Memory is a powerful force. A memory from forty years ago may fill you with warm feelings every time you hear “White Christmas,” or that same song may bring memories of shouting and shattered glass. Our memories shape our perception of the world, and they affect our outlook on the future.
Memory is an overlooked component of our Christian life. The biblical writers often pointed readers to the previous works of God in order to strengthen and encourage believers in their faith. We would do well to recover the practice of cultivating our spiritual history.
Spiritual Memory in Scripture
The prophet Habakkuk stood awaiting judgment to come upon the people of Judah. In the short book attributed to him, we see the man of God lamenting over Judah’s sin, only to be sent reeling when the Lord tells him that Babylon is God’s chosen instrument of judgment against the southern kingdom. Habakkuk does not understand how the Lord could use a wicked empire to judge his people, but we see the book close with a prayer of faith from the prophet.
As Habakkuk wrestles with God’s unexpected plan, the weary prophet finds comfort in God’s previous acts of redemption. Habakkuk’s prayer pictures God as a divine Warrior who has marched forth to redeem his people. We can see glimpses of God’s work in the exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land. All of these previous acts build confidence in Habakkuk that God will faithfully carry out his promises outlined in the previous chapters.
Habakkuk closes with a beautiful statement of the prophet’s joyful trust in the God of his salvation. The fruit of Habakkuk’s spiritual memory is this: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (Hab. 3:17).
While Habakkuk is a great example of spiritual memory, examples are not limited to the Old Testament. For instance, before Jesus goes to the cross, he institutes the Lord’s Supper, a celebratory meal that points to the Passover meal, his work on the cross, and the future that will take place when he returns. This small meal is a memory that we taste at our church every week. It is meant to remind us of Christ’s conquering love, as well as his return to finally reclaim his sheep.
Effects of a Spiritual Memory
Even as he faced the prospect of national judgment, Habakkuk found comfort as he reflected on God’s previous redemptive acts. He closes out his book with a declaration of worship because he has remembered that God is a mighty Warrior who will fight for his people. Meditation upon God’s steadfastness produces steadfastness within his people. Memories of God’s work become the levee that protects us when the tempestuous waters surround us.
Our remembrance also emboldens us to march towards the gates of hell with the gospel. God has repeatedly led his people through insurmountable odds to accomplish his will, whether it was crossing the Red Sea, shutting the lions’ mouths, or swaying the hearts of pagan rulers. When we spend time meditating on this reality, it should produce a holy courage within us, one that propels us to the nations with the message of the Good News.
In addition, reflecting on God’s past acts also brings a sobering effect for those who would presume on God’s grace. The testimony of God’s Word is clear that the Lord does not tolerate sin. He is gracious to cover our sin, but we must not let sin go unchecked. For those who would nurture sin, our Christian memory reminds us that God hates sin, and he often has pronouncements of judgment for those who wallow in their own sin.
How to Cultivate Spiritual Memory
How do we expand our spiritual memory banks? First, spend time reading the whole narrative of Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is a grand story of God’s faithfulness to conquer sin and reconcile his people back to himself. If we only read New Testament epistles, we miss so many examples of God’s steadfast love, a steadfastness that repeatedly overcomes sin, sickness, and foreign invaders. For example, the story of Joseph gives us hope that God is working for the good of his people even amidst the murderous intentions of family members. Judges is basically a song put on repeat with the chorus, “Even when his people rebel, God hears the cries of his people.” Therefore, reading the full story of God’s redemption is the primary means by which we build our spiritual memory.
A second memory builder is reading Christian biography. The halls of church history are full of portraits of God’s sustaining love. Picking up a short biography on a missionary like Adoniram Judson or listening to an overview of the Protestant Reformation will help us see that God’s active involvement in the lives of his people is not limited to the pages of Scripture. Likewise, in Christian biography, we meet faithful brothers and sisters who show us what it looks like to have a strong spiritual memory.
Lastly, keeping a personal journal is a good way to cultivate our spiritual memory. I don’t mean a notebook where you just vomit all of your thoughts on a page. Rather, I mean a place where you keep track of your prayer requests, as well as the ways you see God moving in and around you. I heard recently of a missionary who kept track of the number of prayers they had seen God answer, and this encouraged them to pray all the more boldly. Practicing the discipline of journaling enables us to slow down and meditate on all the ways that God is active within our own life, ways that often get overlooked in the busyness of our schedules.
Christians are a people of memory. We are those who have the story of God’s redemptive work, and we have the stories of men and women who have experienced the sustaining and empowering love of God in Christ. May we be those who do not neglect our family history, but those who use it to strengthen our weary souls as we labor for the Kingdom.