Is it okay to forgive and not forget?

One of the most shocking displays of modern-day forgiveness is told in the book Amish Grace. Tragically, on October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV “carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Five schoolgirls died that day, and five others were seriously wounded.” Directly following the shooting, the gunman turned his pistol on himself to take his own life. This horrific injustice came crashing into a community that oftentimes feels isolated from the world around it. Even determined efforts to avoid injustices and remain separated from the world are not foolproof.

Unfortunately, school shootings are becoming less shocking and more normal in our world today. In a nation where school shootings have piled up, however, this one is memorable. Not only because of who was on the brutal receiving end, but because of how the Amish responded. As the authors of Amish Grace point out, “the biggest surprise at Nickel Mines was not the intrusion of evil but the Amish response. The biggest surprise was Amish grace.”

The Amish realized quickly that the killer left behind a family, including a wife and three children. Only hours after the killing, the Amish community sought to find Amy Roberts, the killer’s wife, to comfort her. That night, they went to the killer’s father’s house to hold and comfort him. And in the days following, the Amish community would continue to go above and beyond. The Amish children befriended the killer’s daughters. More than half of those in attendance at the killer’s funeral were the Amish community. Not only were they there to show support to the family, but a wall of 30 Amish men and women, some of whom were parents of the victims, formed a wall to block the media cameras. The Amish community would even encourage the family not to move away, but to stay near their community. A relative of one of the victims told the Associated Press, “I hope they [Roberts’s widow and children] stay around here. They’ll have lots of friends and a lot of support.”

Ten days after the shooting, the Roberts family released a public statement thanking the local Amish community: “Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, news reporters and satellite dishes filled this once-quiet community. This particular shooting struck a unique chord with the nation and world. As the eyes of millions were looking in on this story, the news stories began documenting the horrific tragedy. But over time, the news began shifting away from the tragedy and focused more on the Amish’s response of forgiveness.

As onlookers surveyed the situation many were inspired. The Amish Community were named the Most Inspiring People of 2006 by BeliefNet. This story allowed people to see that there is a different response than vengeance, anger, and hatred. It became an incredible modern-day witness of what forgiveness in the face of tragedy looks like. The parents of one of the girls who died were reported saying this, “It is only through our faith in Jesus Christ that forgiveness is possible. He is the one who deserves all praise and glory, not us Amish.”

Others were confused. How could they forgive something so tragic so easily? This is where onlookers missed it. Forgiveness is never easy. It’s hard. Even though the action of the Amish community from the outside makes it appear simple, cut-and-dry, it wasn’t then, and it still isn’t today. It’s impossible to forget this tragedy for the Nickel Mines community.

The Amish, more than a decade later, are still choosing to consciously forgive. They are still looking after the killer’s family despite having to deal with the pain from the event. The Washington Post details more than a decade later how one of the victims of the school shooting is now “a 16-year-old girl who sits immobile in her wheelchair, unable to speak or feed herself.” Another victim, the oldest boy in the classroom that day is now “a 23-year-old man who sits at his kitchen table, also struggling to speak, though for him it’s not because he isn’t physically able. He just can’t find the words to express the emotional pain he’s felt every day for the past 10 years.

The Amish community will never forget this injustice that came into their community. The Amish have decided to forgive. They have chosen to cancel the debt of the consequence to the best of their ability. But just like anyone else, they have to wrestle with the consequences, the emotions, and the acceptance of the tragedy still every day.

There seems to be much confusion, even amongst those who profess a faith in Jesus with the connection between forgiving and forgetting. If I have forgiven someone, but I still can remember what they have done, have I truly forgiven them?

We forget a lot of things in this world: where our keys are, what our password is for a particular site, an important anniversary, or the birthday of a loved one. But what about the sins of others?

Let’s explore what God’s Word declares about this topic.

One of the most-often quoted Bible verses to justify this position is found in Isaiah 43:25, when God says: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers our sins no more.”

A key teaching of the Christian faith, however, is that God is omniscient (all-knowing). If God truly remembers our sin no more, if He has erased that memory, then wouldn’t that put into question our doctrine that God is omniscient? Either He remembers no more or He is omniscient, but He can’t be both. Uh-oh. Did we find a mistake, or an error, in the Bible? Did the Bible contradict itself?

Of course not.

When the Bible is referencing God remembering our sin no more, what it is referencing is that despite God knowing our sin, He has chosen to act as if it no longer occurred.

My first name is Zachary, and it comes from the Hebrew word “Zakar,” which is often translated as “remember.” My name literally means “God has remembered.” A fuller definition, however, of the Hebrew word includes “to be mindful, to recall, to bring to remembrance, to still think on, etc.” There’s a difference between forgetting something and choosing not to be mindful of that particular something.

As Forgiving Challenge Kids says, “When the Bible says that God will remember your sins no more, that does not mean He has one of His angels use a memory eraser thingy and POOF! God’s memory is wiped clean. God can recall every little detail in history. He has a far greater memory than you and I do.” What this means is that when God forgives you, He is choosing to not treat you the way you deserve. He won’t hold a grudge against you. He won’t dwell on your sin or cause it to come to His mind again.

