Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Gospel for a Perfect Memory

What it would be like to have a near-perfect memory? Jill Price knows. Since around the age of 12, Jill has remembered almost every minute detail of her life:

From a 20/20 Interview, By Keturah Gray and Katie Escherich, May 9, 2008:

"I am in the moment, but I also have, like this split screen in my head. I always explain it to people like I'm walking around with a video camera on my shoulder. And every day is a videotape. So if you throw a date out at me, it's as if I pulled a videotape out, put in a VCR and just watched the day. As it happened. From my point of view. "I walk around with my life right next to me”
Price remembers what she was doing on those days, just as she relives every moment of her life, good and bad. It's not just the look of her first crush that she remembers, it's the painful sting of rejection. Price acknowledges that it can be paralyzing.
… Many people think that Price's gift may be a dream, but she says "it's good and bad" and can sometimes feel like being a prisoner of her own past.
… "She was not easy," Price's mother Roz said of her childhood. "And that's because everything that was going through her head she couldn't explain. There were things I would think to myself, 'Why doesn't she just get over that?' said her brother Mike. "And I realize now that … a year passing for something, for me, you know, I've forgotten it already. But, obviously she doesn't."
… Price's experience serves as a reminder that our lives and happiness may be shaped not only by what we remember, but by what we choose to forget.

Can you even begin to imagine what this would be like? There could definitely be some benefits! Think about the advantage you would have in playing Trivial Pursuit! Or, as she pointed out on an NPR interview, you would never ever forget where you put your keys, your purse, your glasses, etc. But as was pointed out in the interview, it would also be crippling.

Yesterday, your kids drove you up the wall and you let out words you wish you could take back. Today that scene would keep playing over and over. But if you were Jill, it wouldn’t stop there. Not only would you remember it vividly tomorrow, next month, next year, and the next decade, but you would also with superb clarity remember every time you had done something like that before and how the pain would just compound like an unrelenting charge-card bill.

This condition of Jill’s has only been discovered in the last couple of years, and the only thing they can do for her right now is analyze her. So far, they’ve only confirmed 5 other people with the same condition.[1] Is there any hope for this to stop? Probably not in this lifetime.

As a person who believes that our biggest problem in life is not what happens to us, but what is inside us—sin—Jill’s problem reminds me of how the Gospel is for both unbelievers and believers. How so? First, one of God’s purposes in the Cross was to redeem all things from the curse of sin (Colossians 1:19‑20). Because Christ paid the price due for sin (a righteous man with inherent infinite worth), He removed the barrier that occurred from Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin resulted in the curse affecting all of creation including our physical minds including Jill’s mind. But you may be thinking, “But Christ died on the cross 2000 years ago and it sure looks like nothing’s been redeemed yet in creation.” In our eyes, it’s hard for us to see clearly because our vision is so myopic, but from the moment Christ began his earthly ministry, God began redeeming back creation.[2] God sees His plan of redemption holistically knowing the end from the beginning. So, slowly, God is changing things—through the power of the Gospel, He is redeeming back everything. This redemption will be climaxed at His return when He will finish what He started, when He will judge all the wrongs, and fix all that has been broken. Until that time, things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. So, the Gospel first applies to Jill, and all of us, in remembering that all that is messed up in creation will be redeemed back completely because of what Christ accomplished at the center of history on the Cross.

Secondly, the Gospel applies to life right now. While the God who made the Universe and everything in it has the power to miraculously fix her brain right now to stop remembering all of her past sin, I couldn’t promise her that it would stop just because she would place her faith in Christ alone. I don’t know Jill and whether she has placed her faith in Christ alone to save her, but let’s say for the sake of the story that she has only recently repented and believed in the Gospel. And for the sake of the story, let’s say that He didn’t heal her brain and she has to go on living with this pain of an unforgiving memory every day. What is she to do? How does the Gospel apply to her right now?

Sometimes even as people who have been forgiven of all of our sin, we tend to be more aware of our sin than of grace. I have a legalistic tendency when I’m overwhelmed by my present sin or past sins to make promises like reading the Bible more, praying more, be more involved, start fasting, but, as Jerry Bridges points out, “Our promises of future obedience, however sincere, do not resolve condemnation for past sin.” (The Gospel for Real Life, p43) This is one reason how the Gospel applies to me every day—one reason why I need to preach this truth to myself everyday: Romans 8:1 tells me that because of what Christ has done, there is now no condemnation. There is total forgiveness. When I am conscious of the sins in my life, I must remember that the solution to combating sin is not simply to introduce more spiritual disciplines (which are necessary for my spiritual sustenance), but to come to the Cross and once again confess to God my sin, despise it for what it is, and thank Him for the total forgiveness He accomplished on the cross.

But Jill and we need to understand even more practically what to do with memories of the past. Robert Jones points out how God wants to redeem your memories now, not remove them. He says that the Gospel helps us remember three things: God was in your past, your past does not control your future, and your memories result from your interpretation of your past. (Bad Memories: Getting Past Your Past, pp4-7) A great example of how this works out can be seen in how the Apostle Paul himself dealt with his memories of his past. He says in 1 Timothy 1:12-17:

12I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul starts off sounding like he was only formerly a great sinner and we would think that the next thing he would say (in light of all the great things in his life) is that he is now something much better. But what does he say? He says that he is still the foremost sinner—or literally, the most sinning sinner. He follows with that wonderful conjunction but. But I received mercy. Paul does not glory in his own accomplishments or wallow in his present failures, He glories in the fact that in light of what he is, he yet received mercy and forgiveness at the Cross. And this mercy seen in his life is an outward demonstration to others to draw them to receive the same forgiveness. Finally, this granting of mercy pulls us to worship the One because He alone can grant mercy and forgiveness!

Here’s an even more startling fact: Jill’s memories and your own memories of sin can be transformed to make them precious to you. What? How in the world? Jones says this: “… when the dandelions of your past spring up—unwelcome and uninvited—you must seize them as opportunities to remember the cross. ‘Yes, Lord, I sinned, and I am ashamed,’ you confess. ‘But Jesus paid for my sin. He absorbed the wrath that I deserved. I am now forgiven—fully forgiven—as far as the east is from the west. Please weed these memories from my mind. But until you do, I will praise you for your saving grace in Jesus my Lord.’” (Bad Memories: Getting Past Your Past, p19)

This is why and how we need the Gospel as believers. We are people who at times are overwhelmed with the reality of our frailty and failures. If you’re Jill, you may be overwhelmed all the time. But the power of Gospel is greater than all powers—it is the power of God Himself! (Romans 1:16) You need reminder of the total forgiveness on a daily basis and the only place for this is accomplished is in a cross-centered life.

[1]An excerpt from her book The Woman Who Can’t Forget can be read on this NPR webpage:
[2]This is why Jesus said things like He did in Matthew 12:28 when He said that when miracles occur around you, you should realize that the Kingdom of God is here. This the proverbial tension of the already and the not yet.

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