To Forgive Is Not to Forget

Thursday in the week of Pentecost 2
May 26, 2016

The Lord be with you

Mark D. Rockenbach

Mark D. Rockenbach

The Spring 2016 (volume 42 | number 2) issue of Concordia Journal is very good, as usual. Eventually it will be posted on-line at (You can find past issues there now.) One article was so good, and I believe so relevant to the lives of many people today, that I just didn’t want to wait until it was posted by Concordia Seminary so I could provide a link. It is titled, “To Forgive Is Not to Forget” by Mark D. Rockenbach.

Rockenbach is associate professor of practical theology and advisor on personal growth and leadership development at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. The essay was originally prepared for the 2015 Theological Symposium at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Below is the article.

You have heard the phrase, “forgive and forget.” And many have spent a significant amount of time trying to forget sin so that it will be forgiven. The problem with this concept is that the forgiving ends up in the hands of the one trying to forget. And it promotes the idea that sin is only forgiven once it has been forgotten. However, this is not a biblical way of understanding forgiveness. Look through the pages of Scripture and you will find many references to sinful acts that have not been forgotten. The sin of Adam and Eve (Gn 3), the sin of King David ( 2 Sm 4) and the sin of the adulterous woman (Jn 8:1-11). None of these sins have been forgotten. If fact, they have all been written down so that every generation can know what took place. If we buy into the premise that forgiveness is based upon our ability to forget we are doomed. Psychologically speaking when you tell someone to forget it or not to pay attention to it, they actually do the thing you tell them not to do; they look at it, they fixate upon it, they can’t turn away.

A pioneering experiment conducted by Daniel M. Wegner instructed participants not to think about a white bear. Yet, this became an impossible task. The more they tried not to think about a white bear the more they thought about it. On average, the participants thought about the white bear twice as often as the group that was told to think about a white bear.1 Try it for yourself. For the next five minutes—do not think about a white bear.

This same psychological process takes place when you tell someone to forgive and forget. The more you try to forget it the more you remember it and the more you remember it the more angry you become, the more bitter you become, the more depressed you become, the more … fill in the blank.

Psychologically what is taking place is rumination or cognitive looping. When people fixate upon negative repeated thoughts, they get stuck replaying the incident in their minds over and over.2 Rumination, the repeated remembering of the event has been correlated to depressive episodes3 and sustained anxiety.4 Researchers have also discovered that rumination tends to prevent people from remembering specific events from the episode. Ruminating upon negative thoughts tends to display memory overgeneralization. 5 When people over generalize they misplace the facts of the situation and the rumination of the event does not tell the whole story. People will add detains that did not exist, or they will eliminate details that they don’t think are important. As a result, what they are remembering is not the true story but only their interpretation of the events that took place.

To reduce the negative results of rumination, counselors will use treatments such as Mindfulness-Based Meditation. The core concept of this technique is to help people learn how to identify and attend to negative thoughts before they escalate into major depressive episodes.6 The focus is not on forgetting but on facing the thoughts with a new understanding. For example, psychological researchers used Mindfulness-Based Meditation in connection with Cognitive Therapy and discovered it was effective in assisting those with suicidal thoughts. The ability to attend to the suicidal thoughts helped to identify triggers and reinterpret cognitive looping.7

All of this is important for our understanding of forgiveness. When a person is stuck replaying a sinful incident in their mind over and over, the psychological community will call this rumination and the treatment goal is to end the cognitive looping. However, theologically speaking we would call it unforgiveness with the goal of moving the person to the point of forgiving those who sinned against them. Consider this example: You are in conflict with Jack because Jack reported to the whole voters’ assembly that you miscalculated the church funds. You keep playing the incident in your mind (rumination) and you refuse to forgive Jack (unforgiveness). There are three options available to you: (1) run from Jack, (2) attack Jack, or (3) forgive Jack. Those who are stuck ruminating upon the incident are unwilling to forgive and will naturally find themselves responding to Jack by running or attacking. You might attend a different worship service than Jack; you might stop going to voters’ meetings. On the other hand you might choose to verbally attack Jack in the meeting and point out all his failures or send emails that express your anger or hatred toward Jack. Whether you run or attack, the problem of rumination results in unforgiveness.

