Wednesday, 28 February 2018

When forgetting is good news

I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. Hebrews 8:12

I put the radio on this morning while I was brushing my teeth, and heard some clever-sounding people (Professor this and Dr that) talking about memory. I didn’t grasp everything they said, but they burbled on about something called the hippocampus (which I always thought was a holiday resort for hippopotamuses, but which apparently is part of the human brain: silly me).

And the good news, apparently, is that our brains are designed to forget things. They take steps to ensure that they don’t get clogged with trivial and unimportant information. So instead of getting frustrated when we just can’t remember where we left our keys, or what that person’s name is, or what we just came upstairs for, we should accept it with a smile on our faces. It’s just the brain having a bit of a clear-out.

All right, it’s not so funny when memory-loss is a genuine sickness of the brain - something, which, I’m sure, we all fear. But in general I suppose it makes sense: if our brains are indeed like massively sophisticated computers, as we are told they are, there presumably comes a point of overload, and something needs to happen.

Well, if us forgetting things can sometimes be good news, it is even better news that God himself has a capacity for forgetfulness: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” says God in Hebrews 8:12 (quoting Jeremiah 31).

God, it seems, delights to have not just occasional fits of forgetfulness, but a permanent state of it. Forgetting is, in fact, a big part of his love, mercy and grace - because what he chooses to forget is our wickedness and our sins.

Perhaps this is something you badly need to hear. Perhaps scrolling through your memory is a sad and painful experience. Perhaps your conscience doesn’t let you rest at night. Perhaps there are things in the past that you would dearly love to be able to forget, but just can’t.

If so, it’s my privilege to be able to tell you that God is a forgiving God - for this talk of God’s forgetfulness is really all about God’s forgivingness.

Of course, if God really is God it’s hard to imagine him ever forgetting anything; but this is the Bible’s beautifully human way of describing his willingness to forgive: God has, if you like, a fully functioning hippocampus.

Micah, a fellow-prophet of Jeremiah from perhaps a hundred years earlier, basked in the same truth, but expressed it in a different form: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives...transgression...? You do not stay angry for ever but delight to show mercy.” And then he goes on: “You will again have compassion on us: you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).

I love those down to earth images, don’t you? - God, like a big angry giant, “treading our sins underfoot” - stomp, stomp, stomp - and, like a discus-thrower in the Olympics, “hurling our iniquities” far out to sea.

We sometimes talk about “forgiving and forgetting” or about “letting bygones be bygones”. And I’m sure that’s good. But it can also be hard. Indeed, quite possibly we find it easier to forgive other people than to forgive ourselves. And sometimes, when we have made a genuine effort to forgive others (and remember, to forgive is an act of will, not a matter of feeling), we still find it hard to forget.

But with God’s help it’s wonderfully possible. True, he takes our sins with complete seriousness; but in sending Jesus to die for us he has provided a way whereby all that badness can be wiped out once and for all. What, after all, could be more serious than the cross? This is the good news; this is the gospel.

Only one thing stands in the way of his forgivingness: our refusal to ask for it; our stubborn denial that we need it. Even God cannot give us something we refuse to admit we need. A doctor may offer us medicine to make us better; but what if we refuse to take it? And God is the doctor supreme.

Here are the words of the apostle John - the same truth in New Testament dress: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I can only ask again: is this a truth you need to take to heart, to absorb, to accept - and to delight in?

Thanks be to God for his glorious, heavenly forgetfulness!

Thank you, O God, for your merciful willingness to forget all my sins. Help me today to believe that I am forgiven by you, and to bask in the joy and liberty that that knowledge brings. Amen.

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