Holy Hands

In Exodus 17:8-15, we seem to have a picture of intercessory prayer. The Israelites have just left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea when they are attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua musters and leads an Israelite army, but Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up a hill. Israel wins the battle as long as Moses holds up his hands, but they start to lose whenever he lowers his hands. He gets tired, so he ends up sitting on a stone, with Aaron and Hur holding up his hands, until the enemy is overcome.

This is a curious story.(1) In the first place, it stands alone. Though the Israelites take the field as a ragtag band of former slaves, this victory appears to have no lasting impact on their military strategy. Even when they are defeated in later battles (e.g., Number 14:45; Joshua 7), we don’t read of anyone saying, “It’s because we forgot to station someone on a hill with hands upraised.”

Moreover, on the face of it, the story doesn’t quite make sense. There are three men; why can’t they take turns lifting their hands? With 20-minute shifts, Moses would have a 40-minute rest break every hour. Aaron, after all, has been the human agent in some of the signs and plagues (Exodus 7:9-10, 12, 19-20; 8:5-6, 16-17), and he will be high priest. Why does it have to be Moses’ hands?

A Staff of Authority

So I went back to the text, and noticed a couple of points I had forgotten. Before the battle, Moses announces that he’ll stand atop the hill with the staff of God in his hands (Exodus 17:9). The staff isn’t mentioned again, but its presence would help to explain why his hands grow heavy.

This staff is the one Moses used as a shepherd. When God called Moses, He asked, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). It represents the natural authority Moses had developed. For in the Old Testament, that is what happens: God takes a man as he is and empowers him for service. The Law can’t change what’s in him. So when the Lord tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground, it becomes a snake, and he flees from it (4:3); there is sin inside. God shows him how to master it, for a time: take it by the tail and it becomes a staff. But there is an uneasy relationship between the calling and the vessel — just as, in a central symbol, Moses wonders how a woody bush can burn and not be consumed. This is the great question for Israel under the Law: Can the divine Presence, aflame with holiness, rest upon and dwell among stiff and dried out men? Won’t fallen humanity inevitably be consumed (33:3, 5)?

The staff is used in five of the ten plagues (Exodus 7:19-20; 8:5, 16-17; 9:23; 10:13); it becomes a sign of the authority of Moses and of God. At the Red Sea, Moses is told to lift his staff and stretch out his hand to divide the waters (14:16, 21). Presumably, he must hold the staff for some time, and not just wave it once, but we don’t read that he grows tired as in the battle. When we assert the Lord’s authority over nature, it yields, but men resist.

Later, the staff gets Moses into trouble. Told to take the staff but merely speak to a rock in order to obtain water, he instead strikes the rock with the staff, twice. He is rebuked for not trusting, and told that he will not enter Canaan (Numbers 20:7-12; contrast Exodus 17:5-6). Natural authority not only becomes burdensome and weary; it also oversteps.

Echoes of Empty Hands

Yet the battle with Amalek is won. Moses’ actions do establish some small precedents:

