Forgive and forget?

“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Thus speaks the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah. This was the starting point of this past Sunday’s sermon. The message was that if we have not forgotten sins against us, we have not truly forgiven them.

The full context is Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD’, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

This is strange, at least on its surface. How could God not “remember” something? Clearly what is meant is that God chooses to not dwell on the sins He has forgiven. And God is our measure in how we are to act towards those who sin against us.

What is also apparent is that God’s “forgetting” past sins is conditioned on renewal of His covenant, and this time, having the people not stray from it. In a word: repentance, which is implied by “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” The renewed covenant, if written on the hearts of the people, will be honored. They will sin no more in this regard.

Well, we know God has infinite capacity for forgiveness. Good thing, too, as His people Israel, now including Christians, continue to sin. As for how this works in the here and now, our pastor advises that we literally forget the sins against us, and forgive the sinner. To get the sins out of our minds; to neither think nor dwell on them. Now what’s missing is the answer to the question: How do we stop the same sin from happening again and again?

The answer must be, “we can not.” There are no guarantees. Sin is all around us; we are immersed in it as a natural part of our fallen world. We take our chances in the world.

What about, for want of a better term, global or national sins? Here’s where it gets a little complex. We must, as Christians, forgive individuals who sin against us. What about large groups, such as nation-states who sin? Well, sins are committed not by groups, but by individuals. We should forgive all individuals as individuals, and forget their individual guilt — if they repent. If they keep on sinning, it becomes impossible to forget — although not to forgive, as many times as is takes. From Matthew 18:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventyseven times”.

By which He meant, of course, a really, really large number of times. None of this means that we don’t stop sinners from hurting us, or others. Jesus is forgiving, with infinite mercy — yet he also hates sin. It’s a trait He got from His Dad. It’s something we who are pale images of Him must also attempt — forgive as many times as it takes, while hating sin, and doing our level best to stop it from hurting our flock.

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