Remember, LORD, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, LORD, are good.—Psalm 25:6, 7
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived 400 years before Christ, compared human memory to a tablet of wax on which our human thoughts and actions leave their imprint. Four hundred years after Christ, the church father Augustine compared our memory to a storehouse, a mysterious repository of our words and deeds. The famous British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) regarded memory in much the same way. Today, we sometimes use metaphors from the cyber world, comparing our brain with the hard disk of a powerful computer that’s capable of storing many terabytes of information.
Modern science tells us that things are, in fact, a bit more complicated. In my desire to understand the basics of how human memory functions, I did some googling. Finding some relevant “sites” was fairly easy, but I must admit that most of what I read was far beyond my understanding. It was about the encoding and the retrieval of information, about synapses and neurotransmitters, and about the difference between short-term and long-term memory. I soon decided to leave all these technical details aside in my short contemplation of the miracle of memory.
Much To Remember
Many of us tend to suffer from information overload. There’s so much to remember! It sometimes drives me close to despair. I must not only keep track of my appointments for the coming days and weeks but also remember the promises I’ve made and what messages I should respond to, and then I must somehow remember how to operate all kinds of electronic devices that are supposed to make my life easier. I must remember the plot of a television series I’m currently watching and the content of the first few chapters of a book I’ve begun to read. There’s no end to the things I must remember!
Some people have remarkably good memories; others are not so blessed. Those around us often wonder how in the world we could have forgotten something that was so important. The truth is that most, if not all, of us have very selective memories: Some things we remember, some things we forget. We often forget certain negative things about ourselves, while it’s easy to remember the minute details of the wrongs others have inflicted on us!
Our memories can play tricks on us. Sometimes we have a name on the tip of our tongue, but at the critical moment, it suddenly escapes us. Loss of memory can, however, take more serious and irreversible forms. Total amnesia following a serious accident may be a promising theme for a feature film full of humor or suspense, but it’s a terrible reality for those who have experienced it. The most tragic form of memory loss may well be Alzheimer’s disease, which makes people forget who they are and—possibly even more devastating—whose they are!
Indeed, memory is an extremely important part of our human existence. It directly impacts our personhood. In a sense, we are our memories!
Memory is an important biblical theme. Reading the Bible, we not only discover that it’s important that we remember who we are and whose we are but also that it’s even more essential to understand that God remembers.
Of course, when we say that God remembers, we’re using a human concept. With that technical term, we ascribe a human attribute to God. But that’s the best we can do. We recognize that our understanding of God is severely limited due to the infinite difference between us, mere humans, and the almighty, all-knowing, omnipresent God. Yet, we make an extremely meaningful statement when we say that God remembers; that God cares; that He is aware of our existence, our joys, and our needs; that there’s a wonderful constancy in God’s interest in humanity not only in general but also in me as a specific individual among the billions who have lived and are now living on this planet.
The Bible assures us, time and again, that God “remembers.” In Old Testament times, He remembered His people (Jeremiah 2:2); He remembered His covenant with them (1 Chronicles 16:15) when they were in Egyptian bondage (Exodus 6:5) and when, much later, they were in Babylonian exile (Ezekiel 16:60). If you want to find more assurances that God remembers, read the book of Deuteronomy, which has been referred to as a theology of remembering because the theme is so prevalent.
In the New Testament, the prayer of the thief on the cross probably provides the best-known example of this intense desire to be remembered by God (Luke 23:42). And God does indeed remember! He remembered Jacob’s wife Rachel when she was desperate about her inability to conceive (Genesis 30:22). And He even remembered Samson in his final moments in a pagan temple, after he had made a terrible mess of his life (Judges 16:28).
God’s remembering is more than mere mental activity. The Hebrew word used in the original text of the Old Testament implies motion toward the people involved. God is not like us: suddenly remembering something He had temporarily forgotten. It goes far beyond that. His remembering is an expression of His deep interest, His caring, and His loving compassion. God’s remembering doesn’t just concern the present but extends into the future and touches on our eternal destiny—for He also remembers us in the final judgment!
The idea that God remembers us in His judgment frightens many of us. What chance of survival do we have if everything we’ve ever done or said is recorded and will be remembered? The glorious truth is, however, that while God will never forget any of us, He is more than willing to forget all the mistakes we’ve made and all the sins we’ve ever committed. Take some time to reflect on the divine promise that came to us through the prophet Jeremiah: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
Thank God that He has such a selective memory! He’s more than willing to forget our sins, but, whatever happens, He will remember us! This is in total contrast to the way our memories function. We tend to remember forever the wrongs people have done to us while we’re prone to somehow forget our positive relationships!
God Remembers Eternally
Many people seek to be remembered, even long after their death. They hope for a statue in the town where they were born and to be mentioned in history books. Rich people often give millions to museums and universities just to have a building named after them or at least get a prominently displayed brass plate with their name on it. In some cultures, people expect to be venerated after their death. As long as their children and grandchildren bring regular offerings to them, they are among “the living dead”! Their greatest fear is that there will come a day when they will no longer be remembered. Then they will have completely ceased to exist.
The reality is, of course, that most of us will be forgotten within a few decades after our demise from this life. At best, the memory of our existence lingers on in some gradually fading pictures in the family photo album unless we have made genealogy our favorite hobby. And that is how it will be for us. We will, at most, be very distant memories for our great-grandchildren.
Fortunately, our future beyond death doesn’t depend on any human memory but on the glorious fact that God remembers who we were. After our death, we return to dust. But somehow, we are safe in God’s memory. He remembers all the relevant data to re-create us when His time has come.
We Must Remember
We are prone to forget the most vital things in life. We must, therefore, make a deliberate effort to remember. First of all, we must remember God and what He has done and still does for us. Remembering appears to be a key word in the Bible, a prerequisite for a healthy spiritual life. The cycle of annual feasts was given to the Jewish nation to help them remember God’s great deeds of deliverance. Mankind was not simply told to keep the Sabbath but to always remember that holy day and what it points to (Exodus 20:8–11; Deuteronomy 5:12–15). And just before His death, Christ instituted the rite of Communion to be practiced “in remembrance” of Him (1 Corinthians 11:23, 25). The Bible, the church, the Holy Spirit—all three are given to the believers to help them in their remembering of what God in Christ has done for the human race.
But we must remember not only the truths about God and His eternal and infinite love for us but also the truth about ourselves. We should never forget that we are sinners. But, at the same time, we must remember that this is no reason for despair because of God’s selective memory! He remembers selectively: He is willing to forget what is better forgotten, and He remembers what truly counts. That is the kind of selective memory we likewise should cultivate. May God help us to forget the things that poison relationships and darken our outlook on life and to truly remember Him and the people who are a part of our lives.
Reinder Bruinsma worked for the Seventh-day Adventist Church for more than 40 years in Europe, West Africa, the UK and the USA. Now retired in his home country of the Netherlands, he continues to be active as a speaker and writer.