  • He sits on a stone, a rich symbol of Christ. The stone of stumbling (Isaiah 8:14; Daniel 2:34-35, 45; Zechariah 12:3; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:8), the stone rejected by the builders, becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7). Moses rests on the intercessory work of Jesus.
  • Like Jesus, Moses is on a hill, lifted up. But Jesus is also Joshua, down on the plain in the heat of the battle. When Moses raises his hands, he is flanked by two men who support him. When Jesus’ arms are stretched out, He dies between two sinners (Matthew 27:38) who can’t support themselves or Him; He is “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
  • After the battle, Moses sets up an altar and declares a new name for God, Jehovah Nissi, The Lord Is My Rallying Standard — because, he says obscurely, hands were lifted to His throne (Exodus 17:15-16). This may be echoed in Isaiah 11:10-12, where the Root of Jesse stands as a banner and nations rally to Him, while the Lord stretches out His hand to gather His remnant. Moses acknowledges that the Lord Himself acts to rally His people. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself,” says Jesus (John 12:32, NIV). Like Moses, He summons our weakness, invites our weariness, solicits an offering of empty hands; “crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4), He lays in the dust our strength and boasting (1 Corinthians 1:25-31).
  • This is almost the first time in the Bible when we read of prayer with upraised or outstretched hands. Abraham lifted up his hand to the Lord to make an oath (Genesis 14:22). Moses and Aaron have stretched out their hands (with or without the staff) over areas to be judged: Egypt’s waters (Exodus 7:19; 8:5-6) and land (8:16-17; 10:12-13), and the sky over the land (9:22-23; 10:21-22). Here, though, Moses lifts up his hands to God, toward His throne. He has done this before only once, asking the Lord to end a plague (9:29, 33).(2) The posture is an expression of utter dependence upon God, and at the same time it extends His authority — not man’s — over the situation.
  • Finally, in this passage we see the very first Biblical occurrence of an important Hebrew word, emunah: faithfulness, steadfastness, truth.(3) Aaron and Hur hold up or stay Moses’ hands so that they are emunah, steady. They help him become faithful.


Lifting Up Holy Hands

In the New Testament, we don’t have many staffs — the disciples are even told not to carry them (Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3; contrast Mark 6:8). But in 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul says, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (NIV). Holy hands: the Greek word for holy isn’t the usual hagios, set apart, but hosios: righteous, undefiled, gracious. Our hands become holy, in part, as we empty them, laying down the staff of authority, ability, strength, pride. Paul asks us to pray without the strong passion of anger, and also without disputing or “reasoning,” relying too much on the intellect. Such men(4) sound more than a little detached, rather like the Old Testament image of watchmen on the wall (Isaiah 62:6-7; Habakkuk 2:1).

How can we lift up holy hands in prayer? I suggest that, like Moses, we need to be still and rest on Jesus. Empty our hands: let go of anger and authority; don’t rely on our own understanding. Our words are not the most important thing; sometimes what counts is that we persevere in an attitude of complete dependence on God.

And, finally, we can help each other to become faithful. The most vivid impression that I took away from this study is that I need to pray specifically for the prayer lives of others, especially the intercessors and the busy. I may never become a watchman on the walls, but I can help to steady someone’s hands.

(1) If we fail to be struck by this incident, it may be because it is part of an incredible sequence. Readers sometimes complain that the Biblical narrative is dull and repetitive, but the stories are bursting with signs and symbols that have shaped our culture and our expectations. We overlook them only because they are so familiar. In Exodus alone, we have the slaughter of the innocents, the virtuous lie of the midwives, the baby in a basket, the burning bush, the Name I AM, bricks without straw, the plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, palpable darkness, Passover, the blood of the lamb, the destroyer, the spoiling of the Egyptians, the ransoming of firstborn sons, the pillars of cloud and fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the overwhelming of Egypt’s chariots, Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals You), manna, water from the rock, the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle and the Ark, the golden calf, the cleft in the rock, the veil over the radiant face, and the great cloud of glory, among much more. Shakespeare and Dickens are not so fertile in powerful images within so small a space.
(2) The verb used in Exodus 9:29, 33 is paras, to spread out. According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 242, the word first occurs in this passage. “Such stretching of the hands probably reflected the characteristic posture of prayer in the Bible.” It is used, for instance, to describe the prayer stances of Solomon (1 Kings 8:22, 54; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13) and Ezra (Ezra 9:5); compare Job 11:13; Psalm 143:6; Isaiah 1:15. The verb does not appear in Exodus 17.
(3) See Vine’s, Old Testament section, 75-76.
(4) In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul seems to be thinking primarily of males, since the next verse states his intention for women. Other passages (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:5; 11:5; Luke 2:36-37) clearly show women engaging in intercessory prayer. Paul’s point here may be that men often have more difficulty emptying their hands.

