In honor of Valentine’s Day last week, my wife and I watched the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, the movie explores the age-old dilemma of whether men and women can ever be friends. Towards the end of the movie, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are at a New Year’s Eve Party. At midnight, the revelers begin to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Harry tells his companion that he has never understood the classic song. Is it about not forgetting our friends? Or is it about remembering the friends that we’ve already forgotten (which, he points out, is impossible)? Sally isn’t sure but is relatively certain that the song is about old friends. It seems to be an appropriate song for the New Year: a promise to do our best not to forget those people and events that we have experienced throughout our lives.
Yesterday, we began to explore the topic of forgiveness. We noticed that the word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “let go” or “abandon.” In other words, forgiving those who sin against us is entirely our initiative; Jesus does not leave room for us to expect a penitent or even apologetic response from the person we are forgiving. This leaves us with some challenging questions. What are we supposed to do with the pain or the anger we feel as a result of the other person’s actions? If the other person is not penitent and has no interest in being forgiven, how do we move forward in our relationship with that person? And if the other person has done something to wrong us, how do we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?
When politicians and other public figures apologize for their misdeeds, we often see the people who are close to them say things like, “I’ll forgive him, but I won’t be able to forget.” I submit, however, that forgetting is a crucially important element of forgiveness. “Auld Lang Syne” is not a particularly appropriate song when it comes to forgiveness. It is only by forgetting that we can truly move on from the hurt and the pain that someone has caused us. In Isaiah 43:25, the prophet writes that God will not remember our sins. God will let go of our sins and will not permit them to influence God’s understanding of who we are. In the same way, we are called not to remember the wrongs that other people have done to us; we are called to do our best to forget the pain that other people have caused. God calls us to avoid carrying grudges, because it is only by forgetting what others have done to us that we can truly move forward in a life of grace.
We are left with the niggling question of what we do about those who aren’t interested in being forgiven. One thing we cannot do is force our forgiveness upon someone. Just as we cannot forgive with the expectation of penitence, we cannot expect that everyone will be interested in our forgiveness. Nevertheless, we must not allow past wrongs to poison our relationships permanently. We can move on from pain and anger even without the other person, and we can pray that they too will arrive at a place where they can let go.
Perhaps the most challenging question of all is how we avoid being hurt in the future. On one hand, Jesus instructs us to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. We know those situations where we can be hurt and we should avoid those when we can. On the other hand, part of what the Christian life is about is vulnerability, realizing that we cannot arm ourselves against every hurt, because God himself did not forego pain and suffering. We are challenged to live in a world where people can cause us pain, but to trust that the new life that God promises us transcends even the deepest pain we might experience. We live in a world where we can be hurt; God challenges us to let that hurt go and to forget.