Forgiving and forgetting – genuine forgiveness is not easy

‘I can forgive but I can’t forget.’  Those words attributed to the 19th century American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher (and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) will be familiar to many of us.  Perhaps we have even used them.

Offering genuine forgiveness is not easy and it can sometimes be difficult to accept. Forgiveness without forgetting isn’t really forgiveness because it suggests that reconciliation will only be a matter of form and not of the heart. Forgetting a hurt means consigning it to our past rather than allowing it to remain something which continues to gnaw away at us.

The Return of the Prodigal Son is an oil painting by Rembrandt, part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. 

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and Christians are now in the season of Lent.  Lent (from the Anglo-Saxon word for Spring) is a time during which we reflect upon our lives, repent of the mess we make of them, seek forgiveness from God and neighbour and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Whatever our religious views may be, those of us who have experienced genuine forgiveness and reconciliation will know just how powerful it is.

The danger is that we become too legalistic about forgiveness. That somehow forgiveness can only be forthcoming if repentance (from a Greek word meaning ‘to turn around’) is demonstrated in advance. That makes forgiveness conditional and in doing so takes away much of its power.

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son claims his share of the inheritance, leaves home and lives the high life until the money runs out and times are tough. And so he decides to return home, admit that he is no longer worthy to be accepted as his father’s son and ask to live like one of the household servants.

We know from the story that the son is genuinely sorry but, at this point in the parable, his father does not know that. Yet as soon as his father sees him ‘while he was still far off’, he picks up his robes and runs to greet him, an action which would have been regarded as highly undignified. The father reconciles himself with his son before the son utters his first words of contrition. 

In Rembrandt’s wonderful painting, the elder son (almost certainly the standing figure behind the father) looks on. He has been loyal to his father, worked hard and resents his younger brother’s return and the celebrations his father orders. Perhaps he will claim to forgive but not forget and our sympathy may well be with him.

True forgiveness, like that of the father in the parable, is unconditional but human pride and resentment, like that of the elder son, can so often get in our way.

To say that our divided world needs healing is trite but it is also true. An offer of unconditional forgiveness and the repairing of a broken relationship by each one of us would be a truly healing act for ourselves, for the person with whom we are reconciled and, in some very small way, for our world.


The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in Hastings Old Town.  Both churches are closed for public worship because of the pandemic but St. Clement’s is open for private prayer each Saturday from 11.30am to 1.30pm.

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