The Amazing Healing Power of Memory
Reflections on Psalm 77
A popular commercial once asked, “How do you spell relief?” then proceeded to answer by carefully spelling the brand name of a product. One could hardly miss the intended message: that’s the product you are to use at the first sign of discomfort.
But when your soul is sick, how do you spell relief? Psalm 77 in the Bible suggests you spell it: MEMORY. Memory. And through the wise use of it, spiritual wellness can once again be yours.
Bodies get sick. We catch colds, contact diseases, and suffer much pain if we mistreat our bodies. Souls get sick, too. We can allow ourselves to get emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Prolonged depression can cripple us to the point we are paralyzed and nonproductive. With our minds we think unclearly. With our emotions we respond in ways not completely appropriate. And with our will, we make faulty choices. Sometimes unconfessed sin and disobedience lead to misery and terrible unhappiness. Destructive emotions, such as anger, can make us sick of heart.
Psalm 77 is the story of a man who is all but crushed by a load of undisclosed problems far too heavy to bear.
Life has made him sick Soul sick. In the anguish of trying to survive, he cries out to God, then discovers the answer to his needs lies in the wise use of his memory.
The writer, a poet, has become completely self-absorbed with all his problems, misery, and woes, oblivious to the needs of others. He feels he can hardly help himself, much less others. His view of life has shrunk during his time of self-pity to the point there is no room for anyone else in his world.
Seventeen times in six short verses he uses the personal pronouns ”I,” “me,” and “my” to show how badly beaten down he is:
“I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was
in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my
soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I
mused, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too
troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I
remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”
Psalm 77:1-6, NIV
Without pausing to take a breath, the poet speaks of the anguish of his heart and the despair he feels creeping in. The pressure of his situation has overwhelmed him: “I was too troubled to speak.” But he does anyway. There will be no “suffering in silence” for this saint. Without waiting for any kind of response to his problem, the poet pours out six questions:
“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his
unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has
God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Psalm 77:7-9, NIV
He asks three questions about God, not of God, because it appears He isn’t listening anyway. Why should he expect any answer from Him?
It is devastating to be overwhelmed by problems while crying out to a God whom you feel isn’t listening to a word you say. Our poet in Psalm 77 feels just that way. Isolated. Beyond help and hopeless. Left alone to suffer his fate.
He needs relief, but relief won’t come. Or, at least it hasn’t thus far. And he needs it so badly, if for nothing more than to get one good night’s sleep. Anxiety over unresolved issues has robbed him of rest. He is completely wrapped up in how bad he has it: “I cried . . . I was in distress . . . I sought . . .I thought. . .I remembered.”
Memory—the ability to form, retain, and recall memories—is one of God’s greatest gifts to the individual. Without it, most of what we experience in life simply would not be possible. But like almost everything else in life, there is a right way to utilize memory as well as a wrong way. Remembering can be helpful as well as harmful, delightful as well as damaging.
Memory as a Menace
In Psalm 77, the poet has misused the power of memory. In his troubles, he has focused on the wrong things, on reliving “the good old days” which never were that good: “I thought about the former days, the years of long ago.” (vs. 5) He wanted to re-live the past. It seemed safer as he faced his present troubles. The past was known and could be handled. It was the awful present and the uncertain future that caused him such anxiety. The safety of the past is the escape many use in order to avoid the reality of life today.
The past can act like a prison. Some people get stuck in it, particularly in a period that was especially happy and trouble-free. Though the calendar pages keep turning, the chapters of life don’t. The attempt is made to live and re-live the same experience over and over, which becomes idealized. We are like a little child that wants the same story told to him over and over.
The problems of the Psalmist have grown so deep he has shifted from wondering why God won’t move and answer his needs (vs. 1-6) to wondering if God can at all (vs. 7-9). Has God’s hand changed? The writer has been using the capacity to remember in a damaging way: “I remembered you, O God, and I groaned.” (vs. 3a)
This is amazing! The writer says he remembered God, and it made him unhappy. God wasn’t acting like he wanted Him to act, or doing what he wanted Him to do. The next step wasn’t far away: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.” (vs. 3b)
This kind of remembering sent the Psalmist to the bottom in anguish and despair. He had remembered the days, the years, the dates, the events . . . but not the God of them. It is the same old problem that has always plagued believers: we want the experience rather than the Lord of the experience.
