Non-Remembrance: No Fishing Allowed
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.Jeremiah 31:34
Other Christians have often argued with me, claiming that we will forget our sins at some point. They describe this as a a spiritual lobotomy that makes us go blank about our past wrongs. That we will simply forget, however, is too shallow an explanation for me. I think it is better to say that these wrongs will never come to mind, as this does not imply forgetfulness or mind manipulation that removes past events from our consciousness. Forgetfulness seems to be a flaw, a mistake, or a lapse in cognition. If God simply zaps our memories in the end, He should have done so from the beginning. Somehow, however, I don’t think God will fix things in a way that He has never done before.
The wounds we all carry do not need to be forgotten but healed—the scars and hurts of our inner souls must be fixed. God has promised to wipe away every tear in the end (Revelation 21:4). I think God will not only wipe away the tears but also remove the past sins that haunt us until they are no longer remembered.
We may think that once God forgives us, He forgets all about our sins. When applied to God, however, forgetting is more a behavioral term than a mental one. The idea that God does not hold our sins against us is a comforting theology, but forgiveness doesn’t cover the whole picture. We live in a world with a lot of brokenness. Not to detract from the beauty of forgiveness, but when pardon from sin is all we seek, we give it too much attention, overlooking the larger picture of redemption described in the Bible. Forgiveness is an unfinished process in that more must be done to render it permanent and irrevocable. The prophet Jeremiah mentions not only the forgiveness of sin but also a non-remembrance of sin (Jeremiah 31:34).
In his 2006 book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Miroslav Volf proposes that the need to eventually let go of memories of past bad deeds is an action of God’s grace. Volf argues that final redemption must include a kind of “forgetting-forgiveness” or “non-remembrance of sin” (p. 145). Such non-remembering becomes the crowning process of successful healing. While we are to remember rightly, there will come a time when we can simply let go of our memories of wrong because nothing significant will motivate them.
To indefinitely remember wrongs is to expose oneself to more tears and pain, so there must be an escape from the memories and scars that plague us. There must come a time when we no longer need to retrieve these data—a final blotting out of sin, as it were. That being said, we also need to recall an accurate account that is compatible with our lives. There must be alternative memories—redemptive memories that can retain a record and a practice of rightly remembering for the future. Truthful memories must be maintained, for untruthful memories, false accounting, and forgetfulness are injurious to our lives.
Volf also points out that the biblical memories of the exodus from slavery and the cross show us the way to remember redemptively. The cross remains the clearest example of how our lives are narrated both truthfully and in the context of love. The cross shows not only how our sins are taken seriously and judged but also how we are redeemed and healed in communion with God and one another. Another word for this redemption is atonement. In its full biblical sense, atonement includes not only forgiveness but the cleansing and removal of sin (Leviticus 16:29–31). The full scope of atonement puts all wrongs right. In the final redemption, no damage will remain in our relations with God and one another, and even physical and spiritual things will be repaired. “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
According to a story about Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, when she was reminded by a friend of a horrendous wrong someone had done to her years before, Clara claimed to have forgotten the incident. When the friend asked, “Don’t you remember the wrong that was done to you?” Clara answered, “I distinctly remember forgetting about that!” Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he said, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13). Paul intentionally chose to forget failures, disappointments, and suffering because there was something greater to achieve for the future. The divine power of choosing to forget allows us to move beyond the pain and offenses that have befallen us. Beyond pardoning and blotting out past wrongs, God changes the heart. Once we become caught up in the marvelous way God sets things right, we will only remember past events within the context God has made for them.
Holocaust survivor and author Corrie ten Boom once said that when God casts our sins into the deepest sea, He will also post a sign that reads “NO FISHING ALLOWED!” God not only forgives but ensures that our sins will be removed from us in such a way that we can’t dig up old nasty things even if we try. In fact, in the end, no matter how hard someone tries to recall an unpleasant sin experience, they will never succeed, for in that moment of trying, they will become overwhelmed with the love of God, which will burst through and make it impossible to drag up past wrongs. We won’t become absent-minded or forget what we experienced, but our memories will be so flooded with God’s grace that the sins that have haunted us will no longer come to mind—divinely driven, as it were, into a land of deep forgetfulness from which they cannot be retrieved. This is what God is doing for us.
Christians are often primarily interested in sin and its record, but the Bible ends with God’s love imprinted on our memories, foreheads, and minds and a promise of complete healing. God’s love will function inside us, and as we respond to that love, it will permeate our minds. God is in the business of healing and transforming the world, not merely wiping out past wrongs. May I live every day in ways that allow this wonderful experience to occur in my life.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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