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The Power of Forgetting Our Past

August 04, 2011

The key to life change is forgetting, not remembering. Try remembering that next time you are sitting with a friend or counselor who is digging deeply into your past in the hopes of impacting your future for good. Consider the life of Joseph. If anyone was a candidate for ten years of therapy because of a painful past, it was Joseph. This guy was coddled by his father, pampered as the youngest, and ridiculed and ultimately rejected by his brothers. Finally, at one point his eleven brothers stripped him naked, threw him into a pit, then hauled him out and sold him as a slave in Egypt. Now would that mess with your mind? Then Joseph got a job in Egypt; he was working hard and trying to build a life for himself when his boss’s wife flipped out and falsely accused him of trying to have sex with her. Sounds like the Jerry Springer show. Unable to defend himself, Joseph was chained up in some rat-infested prison and completely forgotten for several years.

Now you would think that Joseph would be messed up for life or certainly would need endless hours of therapy to process all that pain. Yet the Bible teaches something quite different. In all of it, Joseph saw a sovereign God who was at work. Was Joseph devastated at times? Yes, but he was not destroyed. Was there pain and loneliness and heartache and, at times, despair? Yes, but Joseph found a better way to deal with his pain. He would forget the injustice, trust a wise and sovereign God, and move ahead with his life.

In Genesis 45:8, Joseph looked into the eyes of the brothers who did so much to hurt him and said,
It was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.”

Just to make sure the point is made, the Scripture quotes Joseph affirming that message once more in Genesis 50:20. “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” Did they sin against him? Yes! Was it evil? Yes! But did God use it for Joseph’s good? Yes! God did. As a confirmation that Joseph found healing by forgetting his past, he named his first son Manasseh, which means “the Lord made me forget.”

Why not ask God for the grace to forget your past? This digging-up-the-past thing is a worldly and unbiblical method for life transformation. True heart change is not about remembering, and it’s not about digging up things that may or may not have even happened! It’s about forgiving and forgetting. It’s about trusting a sovereign God. It’s about focusing in on my own need to change and saying with the apostle Paul, “forgetting those things which are behind” (Philippians 3:13).

Is it important to deal with your past? Absolutely! God doesn’t want us to pretend. He wants us to face our past and to deal with it by focusing on forgiveness, and putting it behind us. The answer is not in the past and no process of myopically scouring our past will lead to the change our heart desires. God’s plan for your past is that you would honestly assess it and then displace it through forgiveness.  If you have been trying to change by going over and over your past, get a big green plastic bag and put that approach to health and healing where it belongs.

>> For more on forgiveness, download “Have the Funeral” from the Resources page.


Read comments:

  • wlfldyAug.04.2011

    My sister was killed by Timothy McVeigh. I can not bring the words I forgive him to my mouth. But sincerely, I think nothing of this. I miss my sister every day and night. But I don’t harbor bitterness or animosity. I think the scripture quoted there “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” speaks for me.

  • BenAug.04.2011

    So much to agree with here and disagree with. By and large I’m afraid the major tenor of your message here is ‘get over it’.

    Joseph knew his story he did not forget it. He did deal with the pain, not ignore it (as you said). REST OF COMMENT DELETED

    James MacDonald Reply:

    Ben: Sorry I had to delete the rest of your comment because you quoted me as saying something I did not say. See the comment policy by clicking at the bottom of the post. Did you read the whole article?? The second last sentence says, “God’s plan for your past is that you would honestly assess it and then displace it through forgiveness.” That’s hardly ignoring.


  • Karen NewhamAug.04.2011

    Great to read this, this a.m. as I had the opportunity to counsel a young woman last week on “forgetting the past” who I knew while I was there. Isaiah 43:18 is another great verse. I have challenged her to read this so that she can see this is exactly what God has been asking her to do. Thanks James

    James MacDonald Reply:

    Love you karen, miss you!

  • MsLady21Aug.04.2011

    For the past 4 years, I’ve fighting a mental battle that often leaves me awake at night. Wondering if I could ever grow past the pain I experience in my youth. In college I dated a guy whom for years emotionally, mentally and physcially abused me. In my weak state of mind I blamed myself for much of the abuse I experienced. Fear had me believing that God could never heal my hurt and that he didn’t understand. But today I have a new found understanding of God’s love and how he used my past to strenghten and prepare me for the work he has for me to do in the future. Words cannot express I much I needed to read this.

  • kpgp1023Aug.04.2011

    Thanks James! My wife and I are in the process of adopting a little girl from China. So much of what we have been read (both of Christian and secular authors)is that if you have been adopted, you are scared for life. There is a sense that we will just have to manage it the best we can. Where is the greatness of God in all of this? Where is the hope that God can change a life (2 Cor 5:17)? We choose to trust (!) that God is already working in the heart of our little girl who we have yet to bring home. We will not deny her past, and will certainly talk about it with her. But we will teach her about the new life that Christ can bring, and that ultimately if she chooses to follow Christ, He makes “all things new” Rev 21:5.

