I remember years ago getting flashbacks. I would be doing a particular activity when suddenly an incident that had happened decades earlier would replay in my mind. I had three incidents in particular that seemed to plague me.
I finally asked the Holy Spirit why I had these memories. There were thousands of things that happened to me growing up that I couldn’t remember even if someone paid me money, yet there were three I couldn’t forget.
I felt the Holy Spirit say to me that these memories involved incidents where I had unresolved conflicts and I needed to forgive the people involved.
My unforgiveness was like an emotional charge that kept these memories alive. So I went through each incident, one-by-one, and forgave all involved.
The first thing I noticed is that these flashbacks suddenly stopped.
The second thing that happened is that the memory of these incidents began to fade. For the first time, these decades-old offenses had a chance to grow old and die. Now years later, I can’t even remember what a couple of these incidents involved.
In my case, forgiveness directly affected my ability to forget.
Study on impact of memory on forgiveness
A study conducted by researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrew has shown the unique relationship between forgiving and forgetting. Their findings were published in Psychological Science, produced by the Association of Psychological Sciences.
Their work showed that people who forgive have a better chance of forgetting than those who don’t forgive.
Lead author Salma Noreen said:
“It is well established that learning to forgive others can have positive benefits for an individual’s physical and mental health. The ability to forget upsetting memories may provide an effective coping strategy that enables people to move on with their lives.
The group of researchers had participants read 40 different stories (all hypothetical) that involved various forms of offenses including slander, adultery and theft. They were then asked if these incidents had happened to them, whether they would have forgiven the other person.
About two weeks later, the participants were asked to read abbreviated versions of the accounts. This time cue words were assigned to each story. If the cue words were colored ‘red’, the researchers instructed the participants to forget the account. If the cue words were written in ‘green,’ they were told to remember the incident.
This is a standard form of memory testing used in psychological research. After going through this process, the researchers then asked the participants to recall each of the stories.
In their news release, the researchers said:
“For transgressions they had forgiven in the first session, participants showed more forgetting when they had been instructed to forget the scenario in the second session, compared to when they had been given no specific instructions.
In contrast, participants showed no forgetting for scenarios they had not forgiven, even when they had been told to forget them.”
They concluded that forgiveness helps us forget.
God forgives and forgets
Interestingly, there is a Bible verse where God seems to tie His ability to forget our sins to His forgiveness of our sins. Because God has forgiven us, our sins will be cast into the sea, never to be remembered again:
18 Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?
He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities under foot.
Yes, You will cast all their sins
Into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:8-9 NASV)
- Forgiving a wrong may actually make it easier to forget: Association of Psychological Science