That Wonderful Gift of Memory

(Speech delivered at the Spring meeting of the Ladies’ League at Holland, Michigan, April 25, 1968, by Rev. John A. Heys) 

The sin of the Israelites in the days of the Judges is summed up in the words that they “forgat the Lord their God”; and covenant faithfulness before God is presented in Psalm 103:17 as remembering His commandments to do them. The blessedness of the redeemed is expressed very often in Scripture as being due to the fact that God rememberstheir sins no more; and the certainty of Zion’s salvation and glory is presented in Isaiah 49 as being due to the fact that God remembers His Zion which He has engraven in the palms of His hand. 

It ought to be evident, then, that the matter of memory is an important one and one worth our consideration at this time. The section of Psalm 119which was read to you a moment ago shows how worthwhile it is. The psalmist finds comfort when he remembers God’s judgments of old. And he pleads with God to remember the word upon which He has caused? His servant to hope. And although our memory fades as we get older, and many of the facts we remember today will be gone, we do well to consider this subject now while we can yet appreciate what a wonderful gift God has given us in this power of memory. 

Asking ourselves what we are to understand by this wonderful gift, we answer that is that power of the mind whereby we are able to receive and store away in the mind thousands upon thousands of facts about hundreds upon hundreds of objects. As you know, we were created with the five senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. We do not from birth onward use them equally. Sight in the newborn babe is very limited for the first few months, but hearing is quite keen and the child learns to remember sounds long before he can recognize faces and remember his immediate family by sight. Smell and taste are limited to a very small world of tasting just a few matters like water and milk—and perhaps his thumb. Touch as well is limited to a few experiences, with neither extremities of hot nor cold nor of neither smooth nor rough experienced yet. Therefore there is, for a time, that which the mind is not able to receive, and these facts are like water running off the back of a duck. 

When he does begin to learn, the child learns by little steps, and you cannot make him memorize very much. Only what enters the mind and makes an impression upon it because of comprehension will the mind retain. He learns the alphabet and then only a few letters at a time. He learns to count the numbers, and then also in small steps. He learns to combine letters into words of one syllable and to add and subtract before he can multiply and divide the numbers. He does not learn all the “time tables” even in the same grade in school. But little by little, as the mind receives facts, it stores them away for future use. 

The mind then becomes a filing cabinet wherein facts are stored. We do not understand how it does that. We do know that when a part of the brain is damaged in one way or another, the memory in regard to some matters is gone. We speak figuratively of writing it more indelibly in the mind; but we do not know how that amazing organ, the brain, that God gave us can store away these facts. In one the power is stronger than in another. Some hearing but once will retain for a long period of time. Others must have it repeated and repeated and retain it for only a short while. But all have been created with a mind that will receive and retain a certain amount of the facts that they experience either by sight, smell, sound, touch or taste. 

Considering now the normal individual it is simply amazing what a mass of fact and detail of fact can be and is stored away in the human mind. How many faces we recognize, as for example one who has spent some twenty years as a school teacher! Consider how many names likewise we remember, how many places, experiences, birds, and flowers and animals, dates and books we have read. An average person remembers many hundreds of words which constitute his vocabulary. Consider then those who know more than one language. Learn a language like Latin or Greek and consider all the case endings and verb forms that are to be used, and the right ones singled out for use. Memory surely is a wonderful gift of our covenant God unto us. 

But memory is much more than the mental power to receive and retain in the mind various facts. It is likewise the power of mind to recall. (And by the way, here is one of the little helps toward memorization: Note the fact that we have three words beginning with the letter “r,” namely, receive, retain and recall. Taking note of such items makes it easier to retain and recall. Another help is to make some association of the sound of the word to be remembered, or even to construct words with the letters. I remember in high school that we were taught to remember the seven colors of the rainbow by remembering the name of a fictitious boy called Roy G. Biv. Taking the letters in that order as the first letter of each color, we get red, orange, green, blue, indigo and violet.) But to return to our subject of the gift of memory, the most wonderful part of memory is that we can bring back before our consciousness the things which we have stored away in the mind. 