Advertisements

Advent

Year by year, I try to prepare my heart for the coming of the Christ. As I grow older, I notice two changes. The obstacles and distractions seem to grow more formidable; at the same time, my practice becomes simpler. There are readings, music, prayers, church gatherings. But the one essential lies outside all these. I need to sit awhile where I can see a baby.

No doubt of it: I am a romantic. Babies are hard work, bottomless wells of need. I can never quite overlook the frazzled, exhausted mother or father, the frantic grandparent, the neglected sibling. If babies perpetuate us, they also bring us pretty quickly to the end of ourselves.

But babies are also beautiful, glorious. Even if I am on a crowded airplane, craving sleep, dismayed to hear a baby’s cries, I smile if I can glimpse its face, or hand, or foot. Here is life straight from the Father’s hand, life that is all potential, all promise. Something softens in me, and relaxes into wonder.

If truth be told, I am afraid of babies. All my inadequacies surface: I will drop them, wake them, scare them, fail them. I joke that I can never hold a baby without spilling some, out one end or another. Fortunately, proud parents ignore my protests and thrust their child into my arms — and I am transfixed. As I hold this little being and watch the act of breathing, I feel my own heart rise and fall. As C.S. Lewis says, most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven.

Afterwards, I always think of Immanuel, God with us. Not like corrupt and pagan gods, assuming a human disguise for the sake of an afternoon’s dalliance. No; in earnest He became flesh, turned into one of us. So much so that He was tiny, needy, helpless. Weaker than a toddler. Dependent on His parents. So much so that for many months He had no words.

Most years, December finds me discouraged. I will have been struggling with problems that to me seem both big and important. I will have prayed and read and waited to hear the voice of God, only to stumble on, in the dark, in a resounding silence. My flickering faith will be the proverbial smoldering wick, lightless, on the point of going out. I will feel forsaken.

But Immanuel is the God who comes too close for words. Beneath the prickly radar of intelligence, He arrives with the insistence of present, utter helplessness. Not bothering to address ears grown too dull to hear, He shares our darkness, our hunger, our exposure, our heartbeat, our flesh.

He comes. And we have only to open our arms.

For to you is born this day in the town of David a Savior, Who is Christ, the Messiah, the Lord! And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find after searching, a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:11-12, Amplified)

. . . open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:13, NIV)

Merry Christmas.

Stand

Every so often, I meet with an exhortation to “advance the Kingdom” or “take back the land.” There is a Biblical foundation for this idea in the conquests of Joshua and David. And the example of Caleb — at the age of 85, driving the Canaanites out of Hebron (Joshua 14:6-14; Judges 1:20) — shows that it’s not just a young person’s dream.

But for every reference to mounting an attack, there seem to be two or three that speak of standing — or, better, standing firm. (We also see cases in which it is right to run away,(1) but that is another matter.)

Standing Firm

This struck me recently as I read the famous passage about putting on the whole armor of God. As Paul explains it, we are not suiting up in order to attack the forces of spiritual darkness and take over cities for Christ. Rather,

Put on God’s whole armor [the armor of a heavy-armed soldier which God supplies], that you may be able successfully to stand up against [all] the strategies and the deceits of the devil. For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere. Therefore put on God’s complete armor, that you may be able to resist and stand your ground on the evil day [of danger], and, having done all [the crisis demands], to stand [firmly in your place]. Stand therefore [hold your ground], . . . (Ephesians 6:11-14, Amplified; emphasis added)

The habits, the Christian disciplines, involved in putting on God’s armor make us “strong in the Lord” (verse 10) so that, when (not if) the day of evil comes, the time when we are attacked and severely tried, we may stand our ground. The image is one of purely defensive warfare. At the same time, one of the reasons we are called “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) is surely that what we have gained in Christ can never be lost to a counterattack, requiring reconquest. We can rejoice that we stand in grace through Christ, by faith (Romans 5:2).(2)

We have “taken our stand” on the Gospel and its truths (1 Corinthians 15:1). So to the Galatians, who dream of adding Law to grace, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, RSV; emphasis added).

