A few months ago I posted a piece about several upheavals in my life—betrayals, broken friendships, whatnot—and my inner work around them. “This work has been very difficult and very good,” I wrote back then. “I may write about it in the months to come, just in case it contains something useful for you.”

Well, here we go.

For me, the most jaw-dropping aspect of all this inner work is how it’s rendered old assumptions obsolete. Case in point: my assumptions about forgiveness—especially the old adage forgive and forget.

I first read something like forgive and forget in a passage from the Book of Jeremiah (Hebrew scriptures), where God promises a new covenant with Israel and Judah. Part of that covenant is that “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Sounds wonderful, eh? Goodness knows I’d love it if God forgot my sin, at least the worst bits. But according to some Bible teachers from my fundamentalist youth, this passage affects the way we forgive others too: in short, forgiveness isn’t forgiveness unless we forget the sin of others against us. Since we’re to emulate God, and God forgives and forgets, so should we.

Now that can’t be right, not from where I sit anyway, on at least two counts. (1) Yes, we’re to emulate God, but at the same time there are things God can do and we can’t. This, I believe, is one of them. We can’t simply erase our memories of old wounds: it’s like trying to sit for five minutes and not think about pink elephants. Not only that, but these wounds are part of our experience. They’ve helped make us who we are, perhaps even who God intends us to be.

The idea of memory erasure leads me to (2). Think of the survivors to whom we would never, ever say forgive and forget. Survivors of abuse, survivors of war, survivors of crime, identity theft, etc. Forgetting, even if possible, could lead too easily to “welcome your oppressors back as if nothing happened.” That’s vile advice. 

So what I’m coming to is this: forgetting is impossible—and not even desirable.

Even forgiving itself is difficult, or at least time-consuming. It’s taken me a whole year to sort through the drama and distresses that affected me, an essential part of forgiveness in my book. Maybe some folks can forgive in the blink of an eye, but I can’t, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.

So if forgiveness isn’t forgetting, and forgiveness isn’t simple, what is it? Let’s ponder that next time. 

Please note: all these thoughts are embryonic. I’m still trying them on. So, if you have an insight about them that’ll make them better, I’d love to hear from you.