The Temptations of Forgetting God

American historian Arthur Schlesinger believes that “history is to a nation what memory is to a person.” He then adds that “the individual who loses his memory doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going and he becomes dislocated and disoriented. Similarly, a nation that forgets its history is disabled in dealing with the present and the future.”

In his book “Live Not by Lies,” Rod Dreher argues that secular ideologies in power work to skew, manipulate, and even erase the collective memory of a nation in order to “capture the future.” He draws attention to the rise in the West of what he calls “soft totalitarianism”—elites and private corporations forcing the public’s compliance to a set of progressive beliefs in all aspects of living. “Everything in our modern society is designed to make memory—historical, social, and cultural—hard to cultivate.” Dreher understands the powerful impact forgetting has on a society’s past, present, and future. To lose its memory as a nation is to allow the dominant orders to control and exploit the people.

Dreher’s and Schlesinger’s points could not be more pertinent to Christians’ history and memory. God’s people are always in danger of forgetting who God is and who they are as a forgiven people. The tension between forgetting and remembering God permeates the biblical narrative. There are temptations for Christians to hurry to forget and impediments to divert them from remembering. These temptations and impediments are similar to what God foresaw the Israelites would face when established in the Promised Land. In fact, while on the verge of receiving the new land in Deuteronomy, God takes His time to teach His people not only how to remember, but also how to not forget Him and the history of their deliverance. It is clear from the book of Deuteronomy that a nation that remembers God well is a nation that doesn’t forget its biblical history. To help them not forget, Yahweh calls them to remember daily. He calls them to remember precisely. He calls them to remember fully. To state it in opposite terms, a nation that remembers only scarcely, vaguely, and partially is a nation in danger of forgetting God altogether.

  1. The Temptation to Remember God Scarcely

No one is better at helping us forget than the devil (1 Peter 5:8). The devil—dictator of this sinful world—works to manipulate and distort Christians’ faith and view of history because he aims at capturing and ruling the future of every human soul under his dark order. The devil is described as the thief, the accuser, the liar, the deceiver, and the murderer from the very beginning. He prefers for Christians to have little time to remember, a small knowledge of God, and a limited amount of time in the Bible. He specializes in stealing the Word the farmers plant (Mark 4:15). The less we remember God and our story, the more the devil will work to fill our history with his disoriented view.

God, in contrast, takes time to instruct the Israelite family in the habit of faithful remembering, as seen in Deuteronomy 6. His instruction covers both the inner life of the people and even their outdoor living environment. It is a methodology that permeates every aspect of life, from the mind and the heart, to the mouths, eyelids, doorposts and frames. While we do not seem to need to work hard at forgetting, God teaches us that we should strive to work harder at remembering Him. There is no better way of remembering than if the act becomes a daily habit. According to Deuteronomy 6, this act of remembering is just as visual (stenciled Word on the doorposts and gates) as it is auditory (Word taught to the children) and tactile (Word printed and tied to body parts). In other words, we remember best when God’s words and His works are pulled into our mundane as if they were an appendix to our life, rather than a remote event.

2. The Temptation to Remember God Vaguely

The devil remembers the exact details of God’s mighty words and works in Christians’ lives. And yet, his goal is to blur or erase much of them from our remembering. Reducing our memory to a level of vagueness allows him to craftily steer our lives towards idols of our own making. When Eve didn’t quite remember God’s exact words in the garden, the serpent carefully fills her in with a diabolic narrative where she becomes a goddess and he becomes the king. The incertitude about who Christians are in Christ and the confusion about who the God of the Bible is arms the devil with conditions in his own favor. Christians with vague history and vague theology make for disoriented and confused individuals, ready to be convinced into even more vague philosophies.

In helping the Israelites remember mighty acts of deliverance clearly, God speaks with rich details in the book of Deuteronomy. When God teaches the people how to speak to the next generation, He repeats a detailed, specific history of deliverance from the land of Egypt. God is always the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” with a heritage from each patriarch, never just the father of one and not the other. The repetitiveness of detail and chronology is meant to help the history be remembered precisely and rightly. At stake is not just the faithfulness of the history of God’s people, but the very name and character of Yahweh Himself who acted firmly and rightly for this people. To remember God and the biblical narrative rightly is to use the same details and descriptions, events and highlights God did. The fuller the description, the firmer the remembrance. 

3. The Temptation to Remember God Partially  

Though the devil is acquainted with all of God’s words, his aim is to impede Christians from ever being intimate with the whole truth of God and His works in their lives. Through parceled theology and fragmented Christian heritage, this cunning deceiver hopes to steer Christians away from the totality and fullness of God’s work and promises. The devil knows that a forgetful Christian with a partial theology of God is a gullible, easily manipulated mind in this world. Though half-truths are no truths at all, Satan didn’t hesitate to throw such empty promises at Jesus in the desert, especially when he promised Christ the earth’s glory and authority if Christ would worship him (Luke 4:8). And he certainly will not hesitate to tempt confused Christians with similar half-truths today, hoping to lure those whose theology is partial into falling further from the truth, into the realm of gospel forgetfulness.

In giving the Israelites the commands at Mount Sinai, God expected full remembrance of all the recorded words (Deuteronomy 4:6, 5:33, 6:2, 8:1-2). The biblical words point to God in full, not in part. The absolute demand of obedience proves that God is all the way in His commitment and promises to His followers. Similarly, Jesus’ sacrifice for the entire world’s sins was paid in full once and for all (Hebrews 10:10). God works in full, not in part, and to remember Him in parts is to miss out on the fullness of His perfect glory.

Throughout the Bible, we find God calling His people to the habit of remembering Him. God cares to be remembered fully. He delights in being remembered precisely. He is generous in being known daily. Growing into a habit of remembrance of our Christian story, history, and Savior transcends time and space. There are grave consequences in forgetting to remember, but the blessings of remembering to remember outweigh any such ephemeral temptations.

Looking back to when I was a student in my former Communist Romania, the success of communism was propelled by the willingness of the masses to gradually surrender their minds to distribute communist propaganda, at the cost of a relaxed forgetfulness of who they first were. The persistent communist manipulation of the past confused the people and sent them searching for salvation from dangerous gods. In the end, it’s not that the hard totalitarian government forced my people to forget. It was that most of my people volunteered to not remember—a mistake that cost my country hundreds of thousands of imprisoned, thousands of deaths, and austere living conditions I still vividly remember. Perhaps the reason societies thrive at forgetting much of their history is that the very act of forgetting does not shock us much at all. But as Christians with a God who cares to remember us forever in Christ, may we grow faithful in always remembering to never forget Him.


1 Comment

Comments are closed.