We all know the wisdom of the old saying that we should “forgive and forget” and although that exact phrase does not appear in the Bible, it does summarize Biblical principles of forgiveness.
There are, of course, many scriptures telling us that we should forgive others when they harm us in some way (see, for example, Matthew 6:14, and Ephesians 4:32), but what about the “forget” part of the equation?
There is also clear biblical evidence that we should forget as well as forgive if we are to imitate God. Notice both aspects of forgiveness in this scripture which appears in both the Old and the New Testaments: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 and Hebrews 8:12).
How do we apply this? It is hard enough to forgive others, but how are we to possibly forget – especially in those situations where it seems humanly impossible to forget things done to us, perhaps truly evil things? We should realize that psychologically, and spiritually, not forgetting keeps old wounds open and means we may suffer endlessly from the actions of others, so we should certainly make every effort to forget – and we can ask God’s help with this, just as we might ask His help to forgive. But I have known people who have been hurt by others so badly that despite their best efforts and sincere prayer, forgetting seems impossible. Such people may say “I have forgiven them, but I just can’t forget what they did.”
The answer to these situations where it seems impossible to “forget” – despite our full desire to forgive – is that we must understand what the Bible means by “remember their sins no more.” In Biblical Hebrew, the word zakhar which we translate “remember” has a broader meaning than just “remember” in the sense of “not forgetting.” Zakhar also includes the results of remembering – the actions we do as a result of remembering. It is in this sense that the Bible tells us God “remembered” Noah after the Flood (Genesis 8:1) or God “remembered” Abraham (Genesis 19:29). In cases like these examples the Bible tells us not that God suddenly thought about His servants whom He had forgotten for a while – it tells us that in “remembering” them God did something about them – causing the flood to recede on the one hand, or rescuing Lot as Abraham had asked on the other.
So God doesn’t expect or require us to do the psychologically impossible. He just requires that we don’t remember the sins of others against us in the sense of not acting on the memory – not holding the sin against them or punishing them in any way for it – just as he does not punish us when He does not remember our sins (Jeremiah 31:34).
God does require that we forgive those that sin against us, and He does require that we do not actively “remember” those sins. But in the same way, He doesn't want us to act on “remembering” our own sins by painfully reliving them or being “haunted” by them in discouragement. God knows that it is psychologically and spiritually healthier for us to forget our own sins and the sins of others, once forgiven; but even when the memories linger despite our best efforts, He simply requires us not to act negatively on those memories.