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Why Forgetting Is NOT the Key to Forgiveness

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We’re told to forgive and forget, but reframing our negative experiences in light of the gospel is where true healing lies.

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We’ve all heard that “Elephants never forget.” I personally don’t understand a lot of the sayings we have about animals. You’ve heard people talking about eating like a horse. How many calories can there be in hay? Or sweating like a pig. When was the last time you saw a pig sweat? And my personal favorite is working like a dog. If you saw my little dog Izzy spread out on my favorite chair in the family room you’d also question where that one came from.

Sadly, the origin of how an elephant never forgets is how unscrupulous circus trainers used to control these massive animals. When the elephants were very young, the trainers would tie a simple rope around one of their legs and then stake it into the ground. This rope was sufficient to keep the young elephant stationary. The elephant would pull and tug but would eventually give up when it appeared futile to keep trying. Many circuses continued this cruel tactic throughout the elephant’s life.

A full-grown elephant that had the power to knock over big trees rooted into the ground could be controlled by a simple wooden stake with a rope tied to its leg. It would always think it was impossible to break free based on what the elephant remembered. These circus trainers used their memories against them because they knew that … an elephant never forgets.

For many of us, our painful memories are much like a rope tied to a stake in the ground. Just like this enormous elephant, we could break free at any time, but we are held captive based on what we remember. Since we think we cannot forget our past, it spills over into our peace in the present and sabotages our purpose for the future.

Forgetting may be impossible, but what if we could remember in a different way? We cannot change the past but what if we could recall it in a way that offers peace and hope instead of unresolved pain? We can’t forget our hurtful memories but what if we could manage their frequency and intensity so they do not control us? If we continue dealing with our past in the same way, we will wind up with the same results. It’s time for a new way of thinking that will transform our minds.

Forgetting is not a part of the forgiveness process. God does not forget when he forgives our sins. It is impossible for the all-knowing, omniscient God of the universe to forget anything, and yet it doesn’t keep him from forgiving. God doesn’t forget. But when we accept Christ, God remembers in a different way. He no longer sees the sin. God sees the righteousness of Christ that now covers us.

According to research by The National Science Foundation, the average person has up to 60,000 thoughts each day. Of those, 80 percent are negative and 95 percent are repetitive thoughts they had the day before. If you’ve been hurt in the past, how many of your thoughts each day are wasted thinking about something that only brings you pain and is impossible for you to change? How much of your day is spent focusing on the past of which you have no control instead of invested into a healthy future where you have total control?

As always, the answer if found in God’s Word. “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Rom. 12:2). If we can change the way we think, it will change the way we feel and ultimately how we live each day.

One very practical tool to help us change the way we think is from Dr. Aaron T. Beck who is widely regarded as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy. Dr. Beck pioneered many new treatments for clinical depression, including “reframing,” which consists of trying to find alternative ways of viewing ideas, events or situations.

Think of it as seeing events in our lives through a picture frame that we create. If we frame only a portion of the picture, we can leave out important parts that could change the entire perspective. Only by seeing the full picture can we get the whole story.

For example, when we begin dating someone, we present a small picture of ourselves. We control what we want the other person to see and do our best to make a favorable impression. That person can’t make a very good judgment about us because they have so little information. On a first date we purposely portray our lives in a small frame.

If the first date grows into a relationship, we begin to learn more about each other, both the good and the bad. The frame gets enlarged because we’re getting more information. We may like the person we’re seeing and want to continue the relationship or we may decide this person is not for us and break it off. If we marry this person, our growing frame now becomes a giant mural where we see everything there is to see about each other.

Now let’s imagine if your hurtful experience could be captured in a large, unframed picture. There would be a lot going on in that picture but if you’re struggling to forget about the past, it’s because you’ve framed only a small portion of that picture. Your focus has been on the most painful part and is influenced by your personal bias because of the way you were hurt. That’s completely understandable, but it isn’t helping you.

If you could enlarge the frame of your picture, you can gain a totally different perspective. If you and others helping you had more information, it could help you make better choices. And if you could look past your wounds and see everything in the picture, it can help you remember the past in a different way so you can manage your emotions instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Having the courage to look at the big picture is all about walking in truth. And Jesus said it best in John 8:32, “The truth will set you free.”

Gil Mertz is assistant to the president at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., and the author of Forgive Your Way to Freedom.

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