Monday, March 15, 2010

The Forgiveness Function

“Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. (Hebrews 10.16-17)

Save and Delete

We recently had to buy a new desktop computer. After seven years of heavy use, the old one couldn’t be counted on to start, let alone run properly. The new one is a gem—so clean and sleek—and we’re hyper-conscious about not clogging it with nonsense. Meanwhile, the old machine sits to the side, waiting until I can get around to transferring the files worth keeping to the new one. A part of me wants to junk the whole thing and start over. Sorting through gigabytes of memory to see what we should save and delete involves some trepidation about what may be tucked in the nooks and crannies—nothing scandalous, mind you, but artifacts of past foolishness and neglect. Yet it must be done, since the old hard drive is also full of marvelous things that shouldn’t be discarded. Of course, this wouldn’t be such a task had we been more diligent about what we kept and tossed as we went.

I’m sure you know where this is going. Coming to Christ gives us a clean start—an opportunity to save and delete. And make no mistake: deciding what of us should be kept and discarded is a massive, often uncomfortable chore. Fickle choices and curiosities riddle us with unsavory memories. We’re pocked with guilt over broken relationships and rash decisions; we’re cluttered with petty attitudes and amusements. But once we identify them, we can prevent them from carrying over into our new life. Hanging on to past failures is like transferring corrupt files to a fresh drive. They house viruses that cause us to crash. On the other hand, there are many marvelous things in us we must retain and protect. Taking the time to ensure we hold on to the good while letting go of the bad is vital. Then, maintaining the integrity of our lives by continually removing dangerous, wasteful, and destabilizing tendencies is how we sustain optimal performance. We accomplish this by understanding the interplay between God’s mercy and our memory.

Critical Steps

It’s easiest to view forgiveness as total erasure—everything gets wiped out and we begin again. Those who embrace this idea pair Christ’s doctrine of rebirth in John 3 with Paul’s new-life statement in 2 Corinthians 5.17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The romantic appeal of the notion can’t be denied. Neither should its legitimacy be questioned. Nonetheless, it errs on efficiency’s side by gliding past three critical steps in the forgiveness function: self-evaluation, penitence, and transformation. First John 1.9 breaks down the process: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Honestly confessing our sins expects us to identify them first and decide what to delete. Since God knows what they are, we’re apt to wonder why this is even necessary. But there are many reasons for self-evaluation, with two that immediately spring to mind. First, specifying wrongs to be forgiven leads to recognizing talents to be prized and developed. It reveals what needs to be given as well as forgiven. Second, it helps us distinguish between sin and weakness. This plays into penitence. We’re sorry for submitting to weakness, not weakness itself. God in His mercy removes the failure from memory, yet in His unfailing love and wisdom, He allows us to retain the propensity to fail. And it’s here that the total erasure and reboot theory falls apart by suggesting forgiveness of sin obliterates weakness for sin. We need weakness. Without it, we’ll never experience God’s transformative power as our weakness gives way to Christ’s strength. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12.10. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Forgetting Failure

Forgiveness boils down to forgetting failure in order to increase effectiveness. It’s God’s way of making room in our lives for Him by eliminating worries with past shortcomings. In his/her letter to Jewish converts, who were steeped in perpetual fear of failure, the Hebrews writer quotes Jeremiah: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” Therefore, he/she says, “where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” The general thought confirms Christ’s final atonement for all sin. But there’s a second message layered into this: once our failures are forgiven and forgotten, there’s no reason for us to hold on to them. This is what Paul means by “the old has gone.” Persistently obsessing over old wrongs slows us down and distracts us from experiencing transformation. Forgiven sins can only clog our memory if we transfer them from our past lives to our new ones. We decide to remember.

The friend who installed our new computer remarked, “You’re going to love how fast and clean it works.” How right he was. Applications that stretched the old machine’s capabilities (and our patience) now fire right up. Web pages load instantly. Limitations that prevented us from enjoying everything the Internet offers are gone. The new has come. Now we’re eager to upload the good stuff from the former computer, knowing it will look even better and run more smoothly in this new environment. Our weaknesses as end-users will remain. But the new system is so much more robust they’ll be transformed by untapped abilities. As for failures that burdened the old one’s memory and impeded its operations, once they’re deleted, they’ll be forgot. That’s the way forgiveness functions.

Forgiveness begins with assessing what we should delete—and then forgetting past failures to make room for new possibilities.

Postscript: I’m Forgiven

It’s time for a little old-fashioned quartet music. There are hundreds of great songs extolling the joy and power of forgiveness, but none better captures the utter freedom and thrill of knowing what’s forgiven is forgot. It’s an infectiously, happy tune! “I’m Forgiven,” by the Gaither Vocal Band.


From the start You held a place in my heart

A place that no one else could fill

Sin kept Your Spirit from working in me

I couldn't look at life honestly

Until the day my will gave away

To the truth that I found in You

I never knew just how good it could be

To stand in Your presence, totally free

I'm forgiven

Now I have a reason for living

Jesus keeps giving and giving

Giving 'til my heart overflows

Now I can see me as a person who's free

Even when I slip and fall

"Cause He is God Who forgives and forgets

And now I want to give Him my all

I'm forgiven...

I know this love that's placed in my heart

Is a love that will never depart

Sin brought me here to the end of my rope

And now He's given me a brand new hope

I'm forgiven...


claire said...

once our failures are forgiven and forgotten, there’s no reason for us to hold on to them. YES! Some failures are not that easy to forget though even though Godde has forgiven them long ago...

A little story for you. Some years back I went to an 8-day retreat and toward the end decided to go to confession. I chose the oldest priest around and got ready to tell him my sin (I had one in particular that day). Before I began speaking he said, Tell me two good things about yourself. Because Godde only remembers the good things about you, not the bad things.

Tim, it was SO hard to come up with two good things about me! I stammered and am not sure I could come up with two...

Anyway, thank you for another great post and congratulations on your new computer!

Tim said...

What a terrific story--and how true it is! We've been so conditioned to carry guilt and shame for past mistakes it's a challenge to remember all the goodness that's been entrusted in us, and remains in us.

How wise that priest was. If we took more time to remember what's right about us, perhaps the failures we struggle to forget might fade from memory more easily.

Thanks for sharing this, Claire; it brings the thought vividly to life!

Blessings always,