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Volume 17, Issue 4: Poimen

Dueling Memories

Joost Nixon

Have you ever been sandwiched between dueling memories? They aren't contradictory memories in your own head (though perhaps that's possible). The memories belong to two people you love. They remember a controversial event, or conversation, differently. And because they each have an opposing take on what happened, there doesn't seem to be any clear path to reconciliation because trust has been violated.

"He promised." "No I didn't—I never would have committed myself!" "I distinctly remember that . . ." "Well I remember that you said. . ." And on it goes. When you trust your own memory implicitly, and your sister presents another version, what else can be said except that you are shocked and grieved to discover your sister lying like a rug? Is there a way out of this? Yes, and the way begins with thinking biblically about memory.
Memories, by design, are dicey things. At least since the Fall, God has graciously allowed us to forget. In a sinful world, this is an ample mercy. A defective memory helps us think about our forgiven sins like God does. He doesn't think about them at all. In fact, He promises not to remember them. "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more" (Jer. 31:34). Imagine never being able to forget an insult. Imagine recalling at will a verbatim script of every quarrel. Imagine the anger and heartache never dimming, always ready to be poured out to nourish the root of bitterness. Humanity would be doomed to a fridge stocked solely with bottles of bile. We would quickly annihilate one another. And those who were not destroyed by others would destroy themselves under the burden of a memory that flawlessly recorded every grievance.
Though memories fade, God does not completely compromise them. There are things we can and should remember. Deuteronomy is filled with exhortations to "remember" and "do not forget." In fact, God called His people to set up Eben-ezers, "stones of remembrance" to remember key instances of God's faithfulness, like the miraculous crossing of the River Jordan. Sometimes it is sinful to forget, and other times it is sinful to remember. And sometimes—on indifferent mattersforgetting is as sinful as aging (that is, not at all).
So when you find yourself in the middle of dueling memories, remind your friends that memories are often faulty. When you do, expect the rejoinder that "yes, memories fade, but mine hasn't in this case." Bitterness does not so easily concede. And still, they should be willing to admit at least a token chance that their own memory is faulty. The refusal to grant so reasonable and biblical a possibility will "out" their irreconcilable heart. But even if they will not concede that their memory may be faulty on the point in question, they should have little trouble conceding a faulty memory for their sister. This is key, because it is the first step to rebuilding trust. If her sister's memory is faulty, then she really believes her version is reality. Her memory is faulty, but her integrity intact. She is not being intentionally deceptive. She is not engaged in brazen prevarication. She is not trying to elude responsibility for her actions.
At this point, the parties often avoid reconciliation by going into a holding pattern. "I grant that it is possible that my memory is incorrect," or "that her memory is faulty and thus she is not lying," but "that simply is not reality in this case. All the evidence points to the fact that she is being intentionally deceptive." At this statement, offer silent thanks to God, because He has opened the barricaded door to reconciliation another two inches. First, there is her use of the word intentionally. To be able to look in on the intents of our sister's heart is to be God. It is exclusively His prerogative (Jer. 17:9-10). Encourage your friend to repent of judging motives. Secondly, if she grants the possibility her sister is suffering from a sketchy memory and not a fractured character, then love requires her to believe the better option. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things . . . love never fails (1 Cor. 13:7-8). The only exception to this is when all the data point overwhelmingly to deception. But this is such a subjectively loaded determination that a Christian should never be willing to make it independently—only after triangulating with several sober, godly saints.
By granting faulty memories, and believing the best, both parties ought to make progress in reestablishing some level of trust. This should be enhanced by confession. The sins of judging motives and believing the worst should be confessed, forgiven, and forgotten on both sides. With the major obstruction removed, other sins will bob to the surface. They too should be skimmed off with the same biblical process. After all this, what remains should be the central issue(s).
Now what? Well, that depends on circumstances. Both should stumble over themselves to accommodate their neighbor. But it may be that both parties agree to bind themselves to the minimum they agree on. If one remembers X, and the second remembers X +1, both parties should bind themselves to X. This time, however, they should do so with a concrete timeline, in writing, and with third-party accountability. This way the delicate trust is protected from further trampling. Not all "irreconcilable" differences fit a "promise and deliver" scenario. But in any case, the principle that we should prefer being wronged over quarrelling with our brothers dictates that we bend over backwards to give preference to one another in love.

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