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).

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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).