The Rewards of Recapitulation
Repeating yourself is not usually a good idea. Children on a trip will inevitably and inexhaustibly ask again and again, “Are we there yet?” Or their excitement about Christmas, which begins with the first Christmas displays in the stores, leads to the predictable pattern of asking, “When is it Christmas?” Among adults, those who repeat themselves a lot are considered to be bores, and as they age, repeating themselves is rightly or wrongly thought of as a sign of cognitive decline.
But repeating to yourself is quite spiritual and quite healthy! That is part of why God has given us such phenomenal memories. Both the things that we intend to remember and those that filter unintentionally into our memory banks often last a lifetime. On a functional level, we need our memories to be able to work effectively in the present. How could you get through today if you could not remember yesterday?
And on the spiritual level, remembering and repeating God’s work in our past is essential for the future. F.B. Meyer linked remembering past mercies to spiritual protection: "If we would guard against unbelief, we should reinforce our faith by constantly recapitulating the story of God's past dealings; and thus through the stream of memory the uplands of our life will send their deposits of blessed helpfulness to reinforce us in our daily anxieties and perplexities.” 1
Failure to Recapitulate
We see the importance of repeating the story of God's past dealings in the Bible. God intended for the Jews to tell of him to the next generation: “He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:5-7 ESV, emphasis added). But they themselves failed to remember God and follow him, and so did their children: “They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them” (verse 11). Further, we see that in our lives, don’t we? Like children who quickly and conveniently “forget” what they heard from their parents, is not every act of sin a failure to “remember” and reverence God’s commands to us?
How many commands in the Bible tell us to remember the Lord! We must remember God through his mighty works in human history, covenant community history, and our personal history. Think of Psalm 136, just one of the thanksgiving Psalms, which begins and ends with calls for appreciating the Almighty: "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136:1, 26). In between the opening and closing verses, twice the psalmist praises God for that covenant love, four times he gives praise for his acts as Creator, eight times he commends him for acts as Redeemer, and once he thanks him for his perfect providence because he "gives food to all flesh" (verse 25). This Psalm, called by the Jews "the Great Psalm of Praise,” contains “meditations on God’s past acts. 2
God planned that the Jews would remember his gracious past dealings through the public singing of the Psalms and public feasts. Today, people often think of remembrance as private, quiet moments of reflection. That is a start, but a true appreciation for your graced spiritual past should go vocal, if not public! Retell your heart all that God has done, and then it is just a short distance to your lips, which naturally speak from what is in your heart (Matthew 15:19).
Move those lips! Subvocalize your remembrances of God or softly speak your praises through private meditation, choosing to reflect upon them, chew them, and ponder them. In fact, one meaning of meditation in the Bible is “a muttering sound from reading half aloud or conversing with oneself.” 3 This is much more than a fleeting thought of "oh, yeah, God once ..." that flits away like a butterfly, almost as fast as it comes, leaving us unchanged.
Meditating privately on God's past goodness will change you! Remembering what He did for you in the past will launch you into praises and petitions that will drive away worries. Further, your reignited heart will seek again to live in ways pleasing to your Heavenly Father. Charles Orr was confident that if meditation was practiced, "there will be a holy flame enkindled in your soul and such heavenly sweetness and peace that the cares of this life, and fret and worry will no more light on you than flies on a heated furnace.” 4
Let that heat of spiritual passion drive away your fears and motivate you to pursue godliness each day! Your problems will likely not include pending martyrdom, but for the early church martyr Polycarp, remembering God's past faithfulness to him was reason enough to endure to the end. When asked to curse Christ to spare his life, he refused, proclaiming God’s goodness to him: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" 5
Spontaneous actions are, by definition, spontaneous. However, what we often label as spontaneous comes from practiced patterns. For example, if you pray about and plan to share your faith (scheduled), then when the Spirit gives you surprising opportunities, you share (spontaneously) from your heart. Sins also insidiously work the same way. One's private sinful thoughts, kept secret for fear of shame, often blurt out at unplanned and sometimes disastrous times. So, can we plan for scheduled remembrances while hoping for spontaneous ones, too? Yes! Just work repetition into your quiet time. Here are two suggestions matched to important spiritual disciplines.
1. Life Application: Bible Reading Recapitulation
When you read your daily Bible selections, look for examples of God's faithfulness to his people, times when he provided for them either because they asked for his help or even sometimes despite their sinfulness. Then pause, consider an instance of God's faithfulness to you, and praise Him for it. If you read that God forgave David's grave sin (2 Samuel 12:13), pause long enough to think of one of your terrible transgressions also now under the blood of Christ and not counted against you (Psalm 103:11-12). Do not move on until you have experienced the refreshed "joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12). That will, as Meyer wrote, give you "deposits of blessed helpfulness" for the day ahead.
2. Life Application: Prayer Recapitulation
When you pray, use a prayer list as a regular reminder of God's acts of grace in your past. For instance, one of my daily rotating prayer lists links the day of the month with God's past grace. I discovered this approach after I began to pray for church members on the monthly date that corresponds to their birthday. So, if Mrs. Jones has a birthday on May 7th, then my prayer list prompts me to pray for her every 7th of a month. One day, it dawned on me that I could use similar dates to remember past graces as praises. Your planned dates for repeated praises can celebrate your own particular memories, but I have a specific date each month to thank God for my physical birthday, my spiritual birthday, the birthday of my wonderful wife, our anniversary, the dates of being licensed and ordained in ministry, my Ph.D. graduation (quite the miracle!), etc. These dates and others that roll around once a month make me more grateful for moments in the present in light of God’s past goodness.
What are ways that you have learned to keep the mighty acts of God in and through your life fresh before your mind? Do you have great ways of recalling God’s goodness as a family? I would love to hear how you remember God regularly, and you can post those in the comments below.
Here is another helpful article: "The Discipline of Remembering"
2 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 493, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Nottingham, England: IVP Academic Press, 1988), 58.
3 J.E. Hartley, “Meditate.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Rev edition., ed. Geoffrey W Bromiley, vol. 3 (Gran Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 305.
5 Polycarp, The Martyrdom of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the Year 109; and of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (London: Forgotten Books, 2012), 13.