The Forgiveness-Forgetfulness Spiral

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Several decades ago, the Christian counselor/master trainer, Jay Adams, published his seminal work, The Christian Counselor’s Manuel. One of the many conceptual gems from his book was his model of how and why forgiveness is necessary and its relationship to trust, “The Forgiveness-Forgetfulness Spiral.” In the communication theory course, I teach at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, I make my students memorize the model and all the associated conceptual definitions. Many students have told me years later that they are still using the model as they navigate the delicate demands of forgiveness and the reconstruction of trust.

Think of the model as a time-line. However, not a straight time-line, but a spiral, that begins with the transgression, requiring forgiveness, and ends over time with what I call “functional forgetting (mentioned below).

The model is also powerfully complemented with content from Christian theologian Lewis Smedes’ great book on the topic, Forgive and Forget.

The “Forgiveness-Forgetfulness Spiral” begins with the sinful offense, what Smedes describes as only one of two events requiring forgiveness. The first is an “act of betrayal,” or when a family member or friend—someone with whom you have a cord of bondedness—treats you like an enemy. The second category requiring the miraculous suturing of forgiveness is an “act of disloyalty,” when a family member, friend, or trusted colleague, treats you like a stranger. For instance, Judas “betrayed” Jesus Christ, Peter was disloyal. Smedes emphasis is that “betrayals” and “acts of disloyalty” are the only two kinds of offenses requiring the reconstructive surgery made possible by the power of forgiveness. Irritations, slights, insults, impertinences from those you don’t have to trust deeply, might require patience and tolerance, but not the relational surgery offered by forgiveness.

The next step in the spiral is confession on the part of the offender. In counseling sessions, I don’t allow the offending party to merely say when attempting to repair a relationship after a betrayal or act of disloyalty, “Everybody makes mistakes,” “I’m only human,” or “I apologize.” The confessor must say to the wounded, “I was wrong, I have sinned against you… will you forgive me?” Yes, we’re only human, sinful creatures and apologies are what we say to our friend when we’re fifteen minutes late for our lunch appointment.

The third step in the “forgiveness-forgetfulness spiral” is the offended party must forgive. Now the forgiveness might need to be preceded by conversational engagement that allows both parties—the offending and the offended—to know the depth of the wound.

Specifically, forgiving another person requires three commitments from the forgiver:

First, they are committed to not bringing it up in public. Second, they are committed to not bringing it up as a manipulative device in an argument or attempt at persuasion. And, third, if the offending party is mentally obsessed with the depth of the act of betrayal or disloyalty, they must commit themselves to thinking about their own acts of betrayals or disloyalties.

The next step in Adams’ “Forgiveness-Forgetfulness Spiral” is the responsibility of the offending party: to “bare fruits of repentance.” The reconstruction of trust takes time. It is essential to realize that “forgiveness” does not automatically mean the immediate reestablishment of trust. The forgiven treasurer must not be slighted when not immediately given financial stewardship of the organization’s financial treasures. The wounding marital partner must not demand premature trust from their husband or wife. Forgiveness is an act, in a moment of time; the reconstruction of trust is a process over time. And the “forgetfulness” is a functional one, not assuming that the betraying event will ever be completely obliterated from the memory. It will with time cease to be perpetually hovering like a menacing dark cloud.  

All of this finds ultimate context in the forgiveness of God, experienced and written about by King David—who knew a thing or two about being forgiven. Is Psalm 103: 12, David sings that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV). Several centuries later, the prophet Isaiah—who ministered to the people of God from 740-697 BC—would proclaim: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow… (1:18).

Learning to live “forgivingly” before our Creator requires the mental practice of asserting and reasserting the forgiveness of God through the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the trustworthiness of God’s ultimate promises. It is something Saint Peter asserts we must never forget (2 Peter 1: 9). And it also means that with patient practice we can all grow in the art of forgiveness—and the necessary journey of repentance As God’s “image-bearers,” reflecting for the world what God is like, forgiving is a big part of what we do!

Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.