By Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua
During the 2017 retreat of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, the retreat director, Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso, the Catholic Archbishop of Kaduna gave an inspiring reflection on January 9, 2017. According to the Archbishop, a newly consecrated Bishop got the information that there was a Nun who had the gift of speaking directly to Jesus. The Bishop decided to have an encounter with the Nun who confirmed that she really could speak to Jesus face to face.
The Bishop made this passionate request: “Please when next you meet with Jesus, ask him to give you the list of my sins before I became Bishop.” Two weeks later, the Bishop asked the Nun, “Did you meet with Jesus”, she responded, “yes”. “What did he say concerning the records of my sins?” The Nun replied, “Jesus said, I do not remember”. Archbishop Ndagoso used this narrative to develop his reflection on the need for mercy, forgiveness and compassion.
Very often, some people question the logic of these expressions: “forgive and forget.” “To err is human, to forgive is divine”. “You can forgive but it is not possible to forget”. The reason for these expressions could be based on the retentive nature of the human memory. Is it possible to delete the contents of the human memory just as you can do with the memory of a computer or telephone? What happens to the external perceptions that have been stored in the memory from the view point of empirical psychology?
Thus the lingering question of some people that is derived from the human viewpoint is how a person with memory can forget the past injuries, hurts and trauma. For some people it makes more sense to think of forgiveness even though this is one of the most difficult injunctions given by Jesus Christ. To make this incredible forgetfulness possible to comprehend, Jesus while going through the most agonizing pain and trauma on the cross prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)!
The puzzle of forgetting sin is a serious challenge to human beings. God is fully aware that the offence that is not deleted from memory affect the person who is offended. Thinking about the offences of others and nursing vengeance affect the person that is offended emotionally, psychologically and even physically. The offender may not even know that the person offended is going through sleepless nights.
This is why the person who gets you angry has conquered you. God wants those who have been bruised, derided, injured and traumatised to have perfect healing of mind and body. God recommends that the best physician to heal a wounded and bleeding heart is the victim. Jesus the priest and the victim went through the worst forms of pains that any human being on earth could ever go through. This makes Jesus Christ the wounded healer.
To use an anthropomorphic expression, every day, the sins of human beings inflict deep pains and wounds in the heart of God. In the creation narrative, the sins of human beings made God to regret ever creating man (Genesis 6:6). At a point, God vowed to wipe human beings from the face of the earth (Genesis 6:7; Zephaniah 1:2).
When God told Moses that he would destroy the people in anger and raise for him a new nation, Moses pleaded for the people (Deuteronomy 9:13-14). At some other point, Moses sought the favour of God for the people saying, “Lord, why should your anger burn against your people whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand (Exodus 32:11)? This shows that anger is a normal and natural emotion but it can destroy a victim if not properly controlled.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Do not let resentment lead you into sin, the sunset must not find you still angry. Do not give the devil his opportunity (Ephesians 4:26-27). This means that even though anger is a natural emotion, the devil can use it to its own advantage to destroy a person who is in a rage. It is recommended by some people that important decisions should not be taken in anger: At best, it is better to be silent when angry or leave the scene that provokes anger.
The adrenal glands release adrenaline into the human system to give extra energy either to avoid danger or to confront it. The duration of adrenaline in the human system depends on how long you allow the incident to stay in your memory.
The analysis of the anger of God is to illustrate that the remedy to sanity through forgetting is a possibility. Here is how the Prophet Isaiah presents God akin to a form of trauma counselling and healing of memories. God says, “I am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43: 25). Isaiah thus presents God as a model for the possibility of forgetting the sins of our transgressors.
According to Matthew Henry Commentary on this passage, when God forgives, he forgets. It is not for anything in us, but for his mercies’ sake, his promise’ sake; especially for his Son’s sake. This is the only way, and it is a sure way to peace (http://biblehub.com/isaiah/43-25.htm).
God has every reason to record our sins to be used against us on the day of judgement, but there is something that God can forget. If a sinner turns away from his sins and decides to be righteous, God forgets his past sins but if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and decides to live in sin, God forgets his past goodness (Ezekiel 18).
This could explain why repentant sinners had a space in the heart of Jesus. Even the repentant thief who was crucified had the opportunity to be with Jesus in paradise at the last moment (Luke 23:33-43).
What God can forget is the sin of a sinner who returns to God like the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In this parable, God who is presented as the prodigal father did not recall how the son left with his property.
All the Father could remember was the sacrament of the moment; “He was dead, now he is alive; he was lost, now he is found”. Because God only remembers our present, we must endeavour to sanctify every moment of our lives. Yesterday is gone; it would never return, tomorrow is God’s secret and may never exist. Only today (now) is what actually belongs to a person hence like God we must not allow the hurts caused us by others to keep us awake all night long instead of enjoying a grace filled night.
The panacea to over enduring bad memories is some overdose of mercy, compassion, forgiveness. The Church declared December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016 as the Year of Mercy. The Church is aware that to “forgive and forget” is like swimming against the tides and waves of the ocean hence a whole year was dedicated to the celebration of mercy.
The door of mercy was opened and closed in all the dioceses of the world. Pope Francis dedicated most of his writings to the theme of mercy. He never made public pronouncements without refraining mercy like a responsorial chorus.
Every year, the season of Lent provides us with ample opportunity to forgive those who sin against us as God has forgiven us. Lent is the time for the Superiors to forget and forgive the offences of their subordinates. This is the time for the fathers and mothers to forget and forgive the sins of their children.
This is the time to reunite and renew broken relationships. If all these sound terribly difficult, let us recall that Jesus who calls us to be perfect just like the heavenly father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) does not give us an assignment without giving us the corresponding grace to carry it out. Because God can forget the past sins of a penitent, he enjoins human beings to do the same. Christianity is anchored on unconditional mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
These open the door to true and unconditional love, the only virtue that is immortal and cannot never die (1 Corinthians 13:13). I pray that God our Father, may forgive us our sins and give us the grace to forgive those who sin against us. Amen
Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue in the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria ([email protected]).