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).

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The Sin I’d Never Commit

My wife is recovering from a stroke. It is a good and hopeful process, but the path is pocked with frustrations. One of the smaller ones is that I get accused of things.

A medication causes my wife’s skin to bruise easily, and a visual problem results in frequent collisions with furniture. A social worker, well-meaning if overzealous, saw marks on her arms and jumped to the conclusion that I must be hitting her. Neither her denials nor mine were accepted. Instead, I was told that, if the bruises continued, I would go to jail.

Despite better things to do and much to be thankful for, I wasted some energy in sputtering indignation and resentment. And then I very nearly lived up to the labels placed on me.

A stroke can strip away layers of self-restraint. Doctors speak of “disinhibition,” but sometimes it is more like a child’s tantrum. On one particularly bad day, when a scene went on and on, something snapped in me. I grabbed my wife’s wrists and yelled “Stop it!” several times. She was terrified.

How does one come back from such an ugly, sinful outburst? I tried to justify myself, but the rationalizations sounded lame even to my ears. So I confessed my sin to God and to my pastor. I apologized to my wife. I tried to retreat more quickly when tempers flared. And, eventually, I read a statement by a godly man.

Capable of Violence

Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic who has devoted his life to serving, and learning from, people with severe intellectual disabilities. He founded the first L’Arche (“The Ark”) community in France in 1964; today there are 145 in 40 countries (see http://www.larche.org/discover/larche-since-its-creation/).

In Befriending the Stranger (2010), Vanier describes Lucien, a man unable to speak. Disoriented and afraid when he was brought to L’Arche, he resorted to constant screaming. A calming touch or gentle words served only to increase his anguish. Listening, Vanier writes, “I could sense anger, violence, and even hatred rising up within me. I would have been capable of hurting him to keep him quiet.”

At this time, Vanier had been living in the communities for 15 years. He might have concluded that he wasn’t cut out for it. Instead, with profound insight, he suggests that our brothers and sisters who have severe disabilities become our teachers by revealing to us “our inner limits and brokenness,” so that we may live together in a more honest dependence on the God who is our loving Father.

Understandably, we want to set any fence we can between ourselves and sin. But our best resolve and the full force of our disapproval are flimsy barricades. As Paul says, “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands” — who says, “Oh, I would never behave like that” (Living Bible) — “take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The Message adds, “Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”

Consider Peter’s vows to stand by Jesus even if it meant death (Matthew 26:33, 35). Before morning, he denied his Lord three times.

Certainly we can make progress. Peter lived to write about the possibility of never falling (2 Peter 1:10). Paul changed from a merciless and violent man (Galatians 1:13; Acts 9:1) to behaving as gently as a mother with young children (1 Thessalonians 2:7). But we can’t dare to be smug, or to entertain the thought that we’ve arrived (Philippians 3:12-16).

The Power of Defenselessness

In Luke 18:9-14, the self-righteous man is sincere in thanking God that he hasn’t stolen money or committed adultery. He is saying, in effect, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Yet he is not justified in God’s sight; he is really exalting himself, not magnifying grace. In contrast, God hears the flagrant sinner who has the humility to plead only the divine mercy.

The first man in this parable excuses himself by focusing on “especially bad” sins. Some sins may be worse than others, but God’s rating scale isn’t necessarily the same as ours. David is punished less severely for adultery and murder than for the arrogance of numbering his troops (2 Samuel 12:10-14; 24:13-15).

In this life, we never get beyond the position of the second man, confessing our sins (1 John 1:8-10), clutching a holy dread of sinning (Jude 23; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Romans 11:20; 1 Peter 1:17).

When I was accused, I was quick to defend myself. I thought that I was maintaining my integrity and my Christian witness. What if, at least in private, I had seen an opportunity for self-examination, a fresh revelation of my heart, and a deeper confession? “Come to terms quickly with your accuser,” says Jesus (Matthew 5:25). We “come to terms” not through bluster and bravado, but by confessing honestly and pleading the cleansing blood of Jesus.

I am trying to meditate more on Jesus, standing silent. Accused of many things before Pilate and Herod, He “made no reply, not even to a single charge” (Matthew 27:14).

Jesus could have said, accurately, that He had never claimed any authority that wasn’t rightfully His. He never lied; He never stole. But you and I couldn’t say this. And because Jesus was already bearing our sins, or because He refused to distance Himself from us, He kept silent. He stood there, completely defenseless.

In some movies, the actor playing Jesus looks proud during this scene — as if He won’t deign to answer. But it had to be painful for One so innocent and so sensitive to be associated with evil. He bore the stinging shame for us, allowing our sins to be like a gag on His mouth.

If I had been the only sinner, and He had taken my place, He still would have had to stand silent. I am capable of any sin; I am not better than others; apart from Jesus, I can make no claim of heart innocence. Only as I embrace these truths can I live and walk “in Christ.”

