The Spiritual Discipline of Remembrance
WORDS BY SARAH URBAN
People tell me regularly that I have an abnormally adept memory. Not anything freaky—just enough to be dangerous. I remember leaving Disney World with my family. I sat in my stroller and wore a light pink fleece zipped up to my chin. I held a balloon in my right hand; it stuck straight up and trailed a tad behind me as we moved away from the magic of the park. I chewed on the string because, well, as a two-year-old, what else was there to do? Before I knew it, I held a limp piece of string and tilted my chin to stare at the balloon ascending into the sky. That memory is silly and small, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first one I have. I remember it vividly. I remember feeling sad that my balloon floated away, and I remember not understanding why such a thing happened.I suppose the ability to recall memories easily is entertaining and interesting, though, I never considered it particularly valuable. But last year, as I studied the Bible and mulled over some of its themes, I noticed a pattern of remembrance embedded throughout all of scripture—emphasized from Genesis to Revelation. So, I began implementing remembrance in my routine. It was an opportunity to grieve and to hope, to be humbled and calmed. Typically, sabbath, prayer, fasting, and worship get all the focus, but remembrance also serves as an integral spiritual discipline. The whole of Deuteronomy 1-11 communicates the overall idea and practice, but Deuteronomy 4:9 sums it all up nicely:
“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children.”
It’s clear that this practice is not a trendy tip, but a command. Contextually, Moses is speaking to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land. He cannot go with them, so he offers a crash course of their history and reiterates the law as a last-ditch effort to encourage and educate them before he dies. He urges them to remember who they are, where they came from and how they’ve seen God work. Later on in the chapter, Moses persists:
“Now search all of history, from the time God created people on the earth until now, and search from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything as great as this ever been seen or heard before? . . . He showed you these things so you would know that the Lord is God and there is no other. He let you hear his voice from heaven so he could instruct you . . . So remember this and keep it firmly in mind: The Lord is God both in heaven and on earth, and there is no other . . .” (Deut. 4:32; 35-36; 39 NLT)
God worked miraculously throughout the origin and expansion of the Israelites, and Moses wants the people to acknowledge what has happened. He explains that their memory of these wonders translates into faith; their knowledge of God’s impact solidifies and justifies their trust in Him moving forward.
As I processed the push in my own heart to remember, I questioned whether or not it was necessary. At times it is painful and feels pointless, and especially because I intentionally remember two stories: the Bible and my own. It is vital to have knowledge and understanding of the Biblical narrative if we are to pattern our lives after Christ. Yet, it is equally as vital to sit amidst our own history. My life itself is a testament to God’s work and faithfulness. So, I challenged the part of me that wondered why this practice is so important. And then, I realized.
By remembering what God did I can more clearly see who He is.
By remembering my mistakes and the ones made by the characters in the Bible, I can grieve the sin that runs rampant in humanity. By remembering the sin and assumed safety in circumstance, I am humbled and reminded of my need for a Savior. By remembering the joyous and healthy seasons I’ve experienced, I can sit in awe, even if those blessings are around no longer. And by remembering what God promised humanity from the beginning of time, I can rest knowing I am secure.
This practice engages every part of my personhood and continually draws my eyes away from the world—from the I did it all by myself and the why is this happening to me, and directs them back toward the Father.
EXAMPLES OF REMEMBRANCE IN SCRIPTURE
When I began carving out time to be quiet and focus on remembering, my starting place was always Deuteronomy. But the practice and demand to remember are present throughout the whole length of the Scriptures—far beyond the Torah.
Soon after Moses instructs the Israelites, Joshua leads them across the Jordan River and urges the people to build a memorial in remembrance of what happened on that day. “In the future your children will ask, ‘what do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the river on dry ground,’” (Josh. 4:21-22). Remembering the event that took place upon entrance into the Promised Land helps the people internalize God’s provision and His powerful hand (Josh. 4:24).
The book of Joshua operates from a perspective of remembrance, yet, Judges, the book that immediately follows, sees torment as a result of forgetfulness. The people had made their way into the Promised Land and were told to drive out those who were already residing there. But over and over, we read that the tribes of Israel failed to do so—they did not remember their call (Judg. 1:19-36).
