The Threat of Spiritual Amnesia

Perhaps you remember the story about the elderly husband and wife who were both a little hungry.  The husband said he was going to go get himself something to eat and asked his wife if she would like something.  

“I think I’d like some Ice Cream with chocolate sauce and a glass of milk.” she said. 

“You’d better write it down or you’ll forget.”  She said to him.

“I’ll remember.” He said.  

She shook her head and before long he came back and presented her with scrambled eggs, sausage and a glass of milk.

She looked at him with disgust and said, “You forgot my toast!”

Every one of us has had occasions when we couldn’t remember a name or recognize someone we’ve known for years. Jokes about losing your memory are numerous and all too often right on track. Like many of you, I have seen the painful and sad side of memory loss. I’ve watched as my dad has forgotten who some of his relatives are, and have watched his reasoning ability diminish. It’s no fun.

In the text before us we see a sad case of the poor memory of the Hebrews. Moses had gone up on Mount Sinai to meet with God.  He had been gone for six weeks! At first I’m sure the people were just impatient.  Then they began to worry. Did Moses die? Did he go back to Egypt? Was he ever coming back?  

It appears that the people began to wonder if God was gone too.  Moses had always been the intermediary between the people and the Lord.  Maybe God and Moses had both deserted them in the desert!  Rather than trust the Father’s love and promise.  They panic.

So, the people came to Aaron and demanded he make them “gods that can lead us”. (v. 1).  And instead of encouraging the people to be faithful, Aaron reverts back to the days in Egypt and makes a golden calf.  Probably it was a wooden calf covered with gold.  

Aaron presented the calf to the people and declared that the calf was the Lord!  The people brought sacrifices and worshipped this foolish idol.  How could the people worship the calf instead of the Lord? How could they forget and desert the one who redeemed them in such a dramatic fashion?  How did they so easily forget the ten plagues, the Red Sea, the water from the rock, the manna every morning, the defeat of the Amalekites and even the trembling mountain? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  Yet it happened.

This morning we want to ask a basic and simple question: How can we keep this from happening to us?  We’re going to look at the times we are most vulnerable to spiritual amnesia, the consequences of spiritual amnesia, and some practical steps to guarding against spiritual amnesia.

Times When We Are Most Vulnerable to Spiritual Amnesia 

When We Face a Delay. The People were getting impatient to reach the promised land, impatient to receive God’s instructions for worship, and impatient with the delay of Moses coming down the mountain. In their impatience they reacted rather than thought.  They suffered from tunnel vision.  All they saw was the present. They forgot the faithfulness of God in the past. They drew wrong conclusions and took foolish action.  

Several years ago, the London Transit Authority had a problem. Buses were going right past passengers who were waiting at designated places to be picked up. They were at the bus stops, and the buses were sailing right past them. The London Transit Authority released a statement to explain their actions. The statement said it was impossible for them to maintain schedules if they always had to stop and pick up passengers. — Dave Stone, “Keep the Dust Off the Highchair,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 143.

When we face delays we sometimes make foolish choices and draw wrong conclusions also.

  • We pray and there seems to be no answer, so we begin to question whether God is really there or not.
  • We want something but it doesn’t come our way and we begin to wonder if God is capable.
  • We face some nagging temptation and don’t seem to gain victory so we get frustrated.  
  • An illness lingers and we begin to feel that God has abandoned us.

When We Are Under Pressure.  Another time when amnesia threatens is when we face the pressure of the crowd. Can you imagine being Aaron?  An angry crowd stands before him. They want answers and he doesn’t have any.  The only way Aaron is going to quiet the crowd is to give them what they want.  So, he caves in to the pressure and turns away from the Lord.

Unfortunately, it’s not that unusual,

  • a teenager gets pressure from the crowd and engages in behavior they know is wrong
  • an employee gets pressure from their boss and does something illegal  
  • an adult gets pressure from society to accumulate what they cannot pay for
  • a child feels pressure from a parent and lies to avoid consequences

When we face pressure we often act like Aaron, and choose to release the pressure without considering the consequences of our actions.  

When We Play With Sin.   

The Winter 1991 issue of the University of Pacific Review offers a chilling description of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster: There were two electrical engineers in the control room that night, and the best thing that could be said for what they were doing is they were “playing around” with the machine. They were performing what the Soviets later described as an unauthorized experiment. They were trying to see how long a turbine would “free wheel” when they took the power off it. Now, taking the power off that kind of a nuclear reactor is a difficult, dangerous thing to do, because these reactors are very unstable in their lower ranges. In order to get the reactor down to that kind of power, where they could perform the test they were interested in performing, they had to override manually six separate computer-driven alarm systems. One by one the computers would come up and say, “Stop! Dangerous! Go no further!” And one by one, rather than shutting off the experiment, they shut off the alarms and kept going. You know the results: nuclear fallout that was recorded all around the world, from the largest industrial accident ever to occur in the world. – [Tom Tripp in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Baker), from the editors of Leadership.]

When we play with sin we do just what those engineers were doing. We are ignoring God’s warnings.  And as we tune out his warnings long enough, we become unable to hear them anymore. Look at what happened to the Israelites. They made and worshipped an idol.  That escalated into a party that moved into all kinds of sordid behavior.  They forgot that God gives us commands not to “control” us but to guide us.

When Things are Going Well.  We don’t think about the danger of the good times. But when things are going well we can begin to feel self-sufficient. We don’t “need” God. We begin to trust our methods, formulas, and strength. In those times we trust our ability rather than His.  Sometimes abundance is the greatest tool of the Devil. So many people seem to think that abundance is a sign of God’s blessing and favor. But it may just as likely be a tool of the Devil to turn us away from the Lord. We must guard our hearts in the peaks as well as in the valleys. 

