I am 29. Several years ago I first spoke the words, “That happened a decade ago,” and it was a strange sensation. Now I’m starting to reminisce on things that happened 15 or even 20 years ago, and it’s flat-out kooky.
Another development I’ve noticed in recent years is the influx of nostalgia. In high school and college I had fond memories, but not many were nostalgic. Now 10 seconds of Secondhand Serenade reduces me to a puddle of reminiscent goo.
Memories have power, and what we dwell on invariably shapes our emotions, attitudes, and beliefs (Isa. 26:3; Phil. 4:8). We must be intentional in stewarding them. Thankfully, God’s Word gives us direction on how we can channel our memories for good.
Voluntary or Involuntary?
Memories are complex. Some memories flood our minds involuntarily and even against our will, such as those triggered by abuse or trauma. In these cases, healing and help can come through the guidance of a therapist or another medical professional.
However, other memories are voluntary, within our ability to control. For those memories, God commands us to be selective with the ones we choose to dwell on (e.g., Deut. 6:12; 8:2; Isa. 46:9; John 14:26; Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 11:24–26; Eph. 2:11–13). Just as we’re to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), so too are we to take our memories captive.
Consider five questions to help you determine whether dwelling on a particular memory is helpful.
1. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my gratitude?
Gratitude is the crown jewel of recollection, turning good memories into ongoing blessings (1 Thess. 1:2–3). C. S. Lewis put it best in Out of the Silent Planet:
A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking . . . as if pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.
God created memories to consummate the joy of praiseworthy moments and to lead us into grateful praise (Phil. 4:8; 1 Thess. 5:16–18). This gives us a quick test to determine whether dwelling on a particular memory is profitable: Does replaying this moment in your mind lead to gratitude for what you once had or discontentment with what you now have?
Gratitude is the crown jewel of recollection, turning good memories into ongoing blessings
Interestingly, the 10th commandment (“You shall not covet,” Ex. 20:17) applies here. We tend to think of coveting as inordinately longing for something someone else has. But a more subtle form of coveting is inordinately longing for what we once had (or wish we once had). Both forms must be repented of—and both are best combated with gratitude.
2. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my hope?
Remembrance is the linchpin of hope. Much of our disorientation in life is a product of forgetfulness—of who we are, who God is, what Christ did, how God views us, where we came from, or where we’re going. Conversely, when our memories are most saturated with these realities, our hearts are most full.
Arguably the best way to combat inordinate longings for the past is to remember that our best moments in life are mere appetizers of what’s to come. We don’t need to cling to an appetizer when the main course—of similar pleasure but greater fullness—is coming.
Often we think our longings are pointing backward when in reality they’re pointing forward. The ultimate fulfillment of our longings won’t come by going back to the past; it will come through God’s provisions in the future (Ps. 16:11). Rest in this hope!
3. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my commitment to truth?
George Ball observed, “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” Often our memories play tricks on us, tempting us to believe the past was better than it actually was. Solomon warns us of this in Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
The ultimate danger of feeding nostalgia is not the immediate pain of longing for the past, but the damaging effect it can have on our beliefs. Dwelling on skewed memories (whether exaggerated positively or negatively) can twist our view of God, others, and ourselves. We must catechize ourselves with God’s Word, not with our nostalgia. Memories will fail, God’s Word won’t (Matt. 24:35).
4. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my love for others?
Memory is gasoline without favoritism; it will fuel the fires of both bitterness and love. Every time we dwell on someone’s past sin—replaying the memory of their offense in our minds—we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts and it grows. This may feel good for a moment, but it harms us in the long run.
Meanwhile, intentionally recalling the good in others (and God’s mercy and love toward us) is one of the best ways to stir up love and compassion in our hearts. Just as God loves us by not keeping our sin at the forefront of his mind, so we are called to love others by not dwelling on their sins toward us and instead thinking of them with kindness and tenderness (Eph. 4:32).
5. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my love for the Triune God?
Remembering is at the heart of our communion with God and our liturgy as the church. Preaching, singing, and reading Scripture help us remember the words and promises of God (Ps. 119:11; Prov. 7:1–3). Taking the Lord’s Supper helps us remember the person and work of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:24–26). Observing baptism helps us remember how we were brought from death to life by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:4; 8:11).
God gave us memory to aid our love for him, our appreciation for what he has done, and our anticipation of what is to come. Let’s be faithful to use our memories for these purposes—for God’s glory and our good.