Fifteen years ago, I watched helplessly as Alzheimer’s disease robbed my grandfather of his ability to recognize the people he loved most.
As he slowly faded, I struggled to imagine a crueler way for someone to go than to lose his memory in that way.
We are hardwired for remembering. God has given us minds capable of hanging onto the past and giving it a formative influence over the present. That’s what makes an illness like Alzheimer’s so utterly dehumanizing.
For many of us, our past is full of dark memories—things we wish we could just forget. In these cases, memory loss doesn’t seem all that bad. If you’ve got an ugly history, then amnesia sounds a whole lot more like a blessing than a curse.
Why We Can’t Give Up On Memory
Sometimes, it’s easier to forget the darkness in our past than to bring it out into the light. Psychoanalysts call this repression, and for years they’ve made their bones forcing patients to open up and confront their past.
On a superficial level, repression makes sense. But, if we look at Scripture, we can’t afford to put our memory in a box.
We see how memory helps us transcend our circumstances in the Psalms:
• In times of isolation and despair, the psalmist remembers God (Ps 42:4,6) as a way of coping and finding hope.
• He finds personal satisfaction, even in the midst of his enemies, by remembering God through the night (Ps 63:6).
• He finds confidence by remembering what God has done for him and his people in the past (Ps 77:11-15).
We find the importance of memory outside the Psalms, as well:
• In Luke 17:32, Jesus warns his disciples to remember what happened to Lot’s wife as He urges them to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord.
• In 1 Cor 11:17-34, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to practice the Lord’s Supper as Jesus Himself instructed: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Remembering Our Little Histories in Light of God’s Bigger History
The interesting thing about the sampling of verses I shared above is that we’re often called to remember things that didn’t happen to us personally but to others.
The Psalmist “remembers” what God did for Israel generations before his time. Jesus tells the disciples to “remember” what happened to Lot’s wife long before they were born. Paul calls on the Corinthians to “remember” a dinner they didn’t attend.
There’s something to memory that transcends our personal history and spills out into the history of what God has done in and for His people. There’s a bigger story into which our smaller stories fit.
God wants us to remember what He’s done for us as individuals, yes, but also what He’s done for us as His people. As our story intersects with God’s story, we realize just how big our God is and how much He has in store for each one of us.
So, how do we remember like that?
Putting the Past In Its Place
God is omniscient. That means He knows everything. Still, He chooses not to remember the sins of His people (Heb 10:12, 17; cf. Jer 31:31-34). So, in one sense, God knows our sin in its every dark detail. But, in another sense, He’s forgotten all about it.
When God says He won’t remember, it doesn’t exactly mean He’s forgotten. Instead, He’s chosen to no longer deal with his people on account of their sin. The knowledge remains, but it doesn’t define His relationship to us.
In other words, God puts the past in its place.
If in Christ, we’re set free from our past and made into new creatures, then God is calling us to put that past in its place just as He has. The dark and painful memories may still exist, but they no longer define us.
How we do that is no magic trick. When memories of our past plague us, we have to remind ourselves regularly of what God has done for us in Christ. We need to bring those memories out of the dark and into the light so that God can heal them.
Bringing Memories Into The Light
We shine the light on memories, in part, with other believers—by letting them speak truth into our lives to remind us that Jesus’ blood has redeemed us from our past.
We also do it by meditating on Scripture. As we get to know God’s story, our memory is enriched by what He’s done for us as individuals and as members of His holy people.
Journaling is valuable here, as well. When we put our pen to paper, we create a record of God’s activity in our lives. In the future, we can look back at our journal both to remember all that God has done and to cling to His promises for the future.
For the Christian, memory is a powerful tool in God’s plan for personal redemption. But, it’s also an on-ramp into the grand sweep of His working in this world. When we recall His goodness—to us and to those who’ve gone before—we gain a whole new perspective on what it means to be His and to live our lives as children of God.In our 28-day I Can Only Imagine Study Journal, we’ve built a threefold strategy for experiencing spiritual transformation: recall, reorient, and reimagine. This post has looked at the first of those three. In the next two articles, we’ll take a look at what it means to reorient and reimagine our lives in Christ.
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