We live in a funny age. Some people still have telephone landlines. But they mostly use them to call their cell phone because they have forgotten where they left it. And they need the cell phone, because it has an app that helps them find their car keys, for they have forgotten where they put their car keys. This kind of forgetfulness is largely due to being busy, distracted, and inattentive.
Though such forgetfulness is often a forgetfulness of things, it can easily become a forgetfulness of people. We forget that we were supposed to pick someone up because we got busy and distracted. We forget that we were supposed to meet someone for dinner because we were inattentive and didn’t realize what time it was.
This kind of forgetfulness can also lead to a forgetfulness of God. We may sometimes find ourselves in the middle of a church service, where our attention is supposed to be on God and His Word, but instead we suddenly realize that we have been stewing over the argument that we had before church, and we haven’t heard a thing the pastor has said.
I remember one time I fell particularly hard into this kind of forgetfulness. It was in an evening service, attended by a relatively small number of people. We had sung the opening hymn, and the pastor asked us to sit down and close our hymnals. Then he asked us about the content of the hymn we had just sung. No one could call it to mind. We had sung along on autopilot, forgetting where we were, what we were doing, and whom we were allegedly worshiping. We had, in fact, forgotten God.
As bad as that sort of forgetting God is, as sinful as it is, it often seems to us to be a small sin. Usually something happens to break us out of our forgetfulness, and we redirect our attention to God. However, this distracted, busy, inattentive forgetting can become chronic and more deeply sinful. Moses, for example, warns the people of Israel, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (Deut. 4:9). This is a warning against the kind of forgetfulness that characterized the children of Israel when they were in the wilderness. They had seen God’s great acts of judgment exercised against Egypt. They had experienced God’s great deliverance of them through the Red Sea. They had experienced God’s provision for them in the manna and the water from the rock. Yet, when they heard the report of the spies concerning the Land of Promise, they forgot all that they had seen, all that they had experienced. In the distress and fear of the moment, they forgot God.
God knew this tendency in the people. Moses had seen this tendency in the people. So he reminds them repeatedly in Deuteronomy (which is, after all, the collection of Moses’ final addresses to the people) to be careful not to forget all that God had done. The construction “be careful not to forget” sounds a little funny in English, but it is a way of emphasizing the importance of not forgetting. It is a way of reminding us that these things need our full attention, because our default mode is to forget. We forget birthdays, we forget anniversaries, we forget promises, and we forget God.
This kind of forgetting, what I would call careless forgetting, is bad. Even when it does not involve forgetting God, it can produce all sorts of evil in our families and our relationships. Thus, we must watch ourselves that we not forget the Lord and the things He has done for us.
But this careless forgetting can devolve into a more dangerous kind of forgetting. That is what I would call deliberate forgetting. Now sometimes, this deliberate forgetting can be a necessary, even positive thing. It was necessary, for example, in the case of Joseph, who put away the memory of the evil actions of his brothers against him in order that they might be reconciled. He determined not to dwell on the evil intent of his brothers but rather to remember the purposes of God in the events. It is necessary for us when we are sinned against to be able to deliberately put it away from us in order that we not develop a grudge against the person who has transgressed against us. This is the forgetting that Paul expresses: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13).
But there is a negative aspect to deliberate forgetting that is more dangerous than careless forgetting. This is a deliberate putting out of the memory the object that ought to be remembered. In the book of Deuteronomy, we read many warnings against forgetting God. In the book of Jeremiah, we learn that the people did not follow Moses’ admonition. Instead, they forgot God and all the things He had done for Israel. And how had they forgotten God? By forgetting His commandments: “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deut. 8:11). As a result, their careless forgetting of God developed into a deliberate forgetting. They carelessly forgot that God was present and active (even if not visible) and stopped obeying His commands. They forgot the first and second commandments and made a god for themselves that they could see. They called it Yahweh, but it was an idol (see Ex. 32:1–5). As God put it to Jeremiah, “But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods” (Jer. 18:15a). The deliberate forgetting of God developed into a trust in false gods, a worship of false gods “even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal” (23:27).
Israel’s persistent forgetting of God, which led it into idolatry, brought them eventually into judgment. The Israelites forgot God initially through carelessness. They were distracted by the needs of the times. They were focused so much on the issues of the present that they neglected the foundational truths of the past. They disobeyed the commandments intended for their health and protection, and they forgot God. Thus, when the idols of the peoples offered quick solutions to their needs, the Israelites, who had forgotten God carelessly, were only too ready to forget Him deliberately. They were willing to set aside the God who had saved them because the gods of the peoples seemed ready, willing, and able to help.
It is easy for us as modern Christians to point the finger at the Israelites and take them to task for the fact that they forgot God. The complaining we see in the wilderness, the cycle of apostasy, judgment, and restoration that we see in Judges, the good king/bad king alternations that we see in 1–2 Kings—these all emphasize the incessant inability of the Israelites to heed Moses’ admonition to “take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 6:12). We get tired when we read through Jeremiah and chapter after chapter is devoted to enumerating the sins of Israel and telling of Israel’s coming judgment. We feel that we are superior to Israel, more spiritual, less likely to forget God.
But we, too, get distracted by the demands of our days, by the busyness of our times. We forget that as Moses warned that declining from the commandments of God displays a forgetting of God, the same applies to us. We tend to think that ignoring, or rather, not fully living up to one commandment of God is a small thing. But the result is not simply disobedience. It is the beginning of idolatry, of making a god in our own image, a god we can easily obey. But did Jesus not say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? Yet, we find His commandments so easy to ignore. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32), Paul says, but we want to hold on to offenses and resentments. It feels good to bear a grudge. But that is not the way Christ teaches. To bear a grudge, to envy the gifts and graces of others, to covet the possessions of others—these are steps on the way to forgetting God.
We are not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some,” but encourage one another (Heb. 10:25). But it is easier to neglect that meeting. Other things must be done; other things are more important. I remember a fellow student when I was in graduate school. He was a New Testament specialist. But he did not go to church on Sunday. I once asked him why. He said that he had better things to do on a Sunday morning. I knew other students, mostly undergraduates, who were mostly diligent about attending Sunday morning services but not Sunday evening worship. The explanation? They had to study for Monday’s classes.
These things are so easy to understand, so easy even to empathize with. Yet, it is the beginning of forgetting God. The demands of life pile up and it’s all too easy to skip church. We need to love our neighbors as ourselves, but it’s so inconvenient. It requires too much time, too much energy. So we don’t. We give them a pat on the back and wish them well, but we don’t provide what they need (see James 2:14–17). Such is the beginning of the careless forgetting of God. But it doesn’t stop there. It develops into an active resentment of those who would place demands on our time and commitments. And before we know it, we have forgotten God. Even worse, we have begun to follow other gods and have become committed to their ways.