23. Memory

Meditations in Meaning & Values  23. Memory

Isa 44:21    Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you.

As we span the human spectrum of knowledge and experience in a quest for meaning, memory is one of those features that stirs interest and excitement. What is memory? Why do we have it, for what purpose? These are simple questions but they open up a field of interest. It is another of those things that seems so simple and so obvious we mostly take it for granted – until it starts failing and then we realise its immense value.

Memory is simply the ability to recall what has gone before. We have cited one verse above where God refers to His own memory and calls Israel to use their memory. The call to remember comes often in the scriptures and in a variety of forms. When Isaiah cries, To the law and to the testimony!” (Isa 8:20) it is a cry to remember the Law of Moses given centuries before and the testimony of Israel about God’s dealings with them. Remembering those two things was to be an anchor that held them.

If my evolutionary atheist friend is right, then how incredible that at some point in a million year space some cells in the most primitive of creatures started forming threads to carry electrical currents in a load of other cells eventually to be called a brain, that enabled the creature to ‘remember’ almost instinctively what ‘food’ was and where it might be found. You can do anything with an odd million years or so. But we cannot imagine even the earliest hunter gatherer not having memory so he knew where to return to collect the remains of a bison or whatever it was after his initial trip home after hunting. How far we have advanced so that we are capable today of taking in and remembering millions of facts before the awarding body will grant us, say, a degree.

I don’t know how true it is, but I imagine a new born baby’s mind is almost like a blank slate (except it is not because already it has deep memory of things experienced in the womb) but from the moment is born it starts to learn and each step in learning is built upon the previous one – it remembers things and builds on them. It learns that there are prohibitions in life (don’t take your sister’s toys) and that there are sanctions (or you will end up on the naughty spot, as modern discipline requires) and it remembers next time not to do it or if they do it, they risk the sanctions. We learn that it is wrong to murder and most of us don’t do it, initially at least, because murderers used to be executed and now get put in prison for a long time.  All these things we remember and what we remember influences how we behave.

Whole schools of learning are built on this, the ability to memorize the effects of rewards and punishments.  We recognize that pain or unpleasant things can strongly influence our future behaviour yet even within this there are dangers that we respond too negatively to such things. A friend from many years ago, when we were both in our early twenties, turned up on me one evening and poured out how his finance had broken off with him. He was in great anguish and in his tears said, “I will never let anyone ever get that close to me again; it is too painful.” He inflicted himself with a curse and I have watched with sadness over the years how that worked out. Memory can be very painful and sometimes it can only be the Lord who can comfort us and heal up the hurt. Yes, time they say heals, but actually it simply means we squash the pain with things that subsequently happen and try to forget it, but it is still there deep down and although our conscious mind may have forgotten it, our subconscious mind will not have forgotten it. It needs the loving ministry of Jesus to take it on the Cross.

Some of us use a poor memory as an excuse for repetitions of poor behaviour, but such an excuse does not hold water with God. One of my favourite quotes, a slightly quirky and not always true quote, is ‘the one thing history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing’. i.e. so often we just don’t learn from our mistakes. When you observe the history of Israel in the Old Testament  you would have thought they would learn from their past mistakes and from their wonderful testimony with God, but they didn’t. The truth is, sadly, that with the passing of time we forget the reality of the lesson learned and every new generation has to learn these things afresh.

This is probably the reason that the Lord gave a variety of ways for Israel, and now us, to be reminded of things that had happened. For instance in the Old Testament the clue comes in the phrase “And when your children ask,” which in Exodus 12 flows on, “And when your children ask you, `What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” (Ex 12:26,27) The ongoing ceremony each year pointed to the past deliverance. We find a similar thing later on with Joshua: “Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, `What do these stones mean?‘ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” The stones were to be a reminder of the miraculous crossing of the Jordon.

In the New Testament we find the apostle Paul recording, “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:23-26) Communion, the Last Supper or whatever we may call it, is a regular reminder of the basics of the Gospel that Jesus died to save us from our sins and form a body to continue his life and work.

Calls to remember come frequently in the New Testament. Jesus had to challenge his disciples to remember (Mt 16:8-12, Jn 15:20, Jn 16:4), the angels had to challenge them to remember what Jesus had taught before his death and resurrection (Lk 24:6-8), the apostles challenged us, their readers, to remember various things (Heb 13:16, 2 Pet 3:8,9). In the face of temptation we are called to remember who we are. In the face of doctrinal challenge we are to remember the apostolic teaching. Memory is a vital part of human life and even more so of the life of the Christian. Remember this!

42. God who Forgets

God in the Psalms No.42 – God who forgets

Psa 25:7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways;

Memory is a strange thing. We want to remember things and can’t, and the things we’d rather forget we can’t.   We’d like to be able to remember all the good things we’ve done and all the good times we’ve had – but so often we forget. But then there are the bad things we’ve done, the embarrassing things we’ve said, and we wish they could be utterly blotted from our memories, but they remain there in stark clarity. David has been asking the Lord to teach and guide him, and he’s fearful of anything that might hinder the Lord doing that. He looks back and, like we’ve just said, he’s got memories of the past that he’d rather forget and he worries that those things from his youth might disqualify him from knowing the Lord and receiving His blessing. It is a common worry. So he cries to the Lord, Lord, please forget my foolish past, see my heart today.

Isaiah made a similar call: “Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever” (Isa 64:9). Most of the time the cry to the Lord was to remember the past, His relationship with Israel, or the Lord Himself saying He would remember their sin to judge it. So, here we have just two calls for the Lord to forget, calls that find echoes in most of our hearts.

And the good news? Isaiah has it again: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Isa 43:25). How was the Lord able to say that justly? Isaiah heard it: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isa 40:2). The Lord had dealt with Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day and therefore once dealt with, He did not keep on harping back to it. Also Isa 44:22 “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.” The Lord laid down the principle through Ezekiel: “And if I say to the wicked man, `You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right….. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live.” (Ezek 33:14-16) In other words where there is true repentance the Lord will wipe away from His memory the past sins. David came to really know this: “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psa 103:12). There is no measurable distance between ‘East’ and ‘West’ so he says they have been completely taken away and forgotten!  The prophet Micah knew the same thing: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?” (Mic 7:18).

Here was a principle being wrought in the Old Testament that burst through into full glory in the New Testament: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:23,24). And do you remember what they say justification means? It’s “just as if I’d never sinned”. That’s what the work of Jesus does. He so completely deals with our sins on the Cross that it’s like there was never any sin. We’ve been forgiven, washed and cleansed (1 Jn 1:9), and once God cleanses or purifies, He doesn’t keep going back to look at the dirt that was washed off. That’s why Paul could say, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The past has been dealt with. God has forgotten it. Move on!  What’s next?

41. Who Remembers

God in the Psalms No.41 – God who remembers

Psa 25:6 Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the next verse which is about God forgetting, but before we get there comes the verse about remembering. Memory is an amazing feature of being a human being who is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). Most of us take it for granted. I certainly did until my father-in-law had a series of strokes which left him with no short term memory. When you walked in he would ask you how you were and what was happening to you and you’d tell him. Three minutes later he would be repeating the questions and three minutes after that you’d start the cycle again and again. Thinking about that I realized how much of our conversation is about the past. Our conversations are mostly based on what has already happened – you watch yourself over the next day. In fact if you take that in, you’ll see that if we had no memory, we would even forget  who we are. That is the problem of the person who wakes up in a hospital after a serious accident and suffering amnesia, and who can’t remember who they are.

So here we are now in the above verse with David basically saying, “Lord remember who you are, remember what you’re like!”  You want to see more of the significance of that?  Stop and think about your life when things are going wrong. On a good day you might be thinking (in accordance with Scripture and your experience), “I am a child of God with all of the grace of God available to me. I am full of His Spirit and all of His characteristics, I am a child of the king!”  Then suddenly you are attacked with a verbal attack that takes your breath away. Suddenly you forget who you are and you go on the defensive and attack back. You shouldn’t but sometimes you do, because the emotions that suddenly arrive overwhelm you and make you forget who you are. That’s why David is saying, “Lord remember who you are” because he knows the experience of forgetting in the face of adverse emotions.

Now of course the funny thing is the Lord never forgets who He is.  He has no cause to feel defensive, but David needs to remind himself of these characteristics of the Lord. Some times when we pray things about the Lord, it’s not because the Lord needs telling them – He already knows – but it’s for our own benefit; we need reminding, we need encouraging by the truth.

So here is the truth that David is declaring: the Lord won’t forget who He is. The Lord won’t forget that He is full of mercy and love. Moses had to tell his people that the Lord would not forget His covenant (Deut 4:31). Sometimes David asked the Lord not to forget, because it seemed the Lord was not moving and had forgotten. Of course He hadn’t; He was just biding His time. Hence David asked the Lord not to forget the helpless – himself (Psa 10:12) or him generally (Psa 13:1). One of the other psalmists asked the Lord not to forget their oppression (Psa 44:24). The Lord declared through Isaiah, O Israel, I will not forget you (Isa 44:21). For the Lord to forget His children today is an impossibility. You forget someone who is away from you perhaps, but the Lord actually dwells within His children today by His Holy Spirit. How can He possibly forget us?  He won’t but there may be times when, for His own purposes, He may appear to delay and we’ll find ourselves saying, “Lord don’t forget….” because that’s the fear we have, of being forgotten by our loving heavenly Father and being left alone in the corner of upset. It’s all right, you’re not alone, He hasn’t forgotten (Deut 31:6, Heb 13:5,6)