Remembering and Forgetting
I’ve been a pastor for over 15 years and have ministered to several people affected by Alzheimer’s Disease or other afflictions of mind and memory. At times, various relatives and in-laws have also suffered from dementia — some more noticeably than others.
Since each person is different, each displays differing symptoms. Some progress rapidly, others quite gradually. Now that new medications are coming to the market, we may see mental capacities diminishing much more slowly than in the past — at least for Alzheimer’s patients. Those with dementia from circulatory and related causes probably won’t be helped by these same drugs.
However, even if we find cures for all forms of dementia, we cannot undo the root cause. Sin brings sickness and suffering upon all of us and even the most optimistic person will admit, if possessed of a sound mind, that death will cap life’s journey. The curse of death upon sinners didn’t stop with Adam and Eve. Human culpability continues throughout history: “The soul who sins shall die. (Ezekiel 18:20)”
All are sinners, so all die; all die, so all are sinners — whichever direction we read it, the sad fact remains: We find ourselves in a world of trouble. Yet we Christians know that God’s free gift is eternal life for all who believe in His Son. God’s Word commands, implores, bestows, and strengthens belief. Perhaps that’s why the possibility of suffering from diminishing memory and irrational thinking may bring more to some Christians than to unbelievers.
After all, how will we remember our Savior when we can’t remember the names of wife, children, or even self? How will we recall and cling to His promises of salvation and eternal life when we can’t recall what we just said? When our world turns entirely into phantom memories and fractured thoughts, how will we lean upon Jesus Christ, the unshakable Rock?
Perhaps we won’t remember Him at all — at least not in conscious manner. His promises may be just as jumbled in our minds as are the faces and names of various family members who occasionally visit us. We may become unable to continue “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2)” We could forget our Church’s statements of faith, including the Ecumenical Creeds and the Catechisms. We might not be able to say or comprehend even the most simple confession, that “Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2:11)”
Nevertheless, we should not worry. Our God will not forget us who are written in the Book of Life. He remembers even when we forget — and this is what matters most. After coming to faith in the brief time before his death, the penitent evildoer crucified with our Lord confessed his faith by asking Jesus to be faithful to him. “He said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:42-43)”
None of the saints will be separated from Christ in later years because of fading memory and dulled comprehension. Faithful to us, Jesus will keep us “faithful unto death” and, remembering to call us home, He will give us each “the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)”
Thus we celebrate God’s wonderful remembrance of us. Yet His Word reveals something else just as vital — His forgetfulness: God maintains total amnesia about our sinfulness. Not only does He graciously forgive us, He also refuses to recall any transgressions in thought, word, or deed. Through Jeremiah, He said of His chosen people, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (31:34)” This was no “one-time, never to be repeated” offer, either. Through the author of Hebrews, He reiterated His promise to the New Testament Church, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (8:12)”
God marked us as His in Holy Baptism, calling us to live for Him in time and with Him in eternity. The Holy Spirit has been leading us on our pilgrimage through this life, setting us back on the path when we stray. Christ feeds us His Gospel and His Holy Supper for strength on the way. Even if we can no longer cling to the words written on our Bibles’ pages or spoken by our pastors, we can rest assured that He still recognizes us as His own. Our Savior promises, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)”
Notice who keeps “doing the verbs”: The Father gives, Christ holds, the Holy Spirit guides, God remembers. The all-important work of salvation rests in God’s capable hands, not our culpable ones. The verbs are done to us, the passive recipients: We have been forgiven, are baptized, have been blessed, and shall be brought to eternal life.
Jesus remembers you; His Father forgets your sins. Fear not even the loss of memory and mind, for you are never removed from the mind and heart of God. Even if rational thought abandons you and delusion marks your days, His promise to you is certain: “I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)”
Note: This marks a continuation of my occasional articles concerning the intersection of mental and emotional health issues with Christianity, the most recent of which was Mental Health Help. It’s a very gentle reworking of my original response to a request from David Hansen, author of Postings from Prairie Hill and a pastor in the ELCA. He asked a few of us to join him in a series he titled Remembering for All the Saints. It was intentionally timed to coincide with All Saints’ Day. In his concluding post, he links to his own introduction and essay plus those of his four guests. I invite you to read them all.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #527