Word Study #30 — Forgetting, and Remembering

Have you felt obligated to accept the burden of guilt perpetrated by those who insist, “You have not really ‘forgiven’ a person who has wronged you unless you have ‘forgotten’ the incident”?
Have efforts to “forget” life-altering events or betrayals nearly reduced you to despair?
Did it ever occur to you to investigate whether the much-quoted admonition to “forgive and forget” ever appeared in the New Testament at all?
Take heart, my wounded brothers and sisters who are serious about faithfulness: it isn’t there!
And neither is the corresponding allegation, intended to shame you by example, that “God has forgotten all of your offenses.” Forgiven, certainly. Forgotten – well, hymns and sermons to the contrary, the subject is not even discussed in the New Testament writings.

There are only eleven appearances of the English word “forget” in the entire New Testament; and these combine three different Greek words, one of which, in I Pet. 1:9, the only time that lambano is translated that way, (a word that usually means “take, receive, accept, attain, or, rarely, take away”) and is therefore a bit suspect. The others, epilanthanomai and eklanthano are quite similar in classical usage, with the latter being perhaps a bit more emphatic.
Of the other occurrences, nine refer to people “forgetting” – all but one in a negative sense: Mt.16:5 and Mk.8:14 record the disciples’ failure to pack lunch before their trip; James 1:24 and 25 admonish the man who looks in a mirror and forgets what he saw; and the writer to the Hebrews asks reprovingly, (12:5) “Have you forgotten (God’s instructions)?” The same writer reminds readers not to forget to do good, to share, and to extend hospitality (13:2 and 16).
The only positive mention of “forgetting” is in Phil.3:13, where Paul speaks of forgetting his pedigreed past in order to devote all his energy to seeking greater maturity in Christ.
Twice, the reference is to God, and is one of encouragement: Lk.12:6 quotes Jesus as declaring that not even sparrows are “forgotten” by him, and again in Hebrews 6:10, “God is not unjust, to forget your work, and the love you all demonstrated for his name, and the way you’ve looked after his people.”

That’s it, folks. That’s ALL the New Testament says about forgetting!
Even in the Old Testament, where the LXX usually uses epilanthanomai to translate the Hebrew shakach, forgetting is warned against – “Don’t forget what God has done!” – not advocated; and when it is said of God, it refers to his judgment, not his mercy. Check it for yourself in Young’s Concordance.

OK, let’s give the guilt-trippers the benefit of all possible doubt, and consider that maybe we have to look at “remembering” in order to justify their scolding. This includes five Greek words, all quite similar, all related etymologically. They are anamimnesko (used only once), mimneskomai (the middle voice – see appendix to Notes – also used only once), mnaomai (15 times), mnemoneuo (19 times), and hupomimnesko (3 times). All of their classical definitions are very similar.
All but two of the references (out of a total of 40) are simply to people remembering or being reminded of past events, messages, or behaviors.
The two referring to God, Heb.8:12 and Heb.10:17, are both instances of the same quotation the writer takes from the prophecy of Jeremiah. Recognizing the utter failure of the law to produce the life that God designed and desired for his people, the writer combines several of Jeremiah’s messages about the promised New Covenant: (8:10-12) “This is the covenant that I will establish….when I give my laws into their understanding, I will write them on their hearts …They will all know about me, from the least to the greatest of them. I will be merciful about their injustices, and I will no longer remember [keep score of] their shortcomings [failures].” Please notice the conclusion, (Heb.8:13): “In saying ‘new’, he has made the first one “old”; and what has become old and been superseded is near to disappearing!”

It is possible, that with some intricate verbal gymnastics, people could turn that quotation into support for their proclamations about God “forgetting”, but in doing so, they ignore the whole message of Hebrews 7 through 10, which is to highlight the inadequacy, the utter failure of the old covenant, and its sharp contrast with the New, as established by Jesus! In fact, I would even suggest that it is the “failure” of the Law that may even be the “failure” (translation of hamartia – see W.S.#7) that is in view in the prophecy! However, even if you give the guilt-preachers enough editorial license to ignore the context, there is still nothing that commands – or even suggests – that “forgetting” is advocated, much less demanded, of faithful people! Our instructions, repeatedly, are “Do not forget!” “Remember!”

Clearly, (again see W.S. #7), we indeed are instructed – expected – to “forgive [release]” our abusers, as Jesus himself demonstrated. But this has nothing whatever to do with the unrealistic requirement of “forgetting.”
One brother put it this way: “To forgive is not to forget, but to refuse to be bound or limited by evil.” There are wrongs in this life that cannot be set right. They have passed into history, and their consequences, although they can certainly be redeemed, cannot disappear. But in deliberately forsaking vengeance and resentment, both the injured party and the offender can be set free (the real meaning, remember, of aphiemi), although the course of both lives may have been permanently, irretrievably and unforgettably altered. Yet, in those wonderful instances when, by the grace of God, reconciliation becomes possible, how much poorer would everyone concerned be, if all were “forgotten”? Remember – and give thanks!

We are instructed to “remember”, throughout the Gospels, especially John, what Jesus said, did, and taught. In the Epistles, we are told to “remember the poor” (Gal.2:10), and those imprisoned for their faithfulness (Heb.13:3); to remember our former alienation from God and his ways in order to appreciate (and imitate) his graciousness (Eph.2:11); and the faithfulness of our brethren and teachers many times. Even those who have faltered in their faithfulness are admonished to “remember” the devotion of their “first love” (Rv.2:5, 3:3) for the Lord and for each other.

Remembering is a much more fruitful focus for our attention.

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