Memory is not only a wonderful faculty; it is essential to life. Supposing your memory failed completely. You would not know who you were, where you lived, or who your relatives were. You would not know how to drive or what medication you were on.
By the mercies of God, few lose their memory totally. However, none of us remember everything we should, especially when it comes to exams! Similarly, Christians are not exempt from forgetfulness. Yet much of our spiritual life depends on memory.
For example, faith depends on memory. Faith comes by hearing a message (Romans 10:17) so we must remember something of that message (the gospel) if our faith is to be genuine.
In fact, memory plays a vital part in our Christian life, even though we may not always be conscious of it. Let us look at three specific areas where memory is important.
Coping with trials
Firstly, memory will help us cope with trials. The author of Psalm 77 was having a real struggle because he was going through hard times. It almost seemed that God had forsaken him. ‘Has his unfailing love vanished forever?’ he cries: ‘Has God forgotten to be merciful?’ (vv. 8-9).
He seems to plunge deeper and deeper into the pit of despair. However, one thing saves him from being swallowed up – he remembers the deeds of the Lord. He remembers God’s miracles of long ago (v. 11).
He thinks about the great events recorded in Scripture, when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Red Sea (vv. 14-18). The God who worked so powerfully on behalf of his people will not forsake them now.
He who brought them out of Egypt can bring them up from the pit of despair. He who parted the Red Sea and went before them, will lead them still. He who provided manna in the desert will provide for his people all they need.
Few of us are exempt from worry and fear. When things go wrong, or take an unexpected turn, we are quick to ask: ‘Where is God in all this?’ Perhaps there are times when we feel that the Lord has abandoned us. There are occasions when our prayers seem to go unanswered and we feel desolate.
What do we do at such times? Well, remembering God’s former mercies can be very helpful. Contemplating God’s great acts recorded in the Bible can be very encouraging. The God who delivered Israel from Egypt is with us today.
The God who saved Daniel from the lions can deliver us if he wants to. The God who enabled the apostle Paul to be content even in prison can give us peace in our own trials (Philippians 4:11-12).
But, closer to home, do we only see God’s faithfulness in the Bible? Have we not experienced it many times ourselves? We are so prone to focus on present hard times that we lose sight of the many occasions when the Lord has sustained us in difficulties.
Past blessings are obscured by the things that seem bad when they happen. We need to look back and remember what God has done before; to think about former answers to prayer and contemplate previous times of deliverance.
We should ‘remember the deeds of the Lord’ (Psalm 77:11).
Pleasing the Lord
Secondly, memory will show us what pleases God. Those of us who have raised children will remember times when they disobeyed and, when challenged, said: ‘I forgot’.
We can be guilty of the same attitude towards the Lord. We know that certain things are required of the Christian, but somehow we forget to do them. For example, we know we should pray regularly, but when we are under pressure it is easy to forget about prayer.
We know that gambling is covetousness but when offered a cheap lottery ticket we forgot about covetousness and bought it. We could multiply examples.
The remedy is to remember what the Lord has said in his Word. The Israelites were told to ‘remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy’ (Exodus 20:8). When tempted to harvest their crops on a Sabbath because rain was expected the next day, they were to remember God’s command.
Under the Old Covenant, the Lord’s goodness was dependent on his people remembering his commands. The Lord’s love and righteousness were ‘with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts’ (Psalm 103:17-18). How much more should we who ‘know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 8:9) remember his commandments to do them!
Knowing the Bible
We might make the excuse that we do not know the Bible well enough to understand what God requires of us. The answer is quite simple – get reading!
The more we know of Scripture, the more we will remember what pleases the Lord. That does not mean that a new Christian who hardly knows the Bible is at a disadvantage.
New converts usually put us to shame with their zeal to read and understand the Bible, and their sensitivity of conscience keeps them from many pitfalls. The Lord is patient with young Christians and often sets a hedge around them. But there is no excuse for more mature Christians to be ignorant of Scripture.
Another way in which memory helps us to be obedient is by reminding us of those who have failed the Lord. ‘Remember Lot’s wife’, warns Jesus (Luke 17:32).
The Bible reminds us of the dangers of sin, and that some of God’s people have failed badly. Lot’s wife may not have been a true believer, but she provides a solemn reminder that God is not to be trifled with.
The work of Christ
Thirdly, every time we partake of the Lord’s table we are exercising the faculty of memory. Jesus told his disciples to take the bread and wine ‘in remembrance of me’ (1 Corinthians 11:24).
As evangelical Christians we reject the notion that works and ritual contribute to our salvation, stressing that salvation is by grace through faith. But the fact remains that there are two rituals that Christians perform – baptism (which takes place just once) and the Lord’s table (which we observe regularly until Christ returns).
The Lord’s supper is an act of remembrance. It is a regular reminder that Christ died to save us from our sins. Why is this so important? Because we are prone to forget what it cost Christ to secure our salvation.
We remember the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation centres on a person – God’s dear Son. To remember means that we must have former knowledge, since we cannot remember what we have never known. Only one who has true experiential knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ can legitimately come to the table.
We remember Christ’s person and work. He is the Creator. He made heaven and earth, yet he stooped to take our humanity and entered this sin-cursed world. He did not come with great pomp, but with amazing humility.
As we take the bread and wine we remember that he lived on earth, enduring great opposition until finally he was crucified. He purchased our salvation by shedding his blood and rose again to declare his people justified (Romans 4:25).
Why should we remember?
Remember, for one thing because it is commanded: ‘Do this’, he said. If we neglect to observe the Lord’s Table we are disobeying Christ.
Also, it encourages qualities that are vital for the Christian life; for example, humility. Most of us are plagued with pride but we cannot be proud when we consider Calvary. The only thing we contributed to the cross was the sin that crucified our Lord.
Remembering Christ’s death should also produce joy. We are saddened and humbled to think of his sufferings, but at the same time we are filled with joy when we realise that his death has brought us salvation. Our sins are forgiven. We have eternal life. And one day we shall see Jesus face to face.
We should also be filled with love for him who first loved us. If we had been saved from drowning, we would be grateful to our rescuer as long as we lived. How much greater is the salvation that Christ has given us!
Alas, our love easily grows cold, and a contemplation of his dying love should warm our hearts again. It should also lead us to be more obedient. Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If you love me you will obey what I command’ (John 14:15).
Memory, then, is a faculty we must use. Remembering is not automatic, we have to work at it. May God help us to put our memories to good use – for our good and his glory