We do not have before our consciousness at any moment ALL that which is filed away for future reference. We are not God! He, indeed, has perfect memory; and what He has given us is such a faint reflection of what He has for memory. I do not mean to minimize what we have; and I call it that wonderful gift of memory; but the fact remains that when we compare it with God’s memory, ours is such a faint reflection of what is perfect in Him. God’s memory never consists in recalling to His mind’s eye the facts that He knows. It is not even receiving fact into His mind. He never receives anything from outside His own infinite being. God never learns to know something. In fact God never learns. His knowledge is infinite, no greater today than before creation and no less either. He knows ALL THINGS because within Himself He determines all things. His foreknowledge is not learning that something is going to happen before it does. His foreknowledge is knowing that something is going to happen because in Himself He determined eternally that it would happen. And He knows His whole counsel as that which has taken place, shall take place and is taking place with all of it at every moment consciously before His mind. He does not push aside the one fact to recall the other before His consciousness. But He knows all things about all things at every moment of time, and we may add, throughout all eternity before there was time and after time is no more. 

We cannot do that, but instead we store away facts to bring them before our consciousness when we need to use them. Let me make that very plain to you. There are facts stored away in your mind of which you are not at the moment thinking. I am sure of that. It is there in your mind on the “shelf” to take down and use, but it may be the very last thing concerning which you are thinking at the moment. You may not have thought of it all day. But as soon as I have finished the next sentence after this one, which will be a question, that fact will come before your consciousness. The question is this, What is your birthday? Now you have it before your consciousness; but let me ask another question so that you will push aside and replace on the shelf the date of your birthday and take down another, What is your telephone number? Or let me dig back a little further into those “shelves” and make you go back a little further; how far did you go in school? Eight grades? Through college? And, from what school did you graduate, or what school did you last attend? O, you forgot, you say, all about those things. No you did not really forget. You had it there in your mind but not before your consciousness, and by my questions, these stored-away facts were brought back before your mind’s eye. You retained and had received. Now you recalled. 

You and I simply could not—being finite creatures—have all our knowledge before us at once. We would be confused. There are those who can retain and recall and hold before their consciousness a few matters at a time. We can drive a car and remember to stay on the right side of the road, and at the same time recall to a passenger some past event of our mutual experiences. You can sing a hymn, remembering all the words, while you stir up a cake, remembering all the ingredients and the method and oven temperature. But ALL which you know you cannot have before your mind at any given moment. 

It does come back in the way of suggestion, or what is even more wonderful, by an act of your will. There are even times when it comes back without suggestion, that is, without immediate suggestion, or by a conscious act of the will. I am thinking, for example, of our dreams, when past events will in some weird or even frightening way come before our consciousness, or should I say? our semi-consciousness. Dreams are another one of these phenomena that we can philosophize about but really do not understand. But otherwise, we remember usually in the way of suggestion. Someone speaks a certain word, mentions a name, we hear a sound, and then a face, a name, an event comes before our minds that happened in the past. You hear a hymn played over the radio, and the words are suggested to you. 

But the most wonderful part of memory is that we can bring back from out of the recesses of the mind these facts at will. We can commit a speech or a poem to memory, and at the right time recall each word in its proper order. We can reminisce and review the events of the day or of our life. You can, after returning home, relive your whole trip. This can be done as far as happy events are concerned; it can also be done with respect to griefs and sorrows of the past. We can remember our own works, and we can remember the works of others by reaching back by an act of the will into that store-house of information. Thus also the Psalmist says in Psalm 77:11, “I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember Thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of Thy works, and talk of Thy doings.” We sing this also from our Psalter: 

I thought upon the days of old 

The years departed long, 

I held communion with my heart, 

By night recalled my song. 

I will commemorate, O Lord, 

Thy wondrous deeds of old 

And meditate upon Thy works 

Of power and grace untold. 

All this is possible by recalling the truth as it was stored away in the past. And in moments of distress and trouble the mind reaches back and brings before our consciousness these truths for our comfort. To return to that passage that was read to you from Psalm 119, the psalmist says exactly that, “I remembered Thy judgments of old, O Lord; and have comforted myself.” We can reach back and for our comfort bring before the mind’s eye the truths we learned and were taught years ago.