Then, the Israelite generation that first populated the land died, and “another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things He had done for Israel,” (Judg. 2:10). Judges is a horrific tragedy. It is a view of the colossal failure on Israel’s part to drive out evil and purge themselves of idolatry. They continually disobey; they revert back to pagan worship and they choose their own way over God’s will. They see destruction because they forgot.
THE POWER OF REMEMBRANCE
I am also guilty of forgetting often. Every time I allow fear to lead me into irrational thinking, I’ve forgotten. Every time I hold the approval of others higher than the approval of God, I’ve forgotten. Every time I try to muscle my own way to the top, I’ve forgotten. I forget what God’s voice sounds like, my discernment tanks and I feel like I’m underground in an avalanche without the awareness of which way is up or down. When I forget, I give the enemy room to feed me lies. It isn’t until I remember again that I can find my way back to the Father.
In the book “Holy Spirit Power”, Charles Spurgeon writes about different characteristics of the Holy Spirit—one of which is our Comforter.
“It is not by any new revelation that the Spirit comforts,” writes Spurgeon. “He does so by telling us old things over again. He brings a fresh lamp to manifest the treasures hidden in Scripture. He unlocks the strong chests where the truth had long been, and he points to secret chambers filled with untold riches. However, he mints no new coins, for enough is done. There is enough in the Bible for you to live on forever.”
Spurgeon argues that remembrance is the ultimate form of comfort and that God never gives any new knowledge but instead only fixes and makes fresh in our mind what He’s already done.
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
The most common participation in remembrance happens when taking communion. Jesus lifted the bread and the cup and said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” (Luke 22:19). Still, the gravity of this act of truly remembering is lost on so many.
When I sit down and consider remembrance in my own life, I often start with big chunks of time: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Other times, I sort by seasons of faith, locations or community. But usually, I focus on one particular relationship, time period or event. I like to be both specific and deliberate. I remember conversations, actions, and thoughts, and all the other things wrapped up in a particular moment or season. Then, I let myself feel all the feelings attached to that memory, whether it be elation, hurt, indifference or anger. I think through who I was in those moments and what my headspace was like. It is so important to sit with the emotions and not try to erase them. Next, I step back and recognize God’s hand in the entire scenario. I notice the significance of that memory in the greater timeline of my life and I recognize how God has since changed me or my circumstances. Depending on the instance, I can lament or be joyous, yet always I can be thankful.
THE PATTERN OF REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING
Remembrance is one of the clearest themes to me in the entire Bible. Once I noticed it and started paying more attention, I saw it everywhere in my Bible reading. Eve forgot and it cost the future of humanity. Abraham and Sarah remembered, forgot and remembered again. Aaron forgot. Ruth remembered. Hannah remembered and stood by her word. David forgot, slept with Bathsheba, killed Uriah, and then remembered again. Nehemiah remembered and pleaded with God on behalf of his people. Daniel remembered and was kept safe in the lion’s den. Mary remembered. Peter forgot.
In Acts 7, Stephen—a man full of faith, grace, power and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5, 6:8)—addresses the Jewish leaders who accused him of blasphemy. Stephen recounts Israel’s history, from Abraham to Moses to David. He remembered God’s strong hand and provision and used the truth of what God has done to stand against those who were persecuting him.
Our own lives, and the lives of those in the Bible are a constant cycle of remembering and forgetting, back and forth.
Sometimes, as I’m thinking back to something specific, I say “I remember” out loud. And when I repent my sin, I’ll often say “I forgot.”
I think the only appropriate response to remembrance is praise, followed by obedience. We can honor God by remembering Him, telling Him so, and then displaying our acknowledgment and thankfulness by obeying His Word and walking in His will. No other response ever seems adequate to me after I’ve truly spent time recognizing the mark of God all over my life and the lives of those in Scripture. Naturally, my desires begin to align with His because I trust Him all the more.
So, pray with me, that as followers of Jesus, we would remember Scripture — what God did for those in the Bible, as well as what He promised His people. May we also remember and give thanks for our own history — for both the sweet and sour times — and view it as a living example of God’s work and grace. May we not forget, neither when our circumstances are poor or rich (2 Cor. 4:8-10, Deut. 8:11). And, may our remembrance translate into praise and obedience.
“Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land." (Ps. 143:4-6)