Recently my daughter Natasha was watching a drama on TV in which the protagonist was offered the chance to have her memory erased so that she had no recollection of some bad stuff that had just been happening. I didn’t stay in the room to see what happened, so I don’t know what choice she made! However, it did get me thinking. Like everyone else, I have my share of good and bad memories. Suppose I could have all the bad ones erased. Would I want to?
I thought back over some of the things that have happened in my life. Among the small frustrations and what Shakespeare called the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” some stand out as being particularly distressing. Being kidnapped by a soldier from Kneller Hall on my way home from school at the age of 13 (and only by the grace of God escaping with my life). Going into labour months early and giving birth at 27 weeks. Being told my daughter Ellen would never walk and probably didn’t have the intelligence ever to learn any speech (I wish that doctor could see her now, writing words into search engines on the computer, and hear her reading the results!) And some more recent traumas which have left me with flashbacks and nightmares, although as time goes on these are lessening.
Suppose all of those things could vanish from my conscious and subconscious mind, leaving only the happy memories? Is that something I would want? As I pondered the question, it didn’t take me long to reach a very decisive answer. These things have shaped who I am today, and no, I wouldn’t want to forget them. They have been the means of learning just how dependable and unfailing God is, in the middle of a world of uncertainty and insecurity.
For example, I remember the summer of 1996. Ellen, at the age of 12, had just undergone major surgery. The curvature of her spine had become so acute that it was putting pressure on her heart, lungs and stomach. Her breathing was laboured and inefficient, she was pitifully thin from being unable to eat very much and, the doctors told us, she was at imminent risk of heart failure. The operation was very risky and even as I signed the consent form, I was aware that I might well be agreeing to the means of her death. She survived the operation, but it damaged some of the nerves to the lower half of her body. She could no longer crawl, losing her only means of independent mobility, and her legs were greatly weakened, making it hard for her to weight bear even long enough for us to pull up her trousers. But most distressing of all, just as she was becoming a young lady and I was taking her out to buy her first bras, she became doubly incontinent and went back into nappies.
As I grappled with my feelings about all this, I went to talk it over with my pastor. He wisely listened without saying much, allowed me to offload all my feelings and then prayed with me. I went home and switched on the cassette player in my kitchen. The first song that came up was “My Jesus, my Saviour”. A phrase from the song leapt out at me: “My comfort, my shelter, tower of refuge and strength”. As I heard those words I had an almost tangible, physical sensation of being wrapped around and around in the comfort of God. The presence of Jesus was so very manifest there in my kitchen, and I suddenly understood something for the first time in my life: it’s worth absolutely anything we go through just to know that our comfort comes from Jesus. Because if we were never in need of comforting, there’s a whole facet of the character of Jesus that we would never experience, and no price is too high to pay to touch those depths of God and experience His love and care.
Then in 2010, after much prayer and agonising, it became clear that it was time to leave a relationship that had become very damaging. God provided temporary accommodation miraculously for Natasha and me. I found a suitable (albeit tiny) bungalow, but the estate agent told me the landlord was a hard-headed businessman who would never accept me as a tenant because my income wasn’t adequate for the rent. I was completely at peace about this because I had been praying, “If I’m doing the wrong thing, stop me”. The next day the estate agent told me the landlord had signed a waiver allowing me to move in even though I couldn’t give any financial guarantees. When I asked why, what was in it for him, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “We don’t know, he just said he would!” My salary just covered rent, food and travel to work but nothing else at all and throughout the year we were there God provided miraculously for us again and again. I started out sleeping on a bit of foam on the floor, but was then given 2 excellent quality beds, one of them brand new; I was down to my last £90 and found out that a friend who had died over a year earlier had left me £500 in her will; a pastor’s wife came to visit and left me a gift of £100, I had an anonymous gift of £600 and when I ran out of money about 6 weeks before the end of my tenancy I got a tax rebate of £650! When I was a child my parents had made a lifestyle choice to give up a secure and well paid job to work for a Christian charity which involved them having to trust God to provide for their financial needs, and throughout my childhood I had witnessed His provision for our family again and again. But that had been my parents’ faith. Now I was having an opportunity to experience His faithfulness at first hand.
So would I erase the memories of everything bad that has happened? Would I forget what it is to be desperately in need of comfort and receive it from Jesus himself? Would I forget the adventure of faith that cast me completely on God for provision? Would I relinquish the inner strength that has come from surviving painful events and coming out stronger, closer to God and more reliant on Him? Not me, I would have pressed the “No” button if I’d been the girl in that TV drama.
A quick search in Bible Gateway reveals that the word “remember” occurs 210 times in the Bible. The phrase “forget not” occurs 8 times. It seems that remembering the past is important to God, but why? Certainly not to dwell on it and wallow in the pain. There seem to be two things that are important in these scriptures. Firstly, to remember our own tendency to stray from God, and how some of the apparently bad things that have happened to us have actually been His loving way of drawing us back to Himself: “Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good. So obey the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him.” (Deuteronomy 8. 2-6) And secondly, to remember the terrible plight we were in and then celebrate how God rescued us from it. This in turn will remind us to treat others with the justice and compassion we have received: “There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free. When you release a servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you! That is why I am giving you this command.” (Deuteronomy 15. 11-15)
But there is also something which God tells us not to remember: “You will no longer remember the shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood. For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth. For the Lord has called you back from your grief—as though you were a young wife abandoned by her husband, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will take you back. In a burst of anger I turned my face away for a little while. But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.” (Isaiah 54. 4-8) All those memories which we are to recall and not forget, have had the sting drawn from them. God has understood the depth of pain and abandonment we have at times felt, but He wants us to leave behind the shame and the grief. We don’t forget all that has happened to us, and we certainly don’t forget God’s amazing care and faithfulness which have shone like the sun throughout those dark moments. But we don’t hold on to the negative feelings which accompanied those times, because we have something to celebrate – God has redeemed us, transformed us and turned our lives around. He has exchanged our spirit of despair and heaviness for a garment of praise.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle. (Psalm 103. 1-5)