Bad Memory, Type B
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV) Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
On Sunday, I preached about what we might describe as “Bad Memory, Type A”: that is, we tend to forget God and all His benefits to us, which is the deadliest form of forgetfulness: “While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant. Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish” (Job 8:12–13).
Tomorrow I’ll treat “Bad Memory, Type C,” but today’s diagnosis is “Bad Memory, Type B”: that is, we tend to forget or downplay our misdeeds and only remember (and magnify!) our good deeds. Just as the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, helps us deal with our “Bad Memory, Type A” by summoning us to the hearing of the Gospel, He also helps us with “Bad Memory, Type B” by preaching to us the Law.
A few years ago I picked up a book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), which cites one example after another of how the human memory deceives itself. The basic premise is that when we have bad memories about things we have done, we try to convince ourselves that we didn’t do them, or that it really wasn’t so bad, and if we tell ourselves the lie enough times, we start to believe it is the truth. And this is a very important insight about our sinful nature: we are always attempting to justify ourselves before God and before others, like that Pharisee in Jesus’ parable.
Our pride doesn’t like the accusation that we have sinned and done wrong against others, so we deceive ourselves into thinking that we haven’t. Friedrich Nietzsche described our internal dialogue of self-deception this way: “ ‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.” In other words, our pride is relentless at trying to excuse our sins.
Even though Nietzsche was one of the most vocal critics of Christianity in history and eventually became a complete lunatic, perhaps this quote reflects something he learned early on in his Christian upbringing, as the son of a Lutheran pastor, because Nietzsche’s words reflect what the prophet Jeremiah says about the human heart and mind: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). We vacillate back and forth between disgust over what we have done and then to denial, until eventually we are convinced that either we didn’t sin at all or that it wasn’t that big of a deal.
That’s why the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word of Law to jog our memory and place before our eyes our many sins of thought, word, and deed. The Holy Spirit convicts our sinful nature of its unbelief and misbelief and calls us to repent and return to our Savior. This is why the Christian Church features Holy Absolution as an important part of our preparation for the Divine Service, so that whenever you suffer from a guilty conscience, you are invited by Christ Himself to lay down your sins here and receive His forgiveness through the mouth of the pastor, as if Christ our dear Lord were standing there before you speaking: “I forgive you all of your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
These Words send away your guilt and take you back to your Baptism, where the Holy Spirit took God’s Triune Name and united it with water in order to make you into a new creation in Christ Jesus. With these Words He not only washes clean your conscience, but He also reminds you that you are a child of God and an heir of everlasting life, and nothing can cause the Father to stop loving you; none of those bad memories you have about sins you have committed in your past can condemn you, for you are washed in the blood of the Lamb.
As Dr. Luther says in the Large Catechism, when everything in life seems to be falling apart and contradicting the fact that God loves you, then say, “Nevertheless, I am baptized.” That is, “Because I am baptized I know that I am a beloved child of God and nothing can snatch me out of His Almighty hands!” And a great way of remembering your Baptism each day is by following the order of morning and evening prayers in the Small Catechism!
Prayer: Almighty God, through the resurrection of Your Son You have secured peace for our troubled consciences. Grant us this peace evermore that trusting in the merit of Your Son we may come at last to the perfect peace of heaven; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.