  • Ellen BellAug.04.2011

    As a Biblical counselor, I hear many life tales of incredible pain and suffering. You are absolutely correct in asserting that the ultimate “cure” is to “forget” it. It is a process that goes something like, “Face it, forgive it (and forgiveness is for YOU–to prevent you becoming embittered) and then forget it.” Focusing on eternal rewards in heaven helps a great deal to further the process. God provides us with stories like that of Joseph and the “other Lazarus” to show that ultimately, God will dry every tear.

  • anonymousAug.04.2011

    St. Augustine prayed for the gift of “amnesia”.

    christine Reply:

    Loved that the gift of amnesia I have to look that up,

  • christineAug.04.2011

    My Dad was abandon at the age of 4, His mom could not deal with motherhood, He was raised in a Lutheran Orphanage.They had to memorize scripture, He met my MOm there, When I was a young girl My Dad made a profound impact on My life by telling me thru tears about his past and the pain His Mom caused him by never returning or contacting Him. What He modeled to me is that Family is everything. and when you decide to marry. it is for life and when you become a parent it is for life and YOu better do the best job of it, For GOD made you and has a plan for your life and you never give up on anyone ever, cause GOD never gives up on us, My Dad died but His memory is so implanted forever in me, He modeled Christ for me , Wish you could of met him, He became a foot surgeon. All of his patients loved him.He never repaid evil for evil. God Loves YOu , so be kind, Christine

  • JulieAug.06.2011

    I’m dealing with this issue cuurently. I want to forget the pat. Ihave had to revisit forgiveness for what was done to me as a child numerous times during the last 20 years. Everytime I think it s behind me something new creeps up. Is very frustrating. I have cotinued a relationship with a family member that abused me for I had forgiven him. But as my kids have reached the age I was when the abuse started, I have noticed a lot of emotional manipulation going on between him and my kids. When I called him on it, it started a very big disagreement. My question is this…. Does forgiveness mean a relationship? Or can forgiveness mean: I don’t harbor any anger or bitterness in my heart, move on live life but not have this man in our life? Thanks :)

    MamaMommy Reply:

    May I suggest you purchase James McDonald’s series “Always Resolve Everything Now”? It’s a series about biblical conflict resolution and reconciliation. You can find it in the store at http://www.walkintheword.com and purchase it on CD or download MP3 files. I bought it about 5 years ago when I was struggling with a similar situation – a parent who continues to abuse the next generation. It helped me to see what my biblical responsibility was in the relationship, how to move toward that, and what boundaries I could and should set to protect myself and my family from further abuse. At first my parent did not like the boundaries I set up, and it was difficult, but today we have a growing and healthy relationship (although it isn’t exactly the relationship my parent wants) which honors God as I honor my parent and which does not put myself or my family in harms way. Careful listening to that series, study of the verses cited, and prayer for many months were the tools God used to change my life, and our family, dramatically.
    You could also read the book Boundaries by Cloud and Thompson to help you learn how to lay those boundaries down and shine a light on the habits you may not realize you have.
    I’m praying for you today… :)

    Ellen Bell Reply:

    Hi Julie,

    You most definitely have the moral right to exclude this man from your life and the lives of your children. Forgiving an offense does not mean that you must continue a relationship with the one who has hurt you–ESPECIALLY since that person has not come to you and asked your forgiveness and you do not have confidence that he would not abuse your children. Love protects (1 Cor. 13)and you have a duty to protect your children. Forgiveness does NOT mean that you must open yourself to further abuse.

    Michael Jordan Reply:

    So what does it mean then? Because the parable James used on forgiveness Matthew 18, says the debt was erased. These kinds of conversations always come up when we ask people to “forgive” someone that has not repented (confessed and shown they are going the other direction). We always have to put these footnotes when we use the word “forgive”. The people we say “you must forgive the unrepetant person”, know exactly what that word means and that is why they are confused and then we have to explain to them what our version of what the word means. It causes much confusion and guilt in these people’s lives. Jesus command to forgive (Matthew 18, Luke 17:1-4) did not mean to forgive with no repentance because forgiveness is not counting the wrong against someone. Try to tell this guys husband I forgive you but you are not coming back home…that is an oxymoron. Lets be biblical and use the right terms. Lets help these people not hold bitterness in their hearts and move on. Isn’t that what we are saying? I don’t need footnotes for that term. Let’s stop confusing people by using terms that don’t fit.

    James MacDonald Reply:

    There are many verses that call for total unilateral forgiveness and their in only one that teaches forgiveness conditional upon repentance. Jay Adams and others have taken your view, but the majority understanding of this tension is that forgiveness has two parts.
    Part 1) The vertical part which is me releasing a person before God for the injury they have caused and thinking of them and treating them as forgiven without verbalizing that choice to them.
    Part 2) Communicating that forgiveness to them when they repent.

    To with hold part 1 while we wait for repentance requires disobedience to the passages that call for unilateral forgiveness. To offer part two w/o repentance cheapens forgiveness as you say. The two must stand together. 1) Immediate unilateral forgiveness for all offenses before God who has forgiven us. 2) With holding the verbalization of that forgiveness until the person sees their sin and repents.