The Value of Futility

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 28:29, NIV). This is an apt description of some of us. We have a history of failed relationships, unfulfilling work, abandoned dreams, moral and spiritual defeat. With Job, we can say, “I have been allotted months of futility” (Job7:3); “when I hoped for good, evil came” (30:26).

Yet the Bible says of the righteous man, “Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The verdict “unsuccessful in everything” is part of a long passage describing the curses that come upon those who disobey God. Similarly, a sketch of people who “earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6) applies to those who fail to put God first and give to His work.

Why is it, then, that some of us who love Jesus lead lives characterized by frustration and futility? Does a failure to prosper always indicate that we are walking in disobedience?

Futility’s Many Levels

Taken as a whole, the Bible may be black and white about moral standards but it is faithful to the complexity of human experience. And so statements that the wicked “will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13) do not exhaust its teachings on futility. The poor, simply because they are poor and in a fallen world, also see their plans frustrated (Psalm 14:6).

In fact, God has subjected the entire creation to frustration and futility (Romans 8:20-22). The Lord Almighty has determined that our labor goes for nothing (Habakkuk 2:13). This is a universal experience, above all because we all must die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). “For what futility You have created all men! What man can . . . save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47-48).

In this setting, believers, no less than the most disobedient, are tempted to conclude, “It is futile to serve God” (Malachi 3:14); “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13); “I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). We are tested precisely in this regard. The patriarchs spent their lives wandering (Hebrews 11:8-9). Job lost everything and felt, “. . . my days have no meaning” (Job7:16). David was a fugitive, wondering if his integrity was “useless” (1 Samuel 25:21). Several of the prophets were commissioned specifically to speak to people who wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-10; Ezekiel 2:3-5). Jeremiah recorded one set of prophecies only to have them burned, and another set only to be told to sink it in a river (Jeremiah 36; 45; 51:60-64).

God Himself — whose every word accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:10) — at times expresses frustration. “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction” (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:29). He looks in vain for the righteous (Isaiah 59:15-16; Ezekiel 22:30). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; Isaiah 65:2)

Futility and Hope

God grieves (Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 53:3), yet He does not succumb to despair. Rather, in a wonderful paradox, it is “in hope” that He has subjected creation to futility — hope in the glory that will be revealed when we have despaired of our flesh and put it to death (Romans 8:18-21). He frustrates human wisdom and striving in order that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19).

There is a suspense about our lives. We groan with creation, and grieve with God and neighbors. Like farmers, we sow our seeds of effort and obedience, but may wait a long time for any indication of fruit. Yet because “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; 4:18; Romans 8:24), we continue to hope for a harvest and to trust that our work is not in vain. Sometimes, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), we must resolve to rejoice even in the absence of any prosperity.

We see this tension in Paul. At times he worries that he has wasted his efforts and labored for nothing with some converts (Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16) — that he, or they, might thwart or nullify the grace of God, receiving it in vain (Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 6:1). At other times, he is confident that godliness is profitable (1 Timothy 4:8) and labor fruitful (Philippians 1:22), that our work “in the Lord” is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

If Paul’s confidence occasionally wavers, it’s because he is “hard pressed on every side, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . struck down, . . . We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He compares himself to a broken jar (verse 7). Our English word futile comes from a Latin term meaning leaky or easily poured out. Paul lives with precisely this frustrating inability to retain and accumulate. Yet he refuses to “lose heart” (verses 1, 16) because, by the grace of God, what leaks out of him is “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6).

Paul also reminds us that, no matter who we are, our real work is other people. His converts are his joy and crown (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Philippians 4:1), his boast (2 Corinthians 1:14), the result of his work (1 Corinthians 9:1). If they frustrate him and cause him anxiety, still they are in his heart for life or death (2 Corinthians 7:3): that is, he is so identified with them that his own salvation is bound up with theirs. For their sake, he is willing, not only to leak, but to be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

We are not apostles, but on this point we are not so very different. Wittingly or unwittingly, we all sow into the lives of those around us. People watch us. Some may even be “won over without words” by our behavior (1 Peter 3:1). When we die, they may present evidence of our good works (Acts 9:39).

I sometimes wish that we could retire the phrase “full-time Christian service.” Of course we should honor our leaders, but every believer is a full-time servant of Jesus and of our neighbors. Paul makes this clear when he tells even slaves — who had little freedom to choose how they spent their time — that they are “serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:7; Colossians 3:23). In truth, we are all slaves marching in a procession that honors Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9).

So failure shouldn’t surprise or overwhelm us. I am not called to realize my artistic vision, but to be a vessel shaped by the finger of God. I may never inherit the promises in this life, but I can die still living by faith (Hebrews 11:13). I may never prosper, but I can sow abundantly. I may never proclaim, but I can leak.