“Dwell in possibility” —Emily Dickenson (1830-1886), one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time.On this last day of 2019 which is also the last day of the decade (2010-2019), a “Verse for the Day” email in my inbox this morning reminded me of the words found in Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV):
Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I [the Lord] am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The Message Bible states these two verses like this:
Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.
The apostle Paul ends a section in Philippians 3 by saying, “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” (verses 13–14). Is Paul instructing us to forget everything that ever happened before we met Christ? Is this a command to purge our minds of all memories?
It is important to consider the passage that precedes these words. Paul had just listed all his religious qualifications that, to the Jewish mind, were of supreme importance. He then states, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verse 8). Paul is making the point that no fleshly accomplishment matters in comparison with knowing Christ and trusting in His righteousness alone for salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9). Regardless of how good or how bad we may have been, we must all come to Christ the same way: humble, repentant, and undeserving of His forgiveness (Romans 5:8; Titus 3:5).
The word “forgetting” in this passage means “no longer caring for, neglecting, refusing to focus on.” Our memories store millions of pieces of information gained through our senses since birth. Some experiences are impossible to forget, and any effort to forget them only makes them more prominent. Paul is not advising a memory wipe; he is telling us to focus on the present and the future, rather than the past.
It’s easy to “live in the past.” Whether it’s a past victory that our minds continually replay or a past defeat that hangs over us like a shroud, it needs to be left in the past. Nothing hinders present service quite like being mired in another time. Modeling Paul’s forgetfulness means we count the past as nothing. We cut the strings that tie us to that bygone moment. We refuse to allow past successes to inflate our pride. We refuse to allow past failures to deflate our self-worth. We leave it behind and instead adopt our new identity in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We are not to forget “everything,” however, in the sense of being oblivious to it. In fact, there are many times God instructs us to remember. In Deuteronomy 9:7, Moses tells the Israelites to “remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord.” We are encouraged to remember all God has done for us (Psalm 77:11; 103:2), others who are suffering for Christ’s sake (Hebrews 13:3; Colossians 4:18), and what we were before Jesus saved us (Ephesians 2:11–12; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11). But the remembering should be to the glory of God and for our spiritual benefit. If we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, then no judgment remains for past failures (Romans 8:1). If God chooses not to remember our past sins (Hebrews 8:12), we can choose to set them aside as well and embrace the future He promises to those who love Him (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 2:10). (Quote source here.)
The phrase “forgive and forget” is not found in the Bible. However, there are numerous verses commanding us to “forgive one another” (e.g., Matthew 6:14 and Ephesians 4:32). A Christian who is not willing to forgive others will find his fellowship with God hindered (Matthew 6:15) and can reap bitterness and the loss of reward (Hebrews 12:14–15; 2 John 1:8).
Forgiveness is a decision of the will. Since God commands us to forgive, we must make a conscious choice to obey God and forgive. The offender may not desire forgiveness and may not ever change, but that doesn’t negate God’s desire that we possess a forgiving spirit (Matthew 5:44). Ideally, the offender will seek reconciliation, but, if not, the one wronged can still make a decision to forgive.
Of course, it is impossible to truly forget sins that have been committed against us. We cannot selectively “delete” events from our memory. The Bible states that God does not “remember” our wickedness (Hebrews 8:12). But God is still all-knowing. God remembers that we have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But, having been forgiven, we are positionally (or judicially) justified. Heaven is ours, as if our sin had never occurred. If we belong to Him through faith in Christ, God does not condemn us for our sins (Romans 8:1). In that sense God “forgives and forgets.”
If by “forgive and forget” one means, “I choose to forgive the offender for the sake of Christ and move on with my life,” then this is a wise and godly course of action. As much as possible, we should forget what is behind and strive toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13). We should forgive each other “just as in Christ God forgave” (Ephesians 4:32). We must not allow a root of bitterness to spring up in our hearts (Hebrews 12:15).
However, if by “forgive and forget” one means, “I will act as if the sin had never occurred and live as if I don’t remember it,” then we can run into trouble. For example, a rape victim can choose to forgive the rapist, but that does not mean she should act as if that sin had never happened. To spend time alone with the rapist, especially if he is unrepentant, is not what Scripture teaches. Forgiveness involves not holding a sin against a person any longer, but forgiveness is different from trust. It is wise to take precautions, and sometimes the dynamics of a relationship will have to change. “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty” (Proverbs 22:3). Jesus told His followers to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In the context of keeping company with unrepentant sinners, we must be “innocent” (willing to forgive) yet at the same time “shrewd” (being cautious).
The ideal is to forgive and forget. Love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5) and covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). However, changing hearts is God’s business, and, until an offender has a true, supernatural heart change, it is only wise to limit the level of trust one places in that person. Being cautious doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven. It simply means we are not God and we cannot see that person’s heart. (Quote source here.)
The above answer leads to yet another question that is also answered on GotQuestions.org. That question is, “What does it mean to be wise (shrewd) as serpents and innocent as doves?” Here is their answer to that question:
In sending out the Twelve, Jesus said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV). The NIV says, “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Jesus was using similes (figures of speech that compare two unlike things) to instruct His disciples in how to behave in their ministry. Just before He tells them to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, He warns them that they were being sent out “like sheep among wolves.”
