Does God Forget Sins?

You have to admit, some Bible passages are real head-scratchers. For instance, in Isaiah 43:25 (and elsewhere) God says, “I will not remember your sins.”

But how can God, in his infinite intellect, forget something? And what does he expect of us, since we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us?” Does God really expect us to forgive and to forget the sins of others?

For some this is not just an academic question. A few years ago I heard a young woman recount nightmarish memories of being raped by a babysitter when she was ten. Over the years she had tried to forgive and sought healing. But as a Christian, she was plagued by the idea that God would not forgive her sins unless she forgave and forgot sins committed against her.

How on earth could she ever forget?

 

Remembering, in Hebraic Thought

There is a surprising insight in the Hebrew words for “remember” and “forget.” They, like many words, have a wider breadth of meaning than in English, because Hebrew is a “word-poor” language (having about 4,000 words, vs. 100,000 or more in English).

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 to fail to bring a certain memory to mind. Both words are concerned entirely with mental activity, whether or not information is present.

But the Hebrew verb zakhar has a much wider definition than just “remember.” It includes both remembering and the actions that are taken because of remembering. It often implies that a person did a favor for someone, helped them, or was faithful to a promise or covenant. For instance:

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. Genesis 8:1

It sounds like God woke up one morning and slapped himself on the forehead, suddenly realizing that he left Noah out there bobbing around on the waves. But the idea in this passage is that God acted upon his promise that Noah’s family and the animals would be rescued from the flood.

Later in Genesis we find another example:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. (vs 30:22)

Once again, the verb “remember” focuses on the action, not the mental activity. God paid attention to Rachel’s needs, listened to her prayer, and answered it. Here, “remember” means “to intervene,” focusing on what God did, not what God was thinking about.


The Idea of Forgetting

The Hebrew words for forget, shakach and nashah are also broad in scope. Often they mean to ignore, neglect, forsake, or disregard a person or covenant. 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. Deuteronomy 4:23

The idea here is that the Israelites would intentionally ignore their covenant, not necessarily forget that they made it. When the Israelites lapse into idolatry, we also hear God threatening to forget them:

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.  Jeremiah 23:39

Once again the emphasis is on action rather than mental activity. God is saying that he would spurn his people, not lose their memory from his mind. When God “forgets” something, he does not necessarily lack information. This helps us understand why in the Psalms, we hear people asking God why he is forgetting them:

How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? Psalm 13:1

Here 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.


Remembering Sins

Interestingly, “forget” is almost never used in combination with “sin.” But often the Bible says that God will “not remember” our sins. The idea of “remembering sins” takes the idea of acting according to memory and puts it into a negative framework. It suggests that God is going to give the person what he deserves for the sin. He will punish sin, not just keep it on his mind. Consider:

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

The second line here is a parallelism, where the two phrases are synonymous. To “remember their 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

Because Hebrew focuses on action rather than the thought, it doesn’t necessarily imply that God loses the memory of sins in his infinite mind. It simply means that he has decided to forgo prosecution.

 

What are the Implications?

Knowing that Hebrew often focuses on action rather than on mental state, we can now see how God can “forget” people, but yet not forget. Or how he can choose not to “remember” sins, and yet not erase them from his memory. God chooses to put them aside, to ignore them and not bring them up again.

If you’ve ever been in a close relationship, you know what this is like. A wife whose feelings are hurt by her husband (or vise versa) “decides to forget” —to put the offense out of her mind even though the memory doesn’t goes away. Out of love, you simply choose not to ever act in revenge for the sin. And once you have done this, the memory itself tends to subside.

The Hebraic idea of “remembering sins” really encompasses the idea of punishment of sin, not just knowing about them. I find this very freeing in terms of understanding God’s expectations of 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 allows us to remember in order to make a situation better and make wise decisions in the future.

You know, if God could simply delete things from his data 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.

When you think about it, it shows more love to be hurt and choose to not remember, time and time again, rather 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.

(Images: Kaptain Kobold, AK Rockefeller and Truthout)

Comments

34 Responses to “Does God Forget Sins?”

  1. 1
    Don Johnson|October 8, 2012

    Excellent, as usual!

  2. 2
    Mike Davis|October 9, 2012

    Excellent article Lois! It is a topic I have taught on several times myself. Your article once again demonstrates the importance of knowing the historical and cultural background and context. Good job!