“God is sheer mercy and grace;

  not easily angered, he’s rich in love.

He doesn’t endlessly nag and scold,

    nor hold grudges forever.

He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve,

    nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.”

Psalm 103:8-9 (The Message)

Rather than forgetting, forgiveness remembers the wrong and still chooses not to act in a way that would bring harm to the other person. Remember, in both aspects of forgiveness, there is a “releasing” or “letting go of.” Many times, the canceling of the debt is settled with an outside activity, but the elimination of anger and hatred towards the offender is a release on the inside. While God may be permanently able to “let go” of His anger towards the past sins that have been paid for at the cross, for us, it’s a lifelong process.

I don’t want anyone thinking that you aren’t a forgiving person because you still remember an action done against you in the past. That is a lie from the devil that too many are listening to and believing. The truth is the very fact that you remember and continue to choose not to treat the actions of others as they deserved is an even stronger testament to your faith. If it is humanly possible to forget something, then, there would be no need for forgiveness. You can’t forgive something you have forgotten. My friend Kent once told me, “It takes more grace to forgive and remember than it ever does to forgive and forget.”

Brian Zahnd, in his book Unchristian, says, “Christian forgiveness does not call us to forget. Christian forgiveness allows us to remember but calls us to end the cycle of revenge…Jesus’s vision is to end the ugliness of revenge and make the world beautiful through grace.”

Even in our own lives, when we miss the mark, God calls us to come to Him and receive forgiveness. He grants it to us every time. But, it would be foolish for me to completely forget my sin. No, I should remember my sin. I should learn from my sin. I should learn how I can position myself better in the future to not repeat my sin.

For instance, If I know I have struggled with alcohol addiction then it would be wise to remember this. That would encourage me to find a sponsor to help me in the times where I may be tempted. Not only do I set myself up better to be a greater representation of Christ in the future, but when I remember my mistakes of the past, it allows me to remember the grace of God all the more. The last thing I would ever want for your own life is to forget how good God has been to you.

When we remember the grace of God, we not only ensure that we are living out of the right motivation, but it allows us, then, to be gracious towards others.

Forgiveness is not about keeping score but losing count.

When we see how much God has forgiven us, we then become forgiving of others. But we should be careful not to fully forget the sins of others. Especially in cases where the sins of others were intentionally harmful to us and where those sins have been repeatedly done against us. While we can forgive those sins, it is wise to learn from them and not place ourselves in intentional danger. Sometimes the sins of others against us require us to put up healthy boundaries to guard us in the future. This is not only for our benefit but for theirs as well.

Instead of memory-erasing, God remembered our sin and placed it on Jesus. The Apostle Paul says that Christ erased “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” Colossians 2:14 (ESV) King David says “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:12

Through God erasing our sin, He has allowed our names to stand forever written in eternity. He gives us the power to forgive what we remember. Don’t forget that.

This devotion comes from Forgiving Others Challenge, which will be released in November 2021.


7 Responses

  1. Please let me know when I can order the book and study guide. My small bible group really enjoyed the Red Letter Bible Challenge. I imagine this one could be even more challenging. True forgiveness at its core can be very elusive…

    1. Hey Erik, Forgiving Challenge and Forgiving Challenge Kids will be coming out next month. I suggest starting with those. Then, I’ll be giving away a FREE ebook called Forgiving Others Challenge likely in November. I’m pumped that you guys had a great experience and hope this will be a helpful tool for you and your group!

  2. I know that God is sovereign. This was indeed bread for me today. We are hoping to open up our home for an intimate community to go through this challenge together. Thanks for today’s post. 🙌🏾

  3. Brother Zach, I seriously appreciate your reminder that remembering sins committed against us helps us to take positive steps towards not repeating. Of course it can cause us to boil up anger too…but the reminder to remember to forgive and reminder to choose to live in forgiveness in those moments is also solid.

    I would suggest to you however, that God is in fact able to forget our sin and nonetheless retain His omniscient status. After all, the limitless, all-powerful God…chose to become flesh in the womb. His humanity did not diminish His deity, however, He showed His all-powerful nature by being able to become a baby who reliant on His mother…whom He created of course. In the same way, He shows His true power in choosing to forget…or as Psalm 103 says it, “separating our sins as far as the east is from the west”.

    Peace be with you, Joe Meyer

  4. It took me decades to forgive my father for what he did to me. But I finally had to think about his seriously dysfunctional and alcoholic family. I don’t know what happened, but alcoholism can be passed on through generations, and it’s likely that was the key ingredient of his life. With that background, it’s difficult to move away from it. At least, none of my family are alcoholics and my dad might be the reason. Perhaps, some of us might not have been more cautious about drinking. By God’s grace (and several near death experiences) my father’s last years were alcoholic-free
    We can’t judge others without having lived their lives. God’s Grace is here for everyone and we should at least try.

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