I wonder: in order to forgive, do we have to forget? In order to respect the dignity of a person who has hurt us, do we have to let him or her back into the space where they harmed us in the first place?
Certainly, we are called to bear wrongs with patience and with grace; then, when it is appropriate, we admonish the sinner with kind gentleness. It is an act of mercy to share the faith, to remind another person of virtue and to pray for them and with them for growth — both in virtue itself and in the joy that virtue will yield in their lives. There is a patient persistence in prayer that is our call when someone we love is sinning. We gently poke slow-growing seeds into the soil and then we wait with patient faith for them to bear fruit.
But what if the wrong we bear patiently and the sin we call out is actually an offense against us personally? What if we’ve been hurt by someone else’s actions? We are called to forgive. And we’re called to do so over and over again. Someone recently pointed out to me that we have the occasion to forgive a sin 70 times seven (Mt 18:22) more often than we might recognize. We can forgive a sin the first time, truly releasing its grip in our souls, but then we have to forgive it every time it comes to mind, for as long as we continue to remember.
Often, it’s really in our best interest to remember. Forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting. Instead, someone else’s sins can hold valuable lessons for us — lessons in navigating the tricky waters of complicated relationships, lessons in boundaries, lessons in learning to replace foolishness with wisdom.
Remembering isn’t for revenge. The only one who will repay a wrong is God (Rom 12:19). It’s important to relinquish completely the desire to hurt someone in retaliation for hurts suffered at their hands. Whenever someone else causes us to suffer by their sins, it can be helpful and spiritually fruitful to call to mind that our suffering pales in comparison to what they will face if they don’t repent and amend their ways. Even in the hurt, we can soften our hearts for compassion.
But compassion does not ask us to let ourselves be victims again. Compassion doesn’t ask us to be silent and let pass the opportunities to share our pain, both for our healing and as a cautionary tale to others. Compassion does not require us to throw open wide the doors of our homes and hearts to someone who might harm us or our families. On the contrary, we have a responsibility to protect ourselves from harm. Certainly, no one would object to refusing to put oneself in physical harm. It is equally right and just to protect oneself from emotional harm. It is entirely possible to forgive someone while at the same time constructing a strong and sturdy boundary against further pain.
That boundary is a mercy to the one who inflicted the pain, too. If we allow ourselves to be victims over and over again, then the people who harm us associate no logical consequence for the damage they have done. Every parent knows that correction requires some consequence in order to be effective, even if it’s the sting of disapproval. So, forgiveness that also results in the consequence of a boundary is not incomplete forgiveness. Protecting oneself from further harm is good self-care. It’s a good idea to be kind and gentle to ourselves when we’ve been hurt. When we forgive, our hearts are transformed. Protecting that healing heart is both prudent and kind.