  3. 3
    Margaret Bosanquet|October 10, 2012

    The linguistic background elucidates and enables understanding. Lois thank you for your care in “rightly handling” the Bible texts.

  4. 4
    Bill|October 12, 2012

    Excellent

  5. 5
    Chris Wiles|October 14, 2012

    Thank you Lois. This is one solid article delivered with clarity and insightful wisdom. I would also like to concur with Margaret Bosanquet in her submission to this article “Does God Forget Sins?”.

    Thank you for your care and attention to head-scratchers such as these.

  6. 6
    Sue Mountford|October 14, 2012

    Lois, I have only recently discovered your teachings – through Haverim. Amazing!My understanding of different passages in The Scriptures is being transformed. God bless you.

  7. 7
    Kanta Kahn|October 19, 2012

    Thanks, Lois. I have had some “remembering and forgetting” problems this week. This helps me see things so much better from God’s perspective.

  8. 8
    Clif Payne|October 19, 2012

    Thank you for such a needed and useful article. God bless your studies!

  9. 9
    James Whitman|October 19, 2012

    “When you think about it, it shows more love to be hurt and choose to not remember, time and time again, rather than to simply be able to forget about an incident.”

    Profound observation Lois, thank you.

  10. 10
    Paula Marquez|October 19, 2012

    Just like when a Judge dismisses all charges, or the jury finds a person not guilty. The whole thing is forgotten as though it never happened. That’s how God forgives us of our sins, now if we are so attached to them that we want them around for the rest of our life why ask for forgiveness? Forgiving others of minor or gross sins hurts our soul, so, to forgive and forget one must take action every-time a bad memory comes up. Turn away from it and as vigorously as possible do something productive that requires attention and physical action. But, if you want to you can remember till your dyeing day the horror of that memory.

  11. 11
    Rebecca Mitchell|October 19, 2012

    Another note on the word “remember” — think of it as the opposite of “dismember.” The latter is pulling a thing apart, to un-do it; the former is putting it back together, to re-do it. Both indicate intentional action.

  12. 12
    Lois Tverberg|October 19, 2012

    Thanks, everyone.

    Rebecca, great (and very vivid) point. I’m imagining Frankenstein being sewn together, part by part.

    I’ve been chewing that over too. There’s a big part of remembering and forgetting that is quite intentional.

  13. 13
    Constance Gilbert|October 19, 2012

    Thanks, Lois. This study aids in my study of Numbers 15, especially verses 38-40.
    As I learn more about Hebraic thought, I understand that action is always implied. That has greatly changed my perspective of Scripture.
    Again, thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

  14. 14
    Sue Cooper|October 19, 2012

    Shalom Dear Lois, I thank you for the depth of understanding of the Old testament you give. It really helps to understand the concrete thought of the early Hebrews that clashes with our abstract view. I like the depth of this word remembering when you look at the Hebrew.
    However these days I think that when We pray and say “Father forgive our sins as we forgive those who trepass against us” We would do well to add “just as You oh Lord do not keep a list of my Sins or even tell me the list of what you have forgiven of me, (you remember the list no more) because my Lord Jesus’ blood has covered and sealed them over (like the pitch that covered the mercy seat).This is your new covenant ,thank you that every single drop of Jesus’s blood flowed out for us, every drop! Please help me Lord to be like Hezekiah and bring my daily problems to you and spread them out before you, so that in your power by your Holy Spirit I pray you will help me not to keep a list against others just like you don’t keep a list of mine. THank you Father, that you remind me that forgiving on my own is my works, but when I trust in you to do all by your mighty power,because of your saving grace and faith that you have given me in Believing in Your Son Jesus. Jesus has lifted the weight and I can give all to him and this is when I can soar on eagles wings.”

  15. 15
    Robert|October 19, 2012

    Lois- very reader-friendly as your posts always are. I wonder if you could ever do an article comparing Hebrew and Greek thought and word usage?? As I read your article i kept thinking how much Greek ideas and Neo-Platonism have influenced western mindset. Thank you for being such a good teacher in all you share.

  16. 16
    Terry Shumaker|October 20, 2012

    Like all of the material you have researched and put forth in a precise way this article fulfilled all of these
    and more once again.

  17. 17
    Elizabeth|October 22, 2012

    Lois, thank you for your clear interpretation. The Bible is made more meaningful with your help. What a great gift God has blessed you with.

