Theological Mistakes #12: Forgiving and Forgetting

I grew up in a Christian teaching environment where we were told we must “forgive and forget.” To do this, our teachers said, is to act in a righteous, god-like way, for the Lord is one who forgives and this means God “remembers [our] sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

I think there are several problems with this model, and while it is perhaps well-intentioned, it is theologically flawed and leads to an almost intolerable tension in our lives as faithful Christians.

First, let me say that I’m not sure the Old Testament idea of “not remembering” is the same as “forgetting.” To lean on verses that picture God as no longer remembering our sin seems to go against other Scriptures. For example, in Amos 8, the prophet speaks for the Lord to the people of Israel in condemning the injustice in their land, and ends a section by declaring, “The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: ‘I will never forget anything they have done.'” (Amos 8:7). Does this mean that God would renege on this threat/promise later if they repented and were forgiven?

Second, when we think of “forgetting,” we project on God the sense of an older person (like me) who has trouble remembering names and phone numbers. This week I encountered a person who claimed to have met me and spent time with me in Seattle about 15 years ago. I have no reason to doubt his claim, but I honestly do not remember his face, his name, or the occasions where we met. Human memory is fallible. (BTW: my family would probably attribute this to my general nature as “Oblivious Man.”)  I don’t think this model applies to the Lord God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. Another analogy I have heard is that God’s forgetting is like deleting a file from our hard drive. God is all-powerful and can do whatever he wills to do, so of course he can remove a memory if he decides to do so, we are told. As one blogger wrote, “God has the power to simply remove [forgiven sins] from His memory.” (see Heavenly Heartburn)

It is theologically dangerous, however, to use something like the doctrine of God’s omnipotence to tell God what he can or cannot do. If we step back a little, we realize that the very nature of God’s omnipotence means we cannot dictate such things to God. God is not limited by our understanding or theological models.

So what does Scripture mean when it promises that God will no longer remember our sins once they are forgiven? I think it means that the damage those sins caused in our relationship with God are repaired. It become water under the bridge. We are restored and reconciled. We don’t have to fear the valid and just consequences for those rebellious sins, because God has promised not to hold them against us.

Likewise, when we forgive someone, we don’t necessarily forget the sinful act. How can we? The human memory doesn’t work that way. One of the Greek words translated “forgive” is aphiēmi, which means to “release.” When we forgive someone, we release them. We no longer hold them accountable for the wrong they did to us. We let go of any grudges we have. We no longer expect redress for our grievance. We move on. Forgiveness, then, is as much for us as it is for the other person. We release the sin from our spiritual score book so that we might heal and become spiritually healthy. As Lewis Smedes wrote:

To forgive is to set a person free
and discover that the person was you.

So, forgiving does not necessarily require forgetting. God is gracious, and as we heal from the sins committed against us, the pain and memories of being wronged may recede from our memories. Or not.  We are not less spiritual if we forgive someone yet still remember how they wronged us.

Mark Krause (with thanks to my colleague, Mike Cahill)

Recommend: Take Care of Your Heart

The cartoon above is from Hannah Bonner’s Webpage of Theological Metaphors


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