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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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.”