  18. 18
    Victor Stutzman|December 7, 2012

    Thank you, Lois, for helping Mary and me to understand the Scriptures much better. I’m very hungry to learn the Scriptures through the eyes of a Hebrew mindset. My obtaining a B.A. in Bible years ago and a Masters in Theology recently still did not do justice to the Hebrew Bible!

  19. 19
    Isla Peterson|January 25, 2013

    Interesting how Eastern culture focuses more on actions, whereas Western culture puts an emphasis on thoughts. Thank you for clarifying this difference, as it is important to look at the culture from which the Bible came to understand it the way it was written.

  20. 20
    Rachel Lohman|January 25, 2013

    Very interesting. I agree with it all.. However, I do have a question I would like to ask. It’s mentioned in the beginning that a girl was raped by her babysitter and she didn’t know hot to forgive them… if she would in time forgive them, would God forgive the babysitter in a sense..? Or would God still punish the babysitter even if the victim forgave him? What if the victim didn’t want revenge on the babysitter for what he did, but felt that he still needed to be punished by God for raping her? Hopefully my questions make sense… I’m struggling to answer to them.

  21. 21
    Jessica Rottschafer|January 25, 2013

    This article is a perfect example of how easily we take the Bible out of context. We often refer the Bible and what it says to ourselves first, when we should really look at how it applied to the people back then. It truly shows how a text without context is a pretext for trouble.
    I find it very comforting knowing that the Lord chooses not to focus on our past sins. When he forgives us, he does not wish to dwell on what we’ve done. It gives us a good example for our daily lives. If we are hurt, we need to forgive and not dwell on what has happened. If we do the hurting, we need to realize that we are imperfect, but God IS perfect. His love is bigger than our failures, and the glory that will be shown to us is greater than our present sufferings.

  22. 22
    Jennie|January 25, 2013

    Thank you for that illuminating article. I have previously been haunted by the thoughts of all the sins I have “accumulated” throughout my life, as if they were following me around like a trail of blood and tears; I would have loved to embrace the notion (had I thought of it) that God really does “forget” our sins in the English sense, that he completely deletes any recollection of what we have done wrong from his intellect. However, like you said, that doesn’t fit in with our (admittedly limited) understanding of God as sovereign and all-powerful; if he literally ‘failed to remember’ the sins of everyone that existed on earth, the act of forgiveness for those sins would be devoid all its significance—because there would be nothing to serve as a benchmark, so to speak. This also brings up a confusing point for me: God gives us the free will to choose to do as we please (which is why he does not interfere when we select a wrong path, even though he obviously knows everything that would happen for all time), is his “forgetting” (in the sense of ignoring past grievances) limited to the period of our lives we experience in the present (because he limits himself and his knowledge of us for our own sakes, since giving us knowledge of our futures would also destroy the point of free will?) Or does his “forgetting” (and remembering – that is, acting upon the promises that he’s given us, etc.) consciously extend throughout the course of our entire lives and parts of it are ‘put into practice’ during the appropriate time? I might be muddling this up completely, so feel free to correct my thinking. And as the previous commenter asked, what happens with people who obviously do horrible, seemingly unforgivable things? Does God ‘remember’ those sins, dole out punishment, and then ‘forget’ what people have done? Or does he simply allow the people’s actions to be corrected (through the free will/moral choices of others) and continue forgiving and ‘forgetting’ their sins anyway? I know those who have sinned will receive justice from God in the end, which is mentioned in a lot of the books in the prophets… but is there an unforgivable, and unforgettable, sin? If so, are we still supposed to forgive those who have done those thing(s), because our human definitions of unforgivable/unforgettable sins are not God’s definitions—since our relative reality and quantification of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is almost microscopically small? Or maybe this is one of the things that is simply beyond my understanding and I should surrender it…

  23. 23
    Jeremy Genzink|January 25, 2013

    I thought it was very interesting, how it shows the different views of forgetting and remembering. In the Eastern way of thinking they include the action and well as the thought, while as in Western, we usually just try to forget the thought. Its a bigger picture in the eastern culture and I thought it was a much better way of thinking about it. God doesn’t forget, he just remembers our actions after we ask for forgiveness and then judges accordingly. Very interesting and a great thought overall.

