘That finishes the incident, and so as far as I’m concerned….’ The drawer became over the years a sort of private wastebasket for crumbled-up spite and discarded personalities.” Dwight Eisenhower may have been a wonderful president, but he didn’t understand forgiveness. Forgiving somebody is not the same as trying to forget what that person has done to us. As we will discover this week, forgetting is neither the means of forgiveness nor the test of whether we have genuinely forgiven that person.

There are two dangers of confusing forgiving with forgetting. First, if we equate forgiving with forgetting, then it can short-circuit the forgiveness process. Let’s say I have a knot on my arm that is really bothering me. People tell me, “You ought to go to the doctor and have that checked out.” I say, “Well, I just don’t have time.” So every four hours I pop some aspirin to dull the pain. I do that for several months, and I manage the pain that way. One day I finally go to the doctor, and he does a biopsy of the knot. He says, “Robert, I’m sorry to tell you that it is cancer, and it has metastasized to the rest of your body. If only you had taken care of it earlier.” I used that aspirin to dull the pain when what I needed to do was deal with the source of that pain. It is the same way with forgetting. When we try to deal with offenses committed against us by simply forgetting what happened to us, that is our way of taking aspirin, so to speak. We try to dull the pain by forgetting instead of dealing with it through the surgical process called forgiveness. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” If you don’t take care of that root cause of bitterness in the proper way, through the surgical process of forgiveness, then that bitterness will metastasize in your life. It will destroy everything that is important to you.

Second, the danger of confusing forgiveness with forgetting is that it often causes us to experience unnecessary guilt. You may say, “If God has really forgiven me of this thing that I did five years ago, then why do I keep remembering it? Is it a sign that I really haven’t been forgiven by God?” Or we say, “If I have really forgiven my offender of what he did to me years ago, then why do I keep remembering those painful words he spoke to me?” When we confuse forgiveness with forgetting, we often experience unnecessary guilt.


Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Forgiving without Forgetting” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2015.

Dwight Eisenhower, quoted in Matthew F. Holland, “Eisenhower Between the Wars” (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001), 32

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.