Authored by Tina Kapp
I’m a big fan of Mike Donehey, the lead singer of Tenth Avenue North, and host to their video journal on YouTube. He has a series of short talks for young people on a variety of topics. He often shares how he receives inspiration for songs he has written, or funny stories that help him better understand God and His ways. One of my favorites is where he talks about how “God is not an elephant.”1 He knows this, he says, because he met him—not God; an elephant.
When he was five years old, he went to the zoo and saw an elephant for the first time. The elephant put out his trunk, and little Mike thought it was a gesture of friendship. But nope, the elephant then sneezed all over little Mike’s foot. Needless to say, he wasn’t too fond of elephants after that. He also figured that God could not be an elephant. It was only when he got older that he realized how true that was. Not just because an elephant is an animal and God is, well, God, but as the old saying goes, “An elephant never forgets”; whereas God, in His love for us, chooses to forget our sins when we are sorry and repent.
God even describes Himself as the one who erases our transgressions and “remembers our sin no more.”2 He says that quite a few times throughout the Bible, probably because He knows that we, with our human natures, need to be reminded of that more than once.
We think about how big and powerful God is, and it’s hard to imagine that He would purposely forget something, especially if we try to put ourselves in His place by imagining ourselves doing that for those who have wronged us. We may say we’ve forgiven someone, but like the Garth Brooks’ song says, “We bury the hatchet but leave the handle sticking out.”3
The saying “burying the hatchet” comes from a Native American tradition where chiefs of tribes would bury a hatchet—or a tomahawk—signaling an act of peace. However, if you were to leave the handle sticking out so you could go back and get it if you needed it, it would be like forgiving but not completely.
I know I’m certainly guilty of leaving “the handle sticking out.” I’ll forgive a friend, but then if we argue or I’m upset at them, I’ll bring up that thing that they had done in the past, reminding them of just how “forgiving” I was and how thankful they should be (and why they should do what I want or admit that I’m right or whatever the case may be). Obviously, that’s not true forgiveness, and thankfully, that’s not how God is toward us.
No matter how much we deserve judgment or retribution, He sees past that and looks at our heart and our sincere desire to do better. In His love for us, He sent us His only son, who died on the cross, taking on the sins of the world. Through this great act of love, we are forgiven. He wipes our slates completely clean. King David seems to have understood this divine forgiveness better than anybody whose stories we know from the Bible. Some people describe King David as a man of contrasts. He was passionately dedicated to God, yet guilty of sins that were pretty shocking.
He had a pretty colorful life. He was the youngest in his family, and therefore had not much in his future beyond herding sheep. After defeating Goliath, he was constantly running for his life from King Saul, who was very jealous of this kid who kept outdoing him. Even after he was king, David had to fight constantly to protect his kingdom. He was a great conqueror, but after making a series of very bad decisions and even having a man killed to cover them up, God had to punish him pretty severely. He suffered great losses, including the betrayal of his son, Absalom.
In the end, however, he underwent a great repentance and came out a changed man with a deep humility, love for God, and understanding of forgiveness. He wrote some of the most beautiful prayers and poetry in the Bible.
In Psalm 103 (which is one of my favorites) David writes: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”4
I wanted to call this article “God Is like a Goldfish” since I had always thought that, unlike an elephant, a goldfish only has a memory span of three seconds. But when researching it, I found out that this was disproved by an alert 15-year-old boy in Australia named Rory in 2008.5 Other scientists and fishermen have since backed up this find. He figured the three-second-memory story was a myth created to make people feel less guilty about keeping their fish in small tanks.
The Age5 covered Rory’s experiment, which involved teaching a small group of fish to swim to a beacon by establishing a memory connection between the beacon and food. Over a period of three weeks, he placed a beacon in the water at feeding time each day, waited 30 seconds, and then sprinkled fish food around the beacon. The time taken for the fish to swim to the beacon reduced dramatically, from more than one minute for the first few feeds to less than five seconds by the end of the three weeks. Following the initial three-week period, Rory removed the beacon from the feeding process. Six days later, he once again placed the beacon in the water, and despite not seeing it for almost a week, the fish swam to the beacon in 4.4 seconds, showing that they had remembered the association between food and the beacon for at least six days. Rory’s results strongly showed that goldfish can retain knowledge for at least six days. They can retain that knowledge indefinitely if they use it regularly.
The great news is that, unlike the goldfish, when God says He’ll remove our sin and “remember it no more,” it’s not just a myth to make you feel better about yourself. He actually means it.
It’s amazing how much guilt we as Christians tend to live with when we forget that simple fact. Even worse is when we put that guilt on others. It’s sad that it’s so easy to forget the simple love and forgiveness that Christianity was built on and demonstrated by Jesus throughout His ministry.
A story often used as an example when talking about God’s forgiveness is the Prodigal Son.6 Here was a boy who outright wasted everything his father had worked tirelessly to save up to give him a good start in life. It must have been hard for the father to watch his son make such bad decisions, knowing that the boy would probably end up with nothing. His father, however, let him go his own way and learn life’s lessons the hard way. The beautiful thing is, when he reached the point of poverty and despair and came back with a repentant heart, his father welcomed him back with open arms, ready to forgive him and show him that he still loved him.
Our choices definitely have consequences. I imagine the Prodigal Son had to work for many years to make up for his losses. If we eat unhealthily or use anything in an unhealthy excess, we’ll see the consequences, which is why God gave us boundaries and guidelines in the first place. Our repentance and God’s forgiveness might not remove the consequences of our actions and poor decisions, but He can take away the guilt and the burden that we tend to mentally saddle ourselves with. Knowing that God loves us and accepts us in spite of our repeated failings, as long as we genuinely repent and learn from our mistakes, gives you hope for the future.
A lovely old lady was celebrating her 50th anniversary, and a young woman asked her how she had made her marriage work so well for so long. She answered that at the beginning of her married life, she decided to make a list of ten mistakes that she would always forgive her husband for. The young lady was curious and asked if she could see that list. “Well, I never did get around to writing it down,” she said, “but anytime he would do something that would make me boiling mad, I’d take a deep breath and say, ‘Lucky for him, that was one of the ten!’”
I think that’s what Jesus meant when He said we should forgive others “Seventy times seven.”7 True forgiveness does not keep count. Unlike the elephant and the goldfish, God forgives us and forgets.
“For his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is (His) faithfulness.”8
2 Isaiah 43:25
3 A single from the album Ropin’ the Wind
4 Psalm 103:8–12 NIV
6 Luke 15:11–32
7 Matthew 18:21–22
8 Lamentations 3:22–23 NIV
Read by Stephen Larriva. Music by sindustry(CC). Copyright© 2014 by The Family International