Does God, who knows all things, also have a memory, or can God choose to forget?
I often wonder about such ideas, for when we ordinary folk experience horrific traumas, we often say, “This is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never get over it.” In some cases this may be true, especially if the person doesn’t seek long term counseling and faith support to deal with the soul damaging harm. With assistance, one can heal from the pain, even while remembering the injury, just as a broken bone can be mended over time.
Those who’ve been wounded and healed can go on to help others heal from their pain and brokenness. The memories of the wound remain, just like a scar on the skin, but they don’t interfere with living a positive and productive life. For those whom Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers,” and who find meaning in their suffering, their lives are a model for others to emulate, for their memories don’t destroy them.
If we look at the nature of God—the one who is, the one who will be, and the one always becoming—we can understand better the discussion between Jesus and the Temple authorities in John 8:56-59–
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus made the claim to the I AM name and being of God, an act of blasphemy, which the devout Jews found outrageous, since it made him equal to God. Their memories of Moses meeting God in the burning bush are to this day a seminal recollection of their liberation story from their Egyptian captivity:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Can one who always lives in the present have a memory of the past, or envision the future? I met a lady at Sam’s Club in the days before the July 4th weekend. She was standing in the center of the entrance while folks were pushing baskets quickly past on either side of her. I thought she looked like the choose cone at a NASCAR restart. Bewildered and worried, she was looking for someone who wasn’t to be found. I asked her if she needed help, and she was even uncertain about this request. I suggested we walk over to customer service. On the way, I discovered her name and that her people had walked off to shop without waiting for her. She didn’t know their names, but she did know hers.
I thought about my own daddy, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. He progressively lost the memory of our family members: first my younger brothers, then me, and finally my mother became “the lady who came to kiss him every afternoon at 4 o’clock.” However, he could remember every bit of his medical training, even when he slipped and fell. On entry to the ER, he began ordering the medical staff about as if he were in charge. They tried to shush him up, until they realized he was running the accustomed intake drill.
Memories are like this, for we keep some which we find necessary and yet lose some very important ones we’d really like to hold onto. We also keep painful memories longer than happy memories, perhaps as a survival instinct. We won’t touch that hot stove again! This doesn’t bode well for our overall optimism, however, if we end up seeing the world as a fraught and dangerous place. How we imprint the emotions on our memories is still debated, for we tend to assign positive or negative emotions to events of our past. Then these affect our future experiences. This is why some of us fear dogs, while others of us approach them with respect, allowing the animal to sniff us out and accept us before we interact with them. We can change our future reactions to old memories, but this is a work in process.
God never gets old, even though God is eternal. If God is always I AM, or I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, then God is a very present god and as well as a God of the future. If the past is also the present for God, then perhaps the past may be also as the future. In fact, for all we humans know time, as we understand it, may have no meaning for God, and what we think of as past, present, and future, God may experience as the eternal NOW. This may be how we understand Hebrews 13:8— “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Recently I’ve been finding old mementos, souvenirs of my youth. Some are faded newspaper clippings, others are letters from old boyfriends, and then there’s the strange and esoteric memorabilia that somehow survived over half a century in storage along the various stages of my journey. My people are genetically predisposed to collecting. Did I ever mention my grandmother’s ball of tinfoil she kept on the kitchen window sill next to the sweet potato plant she was growing in the old mason jar? I come by this habit through my maternal line.
As I’ve been going through these, I had no difficulty throwing away utility bills from the early 2000’s, but then I found the college freshman beanie from my childhood boyfriend. He lived thirteen houses down the street from me. We had a thing for each other all through junior high and high school. For some reason, he gifted it to me. That motive is lost to the fog of memory now. Perhaps as Isaiah 43:18 says:
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
When I picked up this ancient cap of shame, for that’s exactly what it is, since it marks its wearer out as the low man on the totem pole, I marveled at how small the hat was. I don’t remember my beloved having a pinhead! In fact, I mooned and pined over his handsome and athletic form. Then again, I was young. As I held it in my hands, I felt the need to recreate something new from it. I had a landscape painting which had gone poorly because I was ill. I decided to paint over it, using the hat as the central tree structure, and adding some cut fabric trees to balance it. I also found some printed butterflies I cut out for embellishment. Once I glued those shapes on the canvas, I could repaint the canvas.
As I destroyed the old canvas and remade it into a new creation, the words from the prophet Isaiah (43:25) came to mind:
“I, I am He, who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
God is a forgiving god, but more importantly, God is a forgetting god. How many times do we say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget?” We might as well say, “I’m not forgiving or forgetting, because I’m going to carry this wound or harm or slight FOREVER.” So much for our going onto perfection in love, or learning to love as God loves.
The cornerstone of all forgiveness is self-forgiveness. Too many of us believe the verse from John 3:16 only applies to the world, but not to themselves individually—
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
If we can’t forgive the darkness within us, or the mistakes we’ve made, or allow God to forgive us, how are we to forgive others? In fact, if we tell God our sins are too great for God to forgive, we’ve set ourselves above God’s authority to forgive sins. This is pride, authority, and idolatry all wrapped into one. We’ve made ourselves into a god, rejecting God. The Pharisees of old rejected Jesus for this very reason.
Who was the most forgiving person in all of scripture? Jesus, of course, for he claimed authority to forgive sins just as God did, as when Jesus healed the paralytic whose friends let him down through the roof (Luke 5:20-24). Those who were nearby wondered at his boldness, but he asked, “What’s easier, forgiving sins or saying stand up and walk?” If we’re going to claim the name of Christ, we too are going to be forgiving people. Forgiving is an act that heals not only the other, but also ourselves. If we can’t forgive, we’ll never be able to forget, or transform our painful memory into one which God can use for the healing of others.
In a sense, we make a new map in our minds and hearts of our old landscapes of pain and sorrow. What once were places of despair can become fertile fields, if not gardens of delight. Our wounds become the tender points which open us up to the suffering of others, and allow us to minister to their needs. Our healing is part of God’s steadfast love. As Jeremiah reminds us:
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34)
When I think of the faithfulness of God, I also believe in the timelessness of God. When Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee to give them the Great Commission in Matthew 28:20, he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” When this present age ends and God renews the heavens and the earth, how will we experience time in the new creation? Surely, if God is making all things new, we won’t be in this same world anymore and the rules it follows won’t be the same. We aren’t thinking boldly enough or big enough if we limit God to only recreating only the current fallen and broken world we have now.
Maybe if more of us began to think on the world a forgiving and loving God could create, we could begin to remake this present world into the new creation. If we were to make acts of love and forgiveness more prominent in our daily lives, we might restore our neighbor to fellowship and community. We can forgive even those who don’t seek it, for they’re the ones who’re most in need of forgiveness. With a forgiving and loving God’s help, we can do this.
Joy and Peace,
How memories form and fade: Strong memories are encoded by teams of neurons working together in synchrony – ScienceDaily