The value of painful memories
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that scientists have zapped an electrical current to people’s brains to erase distressing memories, part of an ambitious quest to better treat ailments such as mental trauma, psychiatric disorders and drug addiction.
Author Gautam Naik explains: “In an experiment, patients were first shown a troubling story, in words and pictures. A week later they were reminded about it and given electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], formerly known as electroshock. That completely wiped out their recall of the distressing narrative” – without erasing other memories.
At least two important questions emerge for Christians. First, if painful memories can be erased, should we seek this therapy? And second, in the afterlife, does God erase our most disturbing recollections?
Let’s consider the first question: Should we seek to erase painful memories if it’s scientifically possible?
No doubt there are people who suffer severe forms of mental illness or medical trauma, and this therapy could help restore them to sound health. In that light, ECT is a positive medical breakthrough.
But what about the rest of us? If we could check ourselves into a clinic and eradicate all disturbing memories – from bad childhoods to bad hair days – how would that change our lives?
If all that remains are “good” memories, the context of memory itself may be lost. Further, it appears that God does not intend that we forget our past. Space does not allow a full exploration of this, but consider:
What if King David forgot his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband? Would he have written such a poignant and eloquent confession such as Psalm 51?
What if Jesus in His full humanity forgot about His rejection and suffering? Would that make the Lord’s Supper a profane memorial meal for His followers?
What if the apostle Paul forgot his entire life prior to meeting Jesus on the Damascus road? Would we skip over – or purge – much of the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles?
What if the apostle Peter forgot the worst night of his life – the night be denied Jesus three times? Would he still have asked to be crucified upside-down on a cross in humble deference to his Savior?
Beyond the grave
As to the second question … In glimpses of the afterlife, we see that believers and non-believers remember their lives on earth. Samuel knew who he was and recognized King Saul when God brought him back from the dead (1 Sam. 28).
The rich man in Jesus’ story of the afterlife remembered his brothers and was prompted by Abraham to recall his comfortable life on earth (Luke 16:19-31).
Martyred saints before the throne of God in heaven cry out to God for vengeance over the manner in which their lives were cut short (Rev. 6:9-11).
It seems that God has a purpose for even our most painful memories. Taken together, our memories provide a rich tapestry of life. We may not want to think about painful, or even grossly sinful, events in our past. But they are part of our lives nonetheless and remind us of the depths of our depravity and the richness of God’s work of salvation on our behalf.
We all look forward to the day when God wipes away every tear from our eyes, and there is no more death, grief, crying or pain (Rev. 21:4). Does this mean the Lord allows us only to hold on to our good memories?
I don’t think so. Scripture indicates that in our future glorification we are fully conformed to the image of Christ, and whatever else that means it’s doubtful Jesus has forgotten His “bad” earthly experiences such as His rejection, mocking, beatings, and crucifixion.
Further, Jesus is fully aware that multitudes of sinners have rejected His finished work on the cross as payment for their sins and as a result spend eternity in hell. This does not seem to diminish His joy or undermine His omniscience.
In the end, when the Lord holds our faces in his nail-scarred hands and brushes the tears away with a sweep of his thumbs, we will not have our memories erased. Rather, we will see life’s experiences – the good, bad, and ugly – from God’s perspective.
And we will enter the joy of the Lord confident that the future holds no painful experiences of any kind.
This column first appeared Feb. 11, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.