Out poet has taken his eyes off God, and his memory does the rest. What is lost is the sense of God’s presence in his life. This is the misuse of memory.
It’s acceptable to be rooted in the past so long as we are reaching for the future. Some cling to the past and become paralyzed, but this is not what God intends for our lives. We are to honor the past, but then move on, using it as inspiration for the future.
The past is a great place to drive down spiritual markers in our memory to which we return in the future to draw fresh courage and inspiration. These former times would include experiences when God proved Himself especially faithful, or we came to a new understanding of His goodness and providential care. Memory can invigorate us and lead to spiritual renewal. This is the wise use of memory. It is to be used for fruitful, productive purposes, not to foster gloom, sorrow, and self-pity.
Memory as a Ministry
Faith takes a long view of God, not a short one. One must never formulate his idea of God based on present difficulties. Faith reaches back into the past and reflects on God’s track record of faithfulness. It forces the believer to bring his thinking into line with the truth about God.
Controlling how we use memory is critically important. What we choose to remember can drive us deeper into hopelessness and despair, or point the way out of the swamp. With the right memories we can convince ourselves there is a way out of the present difficulties through hope re-born and faith re-vitalized.
The Psalmist chooses not to remain under the heavy burden of his sorrow, but to throw it off and find God’s way out. He shakes himself and makes himself face his own self-inflicted unhappiness: “And I said, this is my infirmity. . .” (vs. 10a) The answer that would heal him emotionally came in a threefold repetition of resolve: “I will remember the years of the right hand of the most high. . .” (vs. 10b) “I will remember the words of the Lord. . .I will remember the wonders of old.” (vs. 11)
Our poet corrects his own error, and gets his mind and memory rightfully back on God. With the same memory, now used properly, he greatly encourages himself. His faith is refreshed and strengthened, and his endurance fortified:
“I recall the many miracles he did for me so long ago.” (vs. 11)
“I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.” (vs. 12)
“What God is so great as our God?” (vs. 13b)
“You are the God who works wonders.” (vs. 14a)
The Psalmist’s memory is now an instrument, a channel, of ministry to his own heart, a wonderful friend and ally.
Memory as a Miracle
In Psalm 77, the wrong use of memory made our writer sick, while the right use of memory made him well, restoring him to spiritual health and strength. The same memory did both.
Seeking after experiences made the poet’s soul sick; seeking after the God of those experiences made him well again.
There is something very relevant about this 3,000 year-old Psalm. I meet believers today who know Christ as their personal Savior. They have a home in heaven when they die. Their future is all secure. But the present is a mess. They feel no sense of the reality of God in their everyday lives, and they feel deep disappointment in their Christian experience.
Like the Psalmist, they seek: “I cried out to God for help . . . to hear me . . . I sought the Lord.” And like the Psalmist they ask: “Has God forgotten to be merciful?” The past is taken care of. Their sins are forgiven. The future is secure. They have a home in heaven when they die. But in the present, God seems as if He is light years away taking care of some distant galaxy. Their prayers seem to go unanswered, as if He isn’t listening. And their faith doesn’t seem to work, making no real difference in the way they live Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, the ‘game face’ is installed and off they go to church. They seek, then ask, but they have not found.
Somehow believers forget that the same risen Christ who takes care of man’s sin problem through His saving death is also the same Christ who gives victory in the present life of the believer through His saving life. We forget that the grace that provides for our forgiveness and salvation is the same grace that provides the strength to live the Christian life. So many followers of Christ take off on their own, attempting to live the Christian life through their own wit, determination, and strength. And experience nothing but failure, followed by guilt. There is also such a tendency to go chasing off after the last fad or “experience”. . .the latest book, the hottest speaker, the latest Conference, the newest DVDs or study guides. . .in hopes of finding something that satisfies. But they don’t.
The great need for many believers today is to remember that Christ is the source of everything he demands, the source of the life we most desire. We need once again to discover that the life that satisfies in not one of experiences, but the Christ of those experiences. It is the simple rediscovery of the presence of the Living Christ in one’s everyday life.
How is it with you today? Soul sick? Are you wanting to get spiritually well and happy in the Lord once again? Then you need to use your memory properly.
Would you prefer to suffer a spiritual relapse, or enjoy a revival that propels you to higher levels of discipleship and usefulness? The choice you make about the way you use your ability to remember will decide. You’ll feel relief in a hurry as you get your focus back on God instead of on your troubles.
Don M. Hull © 2015