Matthew 18:21-35

Mother Teresa once said, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.”

Bill Moyers said, “In marriage every day you love and every day you forgive. It’s an ongoing sacrament, love and forgiveness.”

Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”

Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Comedian Buddy Hackett said it best: “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? Because while you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”

Life is way too short to be stuck in un-forgiveness. That’s why we can’t listen to enough messages about forgiveness. And more important than listening to messages about forgiveness is actually forgiving the person or persons who have wronged us. I remind you James 1:22 says, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”

As we take a look in the rearview mirror of this series we see that forgiveness:

  • Is hard; remember C. S. Lewis said, “Forgiveness is a beautiful word until you have someone to forgive.” It’s not natural for us to forgive because our sinful nature gets in the way. Our pride would have us retaliate or at minimum hold on to the desire to pay back the person who did us wrong. Our sinful nature longs for the day we see the other person suffer and even anticipates saying, “Now you’re getting what you deserve.”
  • Is unconditional; that is, it is not Biblical to withhold forgiveness until and unless the person who wronged us shows remorse and asks to be forgiven. We are to forgive regardless of how the other person feels or what they do.
  • Is sometimes confused with two myths that tend to keep us from forgiving. First, the misconception that forgiveness calls for rebuilding a relationship with the person forgiven. And secondly, the incorrect notion that Forgiveness requires us to do what we can to relieve the person we have forgiven from suffering negative consequences from their actions.
  • Is releasing the person who wronged us from the obligation to repay us what we think they owe us. In today’s parable, the King had a legal right to be repaid, the slave had an obligation to pay the debt. However, the King voluntarily released the slave from the obligation.
    That story illustrates the essence of forgiveness: We acknowledge a wrong has occurred we are not going to be able to overlook. The wrong has created an obligation for repayment. So we choose to release our offender from having to repay the wrong.

Today, I want us to consider the relationship between forgiving and forgetting.

Marlena Dietrich said, “Once a woman has forgiven her man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.”

Once upon a time in their marriage, Saul Rosenberg did something really stupid. Ethel Rosenberg chewed him out for it. He apologized, they made up. However, from time to time, Ethel would mention what he had done.
“Honey,” Saul finally said one day, “why do you keep bringing that up? I thought your policy was ‘forgive and forget.’”
“It is,” Ethel said, “I just don’t want you to forget that I’ve forgiven and forgotten.”

Would you believe that two-thirds of the people in a national survey indicated they believed that forgiving someone who did us wrong also implies forgetting what they did?

So how did so many people come to believe that forgiveness implies forgetting?

Because many are convinced that the old saying forgive and forget is in the Bible. Just like God helps those who help themselves is not in the Bible neither is forgive and forget.

Secondly, it is likely we have learned to believe it is true. Let’s say you’re down at The Village Inn and a friend hits you up for $2 to play Keno and doesn’t repay it. A couple of weeks later, because it was a measly $2 you forgot all about it. But 3 months later, you run into him and he gives your $2 back. You tell him, I forgot all about it, thanks a lot. And you feel pretty good about yourself because you were able to forgive and forget. So your idea that forgiveness implies forgetting is reinforced.

Next time, your friend borrows $10 and doesn’t repay it. Now you’ve d got a problem. You just learned you should forget about it and everything will be okay. And maybe you can forget about $10. But as the offense gets larger, it’s more difficult to forget.

So, because we have heard that forgive and forget is Biblical and because it has been reinforced through life experiences many believe to forgive also implies forgetting.

But permit me to say it again; forgiveness is not to be paired with forgetting! Why?

Confusing forgiveness with forgetting sets us up for 2 equally negative outcomes.

First, accepting this idea will many times short-circuit the whole forgiveness process. So and so borrowed $1000 and has never made an attempt to repay it. Since forgiving requires me to also forget and I know that I could never forget about $1000, why knock myself out trying to forgive?

Second, equating forgiveness with forgetting creates doubt over whether forgiveness really took place and that brings on unnecessary guilt. “If I really have forgiven my father, why can’t I forget the hurtful words he spoke to me decades ago? Maybe, I really haven’t forgiven him.”

Listen; forgetting is neither the means nor the test of genuine forgiveness. Why?

God gave us a brain with the remarkable ability to store memories through electronic impulses and chemical transference. Although we may not be able to recall every event in our lives, psychologists tell us that they are all in there. And they also tell us that the key to remembering is ‘rehearsal.’ Each time we recall (rehearse) a particular event in our lives, the more deeply embedded that event becomes.

So accepting the idea that forgiveness implies forgetting sets up a very vicious cycle, whereby we think it’s our Christian duty to forget what so and so did but each time we try to forget we are actually recalling the event and therefore making sure we don’t forget it.

David Augsburger explains it this way in his book Seventy Times Seven: “Just as the man with insomnia, attempting to stop the mad race of his mind finds that the more he tries to silence his thoughts, the swifter they fly, so the person who struggles blindly to forget only sears the thought more deeply into his memory.” 1

Here’s the bottom line: Forgetting most offenses is not humanly possible. We cannot stop our memory on a dime; we cannot forget on command.

So you see, we need to forgive precisely because we cannot forget!

And when genuine forgiveness takes place, time will allow the power of those memories to diminish.

Corrie Ten Boom, who survived the Nazi death camp at Ravensbruck, illustrates this truth with a story from her past. She was speaking in a church in Munich in 1947 about forgiveness: “When we confess our sins,” she said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.” After the service, she was startled to see the Nazi guard who had tortured her moving up the aisle toward her with his hand extended. “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” I was a Nazi guard at Ravensbruck but I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but fräulein, will you forgive me too?”

She wrote:

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. Then this healing warmth flooded my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

Although she had forgiven her offender, thinking about the injustice was still robbing her of sleep years later. She asked God to reveal to her why this was so. God’s help came to her through a kindly Lutheran pastor who encouraged her to think of a church tower with a bell that is rung by pulling on a rope. “You know that after the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging slower and slower until it stops: ding, dong, ding, dong, ding, dong, ding. The same is true of forgiveness: When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we have been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we shouldn’t be surprised that it takes a while for them to stop ringing in our head.” 2

Life is way too short to be stuck in un-forgiveness.

Richard Moore of Derry, Northern Ireland, was just ten years old when blinded by a British soldier who fired a rubber bullet at him at point-blank range while he was walking home from school. For 30 years, Richard wanted to meet that soldier to give him a piece of his mind.

And then one day Richard went to church where he came to grips with the fact that, even though he was unfairly blinded, he too was a sinner in need of the forgiveness that God through Jesus provides. He bowed the knee to Christ and became a Christian.

When he later heard Ephesians 4:32: “Be ye kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven you” he decided it was time. After discovering who the soldier was and where he lived, Richard wrote to him to get permission to visit, and then he met with him face-to-face, offering his personal, heartfelt forgiveness.

Here’s what Richard later said about the experience:

Something peculiar and wonderful happened. Something inside me changed, something paradoxical. I began to realize that the gift of forgiveness I thought I was bestowing on the soldier who shot me was actually a gift from God to me. It didn’t even matter whether the soldier wanted or needed forgiveness; the gift freed me, leaving me with a sense of serenity and blessedness.

All through my boyhood my mother had wanted the impossible for me; that I would be given back my sight. I even woke up one night to find my dear mother on her knees, next to my bed, pleading with God for that to happen. Well, when I met the soldier and forgave him, my mother’s prayers were answered. I was given a new vision, and my real wound, the one that needed healing more than my eyes, was healed.” 3

In a similar manner, may our healing begin today.


1 Augsburger, David. Seventy Times Seven: The Freedom of Forgiveness.
[Chicago: Moody Press, © 1970] page 49.

Guideposts, November 1972.

3 Richard Moore, interview by Pat Coyle,; submitted by Clark Cothern, Tecumseh, Michigan