God Gave You Your Memories
Finding Meaning in the Past
Article By Kathryn Butler Kathryn Butler is a trauma and critical care surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She is author of Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care. She lives north of Boston, and writes at Oceans Rise
Memory binds us to places that forget us, and to moments that no one else values.
Such thoughts recently haunted me when I perused my alma mater’s magazine. A glimpse of the familiar cherry blossoms along the Hudson River unleashed memories that washed over me like surf. Again I could see the shadows from streetlamps cutting across the footpaths in Riverside Park. I could feel hopes for the future swell in my chest, as they had when I would marvel about the hundreds of people whose steps had preceded my own on those same footpaths, their stories alighting on the pavement before vanishing into tomorrow.
I now count my own story among the forgotten. The park remains, and those trees still bloom. That river still slides in rippling steel past the stacked concrete of the city horizon. But my footfalls no longer echo there. I can describe each blossom and avenue unaided, but if I return, I’ll be another tourist mom with kids fidgeting at her wrists, her memories, heady and vibrant, invisible to those who pass.
The city that shaped me churns on, indifferent to my existence.
When Memories Ebb and Flow
When we look to the past for our identity, such reminiscences can arouse a troubling sense of displacement. Memories leave stark imprints, but rarely can we preserve the vibrancy of their initial impact. The buildings we remember crumble. Mentors we esteem stoop with age. The burdens of life humble us all, even while we long to revisit cherished moments, and to reclaim abandoned dreams. F. Scott Fitzgerald phrased it poignantly in The Great Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Like Jay Gatsby, how often do we chase after lost joys that evade us? How often do we mine our memories for permanence and meaning, only to find our past as ephemeral as we are? Just as our bodies wither and break, the places, people, and things we prize also slip away.
Clinging to the past leaves us hollow when we forget the one who infuses our moments with meaning. Memory was meant not only for private wanderings into forgotten shadows, but also to remind us who God is, and what he’s done for us. When we journey into those memories, we cultivate an understanding of our identity that far outshines wistful nostalgia.
What Ought Never Be Forgotten
The crucial importance of remembrance recurs throughout the Bible. On the horizon of his own death, Moses entreats the people whom he’s shepherded for forty years to “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” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
“How often do we mine our memories for permanence and meaning, only to find our past as ephemeral as we are?”
Moses’s plea draws from his own memories: he witnessed the idolatry into which his people sank when they forgot God’s care for them in the wilderness. God freed them from slavery, parted the seas for them, and provided food from heaven and water from stone. Yet so distractible is the human mind, and so ingrained our proclivity to sin, that soon they forgot God’s steadfast love and placed their hope in things forged by their own hands (Exodus 32:3–4). When we forget God, we stumble astray of the path he founds for us. When we remember him, our natural response is worship.
Remembrance as worship not only glorifies God, but also gives life when we struggle with affliction. In Psalm 77, Asaph laments, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?” (Psalm 77:7–8) In the midst of his turmoil, Asaph derives assurance from his memory of God’s provision: “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old” (Psalm 77:10–11).
As he remembers God’s parting of the Red Sea, Asaph’s lamentation turns to praise: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph” (Psalm 77:13–15). Our memories of God’s deeds, then, offer hope, a welcome raft in turbulent seas.
Walking Through Cherry Blossoms
That hope manifests most gloriously when we remember the cross. The Lord’s Supper points us to God’s grace and love for us in Christ, with Jesus himself instructing us to partake of the blood and the wine:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
The church calendar, the liturgy, and traditions that mark the church year serve as powerful reminders of what God has done, and who we are in Christ.
“Memory was meant not only for private wanderings into forgotten shadows, but also to remind us who God is.”
But the responsibility to remember is not solely an institutional one. Moses’s plea rang out to every Israelite within hearing. Jesus taught over a meal, in the company of those closest to him. As each of us considers our past, we too are individually called to remember God. His character. His provision. His marvelous deeds in the Bible, and also along the winding course of our own lives. When we view our memories through the lens of the gospel, we see God’s grace at work, revealed in moments that suddenly take on new depth, meaning, and nuance that exceed the limited capacities of our senses.
When I consider those footpaths in Riverside Park, I remember that at that point in life I was “dead in the trespasses and sins” in which I walked (Ephesians 2:1–2). “But God, being rich in mercy,” made me alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:4–5). While I chased after the things of this world, lost in my sin, God saw me, and pursued me. While I wondered about people who had walked those paths before me, he was walking with me, his story already lovingly authored before the foundation of the world. And even when I didn’t know or honor him, he blessed me, rimming my days with cherry blossoms, and gave me my future with him.