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Redeeming Memory (feat. Matt Rehrer)

Truth in Love 439

How do we think about the role of memory in the Christian life?

Nov 6, 2023

Dale Johnson: I’m delighted to have with me my new friend, Matt Rehrer. Matt is an emergency medicine physician in the Bay Area. He graduated from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and he moved to the Bay Area for residency in 2008, where he and his wife Kara have lived ever since. Matt and Kara have been married for 18 years and have three children. Matt serves on staff and as an elder at his church, North Creek Church in Walnut Creek. He’s the author of “Redeeming Memory,” which we’ll talk about today, and he contributed a chapter on Dementia for the Christian Counselors Medical Desk Reference. Thank you so much for being here. I’m so grateful for your work and your mind and heart for the Lord Jesus, which our listeners are going to hear about today.

Matt Rehrer: Thanks for inviting me, Dale. I am looking forward to having this conversation about memory.

Dale Johnson: I’m so grateful for your influence and the many other physicians that we have as a part of our organization here at ACBC and we want to be wise on these types of issues. You’ve taken a personal interest in this topic of memory, which I think is a really important cultural topic. I love the way, in the book, that you approach this, wanting to deal accurately with the science but also seeing that the Bible has a lot to say about this issue of memory. I want us to get into this if we can, I think it’d be helpful for our listeners who haven’t seen the book. What inspired you or what gave you interest in this topic of memory to begin with?

Matt Rehrer: It wasn’t really on my radar until about seventeen years ago, which now feels like a long time, but at that time, my mom, dad, two sisters were driving down to help us move. I had finished my first year of medical school. On that trip down from Amarillo, Texas, they got into a car accident that ended up being fatal for all four of them. If you can imagine, you’re sitting there waiting for them to come, but they don’t show up, and I ended up calling 911 at some point, trying to locate them and finding out about this accident. It was incredibly traumatic. It was the worst day of my life. What I found at that time, the Lord was really gracious. He was right there with me. In fact, the words that I essentially fell into in Scripture was Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven besides you?” And I remember pausing on that, crying and going, “I have more people in heaven now.”

The book took me a long time to get to write because I had a lot of thoughts that needed to get worked out from that moment of going through that car accident with my family. What became an interesting current theme for me was the desire to remember them and the fear of not remembering them, like that I was losing that, and then also thinking, “Why did God leave me on this earth?” I could have been in that car accident, but then thinking, “Well, I need to be remembered.” What do I need to do that’s going to be so important that God left me here? Does God have great things for me? In some ways, that’s true. In other ways, it’s very off-centered and self-centered. That’s how the topic started to rattle around in my brain initially, just through that event. Eventually, what I did was I just went to Scripture and look to see what God had to say.

Dale Johnson: I confess in reading the introduction I wept reading that story. What a devastating thing as that story unfolds and the flood of emotions that would happen. I think you set it up well and I’ll encourage you. Matt, you’re a wonderful writer and I really enjoyed looking through the book. As we’re talking about memory, some might say, you know, it fluctuates. Maybe it’s more stable than what we think or maybe it’s not so stable, depending upon your age. Why would we consider memory so important?

Matt Rehrer: I think in researching and thinking about this topic, one way to think about how something is so important is to take it away. If you do not have memory, you lost your memory, what would life look like without memory? In some ways, we have pictures of that. If you’ve ever been with a family member or someone with dementia, you start to see what it looks like and you essentially lose your moorings in life. You lose the ability to have a relationship because you don’t remember the person, you don’t remember their name. You don’t know anything about them, you lose things that identify you as you, because you forget things like what’s your favorite thing to eat or what you enjoy in life. As those things get taken away, it eats at your identity. Memory lands in such an important space because it is a marker of identity for who we are and how God made us.

Dale Johnson: I like the way that you’re shaping that and I’ve heard it said when we think about our past events and our memories of those events, it’s not so much the past event itself but the way we remember in the present. The power of our memory creates a reality, whether it’s good or bad, it creates a reality. Let’s talk about this, because we’re fallen human beings, we’re certainly flawed, there’s no question about that. What are some of the ways that memory fails? Because truly, if these thoughts create a reality, that’s pretty significant for us as human beings. So, how do they fail?

Matt Rehrer: With memory, there’s really two categories for it. Both are results of the Fall. One is that naturally your memory fades over time. It’s something called transience, where you remember things very well right when they happen and then you lose them over time, that would just be natural.

Then there’s also a moral depravity that plays a role in memory, where you shape memory based on what helps you, very self-focused ways that we create memory and hang on to them. If you want an example of that, it pops up in conflict a lot between you and your spouse. You will hold on to the things that would buttress your case and you start to forget everything that doesn’t. That’s just how memory works, it’s self-serving because it has a moral component to it and it fails in a number of different ways that kind of outline the book with bias and the ways that recall things. That leads to things like shame, regret, bitterness and, and different ways that it really result in moral failures.