Standing is linked with ideas and images of steadiness, steadfastness, stability, and being established. After assuring us at length that our Christian hope is sure — that Christ has been raised, and our bodies too shall be taken up into life — Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, RSV; emphasis added; see also Colossians 1:23). Because we stand in hope, we can resist discouragement.

The Steadfast God

We are able to stand only because we have been created in the image of a God who stands fast and stands over. At the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud “stood behind” the Israelites, screening them from Egypt’s army through a long night (Exodus 14:19-20; compare Numbers 14:14). The Lord has established His faithfulness (Psalm 89:2), His throne (Psalm 93:2), and the earth (Psalm 119:90); and He alone can establish us. The Hebrew word aman can mean to stand fast, to be established, and to believe, and these are all related. Abraham believes God (Genesis 15:16), and later it can be said that the Lord found his heart faithful (Nehemiah 9:8). Through young Samuel comes the promise, “I will raise up for Myself a faithful (aman) priest, . . . I will firmly establish (aman) his house” (1 Samuel 2:35, NIV). Isaiah warns, “If you will not believe (aman), surely you shall not be established (aman)” (Isaiah 7:9, KJV; compare 2 Chronicles 20:20).

In a way, it sounds good when Eliphaz solemnly declares that the Lord places no trust (aman) in anyone, even the angels (Job 4:18; 15:15). What a high view of His holiness! But this is an instance of Eliphaz failing to speak what is right about Him (Job 42:8). For the truth is far more glorious: He makes us trustworthy. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). When we are weak, He stands by us, strengthening us so that we can stand (Acts 23:11; 2 Timothy 4:17).

It is in Christ — in faith and sufferings like His — that we stand firm (Philippians 4:1). Therefore, we stand together: we “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind . . .” (Philippians 1:27, RSV). We stand by faith (2 Corinthians 1:24; Romans 11:20), and this can be precarious: “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, RSV). By grace we can be steadfast and resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9); we can even “strengthen and establish” one another (Luke 22:32, Amplified).

Among these texts, one is a personal favorite. During a difficult period, fearful of missing God’s direction, I was dismayed by the apostle’s summary stating that he had written “encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it” (1 Peter 5:12, NIV; emphasis added). Which “this” did he mean? This what? Then it struck me: THIS. All this, the totality of the circumstances in which I’ve been placed. Stand fast, and trust. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace . . . [will] establish and ground you securely, and strengthen (and settle) you” (1 Peter 5:10, Amplified).

Eleazar and Shammah

What does it look like to take a stand? Two of David’s Mighty Men provide helpful portraits:

Next to him was Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite. As one of the three mighty men, he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim for battle. Then the men of Israel retreated, but he stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only to strip the dead.

Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel’s troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:9-12, NIV; emphasis added)

To begin with Shammah, allow me to make a scientific observation: Lentils! Really? My wife sometimes makes lentil soup, and I turn up my nose at it, or gently inquire whether anyone has yet discovered the antidote. Were I in Shammah’s place, I would hand over the field, purely as a matter of strategy, hoping that those nasty beans would make the Philistines as sick and disgusted as they have made me. I’ll be down the street, defending the barbecue joint.

The point is, Shammah’s decision isn’t rational. The lentil field isn’t a military vantage point. It’s not even his land. One might risk death to defend one’s own farm; failing that, one might take one’s stand in the gates of Jerusalem, the city chosen by the Lord as a place for His Name to dwell; better yet, one might cede the city gates, and draw one’s line at the Temple. But Shammah chooses an arbitrary plot of ground. Something rises up in him, a sense that enough is enough.

This isn’t simply anger. People who have been given a gift of faith, and have made a stand, sometimes say afterwards that they got mad at the devil. I have never found this to be productive; rather, as James 1:20 warns, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (RSV). Neither is it stubbornness, for Shammah is not trying to prove a point, and it’s not himself that he is asserting. The Spirit of God stirs up in him a settled determination. He will not quit, give up, or run away.