    That is what I believe, best embraces all scriptures on forgiveness. thanks for writing,


  • Michele PingAug.07.2011

    Hi Pastor James!
    This was a good! There IS power in forgetting the past and not allowing it to embitter us. But i also use what happened to comfort others in the same way i was comforted. Because of what i went through, i now speak to other women who have either come out of an abusive relationship or are currently in one and show them the truth that what was meant for evil, God meant it for good; that there IS hope in the God who loves them; sometimes even helping certain ones get professional help. We are new creations, the former things are gone, everything is made new! :)

  • AndyAug.09.2011

    I’ve been listening to your ‘ I really want to change – so help me God ‘ series the last few days Pastor James and not to say one part is better than another but the second half of the second part of this message is square between the eyes truth. Well done.

  • cherrineAug.09.2011

    Okay now I am confused…..I just received some much needed counseling with my husband from a Man with a heart for God who has made Marriage counseling a mission in his ministry. We went through alot of my past which was considerably traumatizing. He advised this proccess and while my feelings coincide with what you wrote here I agreed to go down memory lane with this Minister and give it all to God. I would say his reasoning is that we should thank God for the memory yet forgiving the stuff as a whole. And if forgetting is the name of the game…..with horror for a past how does one do that? Is it merely a healing that results in a miraculous memory loss? I am at a loss. I want to focus on God’s greatness in that while extremely traumatized most of my life I am walking in the direction of His Holyness and Healing. Does this make any sense? I am just wondering the how I guess……

  • SusanAug.14.2011

    Thanks for writing on the topic of forgiveness… This is something that I struggle with so much… Five years I have been waiting for things that have happened in the past to undo themselves… But they haven’t gone the way that I wanted it to… I always tell me myself that its for the best because God has greater things planned for me. For me, the hardest things are all the obstacles I have to go through because I chose to help someone five years ago… How do I move past the idea that my kindness put me in a tense situation? It’s been five years and I pray to God everyday but I don’t know if I will even have the closure in my life… I want to be strong but sometimes I am not… How do I have the faith like Joseph????

  • anonymousAug.26.2011

    What’s hard is when you move past a hurt, but you are constantly being hurt again all the time. How do you overcome hurt by someone like a spouse, when you have to see them everyday? You forgive them for one thing, then you’re hurt again. So rapidly so, that you can’t even overcome the previous thing. It’s like an overwhelming state of misery…

  • Michael JordanSep.07.2011

    I was always taught that Jesus taught that we are to forgive others even though they do not repent. Whenever I read the words, mostly by Jesus, “forgive” I and others assume that Jesus is saying “forgive always even when they don’t ask for it”. James uses the Matthew 18 parable to support that we should always forgive. I think if you read that without assuming Jesus meant “forgive without repentance” it makes sense. I have not found that Jesus ever explicitly taught that. In fact, if you go to the paralleled passage in Luke 17:1-4, you will see that he was talking about our obligation to forgive if they “repent”. We are called by Jesus to love our enemies, pray for them, bless them, do not seek vengeance, and do not hold bitterness in our hearts. I believe James is talking about something very important, not holding on to bitterness and hurt, but James and others are calling that forgiveness. I don’t see that in the bible. Can you image going to someone that has harmed you and they don’t even recognize their wrong and you say, “I gift you forgiveness.” And they say, “You insult me, I have done nothing wrong!! The fact that you are trying to forgive me, you are accusing me of a wrong that I did not do.” That is absurd! We need to leave bitterness, resentment, and seek love and blessing but we shouldn’t be calling that “forgiveness”.

  • Angel YoungSep.27.2011

    Dear Pastor James,

    Today I am happy to share that I am choosing to forgive!! September 27, 2011!! Your message on forgiveness was so timely. God had appropriated to me through your podcast right after I had totally come to the end of everything I knew to do with a situation. I worked through your attitudes study this summer and am currently in the biblestudy “Always True” God’s promises. As the situation I’m referring to started to spin out of control I ended up like the guy in the parable who had a mental melt town…verbally I had another person by the throat as all 6 of the damaging emotion erupted into one big ball of anger…..when I started listening to your podcast the following week after the meltdown, God started working on me through your unforiveness sermons and the sermon on “Revelation 10″…God spoke and I ordered the cd “Have the Funeral”!! So today as I finished up listening and journaling the whole way through the cds. I had the funeral and I feel totally free!! I know I’m in process, but I also am standing on God’s promise and remaining sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and am finally leaving the past behind. Thank you so MUCH!!

  • Angel YoungSep.27.2011

    I had to reply more on the subject of unforgiveness. James I’ve read through some of the messages up there and you know those people are so leaning on their own understanding!! I’m so thankful that in conjunction with hearing your sermon on unforgiveness I was also in your biblestudy on God’s promises and my memory verse for this week was Proverbs 3:5-6 Lean not on your own understanding…God is so good to have rolled all this out in my life so that….so that…I could not try to reason it till the cows come home less I spend another 40 years in the dessert with an unforgiving attitude!! You keep up the good work and I mean that with lots of punch!!! Eternal work!! Us here in Quincy are reaping big benefits from your endless search of the scriptures!!!

    To say thank you does not even seem enough!!

    Angel in Quincy Il, I attend the Crossing Church


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