Dale Johnson: That’s really helpful. You root in the beginning of the book this whole idea in the Fall. I think that’s a really important place for our listeners when you are thinking about a topic it is so important for us to root these things in the Scriptures, which I appreciate so much in how you did that.

Talking about the book itself, when writing the book, as an author myself, you learn a ton when you’re researching, you learn a ton when you’re writing the book, as you are fleshing out your thoughts and trying to be articulate on a subject. What are some of the things that impacted you most as you worked on this book?

Matt Rehrer: It was surprising to me that one of the areas that was the most impactful to me was the memory language around the covenant and the cross, particularly the language that the Bible uses to describe what happens at the cross. It really is a transaction of memory that we need all sides of it to take place. For example, every single sin that you’ve ever committed has to be remembered by God, it has to be accounted for because the devil accuses you of each of those things and would win if none of them are covered. Every one has to be remembered at the cross, each one has to be nailed down the cross.

On the other hand, there’s this sense of forgetfulness that the language of the New Covenant says, “I will remember your sins no more.” Each must be remembered, be paid for and then each must be forgotten in a way. So when Christ paid for it on the cross, He was forsaken by his Father, a deep memory language word which is not just a simple forgetfulness, but forsaken means turning your face away, going into oblivion, being forgotten in a deeper sense. That was the transaction that first occurs at the cross. Meanwhile, this all culminates in the ultimate act of remembrance, which is the resurrection. Christ didn’t stay dead; that He was raised from the dead and gives us life.

All of that memory transaction that happens at the cross was just really deeply impactful because at first when you’re just thinking about memory, you aren’t going there. You go to the Scriptures and realize, “Oh, there’s like two hundred references to remember and many of them have to do with salvation and redemption.” It changes your viewpoint.

Dale Johnson: That language even beginning in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” “Do not forget” he repeats over and over again. There’s something significant about reminding ourselves relative to the truth of what you’ve just described. It’s so important in the New Testament for our justification, which is so critical and that motivates us to then live towards God. What are some of the tools in your mind that help us reorient memory towards God?

Matt Rehrer: In the fall what happens is that you remember the things well that you should forget and you forget the things you’re supposed to remember. Then when you go to God, you think God’s forgetting the stuff He says He’s going to remember, such as His promises, that He’s remembering what He promised to forget. It all gets skewed and messed up. The tools that He gives to get that back to its right orientation first starts with the Holy Spirit and then He uses things like His Word, like the conscience.

One that just struck me, I think this is just my science background as I love creation. I was struck by this kind of dual nature of the way that God uses creation to help us remember Him rightly. One is all of us do this when we are looking up at the sky and the stars, you feel very small. The expanse of the stars or the expanse of the ocean, those things makes us feel small. God uses his creation to remind us of our smallness and then he flips it around and says, “What about the sparrow? I care even about the sparrow.” So then He says in creation, “You can see the small things and remember that you have value and worth.” So even a simple thing, like His creation which He uses to reorient us, works in a dual way where you’re reminded of His greatness and your smallness and then you’re reminded of the small things around you and that you have worth. God uses all these tools, there’s many others. His written records, your senses and the cues of your senses and how He can reorient you so quickly at the Lord’s Table, remember Him well at the table. He’s so kind to us to give us so many ways to help us reorient back to Him and remember Him well.

Dale Johnson: A daily reminder, a daily dose of that would be just so helpful for us to keep things in perspective. I want to change gears now, I want to talk a little bit about memory as it relates to suffering. So many times when we think about suffering, memory almost feels more pressured and more skewed to some degree. It is memories that sometimes drive the depth of suffering. I want you to place memory into this idea of suffering or the role that it plays in suffering.

Matt Rehrer: I think with suffering, your brain actually cooperates really well here because you activate the amygdala and really cement very high-level emotional events into your memory. It doesn’t mean they’re accurate, but you cement them. What happens then is that becomes a major life event that does shape you and potentially shapes you in the future and how you look back on it and reflect on it.

For me, the obvious one would be, “How did you look back on the car accident that took your mom, dad and your sisters?” I’ll tell you that the year that that happened versus where I’m at now 17 years later, it looks a lot different. My reflections look different. But the ability to look back and see God’s hand in His providence and His grace grow ever more as you are able to put it into context. I think with suffering a lot of times the thought can be, “I just want to forget it. I just want it to go away.” God actually doesn’t command us to do that. That’s actually not how He suggests we deal with traumatic events or with difficult memories. It’s that you actually remember them, but remember them in a redemptive way and rightly. The ultimate example here that would be easy to pull is Joseph because Joseph goes through incredibly traumatic events in his life. Only as he kind of works his way through those things do you see his response at the end, which he then is able to give a perspective, “You meant these for evil, like the things that were hard in my life that have caused me suffering you meant us for evil,” but now he’s able to say, “But God meant them for good,” which is using his memory of those events and shaping them to give God a platform to perform what He does, which is through His grace. He uses those traumatic things. That’s why God is God.

