Remembering and forgetting are things we need to work at equally. Memories of past events can be either helpful or harmful to us. There are some memories we should hang on to because of their positive impact in the present, such as significant life lessons, spiritual victories, and the impact of helpful people.
There are also memories we should let go and move on from because of their negative impact. Memories of hurtful experiences, abusive people, and destructive situations can paralyze us with fear, anger, discouragement, and regret. They can sabotage and undermine our lives in the present.
But the issue is not that we shouldn’t remember things of the past. After all, God gave us a brain with the capacity of memory. The issue is, what do we do with those memories? I suggest three biblical approaches.
How are we interpreting our memories? In what context do we frame them? Are we looking at our memories from a human or divine perspective?
For example, we can remember past failures and allow ourselves, others, or Satan to beat us up over them. We can frame our past sins to mean we are horrible people for having committed them and totally underserving of forgiveness or anything good ever again.
Conversely, in humility we can frame our memories in the context of the biblical truth that we are all flawed sinners. We don’t excuse our past behaviour or bad experiences, but instead reframe them in a context of gratitude because the Lord was gracious and forgave us when we repented.
Joseph reframes his negative experiences of betrayal, slavery, imprisonment and eventual rise to power in Egypt when he says to his brothers, “God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors.... You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 45:7, 50:20).
In other words, when reframing memories, choose to look at them from the perspective of God’s gracious providence.
When it comes to memories we want and need to remember, we need continuous reminders. This is the concept behind the stones of remembrance in Joshua 4. Joshua had people place stones in the middle of the Jordan River where the priests had stood and where the people crossed. They took stones from the river and built a memorial on the shore. Through the stones, Israel was reminded of God's faithfulness, providence, and love every time they would look at them.
The application is that we should not forget God’s past faithfulness, providence, and love for us. It is good to have tangible reminders—something written, pictures, and mementos of His past work in our lives.
Do the opposite when it comes to things we want to forget. Leave behind the continuous reminders of things you want to let go of. As much as possible, eliminate the tangible reminders of those experiences, people, and situations present around you that constantly remind you. Otherwise, every time you’re reminded it’s like tearing a scab off a wound. Get rid of negative reminders to allow healing of memories and emotions.
We need to constantly review things we want to remember. This is the principle behind the exhortations to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:7–9. Repeat them, talk about them with others, and create and view mementos in your home. Then don’t forget their significance! They are souvenirs of things you want to remember.
Stop the continuous reviews when it comes to the things we need to forget. When we continuously mull over those past bad memories, they stay fresh undermine our present life. Commit yourself to not dwell on a bad memory when it is triggered. Don’t bring it up constantly and talk about it or allow others to talk to you about it.
But God gave us brains that remember! That’s true, but we can disconnect from emotional memory by deciding not to dwell on, talk about, or allow others to talk about a bad memory with you. If you maintain that commitment when bad memories are triggered, eventually you disconnect from the emotions of the memory, which I call emotional forgetting, and be able to recall the memory without the fear, anger, discouragement, and regret that it used to evoke.
We have to always work at remembering and forgetting. We need to work and remember what we believe, and what God has done for us. And we need to work at forgetting harmful things from our past.
In summary, I say don’t forget to remember, and remember to forget.