Memory is the deep well from which our sense of self bubbles up and is sustained. A well of happy memories breeds a deep contentment, and fills our world with green pastures of happiness. But bad memories can poison the well. Our inner life can be debilitated by recollections of trauma, embittered by historical injustices, filled with recrimination over past sins, or grief over loss. To be sure, there are some evils which it would be wrong to forget, because justice demands that they be remembered. But poisoned memory can cast a grey pall over everything. Like Jim Carrey’s character in the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind we may wish to be rid of our negative memories, but in the real world repression can be as damaging as remembrance. Worst of all, to be cut off from memory altogether—which is the tragedy of dementia—is to be cast adrift from both self and the world.
So are we tossed helplessly on the tides of memory? Thankfully the answer is no. In an insightful account of his own memories of abuse and trauma the theologian Miroslav Volf puts it this way: “the central question for me was not whether to remember. I most assuredly would remember and most incontestably should remember. Instead, the central question was how to remember rightly.”
The Psalms offer us a masterclass in remembering evils rightly. In a variety of ways and situations, the psalmists hand over memories of trauma and of loss to God. And with God’s help they find a place for those memories within their remembrance of God.
Memories of injustice and trauma in the psalms are often raw and fresh. In Psalm 74, for example, the people stand among the wreckage of the sanctuary, devasted by violence and feeling abandoned by God. They beg God to remember what the enemies have done and destroy them. But then the people stop and take time to remember God’s presence and power in creation, and the promises he made in the past. They place their experience of God’s absence within these memories, and find strength to keep asking for justice.
Cries for vengeance are relatively rare in the psalms, in part because the psalmists are fatally aware of their own sinfulness. The realisation that I, too, am capable of evil makes outrage hard to sustain. In Psalm 31 David is being unjustly persecuted, but his consciousness of sin knocks the wind out of his sails. He has no energy to fight: “My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my guilt, and my bones grow weak” (Ps 31:10). His brief cry for justice gives way to a meditation on God’s love, a love that is no less real for being temporarily hidden: “How abundant are the good things you have stored up for those who fear you” (v. 19). The poet of Lamentations does the same after the fall of Jerusalem, carefully setting the memory of trauma within the memory of God’s character:
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. 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. (Lam 3:19-22)
As with trauma, so it is with memories of loss. Psalm 77 is a model for the reframing of memory. Asaph is in acute distress. His prayers bring no comfort from God, and the memory God’s presence, now lost, is intensely painful:
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. (Ps 77:2-3)
The happiness he once felt wrings from him an anguished series of questions that come to an ironic climax in verse 9:
I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked: … Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion? ”(vv. 5-6, 9)
But at this point he makes a conscious decision to remember God, slowly and carefully.
Then I thought, … I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. (vv. 10-11)
The rest of the psalm is a meditation on God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea. As the poet builds a new frame for his memories of loss he finds strength to endure and even hope. In the end he receives a key insight:
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. (v. 19)
Memories of lost happiness have not been driven away, but with the insight that God saved Israel without leaving footprints in the sand comes the hope that God is there with the poet now, invisible in the dark, filled with compassion, ready to restore.
It is no accident that Psalm 77 remembers the exodus. This was the event that defined who God was to Israel. For Christians it is the cross of Christ. Memories that reveal the character of God for all time are not important because they balance out bad memories. They matter because these are the memories that shape us into the people God made us to be. In the “memory” stanza of Psalm 119 we read, “In the night, Lord, I remember your name, that I may keep your law” (v. 55). From an intimate knowledge of God’s character a glad obedience flows, and in the next stanza it spills joy across the poet’s life: “You are my portion, Lord … At midnight I rise to give you thanks … The earth is filled with your love” (vv. 57-64). By choosing to remember what God has done for us we can begin to be liberated into a new sense of self and the world.
As Volf recognised, the gospel provides us with a way to reframe memories, which sucks the poison out of them. The self that emerges when memories of God surround memories of trauma and loss is a self filled with gratitude, freed to live again.
To remember God is to live. To forget him is to drift towards death. As David says, “Among the dead no one remembers you. Who praises you from the grave?” (Ps 6:5). Forgetfulness is always a tragedy, whether it is wilful or unwitting. The only thing worse than forgetting is being forgotten. It is the ultimate judgment: “The face of the Lord is set against those who do evil, to remove all memory of them from the earth” (Ps 34:16).
Being forgotten is a primal human fear, a fear that pushes humans, whether in Japan, India, Nigeria, or Mexico, towards the veneration of their ancestors. In the once-Christian West the fear of being forgotten expresses itself non-religiously, but is just as deep. The finale of the musical Hamilton asks, “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who tells your story?”
The Psalms know a wonderful answer to this question: God remembers your name. Naturally the Lord who knows all things does not remember and forget in the way humans do. “Remembering” describes God’s free decision to direct his attention towards a person. Being remembered by God is what makes humans human in the first place: “What are human beings that you remember them? … You have crowned them with glory and honour” (Ps 8:4, 5). And when affliction—be it abuse or illness, sin or sorrow—places a human being in the realm of death, their remembrance by God “lifts [them] up from the gate of death” (Ps 9:12-13; see Exodus 2:24).
How does God choose to remember us? Another wonderful answer: he remembers selectively. Just as we are to remember the hurts of our past and think of God, so God remembers the unworthiness of our past and thinks of himself. David prays,
Remember Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good” (Ps 25:6-7).
When God says that he “does not remember” our sins (Jer 31:34), he means that he directs his attention away from them and towards his love and faithfulness (Ps 98:3). That divine love and faithfulness comes to its highest expression in Jesus’s death for us. And so God never remembers us without remembering Jesus.
When your memory fades, and you sleep in death, “who tells your story?” It will not be your children or your grandchildren, but Jesus who will tell your story, who will remember you to God as he remembered the criminal who was crucified next to him, and by that act of remembrance raise you up to share in his immortality.
In the meantime, our sense of who we are and what the world is like should be shaped not by the memories that flood over us unbidden, but by the memories we choose to call to mind—of the one who died for us, and who “always lives to intercede for us”—memories that we carefully place around our poisoned past.
Memory and identity are intimately connected, and much that is good about us was forged in the flames of adversity. What might it be like to carry all that goodness within us, but without the scarring left on our souls by the experiences that put it there? It may be that in the world to come our sins and the sins of others will no longer come to mind, not because we could not remember them if we really wanted to, but because God’s people will remember all goodness just as God remembers it, and finally be able to be their truest selves, “fully immersed in the love that God is and that God will create among them.” At the same time it is precisely the memory of what Jesus endured to free us from evil that will perfect our joy and fill us with songs of praise for the Lamb who was slain.