Turning to Eleazar, we see what such a decision can cost, even if one lives: “his hand . . . froze to the sword.” The Hebrew is dabaq, “cleaved,” the same word used of a husband and wife cleaving and becoming one (Genesis 2:24).(3) Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the verb is used of people holding tight to God (Deuteronomy 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Joshua 22:5; 23:8; 2 Kings 18:6) or to others — Shechem to Dinah (Genesis 34:31), Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), the men of Judah to David (2 Samuel 20:2), Solomon to foreign women (1 Kings 11:2), one good friend to another (Proverbs 18:24); it also describes an unnatural attachment of sin to our hands (Deuteronomy 13:17; Job 31:7) or of disease to our bodies (Deuteronomy 28:60; 2 Kings 5:27; Deuteronomy 28:21). Affliction causes one’s soul to cleave to the dust (Psalm 119:25).

Eleazar’s hand fuses or freezes. Perhaps oil or warm water will soften it, restoring suppleness; perhaps he makes a full recovery. Or he may be permanently disabled and disfigured. At the very least, making a stand has probably ruined him for certain other pursuits. You won’t find him playing the piano or working the loom.

The stands we take may ruin us for other things. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, his hip was put out of joint, but he held on, declaring, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26, NIV). I think it was Jim Goll who said that Jacob failed to recognize that he had already been blessed, because up to that point in his life he had always run away when things got difficult. From this night forward, he limped (Genesis 32:31), but he also stood.

First and foremost, we are called to stand in prayer. The Lord looks for people to “build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land” (Ezekiel 22:30, NIV; emphasis added). The watchers on the wall are to call on the Lord day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest, “till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7, NIV; emphasis added). Abraham, Moses, and Aaron stood in the breach to intercede (Genesis 18:22; Psalm 106:23; Numbers 16:48; compare Exodus 17:9), and Habakkuk took his stand on a tower, watching till the Lord should answer (Habakkuk 2:1).

What would it mean if we took this calling seriously? What if we were ruined for anything else, if our hands froze to the sword, if we became the prayer?

It begins with a settled determination, the declaration of God Himself that the Philistines have wrought enough destruction, and that the tide must be turned. We stand in the foolishness of a field of trampled lentils, steadfast and immovable, in faith and hope and a fierce joy.

(1) See, for example, Matthew 2:13-15; 10:23; 2 Corinthians 11:33; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22.
(2) In his classic discussion of Ephesians, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), Watchman Nee says well, “We do not try to gain ground; we merely stand on the ground which the Lord Jesus has gained for us, and resolutely refuse to be moved from it” (67). But I think Nee earlier (42-45) goes too far in insisting that we never attack, never fight for victory. Even though it is the Lord who fights for us, sometimes we are called to “stand” by marching forward (2 Chronicles 20:13-21; Exodus 14:13-15). Nee is commenting on Ephesians, yet right in 6:19-20 Paul speaks of his work as an ambassador: marching out, invading enemy territory, not as a warrior but as one proclaiming the peace that has been made.
(3) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 37, notes that the modern Hebrew word for “glue” derives from dabaq.

Can We Forget God?

Before her death, I watched my mother grope through the fog of Alzheimer’s. She lost names and concepts, aspects of present awareness, and whole stretches of past experience. She was still herself, although more subdued, more querulous, and more childlike; she retained the ability to recognize family members. Had she lived longer, much more might have slipped away.

Many of us have loved ones who struggle with dementia, brain injury, or other intellectual disabilities. It is often difficult to gauge what they remember or understand. Among other things, if we are believers, we can’t help wondering about their grasp of the gospel.

It is probably good for us to wonder, since our faith is both less and more intellectual than we often think. Alone among the world’s major religions, Christianity is not essentially a book to read or a rule to follow, but a Person to know, and He seeks us out, whatever our capacities. And yet He usually comes speaking, and His words are life (John 6:63). In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the seed is the word of God (Luke 11:11), and the good ground receives and retains it. His teachings, promises, and commandments are our guide and our protection: “I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). What happens, then, when we cannot remember and reflect on these words?

The Storehouse of Memory

In the Bible, human memory is described as a treasury or a storehouse. God’s Wisdom promises to fill the treasuries of those who love her, particularly with riches of insight and understanding (Proverbs 8:21; 2:1-4). But this is not an inert deposit: the servant who buries his talent in the ground is condemned (Matthew 25:25-27). Nor are these truths simply for show: King Hezekiah is wrong to give the Babylonians a tour of his storehouses (2 Kings 20:12-18). These are supplies to be distributed (Nehemiah 13:12-13), like a daily food allowance (Luke 12:42). God’s words are to be kept in our hearts and ready on our lips (Proverbs 22:17-18). For when we don’t remember, we rebel (Psalm 106:7, 13).

There is an intellectual component to our participation in filling the storehouse. Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 says that the human teacher of wisdom “set in order many proverbs,” stated in “just the right words.” Similarly, modern cognitive psychology suggests that we remember best information that we have “chunked” or organized.

Yet, Biblically, remembering is never merely an intellectual process. Faith (“the fear of the Lord”) is the key to the treasury (Isaiah 33:6). Our memory may be jogged by a blue tassel worn for this purpose (Numbers 15:39), by the crowing of a rooster (Matthew 26:74-75), or by bread and wine. Habits may help, as, for Israel, the annual round of sabbaths and festivals reenacted the mighty acts of God.

Forgetting God and His words is not just loss of information or thinking about something else; it is allowing other experiences to crowd out the memory and the awareness of His steadfast love. The prophets say that Israel “forgets” the Lord when she chases idols, acting like an unfaithful spouse (Hosea 2:13; Jeremiah 23:27). There is a visual dimension, an “out of sight, out of mind” quality: “You have forgotten Me and thrust Me behind your back” (Ezekiel 23:35). Senses are dulled (2 Peter 1:9) and minds are confused, disoriented: “My people have been lost sheep; . . . They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place” in God (Jeremiah 50:6). This forgetting is not a matter of intellectual decay or disability but of moral corruption.

And this raises the hope that remembering, too, may have a moral or spiritual dimension.

A Thousand Tongues

I have had occasion to reflect on this. In 2010, my wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. The operation went well, but that night there was bleeding in the brain; she suffered a stroke, and went into a coma. Four days later, she awoke with severe aphasia. Initially she wasn’t speaking any intelligible words at all, and she didn’t understand what others said. She didn’t recognize her sisters or me; mostly, she looked agitated and afraid.

My faith seemed weak and inadequate, my prayers ineffective. Mostly out of desperation, I booted up her laptop and played Christian songs. I hoped that familiar music might at least be reassuring to her.

All at once, she began singing a different tune. I rushed to mute the computer, and listened. What she could produce for lyrics sounded like “Waa waa,” but the melody was unmistakable. I had been playing contemporary worship songs, but she was singing an old hymn, not on the laptop:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace. . . .

Charles Wesley’s words were remarkably appropriate for someone who had lost her language. Lacking even one tongue to voice her pain and fear, my wife longed for a thousand in order to praise her God. And we did, right there in neurological intensive care. She smiled, and conducted with the arm she could move. And I saw that she was still a worshiper of God.

How much did she remember in that hour? I don’t know, because she doesn’t remember the event at all. Her stroke was severe enough to be classified as a traumatic brain injury, and she still has trouble finding the right words. Her recollections of the initial recovery period are pretty fuzzy.

But I can’t help thinking that the hours she spent in worship through the years deposited treasures in her storehouse. Even damage to the brain couldn’t take these away, for she had “sown to the spirit” (Galatians 6:8), not merely to the intellect. She had no words to call on His name, and yet He quickened a memory.

Perhaps this is not the precise experience of every believer, but one way, or another, we each can say, “When I awake, I am still with You” (Psalm 139:18).