The world, then as now, was hostile to believers—not incidentally hostile, but purposefully hostile. Wolves are intentional about the harm they inflict upon sheep. In such an environment, the question becomes “how can we advance the kingdom of God effectively without becoming predatory ourselves?” Jesus taught His followers that, to be Christlike in a godless world, they must combine the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove.
In using these similes, Jesus invokes the common proverbial view of serpents and doves. The serpent was “subtle” or “crafty” or “shrewd” in Genesis 3:1. The dove, on the other hand, was thought of as innocent and harmless—doves were listed among the “clean animals” and were used for sacrifices (Leviticus 14:22). To this very day, doves are used as symbols of peace, and snakes are thought of as “sneaky.”
Nineteenth-century pastor Charles Simeon provides a wonderful comment on the serpent and dove imagery: “Now the wisdom of the one and the harmlessness of the other are very desirable to be combined in the Christian character; because it is by such an union only that the Christian will be enabled to cope successfully with his more powerful enemies” (Horae Homileticae: Matthew, Vol. 11, London: Holdsworth and Ball, p. 318).
Most people don’t mind having their character compared to a dove’s purity and innocence. But some people recoil at the image of a serpent, no matter what the context. They can never see a snake in a good light, even when used by Jesus as a teaching tool. But we should not make too much of the simile. We cannot attach the evil actions of Satan (as the serpent) with the serpent itself. Animals are not moral entities. The creature itself cannot perform sin, and shrewdness is an asset, not a defect. This is the quality that Jesus told His disciples to model.
The serpent simile stands in Jesus’ dialogue without bringing forward any of the serpent’s pejoratives. It is a basic understanding in language that, when a speaker creates a simile, he is not necessarily invoking the entire potential of the words he has chosen—nor is he invoking the entire history and tenor of the linguistic vehicle. Rather, the speaker is defining a fresh relationship between the two things. A quick look at Matthew 10:16 shows that Jesus was invoking only the positive aspects of the serpent. There is no hint of His unloading Edenic baggage upon His disciples. He simply tells them to be wise (and innocent) as they represented Him.
When Jesus told the Twelve to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves, He laid down a general principle about the technique of kingdom work. As we take the gospel to a hostile world, we must be wise (avoiding the snares set for us), and we must be innocent (serving the Lord blamelessly). Jesus was not suggesting that we stoop to deception but that we should model some of the serpent’s famous shrewdness in a positive way. Wisdom does not equal dishonesty, and innocence does not equal gullibility.
Let us consider Jesus as exemplar: the Lord was known as a gentle person. Indeed, Scripture testifies that He would not even quench a smoking flax (Matthew 12:20). But was He always (and only) gentle? No. When the occasion demanded it, He took whip in hand and chased the money changers out of the temple (John 2:15). Jesus’ extraordinarily rare action, seen in light of His usual mien, demonstrates the power of using a combination of tools. This “dove-like” Man of Innocence spoke loudly and clearly with His assertiveness in the temple.
In His more typical moments, Jesus showed that He was as wise as a serpent in the way He taught. He knew enough to discern the differences in His audiences (a critical skill), He used the story-telling technique to both feed and weed (Matthew 13:10–13), and He refused to be caught in the many traps that His enemies laid for Him (Mark 8:11; 10:2; 12:13).
Jesus showed that He was as harmless as a dove in every circumstance. He lived a pure and holy life (Hebrews 4:15), He acted in compassion (Matthew 9:36), and He challenged anyone to find fault in Him (John 8:46; 18:23). Three times, Pilate judged Jesus to be an innocent man (John 18:38; 19:4, 6).
The apostle Paul also modeled the “wise as serpents, harmless as doves” technique. Paul lived in dove-like innocence in good conscience before God (Acts 23:1) and learned to deny his carnal desires so as not to jeopardize his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:27). But Paul also displayed serpent-like shrewdness when he needed it. He knew his legal rights and used the legal system to his advantage (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11). He also carefully crafted his speeches to maximize the impact on his audience (Acts 17:22–23; 23:6–8).
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus taught us how to optimize our gospel-spreading opportunities. Successful Christian living requires that we strike the optimal balance between the dove and the serpent. We should strive to be gentle without being pushovers, and we must be sacrificial without being taken advantage of. We are aware of the unscrupulous tactics used by the enemy, but we take the high road. Peter admonishes us, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). (Quote source here.)
In a few short hours, we will pass from the old year to a brand new year, and from the past decade to a brand new decade. Hopefully, the answers to the questions above will guide us in making the transition a successful one by forgetting the past (whether good, bad, or indifferent); forgiving others and ourselves when needed; and striving to be gentle without being pushovers; sacrificial without being taken advantage of; being aware of the unscrupulous tactics used by the enemy…
And by always . . .
Taking . . .
The high road . . . .
YouTube Video: “Auld Lang Syne” sung by Home Free: