Then Peter came to him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I
forgive him" Seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I am not telling you seven times, but
seventy times seven."
We have a common phrase that may serve as a point of departure this morning--"Forgive and
forget." It is the kind of catchy phrase that sticks in the memory and can readily come to
be taken for granted, but it involves matters too important to take for granted.
Forgiveness is a major theme in Scripture. after time in the Old Testament, an individual
or the nation will transgress some commandment, and will face the question of punishment
or forgiveness. Securing forgiveness is central to the temple, according to the Solomon's
prayer at its dedication. "Hear in heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear,
In the Gospels, this theme becomes even more prominent. It takes a central place in the
Lord's prayer: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." The whole effort of
the Lord's life and teaching was toward love and trust, away from violence and fear. The
manifestation of the divine was a manifestation of compassion, of profound care for every
individual, a walking refutation of the image of an unforgiving God. In our text, the Lord
tells Peter that there should be no limit to his forgiveness of his brother. In practical
terms, no one is going to keep count of the first four hundred and ninety offenses and
then say, "You're over the limit: now I don't have to forgive you."
We cannot say the same for forgetfulness, though. Most of the time we are commanded to
remember the past, not to forget either what the Lord has done for us, or what we have
done. There is one passage that comes to mind as a kind of exception, and it is worth our
attention. We find it in Psalm 25:
Remember, O Lord, your tender mercies and lovingkindnesses, for they have been ever of
old. Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to your mercy
remember me for your goodness' sake, O Lord. . . . For your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my
iniquity, for it is great.
There is a kind of tension here. It is the awareness, not the forgetfulness, of past sins
that prompts the prayer. The deepest desire, I would suggest, is not that the Lord will
forget. That will not make the transgressions go away, or heal the soul. The deepest
desire, the deepest need, is to know that the Lord sees the transgressions mercifully.
Then and only then does the Psalmist know that there is nothing to fear. It would be folly
to trust a love that was based on forgetfulness, on ignorance.
In a recent sermon, Jim Lawrence cited an example that makes the point vividly. He
expressed it well, and I should like to quote him at some length.
I know a woman very far advanced with senility, who in her day was a gifted writer and
active church leader on the east coast. As talented and she was and as devoted to the
church as she was, she nevertheless harbored deep resentments due to her own
interpretations of being betrayed, wronged, let down by others--all well-catalogued in her
heart. Despite her many good points, this woman built a base of bitterness in her
personality and seemed far indeed from enjoying the fruits of a long life of spiritual
commitment. She shared with me more than once in her old age that she had not enjoyed her
Well, an interesting thing happened as she advanced in her senility. She gained in
happiness as she lost in memory. I saw her on a regular basis over a two-year period
during which she declined from the beginnings of senility to a nearly total loss of memory
and recognition. During this period there was a dramatic uplift in her countenance. As she
lost connection to all that had made her bitter, she began to enjoy the natural delights
of life. She loved the sunshine; she loved watching the birds, she loved looking at
people. The tragedy was poignant to me: if she had been able to forgive reflexively as she
want along and free herself from their tyranny, now much more satisfying her life would've
This loss of memory involves physical rather than a spiritual causes. Brain tissue has
deteriorated. After death, we are told, we have direct access to all our memories. In the
Biblical image, the books of our lives are opened. I am left in this case with the
suspicion that after death, this woman will begin with her newfound love of life--with her
delight in the sunshine and the birds and the people. Then, from that secure ground, so to
speak, she will need to face the bitterness and resentment that cluster around her
returning memories. As long as she forgets, she cannot forgive, and until she forgives,
she can have no delight, no joy.
In her state of senility, the price of her happiness is immense. In order to find delight
in the sunshine, she has had to sacrifice not only her gifts as writer and thinker but
also all depth of human relationship. She cannot remember that this is her pastor or that
this is her daughter. There can be no sense of growing understanding or of lasting
friendship. There can be no promises made and kept. She is cut off from most of her own
life, and cannot be a whole person until she has access to all she learned in years of
marriage and motherhood, of reading and writing, of talking and listening.
"Forgive and forget." Clearly, we cannot take these in the opposite order. If we forget,
we cannot forgive. But suppose we have forgiven? Can we, or should we, then forget?
Before we can answer this, we must be sure we know what we mean by forgiveness, and here I
would suggest that there are two essential steps. The first is to move beyond our
self-concern. If, in Peter's phrase, my brother has sinned against me, it is natural for
me to be preoccupied with my own loss or pain. In fact, I should not ignore this or
pretend it isn't there, because if I do I will not understand myself honestly. I need to
face it, to own it, and to accept my share of responsibility for it. This is my way of
reacting to the offense, and someone else would react differently.
Only when I have taken this step can I turn my attention to the offender without blaming
him for my reactions. Only then can I begin to look at this brother as a human being in
his own right. Then I would do well to remember the advice of our theology that "the good
in the neighbor is the neighbor to be loved." I can be very sure, on solid theological
grounds, that there is a part of that person that does not want to give offense, that is
troubled by the thought of causing pain. I can be very sure, on even solider theological
grounds, that the Lord is lovingly and wisely presenting that individual with choices
which can lead to heaven.
Forgiveness is real, I would argue, when I devote my thought to discerning that divine
purpose and my efforts to furthering it. I separate the person from the sin, and address
the person who sees the sin as sin. In one sense, then, I do "forget" the sin. It is not
uppermost in my mind when I think about this individual. I can think about the person
without thinking about the offense. In another sense, though, I do not "forget" it any
more than a doctor "forgets" the illness that a patient is trying to overcome. In other
words, the offense is not always there, not always in the foreground, but it is available
as information when that information is needed for good and constructive purposes.
There is a profound importance to this. The lion's share of our own self-deception rests
in our fear that if the Lord knew what we were really like, we would find ourselves
condemned. We need to remind ourselves that the Lord does know what we are really like,
that none of our faults are hidden, and that the Lord loves us most tenderly at the same
time. It is our own fears that pray the Lord not to remember our sins or our
transgressions, the same fears that keep us from facing them. Love, the basis of
forgiveness, is not blind, but supremely clear-sighted, and only as this sinks in do we
begin to understand our Lord, in whom perfect love and perfect wisdom are perfectly one.