How We Remember God

As a young Christian, I kept searching for some new teaching that would settle me, organize me, turn me at last into a good disciple. Then I was struck by the wisdom of Samuel Johnson’s observation (Rambler 21): “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” I didn’t need to scale new mountains, but to return to the manger, the Cross, and the empty tomb.

The Bible devotes considerable space to reminding. Paul says he’s written “as if to remind” his readers of some basic truths (Romans 15:15). Peter calls both of his letters “reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking,” and promises to continue issuing reminders as long as he lives (2 Peter 3:1-2; 1:12-15). John writes, “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). Part of the Holy Spirit’s work in us is to bring Jesus’ words to our remembrance (John 14:26).

We need constant reminders because the great truths of the faith are too big for our minds (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Person of Christ), too terrible for our flesh (sin, God’s wrath, hell, the Cross), and too good to be true (grace, forgiveness, the Father’s love, our hope). These truths are elusive; they slip away from us. “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1). “Stop listening to instruction . . . and you will stray” (Proverbs 19:27). In Jesus’ words, “Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matthew 25:29).

But to remember is much more than an intellectual review of topics.

The Remembering God

Although God promises never to forget His people (Isaiah 49:15), the Bible indicates that there are specific occasions when He remembers them. This remembering is never simply a matter of well-wishing or thinking fond thoughts. Rather, when God remembers someone, He acts on their behalf. “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1) — and sent a wind so that the waters would recede and the ark would come to rest. “God remembered Rachel” (Genesis 30:22) — and opened her womb, taking away her disgrace and bringing Joseph into the world. The God who remembers His people and His promises softens judgment with mercy and delivers from bondage (Psalm 106:45-46; 105:42-43), so that one of the great prayers is simply, “Remember me, O Lord” (Psalm 106:4-5).

When Jesus was on the Cross, one of the thieves crucified with Him said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He wasn’t asking for a pious thought or a moment of silence. Somehow he had faith to believe that the wretched man dying beside him was the Son of God, the divinely appointed King, and he begged, “Show mercy to me, cover me with Your royal favor, pardon my offenses.” Jesus understood, and in His agony replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” It was as if He said, “I am a King already; I do remember you now; and you are safe in Me.” Jesus remembered, and He acted.

Created in God’s image, we also are made to act when we remember. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and to Timothy that he “continually” and “constantly” remembered them, and, every time he thought of them, he prayed for them. He literally remembered them in prayer (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2 Timothy 1:3).

In a ruined city, surrounded by the corpses of his countrymen, Jeremiah or one of his contemporaries writes, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.” But he stops; he turns; by faith he summons a different, distant memory: “Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:19-23). Remembering the character of God, he hopes in Him, and resolves to wait on Him.

In Remembrance of Him

When we come to the Lord’s table, Jesus tells us, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). We can think devout thoughts, eat and drink, and go away unchanged. But this is not Biblical remembrance. We can grieve, yet again, over our sins, but Hebrews 10:3 says that one of the flaws of the Old Testament sacrifices, which had to be repeated over and over, was that they served only as a “reminder of sins.” Jesus’ greater sacrifice, and His resurrection, should remind us of grace and power and hope.

To remember is to act: we sit again in the upper room, we stand once more at the Cross; we submit to our place in Jesus’ body, and we receive His cup of suffering. Paul urged Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ” and, in doing so, draw strength to endure (2 Timothy 2:8, 1, 10-12). We act by confessing our sins (1 John 1:9) and then receiving “power through His Spirit in [our] inner being” (Ephesians 3:16) so that we break with those sins and, “in Christ,” overcome them. We act by bending low, in His image, to take up our cross once more (Luke 9:23).

Yet we do not merely act in Jesus’ name. He has warned us that many who call Him “Lord” and do great deeds in His name will not enter the kingdom; He will say to them, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). It’s not that He has forgotten them; they were never in His memory. He remembers those who obey Him by believing and by acting in His love (John 6:29; Matthew 25:31-46).

“Remember me with favor, O my God” (Nehemiah 13:31).