Thursday, April 3, 2008

Forgive and forget

Andy, at Enter the Rainbow, poses the question, “Does God forget stuff?” I started to write a comment on his blog, then realized I would write too much. So here’s a response to his post and especially his reference to Jeremiah 31:34 "I...will remember their sin no more."

Ah, the difficulty of language, especially when it is a translation from a vastly different culture. When we extract images of God from the context of the language we end up in theological quagmires. And this happens all the time in our preaching and teaching. The image of God “no longer remembering” makes sense in its original context. A quick check of the NIB (New Interpreter’s Bible) reveals the following context (summarized in my words).

The passage in question, Jer 31, is the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures where we hear of a “new covenant.” This new relationship with God calls for radical changes – the law will no longer have to be taught because it will then be “written on the heart.” The radical change of God’s people from disobedience to faithfulness in the new covenant is accompanied with a radical change in God’s attitude, from “remembering their sins” (Jer 14:20) to “no longer remembering their sins.” With God’s law emanating from the hearts, there is no need for God to “remember” sins for punishment, or the day of atonement.

Still, dealing with the abstract query, “Does God forgive and forget?” I think the answer hinges on what is meant by “forget.” If we mean “having no remembrance of” as in totally wiped out of the memory banks, I would have to think not – at least that wasn’t the opinion the psalmists had of God, who in various ways portray God as knowing all about us and all creation.

But “forget” can also mean the opposite of anamnesis (remembrance). Anamnesis is the way of remembering that brings the past into the present, such as a re-enactment, a drama, a story, or symbolic action. At the Eucharist, we reenact the Last Supper following Christ’s command to “Do this in anamnesis (remembrance) of me. If “forgive and forget” refers to the opposite of anamnesis, then the memory of the sin does not disappear, but God does not bring it forward to bear on the present or future. The sin is set aside, so to speak, because of God’s grace.

Why might this be important? Well, wouldn’t we all do better if we could forgive in this way? The memory of someone’s (or one’s own) sin is still there, but it is set aside, no longer bringing judgment, bias, shame, or reproach. It’s just there, in the past, where it will stay, and we are freed to live in the grace of forgiveness. And we are freed to offer that same forgiveness to others, as indeed we pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.”

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