Selective Memory

Michael Metzger

Selective memory can be self-serving. I often “forget” what my wife Kathy asks me to do. There is however a good sort of selective memory—one that helps us stay sane.

Today is Memorial Day. Do you remember what we’re commemorating? Few recall that on May 5, 1868 retired Union Major General Jonathan A. Logan inaugurated “Decoration Day” so that “no vandalism of neglect, no ravages of time” would allow coming generations to “forget the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

In 1882 Decoration Day became Memorial Day, honoring fallen soldiers from all wars. In 1971 President Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. But by this time Logan’s fear had become reality. Over time, we had neglected to remember the right things. Memorial Day had morphed from commemoration to cookout.

What Logan didn’t know is that human beings can’t actually “forget” anything. That sounds odd until we remember God can’t forget anything. He’s omniscient. But he chooses to not remember our sin (Jer. 31:34.) This isn’t forgetfulness. It is selective memory, evidenced in God having “removed our sin from us as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12). Since we are made in God’s image, we too cannot forget anything. Like God, we can however choose to be selective in what we remember.

Recent findings in neuroscience confirm our capacity for selective memory. Using EEG scans, a team of Swedish scientists led by Gerd Thomas Waldhauser of Lund University has discovered the parts of our brain that become active when we try to not remember. This activation removes memories from parts of the brain where they can be easily retrieved. The experience feels like forgetting but it’s not. It’s separation.

This is science catching up to scripture. The Bible says “your sin has produced a separation between you and God” (Isa. 59:2). Scripture equates death with separation; not annihilation. God warned Adam and Eve they’d die if they ate the forbidden fruit. They ate. Their souls died but still existed—separated from God. It works the same way with memories. They don’t die. But we can separate them from being easily retrieved. This is one way we stay sane—a lesson Peter learned.

There was a time when Peter, thinking himself to be very religious, asked Jesus how “many times shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Peter was retrieving the wrong memories. Jesus told him a story of a man who remembered petty offenses done against him but forgot major sins he had committed. He was selecting the wrong memories. The unforgiving man ends up in a tormentors’ hell, where people go insane. Peter was in the suburbs of insanity, being tormented by slights, perceived or real, that others had done to him.

There is growing evidence that we are losing our ability to be selective in what we remember. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress Emeritus, notes how the explosion of social media erodes our ability to selectively remember. We remember too much, most of it trivial. Our society is “motion without memory,” which, he adds, “is one of the clinical definitions of insanity.”

One of the best films depicting motion without memory is Memento. It’s a brilliant but disturbing movie about a man who suffers a modest brain injury after he and his wife are brutally attacked (she is killed). He wakes every morning unable to recall what happened yesterday. He can’t remember the right stuff. His frantic search for his wife’s killer is a dizzying disarray of Post-It Notes, Polaroid pictures, and tattoos. At the end of the film, you don’t know which end is up. Again, one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

God is love. Love does not take into account a wrong suffered (I Cor. 13:5). Taking into account is an accounting term. It’s depositing money in a place where you can easily retrieve it. Love doesn’t do that. Love deposits real or perceived slights and insults in places where withdrawing these painful memories is not easy to do. The result is sanity.


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  1. That is precisely why loving our enemies is so God like and why there is more truth than humor to the age old rhyme:
    To live above
    With saints we love,
    Oh that will be glory,
    But to live below,
    With saints we know,
    Now that’s a different story.

  2. It was great to see an essay that connects sin to separation. God and life are essentially and foundationally relational. God’s law is all about preserving relationships at every level. So I have often wondered why we call Genesis 3 the story of “the Fall.” This term doesn’t convey what really happened to us. For most people today it is vague. Wouldn’t it be better to call it the “Fragmentation.” Doing so might help us better remember why we so desperately need the atonement (at one ment) and reconciliation of Christ.

  3. Glenn: Fragmentation, failure, futility, belly flop–you name it. Works for me. The larger point is that the sin is still there. This explains why someone can claim to be “dead to sin” and then, somehow, bring it back to life in an instant. All they actually did was slide over, get closer to the sin–or get back in touch with it. Being dead meant it was just beyond reach. Sliding over a bit gets you back in touch with what is dead.

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