Remembering and Forgetting

At the end of his masterful sermon, the Book of Mormon prophet and political leader Benjamin counseled his people: “And now…remember, and perish not.”

Remembering is complex, requiring at least five steps for success. We first have to perceive — see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or feel — something. Then as we pay attention, we can start learning. Learned information is stored for later use. Memories are not stored like pictures or videos. Learned information is stored more like a puzzle in pieces that we reconstruct each time we remember. This use of stored information occurs through a process of retrieval or recall. When recalling learned information, we typically rebuild the memory puzzle differently and even incorrectly because memory is imperfect. Remembering requires successfully going through each step — perceiving, attending, learning, storing, and retrieving.

Remembering can be challenging not only because of all the steps to form and recall memories but also because the brain’s natural state is forgetting, not remembering. Our brains actively forget much of what we experience because most is not important to our survival. Memories also fade passively with time and disuse. The imperfection and impermanence of memory need not distress us; forgetting is only a problem when we forget what we need to remember, such as what bills to pay or how to get home from the store.

Everyone has flawed memory but except for those who have severe neurological disorders, all can improve memory by first paying more careful attention to what we want to remember. Better attention leads to better learning and better remembering. We can also improve memory by actively and more frequently recalling what we hope to remember. This might be why terms referring to remembering appear 227 times in the Book of Mormon — frequent reminders can help us remember. While references to remembering are common in the Book of Mormon, what is more important is what we are encouraged to remember.

I will focus on two applications of the word remember. The first is paying attention and then having intention to remember for the future. The second is commentary on the Lord’s memory, power to forget, and power to help us forget.

Remembering to remember

Paying attention and then having intention to remember is a future-focused memory called remembering to remember.

One example comes from Helaman, who taught his sons the words of past prophets so they would attend and act: “And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation…which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.”

We then learn that Helaman’s sons remembered to remember; They “did remember his words; and therefore they went forth, keeping the commandments of God, to teach the word of God among all the people of Nephi.” They paid attention, learned, recalled, and acted. This is like Pres. Nelson’s counsel to hearken: “Hearken…means ‘to listen with the intent to obey.’ To hearken means to ‘hear Him’—to hear what the Savior says and then to heed His counsel…. As we seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our efforts to hear Him need to be ever more intentional. It takes conscious and consistent effort to fill our daily lives with His words, His teachings, His truths.”

“Remember, remember” is a call to hearken and change our future behavior.

The Lord remembers and forgets

A second use of remembering in the Book of Mormon instructs us of the Lord’s memory. Understanding His memory helps us change our behavior. The Lord remembers His covenant children collectively and individually: “I [will] not forget thee, O house of Israel.” We are regularly reminded that the Lord always remembers covenants He makes with His children. Elder Christofferson said in General Conference, “God will indeed honor His covenants and promises to each of us. We need not worry about that.” God has perfect memory and is perfectly trustworthy.

The Lord has a miraculous memory but He also has the power to forget. Elder Holland taught: “We all have some habits or flaws or personal history that could keep us from complete spiritual immersion in this work. But God is our Father and is exceptionally good at forgiving and forgetting sins we have forsaken, perhaps because we give Him so much practice in doing so.” Elder Gong offered clarification about what God’s ability to forget means: “When we repent, when we confess and forsake our sins, the Lord says He remembers them no more. It is not that He forgets; rather, in a remarkable way, it seems He chooses not to remember them, nor need we.”

By repenting of sins great or small, God forgives and chooses to remember our sins no more. He blesses us with sanctifying forgetfulness through our repentance and through the Atonement of Christ. Alma the younger testified of how remembering the Savior’s grace helped him repent and receive healing forgetfulness: “As I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world…. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.” Alma remembered no more the pain and trauma of his sins through the power of the Atonement. Sanctifying forgetting helps us step out of the darkness and wounds of the past and into the light and healing of God.

Our wounds can be healed through the wounds of the Savior Jesus Christ. His atoning sacrifice is so important to remember that the signs of it are ‘written’ in His resurrected body. Through Isaiah the Lord testified: “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” Christ’s hands are a reminder of His power to forgive and forget; through them, we are offered healing and forgetfulness.

All repentance “includes turning away from sin and turning to God for forgiveness.” We need to repent when we sin but repentance involves more than just forsaking sin and seeking forgiveness. We can repent daily as we turn from our natural forgetfulness by turning towards God. Pres. Nelson recently invited us to, “Experience the joy of daily repentance!” Part of the joyful act of repentance is remembering our Father and worshiping Him daily. Each day we can repent by seeking God, striving to follow the example of Jesus Christ, and holding and keeping the covenants we receive from Them.

The healing power of repentance is magnified by partaking of the sacrament. The sacrament is a priesthood ordinance that includes sanctified symbols of Christ’s Atonement – His blood and body. The sacrament helps us overcome sins and shortcomings as we renew all our covenants with God. As you participate in the ordinance of the sacrament I invite you to reflect upon your covenants with God. In covenants there are safety and peace. When we always remember the Savior, which we promise to do during the ordinance of the sacrament, we change step by step to become more like Him through the enabling power of His Atonement.

As we remember the Lord, keep His commandments, and repent, He will help us forget the pains of our sins and heal our wounds. Elder Renlund taught: “When we sincerely repent, no spiritual scar remains.” The Lord in turn will no longer remember our transgressions: “He who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” He who notices and remembers each fallen sparrow will remember our own sinful falls no more. That’s a beautiful, hopeful promise!

I’m reminded of a sacred experience years ago. I stood in a hospital room watching a geriatrician examine a silver haired older woman. This lovely woman was a widow, had dementia, and was cared for by a daughter; the woman was frustrated by a world she struggled to understand and the daughter was frustrated by the physical and emotional drain of caregiving. We could see the anxiety and strain both were under. The older woman kept asking if someone would sing a specific song but none of us knew it. As he examined her, the geriatrician asked if she knew the lyrics or tune. The woman, memory weakened by a terrible disease, couldn’t recall it and we couldn’t sing an unknown song. At the end of the visit, the physician wanted to fulfill her request for a song – to help her be calm and happy; to let her know he cared for her. He asked what song she wanted. This time she asked if he could sing Amazing Grace. The physician reached out, gently held her hand, looked her in the eyes as he sat before her, and sang to her.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

This woman, lost in a labyrinth of disease, for a moment was found. That day my blind eyes opened to the healing power of a kind touch and simple song from a good Samaritan. I felt heaven draw near in a hospital room in North Carolina. I saw what it might be like to sit before the Savior and receive His redemptive, loving grasp as He sings us a song of redeeming love.

My invitation is that you hearken to the commandments and invitations from God’s authorized servants. I invite you to repent by remembering God and seeking the Savior’s offered healing hands and amazing grace. As you do this, you can remember your pains no more. This sanctifying and healing forgetting comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I testify of the Lord’s miraculous power to both forgive and forget as we remember Him and repent.

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