  24. 24
    Nathan Vance|January 26, 2013

    Isn’t it great how a little clarity on the translation can add a whole new dimension to these familiar passages? I had always been told by my parents that God is God so he can do anything, so he makes himself forget. But I had never realized that “Out of love, (God) simply chooses not to ever act in revenge for the sin”. That’s far more profound that merely magically forgetting.

  25. 25
    Logan|January 27, 2013

    The reasoning it can be difficult to understand certain verses like this is due to the fact, as stated, that the Hebrew language is a “word-poorer” language. I love hearing the clarifications that assure us that God will put our sins aside, and ignore them despite really knowing they occurred. The analogy of a man and his wife summarized this perfectly.

    The idea that we can decide not to “remember” someone’s sins in terms of seeking revenge allows us to remember in order to make a situation better and make wise decisions in the future. I believe that this type of forgiving (from others and from God) shows more love than being able to simply forget about an incident.

  26. 26
    Logan Dykgraaf|January 30, 2013

    The reasoning it can be difficult to understand certain verses like this is due to the fact, as stated, that the Hebrew language is a “word-poorer” language. I love hearing the clarifications that assure us that God will put our sins aside, and ignore them despite really knowing they occurred. The analogy of a man and his wife summarized this perfectly.

    The idea that we can decide not to “remember” someone’s sins in terms of seeking revenge allows us to remember in order to make a situation better and make wise decisions in the future. I believe that this type of forgiving (from others and from God) shows more love than being able to simply forget about an incident.

  27. 27
    Elaine|February 13, 2013

    Lois, I would like to “second” Robert’s request at #15.

  28. 28
    JOHAN KNIGGE|March 16, 2013

    please sent me your new articles

  29. 29
    Brian Whittle|February 13, 2014

    Lois: I just found this article as I was doing some research on a paper of my own.

    It was wonderfully liberating when, several years ago, I came to this same realization that “remembering” is different for Hebrew thought than it is for modern English. If God can “forget” (in the English sense and not recollect) my sins, can He not also “forget” His promises? I am thankful that Scripture does not present a God whose memory is not perfect; instead we see a God who acts graciously to us *despite* His knowledge of our sins– all because He knows what He has already done for us in sending Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.

    Thank you for a wonderful clarity on an often misunderstood concept in Scripture.

  30. 30
    Lois Tverberg|February 13, 2014

    Brian, thanks a lot.

  31. 31
    Bre|March 7, 2014

    Before reading this article I had never really thought of God forgetting our sins. Some times I don’t know if it is ever possible to forget something that has happened to you. I like the thought that God forgets our sins in order to be able to love us even more. I never really thought about him forgetting our sins instead of punishing us. I like that when you forgive a person then you choose to put aside what has happened. Even though it is very hard to forgive and forget sometimes I believe it is something we should do because God does that for us.

  32. 32
    Sheldon|March 7, 2014

    Thank you for this illuminating article on sin. It is interesting to think that God doesn’t “forget” sins, but just doesn’t acknowledge them and just chooses to not act on them. I agree with this concept as it would be weird if an all knowing God would actually forget something. I feel like the Hebrew language has a lost of words which don’t really have a meaning but instead paint a picture of an idea, and because of this there could be many different things mean when the bible says that God “doesn’t remember” sins. Thanks again for writing this interesting article.

  33. 33
    Brandon Roon|March 7, 2014

    This article does a great job of showing the difference between Western and Eastern culture on the act of forgetting. As a Westerner I don’t know much about Eastern culture and this article brings out a whole new perspective. It’s interesting where the forgive and forget comes up because in some cases it can be pretty much impossible to forget what someone has done in the past. The forgiving and forgetting in Eastern culture is all about if you carry out the actions or not. In Western culture it’s mostly about what you say to someone, but it goes much deeper than that in Eastern culture.

  34. 34
    Mitchell Hossink|March 7, 2014

    This is yet another example of how most of us take the Bible out of context and miss the full meaning. The fact that “forget” means not taking actin against completely changes the message that God is giving. It is nearly impossible to actually forget when someone wrongs you, but not taking action against them is a different matter. God remembers our sins, how could he not? But what matters is that he doesn’t act on them if we believe in him. Likewise, God always is aware of what’s going on in our life. Like you said, he doesn’t suddenly remember us. This is a great lesson that many of us overlook.

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