Unforgiveness takes place when the sinful act is replayed over and over in one’s mind (rumination). One might be encouraged to forget it or stop thinking about it. The theory is that by forgetting it you will have forgiven it. But when you tell someone to stop thinking about a sinful act against them they will ruminate upon it even more and the roots of unforgiveness grow even deeper (remember the white bear). The psychological community is correct that we need to interrupt the endless cognitive looping that is causing so much suffering. But think about this theologically. When it comes to sin, it is not cognitive looping but unforgiveness that needs to be interrupted. The reason we ruminate upon particular sins is that we have not forgiven them (unforgiveness), and the only way to end rumination upon sin is to forgive it.

Forgiveness is always in the hands of our Lord: “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pt 2:24; Is 53:5). Therefore, the premise that we must forget so that we can forgive is not helpful. The forgiving gets put in the hands of the one trying to forget. Yet, forgiveness comes from the One who sacrificed himself upon the cross, Jesus Christ. It is through his blood that we are justified and redeemed. By the water of baptism, by the body and blood of Jesus that we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, by the words of absolution we are forgiven.

When God forgives he looks at us differently, he remembers us differently. God no longer sees our sin condemning us to eternal death in hell. God sees Jesus justifying and redeeming us as resurrected children of God who have life. God has not forgotten about the sin of Adam and Eve but he promised to send an new Adam (Jesus) who would crush the head of the serpent (Gn 3:14-16). God has not forgotten the sin of King David but through the prophet Nathan spoke words of forgiveness: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13). God has not forgotten the sin of the woman caught in adultery; Jesus said to her, “‘Woman, where are they (her accusers)?’ ‘Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’” (Jn 8:10-11). Sin is not forgotten but forgiven. God through his Son Jesus Christ does not use our sin against us. God knows, remembers, and sees that our sin is forgiven in the name of Jesus. God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:34). It is not that God gets amnesia. God knows, remembers, and sees our sin differently. God chooses not to use that sin against us because we have been justified and redeemed by Christ. The psalmist highlights this: “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord” (Ps 24:6-7). The psalmist is asking God not to remember his rebellious ways. Instead, he is asking God to remember him according to God’s steadfast mercy.

You can run from Jack, you can attack Jack, or you can forgive Jack. By the gracious work of Jesus we can forgive Jack and end the ruminated cycle of unforgiveness. The goal is not to forget but to forgive and we forgive because of the work of Christ. Will you still remember what Jack did? Probably so. But if you have forgiven him you will remember it differently, you will see it differently. You will remember the incident through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness ends the rumination or cognitive looping that causes endless emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual turmoil. Forgiveness says, by the work of Jesus Christ I will not use this against you. When we remember the story of Adam and Eve we know about this sin, but we also know about the Savior. When we remember the story of King David we know about the sin, but we also know about the Savior. When we remember the story of the woman caught in adultery we know the sin, but we also know about the Savior. You will probably remember your own sinsor the sins of others against you, but there is great joy and peace knowing that the Savior has forgiven them. Therefore, we remember them differently; we remember them as being forgiven by the wounds of Jesus Christ (1 Pr 2:24, Is 53:5).

1 Daniel Wegner, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and Psychology of Mental Control (New York: Guilford Press, 1994).
2 Susan Nolen-Hoeksema “Responses to Depression and their Effects on the Duration of Depressive Episodes,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 100 no. 4 (1991): 569-582. John Teasdale, Richard Moore, Hazel Hayhurst, Marie Pope, Susan Williams, and Zindel Segal “Metacognitive Awareness and Prevention of Relapse in Depression: Empirical Evidence,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 70, no. 2 (2002): 275.
3 Jannay Morrow and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema “Effects of Responses to Depression on the Remediation of Depressive Affect” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 no. 3 (1990): 519-527.
4 David Marcus, Kathleen Hughes, and Randolph Arnau “Health Anxiety, Rumination, and the negative Affect: A Mediational Analysis” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 64 no. 5 (2008): 495-501.
5 Lorna Goddard, Barbara Dirtschel, and Andrew Burton “Role of Autobiographical Memory in Social Problem Solving and Depression” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 105, no. 5 (1996): 609-616.
6 Maya Schroevers and Rob Brandsma “Is Learning Mindfulness Associated with Improved Affect After Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy?” British Journal of Psychology 101, no. 1 (2010), 95-107.
7 Steven Hayes, “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, and the Third Wave of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies” Behavior Therapy 35, no. 4 (2004): 639-665.

Well, I hope you found the article as useful as I did.

Blessings in Christ