“I, even I, am he who blots out
your transgressions, for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more.
When it came to taking punishment as a kid, I was kind of a tough guy. I could handle supper without dessert. I found other things to do when my SNES controllers were confiscated. I even survived a round or two of Lever 2000 between my teeth.
But there was one punishment that I couldn’t handle.
Ironically enough, it was a sort of non-punishment. It was a simple five-word sentence spoken by my parents after another childhood delinquency:
I’m going to remember this.
That was always bad. I did not want my parents to remember this. I wanted it over with. I wanted to move on. Withhold the Oreos. Stick me in the corner. Forbid me from playing Mario Kart. But please don’t remember this.
I’m going to remember this implied that at some point in the future, the consequences of my transgression would boomerang back on me. And who could tell how? It might be that the very logic that I just used to excuse my behavior would be used against me. Perhaps a 50/50 decision on a new wiffle bat would go the wrong way. There was always the chance that the trespass in question would be communicated to Grandma or Grandpa! None of these outcomes was preferable to a swift, over-and-done-with meting out of parental justice.
When it comes to our own past mistakes, we always prefer that other people not remember. Remove the ginkgo or whatever memory-enhancing supplement they’re taking from the medicine closet – we don’t want our past sins recalled. We want clean slates.
A member of my church sent me this joke not too long ago; I think it illustrates the point:
A group of 15 year old boys discussed where they should meet for sodas. It was agreed they would meet at the Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because they only had six dollars among them, they could ride their bikes there and Jennie Webster, that pretty girl in Social Studies Class lives on the same street and they might see her.
Ten years later, the group of now 25-year-old guys discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was agreed they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because the lounge had free snacks, there was no cover charge and there were a lot of cute girls there.
Ten years later, at 35 years of age, the group once again discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was decided they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because it was near their gym and the house band was good.
Ten years later, at 45, the group once again discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was agreed they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because the portions were big and if they went late enough, there wouldn’t be too many whiny little kids.
Ten years later, now 55, the group once again discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was agreed they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because the prices were reasonable, they have a nice wine list and fish is good for your cholesterol.
Ten years later, at 65 years of age, the group once again discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was agreed they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because the lighting was good and they have an early bird special.
Ten years later, at 75 years of age, the group once again discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was agreed they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because the food was not too spicy and the restaurant was handicapped accessible.
Ten years later, at 85 years of age, the group once again discussed where they should meet for dinner. It was agreed they would meet at Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille because they had never been there before.
Forgetfulness happens. But for those of us with scars and shame, it doesn’t happen as easily as we’d like. We’d do anything to move on, but for whatever reason we just can’t.
A number of authors and artists have imagined the possibility of rinsing our memories of past indiscretions and sins. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, embarrassments from the past are expunged through “memory holes” as Winston Smith and other members of the “Ministry of Truth” work around the clock to rewrite history to fit current political realities. Any shred of news or propaganda that doesn’t fit Big Brother’s present paradigm is plunked into the hole, never to be considered again.
But Smith knows better. He remembers.
In Charlie Kaufman’s captivating 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the lead characters – played brilliantly by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet – meet and fall in love after having their memories erased of painful past relationships. But in the climax of the film, the pair discover that the experience they were trying to expunge was an earlier relationship they had shared with each other.
The past keeps coming back.
So what’s it like with God? Does God remember our sins? Do our faults, missteps, and offenses remain forever in his mind? Or does God forgive and forget?
On the one hand, it’s hard for us to square the theology of God’s omniscience with anything other than God’s perfect understanding of past, present, and future. After all, If God can fail to remember some things, why not other things? The thought of a God who’s forgotten that he’s been to Captain Jack’s Seafood Grille isn’t a particularly comforting one for me.
But as foreign as idea sounds, scripture employs very similar vocabulary. Isaiah 43 suggests that God blots our sins and “does not remember” them. Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17 both state the God will cease to remember the sins of his people.
So how do we reconcile the attributes of God with the Word of God?
As often happens in Christian theology, the paradox finds resolution in Jesus Christ. In order for his Son to bear the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), God must know all of the pain and brokenness of humankind. Nothing escapes his understanding; no sin is outside of his view. God doesn’t forget anything.
But in Christ, God has abolished sin. The Sin-Bearer carried it all and canceled it all. It is not as if God is suffering from capacity to recall our iniquity, it is that in Jesus, sin has been deleted.
Remember the words of the cross? Jesus didn’t say “It is winding down.” He didn’t say “It is passing away.” Jesus said “It is finished.” The author of a blog called Telos can’t help but note that the Greek New Testament has Jesus saying “Tetelestai!” The work has reached its end. The goal of disempowering sin has been fully accomplished.
It is finished! These words are a thunderstrike to those of us who live with regret.
When it comes to our past errors and misjudgements, many of us can appreciate the words of Michel de Montaigne: “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory,” he says, “as the wish to forget it.” We’d like to move on, we’re ready for that fresh start, but we’re haunted by decades-old mistakes: A single sentence that we can never take back. A hasty choice that cascaded into disaster. One indiscreet Friday night. These memories are prison cells.
But claiming Jesus’s victory can dawn a new day over us. The Bible is right – God doesn’t remember your sins. They have been plunged forever into the heart of Jesus. Jesus endured the pain, he paid the price. It’s over and done with. The chains of regret can fall away.
Christians, another pastor once said, need to do a better job of remembering what God remembers and of forgetting what God doesn’t remember.
Because of Jesus, there’s nothing bad left for the Father to recall. It is finished!
Believe this gospel and live in its peace.