Digging in Deeper: Amos 8:7

“The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: I will never forget all their deeds.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Christians like to talk about forgiveness. Our favorite subject on the matter is God’s forgiveness of us in Christ. Less enjoyable is the reminder that we are to be forgiving others the way Jesus has forgiven us. One of the biggest hangups people have when thinking about forgiveness comes from the fact that somewhere along the line of Christian history, a phrase developed that became associated with it. We are to “forgive and forget.” The challenge of that second part has kept many from even trying to walk this path. Amos here reminds us that this forgetting part was never supposed to be part of the deal. Let’s explore why that matters together.

Perhaps the first thing I should address here is the potential charge of contradiction this text brings before us. God is pretty explicit here that He is not going to forget the evil things the people of Israel have done. His saying that seems pretty hard and fast here. He is furious with them for being incorrigible in their sinfulness in spite of His many efforts to call them back to a path of repentance and righteousness. They had committed themselves to a path of evil and He was finally going to bring His terrible fury and judgment on them for it.

Set that to the side for just a second and consider a couple of other passages. When the prophet Isaiah was writing to assure the people of Judah of God’s restorative love and forgiveness, He spoke these words from God to them: “I – I sweep away your transgressions for my own sake and remember your sins no more.” In a different context, writing on the other side of the Babylonian Exile after God had finally brought judgment on Judah for their sins (and long after Israel had been utterly destroyed per Amos’s warnings throughout his collection), the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles to encourage them. In the process of telling them about the new covenant God planned to make with His people (which was made in Christ), the prophet said this to them: “‘No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them’ – this is the Lord’s declaration. ‘For I will forgive their iniquity and never again remember their sin.'”

So, on the one hand, we have God’s assurance that He will never forget a people’s sin in the context of promising judgment on them. And, on the other hand, we have God’s assurance that He will forget a people’s sin in the context of promising hope and restoration to them. What gives? Which is it? Does God forget our sins, or does He remember them?

The answer, I think, is a strong and unequivocal, “Yes!” God does both of those…sort of. The truth is that God can’t not know something that can be known. When the various writers who contributed to the Scriptures revealed Him to be omniscient – that is, knowing everything that can be known – they meant it. If God knows of our sins, He will always know of our sins. He doesn’t forget things the way you or I do. On the other hand, though, once He has forgiven us for our sins, He does not engage with us in light of those any longer. It is as if He has forgotten them. He hasn’t actually forgotten them, though, because He doesn’t forget things.

But wait! I thought we were supposed to forgive and forget if we are going to be good and faithful Christians. If God doesn’t actually forget anything, why should we have to do it? I mean, while there are perhaps some offenses I am going to truly forget about once I have forgiven them, I’m probably not going to forget the big things. If someone has offended or wounded you grievously enough, there’s little chance you’re going to forget that either. Does this just leave us locked in a pattern of unfaithfulness? Is forgiveness even worth trying if we are not also going to forget?

To answer those last two questions in reverse order: yes and no. Let me explain why. We are indisputably commanded in the Scriptures to forgive those who have offended us. We don’t see that quite as much in the Hebrew Scriptures, but we find the admonitions all over the New Testament. Jesus is probably the most explicit about it in His teachings. He is, in fact, abundantly clear that unless we forgive other people their offenses against us, we will not be able to enjoy God’s forgiveness of our sins. There is a direct connection from one to the other. Forgiven people live as forgiving people. Unforgiven people don’t. Period.

But while that may all be true, we do not find a single command or even encouragement to forget the things people have done to us. Not even one. If you are struggling with the thought of forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply because you don’t think you are going to be able to forget about the offense, stop struggling with that. You almost certainly aren’t going to forget the offense (at least in this life), and no one in the world – least of all God – expects that you will. You are simply expected to forgive it. Just because you release another person from the debt they own you because of an offense they have dealt you (that’s the simplest definition of forgiveness) doesn’t mean you are going to undergo a brain wipe of whatever has occasioned the need for forgiveness.

Okay, but then how did forgetting even enter the equation here? The short answer is that I don’t know. I could be pretty easily convinced that it was originally a machination of the devil to keep us from walking the path of forgiveness so that we can’t be in a right relationship with God ourselves. And yet the idea isn’t totally and completely without merit. This doesn’t mean I’m going back on my word at all. No, what I mean is that our “forgetting” should operate the same way God’s does.

I know you aren’t going to forget the ways people have hurt you. It’s just not going to happen. Thankfully, your forgiving them for those things doesn’t require it to happen. But if forgiveness is releasing another person from the debt they owe you because of an offense they’ve dealt you, your truly releasing them from that debt will necessitate your no longer engaging with them in light of it. In other words, when you engage with someone you have forgiven, your release of their previously-owed debt is so completely that it is as if you have forgotten about it. It no longer colors your interactions in any way. Instead of anger or hatred or cynicism, you treat them with kindness and compassion and grace.

Yes, but what if the offense is a horrible breach of trust? What if they pose an ongoing threat of violence to me or a loved one under my direct care? Am I just supposed to let myself be deceived again or be hurt again? Not at all. If the other person is not at all repentant of what they have done, your forgiveness of them in obedience to God’s command and in pursuit of Christ’s example will not necessarily bring about a restoration of the relationship you once had with them. It may be that in spite of having released them from the debt they owe you, it is no longer possible for you to have a relationship with them at all (at least until the point they have genuinely repented and demonstrated a consistent pattern of transformation). You may be not merely entirely within your rights, but absolutely wise to create some relational distance between you and them. Your lack of trust going forward could be perfectly justified. There is no biblical expectation that you will knowingly put yourself in harm’s way with respect to them and this offense again. But if you do have to engage with them, you engage with them through the lens of the love of Christ and not whatever seemingly entirely justified anger you might have felt toward them in light of the offense.

You have forgiven, but you haven’t forgotten. And you may not ever forget. But by God’s grace mediated through your faithful obedience to forgive, the power of that offense will lose its hold on you such that it no longer defines everything about how you see and engage with the world around you any longer. In this sense, by not actively calling it to mind every time you do…anything…it will be like you have forgotten. This can take time – sometimes a long time – but won’t even begin to happen until you take the important initial step of forgiving. So don’t worry about forgiving and forgetting. Just give your attention to forgiving and walking in God’s grace. The release from there will come as you become more and more formed in His image.

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