My last time Zambia I had an interesting encounter. After a couple of days work with some remote churches, my hosts and I were heading back to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. En route, we stopped at a roadside café for some tea and scones (delicious). Looking out across the veranda, we saw an elephant loitering by the outside tables. We learned that this elephant often hung around the café and had been adopted by the staff. It seemed quite domesticated for a multi-ton animal.
Elephants are curious creatures: their trunks, their tails, their big ears, their ivory tusks all contribute to the curiosity factor. Plus…there is one reputed trait of elephants that makes them even more curious: Elephants, we are told, never forget.
Researchers have scrutinized elephants to help understand elephantine memory and have confirmed that there is, indeed, something to it. Elephants have been observed to follow the same migration pathways and apparently have a way to “hand down” memories of the wheres and whats of their annual trips. Elephant clan groups have distinct burial sites to which they will inevitably head when “their time comes” and elephants have been noted for their high-level family affinities.
All of which is to say that elephants are quite unique creatures…which serves as a prelude to this grand theological statement:
God is not an elephant.
Having cleared that up, I wish you well. No, indeed God is not an elephant. Particularly with respect to memory: where (apparently) elephants never forget, God can and does choose to forget…our sin.
This is a most wondrous aspect of life with God in Christ. Not only does God forgive our sin (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” 1 John 1:9) but He has a supernatural ability, fueled by His great love for us, to forget our sin (“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” Isaiah 43:25).
This is a blog and not a theological treatise on the nature of God’s forgiveness. For the moment, we will simply rest in this dimension of God’s grace and mercy toward us: all the wickedness we bring before God, is forgiven and forgotten…no longer held against us…by Him.
But there, as they say, is the rub. Because while God is not an elephant, most of the rest of us are.
I was reminded of this when, in bolt out of the blue fashion, someone recently chose to remind me of one of my own most grievous, sinful, relational-fracturing, odious failures. And, while clinging tightly to the fact of forgiveness from God, I was immediately transported (in my thoughts, emotions, and spirit) back to the place of that failure. I heard the words I said and the way I said them. I saw the looks of horror and hurt in others’ eyes. I felt their anger and woundedness afresh. I re-read the emails and notes and letters I had (yes) mentally filed away. I felt it all (every bit of it) all over again. It took me a while to climb back out of the subsequent “tar pit” of despair. Even when I had gotten out, I still had sinful memory “tar balls” stuck to my spirit. It hurt…a lot. The hurt became anger; the anger became fury and then…well…
And then I was taken back to my own proclivity for doing exactly the same thing. Because while God is not an elephant (with respect to memory), I certainly am. Simultaneously blessed and cursed by what is (I am told) a better than average memory, I have the tendency to rehearse and repeat others’ sinful failures when confronted by the squeeze of relational circumstances.
It is so easy to dig out others’ failures and bring them to my mind (like a warped cable TV “on demand” feature) and then (of course) bring them to their minds when in skirmish mode. It is a sad state and, with respect to memory of failures, I wish I was not an elephant…and yet it seems I am.
It’s as if the memories of others’ failures are balloons with very, very long strings attached. We can (I can), it seems, let the balloon go until it is far distant, out of sight, and seemingly forgotten. But like carnival balloons, I have tied the long string to my wrist and can pull the balloon back within reach anytime I choose. I somehow cannot seem to choose untying the string and just letting the balloon go.
I have often struggled with these verses from the Apostle Paul: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13,14).
For Paul, “forgetting” does not seem to be a memory wipe. After all, he had just finished rehearsing his reasons for “confidence in the flesh” and counting them as “garbage.” It seems that Paul was making a conscious, Spirit-guided choice to not let the memories impact his forward progress in Christ. And this is the choice I must make if I am not to be an elephant.
I must choose to not draw the memory of others’ sinful failures back into my presence…not to lord the failures over them nor to delight myself with my own relative “righteousness.” “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” “All” includes, well, all; and that certainly includes me. And, as much as I would sometimes like to take out those memories of others’ sin and play with them, I must choose to not.
I have enough trouble not resembling an elephant with my carbohydrate-fueled physique. I don’t want to be the elephant-like person who “never forgets.” I want to forgive AND forget. I want to “press on” unhindered by my own decisions and I want to let the balloons go. And…it would be nice…if others on this journey with Jesus would make that choice too.
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
© All rights reserved. Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.