Experiences of God’s mercy increase our hope. However in the midst of difficult times, we don’t remember these experiences. We don’t remember the times in the past when God saved us out of difficult circumstances. Or worse yet, we have come to remember past deliverance from difficult or dangerous circumstances as luck, as accidental coincidence. Or worst of all, we have come to remember past deliverance as examples of our own prudence, our own right thinking, our own skillful handling of the situation.
How we remember the past changes as we go through life, and those changes influences to a large degree our current ability to hope in God.
A very good friend of mine, who was a high school basketball star, says occasionally when we drift into talking about past athletic glory, “The older I get, the better I was.” I have noticed this same tendency in myself, not only as I recall my days as a high school and college athlete, but also as I remember difficult or unexpected transitions in my life. That is, as I remember a difficult situation in my past and how I got out of it, I seem to remember more and more the right things I did to get out of it, and less and less how frightened and bewildered I was at the time and how desperately I prayed for God’s help.
Maybe this selective memory develops as we get older because we find ourselves so often in the role of a teacher or coach, trying to help others succeed. In this role, we look back on our own experience seeking for what we may have done right and what could have possibly contributed in some small way to a success we experienced so that we can share it and help someone else succeed. However, like the warning not to believe your own press, we must be careful lest we forget the Mercy of God in our lives as we seem to become more and more wise and prudent in the eye of our own memory.
I think it is very healthy to remember past distress and how God in his Mercy delivered us. It’s good to remember, to make ourselves remember, how doubtful and fearful and confused we were, and to remember how we prayed and cried out to God for help and how God saved us. Sure, I may have done some right things—but really, it was almost accidental that I did, and I could have done, but barely did not do, some absolutely wrong things. I need to remember how God saved me so that I can continue to have hope in Him.
You see, here’s the problem. If we are not careful, we can lose our first love (as St. John warns us in the Revelation). If we are not careful, we can lose child-like faith, we can begin to become wise in our own eyes, self confident and maybe even proud and self righteous. Of course we would never call it that. We might say we are proud of the Church or of our business or of our team or of our children. But I have found in my own life that it is a very thin and fuzzy line between being proud of something and just being proud. In the same way, in my own heart I cannot often tell the difference between being right about something and just being self righteous. Others may easily make these distinctions, perhaps, but in my own heart and mind, in my own memory of past contests and victories, failures and successes, I can easily paint myself the hero and forget almost completely the great mercy of God.
We have to force ourselves to remember the miracles, the many mercies of God. Isn’t this also the message God kept giving to the Children of Israel through the many prophets sent to them: “Do not forget the mighty acts that God has done for you!” And why must the prophets tell them (and us) over and over again not to forget? Because we do forget. We forget what great things God has done for us and easily slip into complacency, self indulgence, self righteousness and pride. And when a new trial comes into our life, we have no hope in God.
When we make ourselves the hero of our own story, we only increase our own suffering when yet another serious trial comes into our life. Life in this world is so often just one difficult trial after another. And if we have forgotten how God has delivered us in the past, when we face a new and overwhelming trial, we freak out—racking our brains and blaming others and ultimately blaming God because we cant figure out what to do to fix things. We have forgotten that the same God who delivered us in the past is the God who will deliver us again.
But we must hope in Him, yet hope in God is the very thing we don’t have because we have not remembered—or rather because we have remembered wrongly, we have remembered self-aggrandizingly, the many experiences of God’s mercy in our life.
But hope can be reclaimed. Hope can return. However, we have to first work to remember God’s mercy. We have to remember the mighty things God has already done in our life. We have to remember that whatever good we may have done is also a mercy. We could have just as easily done wrong, just as easily gone the wrong way, just as easily said the wrong thing. It is God’s mercy that has saved us, and it is God’s mercy that will save us again, not our ability to figure it out.