Abuse, Miscellaneous

Forgive and Forget: Where does accountability factor in?

Forgiveness without accountability is irresponsible.

So what then of the phrase forgive and forget? Is it compatible with accountability? Is it even right? 

Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare are both credited with early versions of this now ubiquitous phrase. In Don Quixote de la Mancha and King Lear,  their respective authors coined similar versions of the phrase both using the words “…forget and forgive…” in that order.

Interestingly if you google the phrase, opinions abound, but there is not much to be found in the way of an explanation of its origin. The Bible is said to infer it in several different passages, yet never states it outright. (Matthew 6:12-15; Jeremiah 31:34; I Corinthians 13:5)

I don’t think there is any question about forgiveness, so let’s agree that forgiveness is necessary and healthy.

It is the forgetting part of that phrase to which I would like to give attention.

I wonder if this something you can make yourself do. Can you willfully make yourself forget something? How often have you desperately tried to remember something and for all the king’s gold could not bring that recollection to mind. Conversely, how many times have you tried to forget something that you wish you could erase from your mind forever only to have it plant itself even deeper into your mind.

It is not uncommon to hear Christians say that when we forgive, we experience the ability to let go of the wrong and are supernaturally given peace that transcends the pain.

I have to be honest. I do not know what I think about this. Is this a purely Christian phenomenon? Do only Christians experience peace after forgiveness? What if a Christian forgives but does not experience peace? Have they not forgiven? Are you allowed to feel hurt and pain after you have forgiven? How long are you allowed to feel the pangs of pain after forgiving before you are considered unforgiving?

I have a lot of questions about this concept, but my purpose here is not to delve into the doctrine of forgiveness but to stay practical. You know how people don’t want to talk about the less successful parts of their story? I find that utterly useless. Without the part of the story where I sat huddled against the wall of the closet under a rack of hanging clothes with my arms around my knees and tears mixed with snot running down my face, you do not know that there is a lot of ugly before things get better.

I forgave. I forgave over and over again. And I still remembered. Each time I forgave the exact same offense that I had forgiven dozens of other times was not like the first time I was experiencing it. It hurt. It hurt because he said it wasn’t going to happen anymore, yet here I was forgiving for that very same thing again. I did not forget.

I would like to talk about that for a moment. My humanity. I think we get so fixated on the goal sometimes, that we are robbed of our human responses. We need it to be ok. We need to do the right thing. We need to forgive. In our pursuit for that perfect response, we villainize anything that does not bring us closer to that goal.

While separated, I was almost robotic. I was not angry. I was almost devoid of emotion. I kept waiting for the dam to break. I did cry a lot. I struggled with insomnia but I did not feel the things I expected to feel. I had much more emotion while we had been living in the same house than while I was away.

I expressed this to my counselor once and she assured me that they would come and that they would be normal. When I did start feeling and expressing some of those emotions, she did not shame me. She allowed me my humanity. Her advice was to just make sure those feelings were not the last chapter of the book. I would like to encourage you, as my counselor did me, to allow yourself those emotions without shame or guilt. God knows that you have them. It is God after all who endowed us with those emotions. Just don’t let them be your final chapter either.

If we find ourselves in a place where we need to forgive, chances are the wrong we are forgiving produced some sort of emotional response in us; anything from anger to rage to fear to pain and sadness.  These emotions are part of what makes an event leave an indelible impression on our minds. It is by design.

When we forgive, the wrong does not go away, the wrongdoer is not absolved of guilt and the results of the wrong are still felt. Forgiveness is not a magic eraser. Culpability has not been erased and the wrongdoer is still accountable for their actions.

While forgiveness is a present and continuing action for a past and/or present wrong, accountability is a future action. It is an attempt to reduce the opportunity to continue on in a sin. It is, in essence, an effort to prevent the need for future forgiveness for the same infraction. Make sense?

Forgiveness is amazing, but it too often becomes a tool wielded by too many people to keep a woman trapped in an abusive situation; people who have an agenda (avoid divorce or discord at all costs), people who are well-meaning but misinformed, and by the abuser himself. The abused woman herself allows it to be used against her because of the guilt associated with “not forgiving,” which accountability is often mislabeled as.

Forgiveness is not a mindless act that requires us to just let go and move on. It is the first part of a two part series: Forgiveness and Accountability. Forgiveness without a follow-up of accountability is senseless. Trust has been broken over and over again. How could anyone possibly think that an admission of guilt or an apology makes the abuser trustworthy or puts him back in a position of good-standing?

Accountability is not withholding forgiveness nor is it “not forgetting.” Accountability is right and wholly Biblical. It is not distrust. It is a logical response to behavior that has been shown to be consistent, dangerous, and conscienceless. Accountability occurs at the same time as forgiveness and is an active and continuing process just as forgiveness needs to be.

When an abusive or unfaithful person, who has been forgiven and held accountable for his actions repeatedly, continues on in the same behavior without evidence of remorse and repentance, through means of accountability, further steps should be considered. Though forgiveness and accountability are ongoing, there is a point where they become meaningless if the behavior does not change. Forgiveness does not mean the relationship has to continue.

Accountability takes into account a perpetual pattern of sin. It does not blindly turn an eye to past wrongs. It must accompany forgiveness.

So what does all of this mean for the part about forgetting? I do not think that we are actually advised to forget in the way we currently use the word. I believe it is more about how we interact with that person going forward. This is another big topic though, about accountability and rebuilding trust or knowing when to not trust.

So back to forgetting.

I have forgotten a lot. My life has moved forward and there is so much that fills my present, I do not often think of the day to day challenges of my past. Is it the passage of time that allows the pain to fade over time? Is it a supernatural consequence of forgiveness? Is it a gracious gift of God? Is it some combination of the three? I am not sure.

My thought regarding the question about forgetting is this. Trying to forget it not something I tried to do. It will happen on its own and then all of a sudden it will be there again. There will be times, triggers, like with the woman I helped last week when it feels fresh all over again. Her tears and pain in the midst of her suffering moved me and made me remember those feelings anew. And now, I have moved on and forgotten again.

Sometimes this happens day by day, sometimes moment by moment. But moving past your past can only be achieved when you live life forward.

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