Does God Forget Sins?
The Bible has many difficult
ideas for us to grasp, and some seem quite impossible. We know that God
is infinite and created all things, and knows the future and the ancient
past. But often we read that God "remembered" something or "forgot" something, which implies that he has limits to his mental capacity. In
particular, we read that if we repent, God will not remember our sins:
I, even I, am the one who
wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember
your sins. Is. 43:25
And in moments of anger God
says that he will forget his people, as if an infinite God can forget
"Therefore behold, I will
surely forget you and cast you away from My presence, along with the
city which I gave you and your fathers.Jer. 23:39
Another related question to this
one about God "forgetting" is what God expects of us, since
when God forgives, it says he does not remember our sins. Does God expect
us to actually forget the sins committed against us as part of our forgiveness
of them? Does he feel that we haven't truly forgiven unless we have forgotten
the sin as well? Who really can do that?
Hebraic Insights on This Dilemma
We can get some help with this difficulty when we look at the concepts
contained in the Hebrew words. Often our difficulties in reading the
Bible come from a lack of understanding of this. Because Hebrew is a
word-poor language, most words have a wider scope of meaning than in
English. Usually the usage overlaps our English words, and if we know
that there is an extended meaning, it enriches the passage for us. But
sometimes our English usage doesn't really fit a passage well at all,
and we need to have the Hebraic definition to come close to understanding
the original intent of the passage.1
Understanding the Hebrew words that we translate remember and forget can give us several important insights. In English, our definition of
the word "remember" focuses entirely on the idea of recalling
memories and bringing ideas into our thoughts. To forget is the exact
opposite - to fail to bring a certain memory to mind. Our concept is concerned
entirely with mental activity and whether or not information is present
or not. So for us, remembering and forgetting is entirely a mental activity.
In contrast, in Hebrew, the word "zakor" which means
"remember" has a much wider definition.2 It includes both
remembering and the actions that are taken because of remembering. It
can often imply that a person did a favor for someone, helped them, or
was faithful to a promise or covenant. This helps us to understand verses
like the following:
But God remembered Noah and all the beasts
and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind
to pass over the earth, and the water subsided. Gen. 8:1
Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened
to her and opened her womb. Gen. 30:22
The passage about Noah doesn't
mean that God suddenly recalled that a boat was floating out on the flood,
and then realized that he should do something about it. When God remembered
Noah, he acted upon his promise that Noah's family and the animals would
be rescued from the flood. In the other passage, God did a favor for Rachel
by answering her prayer for a son. The verb is focused on the action,
not the mental activity on God's part. God paid attention to her needs,
listened to her prayer, and answered it. Here, "remember" means
"to intervene", focusing on God's action.
The Idea of Forgetting
Interestingly, the Hebrew words for forget, shakach and nashah
are not exact opposites with zakor, remember. To "forget"
in Hebrew also means to ignore, neglect, forsake, or willfully act in
disregard to a person or covenant. It is to act as if you have forgotten.
Frequently the Bible says, "Do not forget the Lord your God"
meaning, do not forsake him - be loyal to him. To "forget" usually
has a negative connotation close what the American slang term "to
blow off" means today. For instance,
So watch yourselves, that you do not forget
the covenant of the LORD your God which he made with you, and make for
yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the
LORD your God has commanded you. Deut. 4:23
The idea is that they would willfully
ignore their covenant, not necessarily forget that they made it. And in
the passage discussed earlier (Jer. 23:39), when God says he will "forget" his people, it means that he will spurn them as his people, not lose their
memory from his mind. When we read with an emphasis on action, rather
than mental activity, it clarifies that God is not necessarily losing
information from his mind. For instance:
How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me? Psa. 13:1
The psalmist is saying "why
do you ignore my prayers and not intervene in my crisis?" God doesn't
forget, but sometimes it seems as if he does.
The key to understanding is in the phrase "remembering sins".
The idea of "remembering sins" takes the idea of action and
puts it into a negative framework. It really contains the idea that God
give the person what he deserves for the sin - he will punish sin, not
just keep it on his mind. We find it in this poetic parallelism, where
one phrase is synonymous with the other:
They have gone deep in depravity as in the
days of Gibeah;
He will remember their iniquity, he will punish their sins. Hosea 9:9
To "remember iniquity" is the same
as to "punish their sin." It is automatically negative, implying
that God will intervene to bring justice.
So to not remember sins is to decide not to punish them:
If a wicked man restores a pledge, pays
back what he has taken by robbery,... he shall surely live; he shall
not die. None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered
against him. Ezekiel 33:15-16
The man who has been forgiven in the passage
above will not have his sins "remembered against" him - implying
that he will not be punished for them. Because Hebrew focuses on the action
rather than the thought, it doesn't imply that God somehow has no memory
of them in his infinite mind. It means that he has decided not to act
Interestingly, "forget" is almost never used in combination
with sins! But the Bible does say often that God does "not remember" our sins, meaning that when he forgives, he chooses never to act on them.
Implications From These Meanings
By understanding that Hebrew focuses on action rather than on mental recall,
we can now get some insight on how God can "forget" people,
but yet not forget. Or how he can choose not to "remember" our
sins, and yet not lose them from his memory. God chooses to put them aside,
to ignore them and not bring them up after we have repented. Any married
person knows what this is like - to be hurt by a spouse but yet "decide
to forget" - to put it out of your mind even though the memory doesn't
goes away. A person who loves another who has hurt him or her simply chooses
not to ever act in revenge for the sin. And once you have done this, the
memory itself tends to decline.
Interestingly, the Hebraic idea of "remembering sins" really
encompasses the idea of vengeance and punishment for them, not just knowing
about them. When God says he will not remember our sins, he is deciding
to forgo prosecuting us for them. This can be very freeing in terms of
understanding God's expectations for us. Often we struggle with a person
who has hurt us repeatedly, and wonder whether forgiveness means to pretend
that the person won't act the same way again. Are we allowed to protect
ourselves, even if we hope they'll change? The idea that we can decide
not to "remember" someone's sins in terms of seeking revenge
is very freeing, because it allows us to discern the difference between
remembering with a heart of revenge, verse remembering in order to make
a situation better.
In some ways, if God could simply delete things from his memory banks,
he would have a much easier job than humans who can't erase their memories.
When we forgive a person, we need to choose to put aside our grievances,
and often we need to do that over and over again as the memory returns
to our minds. It shows more love to be hurt and choose to not remember
many times than to simply be able to forget about an incident. But interestingly,
the more we love one another, the easier it does become to remove the
memory of the past from our minds. In this sense, perhaps God's infinite
love really does entirely remove our sins from his infinite mind.
1 See the En-Gedi Director's
Through Jesus' Ears (March 2003)
2 Another good article on this subject is The
Biblical Concept of Remembrance, by Doug Ward.
use this form
to be added to the list to receive the En-Gedi newsletter and director's
article each month. Our addresses are kept private - we do not release
our email list to third parties.
©2004 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.