Dale Johnson: I think of Psalm 46, that God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. What brings wait and gravity to God being a refuge is the depth of our suffering and how we remember that. As we run to the Lord, we experience how deep of a refugee He is because of the level of suffering and it does change the way that we deal with that suffering.

Now, you mentioned the idea of our memory being redeemed. I want to dive a little bit more into that if we can to talk about some of the particular fruits that we might see, as it relates to redeem memory.

Matt Rehrer: The fruit of redeemed memory really sounds a lot like the fruit of the Holy Spirit because what God is doing through your circumstances and in your refinement through the things you go through is producing and maturing a believer. One of the fruits that just ties right into what we were talking about in suffering is really comfort, because redeemed memory can move from something. Memory can turn from turmoil, like it’s being used against you, to then when it’s redeemed it actually serves as a comfort. I think in the book, I used the terms like it goes from millstone to a milestone, meaning it is weighing you down the same memory can be flipped into an opportunity to actually be a faith marker in your life.

One of the best examples of that is Jeremiah in Lamentations 3. We like to skip to the end, but what he’s doing in the first part is laboring over it the turmoil he’s in over the nation, the suffering of the nation, the punishment of the nation. It says he’s using memory language in that, remembering that he’s in gall and bitterness. He flips it around and says, “This I recall to my mind and therefore I have hope.” What he does is he changes what he focuses on in his memory. “The lovingkindness of the Lord never ceases,” and he uses that memory of God to then change his disposition. Circumstances were the exact same in that chapter. His mind, though, was able to find its steadfastness in who God is and His character.

Dale Johnson: We typically think of memory as revisiting something in the past but memory is really important as it relates to the future. so, I want you to sort of flesh that out for me.

Matt Rehrer: Memory applies to the future because it drives a lot of what we value and find purpose in and significance in, and that is how we want to be remembered. How do we want people to enshrine us essentially? We use words like legacy or hall of fame, those kinds of terms start to come up because the things that we do now we realize they’re only done in the present they will fade away. But how can we keep that memory lasting? What we do is we put our trust in people and their memories, which then has to be passed on from generation to generation. It’s very unsettling when you start to realize that if that’s where you’re placing your significance you’re putting the wrong spot because those memories for people I wouldn’t trust in them. It just doesn’t last, even if you make it a couple of generations. By generation three, nobody’s going to know who you are. They might know facts about you. They might think you’re the greatest of whatever but in the end, what we are finding is that you put a lot of stock in our memory and how people are going to remember us only to find out they aren’t remembering us in the end anyway.

Dale Johnson: I would say that that sets us right in so many ways. It keeps us from delusion and grandiose ideas about ourselves and how much we think about ourselves. It’s quite humbling and that’s healthy. As we think about being remembered, I want you to give me, and I love the way that you root this in the book and in the gospel and how important the gospel is here. I want you to help me to understand how God thinks about the future and God’s future remembrance changing your present perspective and attitude.

Matt Rehrer: In the end, if people aren’t going to remember you and they’re going to forget you, that’s clearly not the right anchor for future remembrance. The right place to anchor is the One who is eternal and has perfect memory. It’s in God, because God is going to remember you. That is ultimately what you are trusting and hoping in, that your name is found in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Ultimately, if you’re putting your hope and trust in something outside of yourself, outside of humanity, into God who you trust, that is going to relieve all the pressure that you feel like you need to do certain things to be remembered or that you need to be accumulating a certain amount of wealth or providing heroic things that you are going to forever be enshrined over. That goes away, because God saying, “Those things don’t matter to me, I know your name, I’ve called you, you are my sheep and in the end, my promise to you is that I’m going to remember you at that last day.” It doesn’t mean that a Christian can’t be productive or do things that are significant for the Lord, but their mentality and their reasons for doing it have now shifted into a more healthy way which is, “I am doing it because I love the Lord and I’m putting my treasure and stock in Heaven, not earth.”

Dale Johnson: What you just described, if our listeners will pay attention, what you just described is so critically important. This is what makes the promises of God unbelievably precious to we who believe in Christ. God’s promises toward us are because He has said He will remember us in Christ. Why, in Biblical Counseling, we anchor ourselves to the great promises of God, that becomes truly, as Hebrews 6:19 says, they are the anchor of our soul. He, Christ, is the anchor of our soul.

The things that you described today are unbelievably helpful. You’ve done a great service to us in thinking about this issue that’s on a lot of our minds as we think about memory and the organic influences dimension that we may struggle with. You’ve done a great labor here in helping us understand things scientifically but never unchaining that or untethering that from the Scriptures. Helping us to see how important it is in the heart of God, in the mind of God in His Word, that’s really to anchor ourselves to Him. So brother, thank you for that labor.

Helpful Resources:

Click here to view ACBC’s resource library.

Click here to view Matt’s book Redeeming Memory.