When We Suffer from Spiritual Atrophy. It is common knowledge that muscle that isn’t used will begin to grow weaker or atrophy.  The athlete that was solid as a rock can turn into a flabby old man because the muscles that used to be worked hard, now aren’t worked at all. 

While Moses was on the mountain, the people drifted from their devotion to the Lord.  The same thing can happen to us. We can reach a point in our spiritual life when we know the phrases and can articulate theology.  We’re respected, we’re involved, and people call us “mature”.   We begin to think that it won’t hurt us if we skip a day or two, or even a week in God’s Word. We don’t worry about a weak prayer life because we’re on good terms with God. We value worship but don’t feel it will hurt us if we absent ourselves from the body of Christ for a week or two. We don’t see it happening, but slowly our spiritual muscle begins to deteriorate. Due to inactivity we begin to drift from God.

The Consequences of Spiritual Amnesia

It is important that we realize that spiritual amnesia is not a little thing.  The price is steep.  Let’s learn from the Israelites.

Separation from God  

Look at verse 7.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. [Ex. 32:7]

Now compare this with Exodus 19:4 

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

The first result of the people’s amnesia is a barrier between Israel and God. The Lord is disgusted with His people and turns away. That’s what happens when we forget God . .  .we lose the blessing of His love.  When we turn away from the Lord we turn away from our life, our joy, our strength.  When we turn away from God it is like a ballplayer going out into the field without his glove or a military man going into battle without his gear. It is like trying to live without oxygen.  The Israelites move from being recipients of God’s love to being those in the sights of His wrath! That’s not a good place to be.

Painful Discipline 

There are some tangible (and painful) results of this loss of God’s favor.

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. [Ex. 32:19-20]

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ ” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.  [Exodus 32:25-28]

You can understand the anger of Moses.  He had left these people for only a short period of time.  He had been seeking God’s direction for their life and as He did so, they were worshipping what their hands had made. How foolish.  How embarrassing. How sinful.  Moses had to plead with the Lord not to destroy the people entirely. 

Moses came down from the mountain and threw the precious tablets written by the very hand of God to the ground where they shattered.  It was a visible reminder that the promises that Israel had made to the Lord were already shattered.  Next, Moses destroyed the idol and ground it into dust and scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink the remnants.  I think Moses wanted the Israelites to realize how foolish it was to worship a God they were now consuming!  They were giving praise to something that was nothing and in the process robbing the Almighty of His rightful place in their lives.

This rebellion was deep. It was like a cancer that threatened the entire community. Drastic action was necessary. Moses enlisted the help of those still loyal to the Lord and had them march through the camp killing their friends and relatives who refused to turn from their sin.  We are told that three thousand were killed that day.

But this isn’t the end of it. In verse 35 we are told that God sent a plague on the people because of what had happened. We don’t know what kind of plague it was.  In 1 Corinthians 10 we read these words,

Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.”  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did–and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. (1 Cor. 10:7-8)

If Paul is referring to the events in Exodus 32 then we see that 23,000 people died.  We are not told how many did not die and perhaps wished they had.

We must never forget that sin is serious business. Like I said, it is like a cancerous tumor that must be dealt with swiftly and aggressively. In Hebrews we are told that the Lord discipline those He loves.  When we forget Him the Lord reminds us of His power and that reminder often hurts.

Suggestions For Helping Us To Remember

With this in mind we must ask ourselves: “What should we learn?”  How do we learn the lessons of the wilderness?

Be On Guard.  The first thing we need to do is recognize our tendency to drift. We must be alert in those times when

  • we are frustrated by delays
  • we are under pressure to produce
  • we are hiding and justifying sin
  • we are riding the crest of success
  • we notice that we have become lazy in our faith

Being aware of our own weakness and our propensity to sin is the first line of defense.  We must remind ourselves every day that we are sinners saved by grace. It’s kind of like a person on medication for blood pressure or for depression, or who is diabetic. We must never forget that the reason we remain healthy is because we remain alert and do what we need to do.  When we become lackadaisical, when we forget our medication, it could be deadly. 

Come Often to God’s Word.  Every memory expert tells you that the key to remembering a person’s name is to repeat it often when you are first introduced. Repetition helps memory. We need to come back to God’s Word again and again. God’s Word gives us the perspective that we need.  Eugene Peterson writes,

What would we think of a pollster who issued a definitive report on how American people felt about a new television special, if we discovered later that he had only interviewed only one person who had only seen ten minutes of the program? We would dismiss the conclusions as frivolous. Yet that is exactly the kind of evidence that too many Christians accept as the final truth about many much more important matters–matters such as answered prayer, God’s judgment, Christ’s forgiveness, eternal salvation. The only person they consult is themselves, and the only experience they evaluate is the most recent ten minutes.  But we need other experiences, the community experience of brothers and sisters in the church, the centuries of experience provided by our biblical ancestors.  A Christian who had David in his bones, Jeremiah in his bloodstream, Paul in his fingertips and Christ in his heart will now how much and how little value to put on his own momentary feelings and the experience of the past week.  [A Long Journey in the Same Direction p. 167] 

We need to remind ourselves of God’s truth, God’s commands, God’s standards.  Set aside a specific time every day to read the Bible. Write down what you learn.  Memorize key verses.  Hide God’s truth deep in your heart. 

Worship Regularly. I know it sounds self-serving when I say this, but we do need to discipline ourselves to worship regularly.  We need to have personal times of worship and corporate times of worship. Regular heartfelt worship brings us back to the throne of God.  Worship reminds us of where we have been, where we are going, and who is traveling by our side. Worship reminds us that we are not alone in our pilgrimage.  People who forget these things end up covering the same ground again and again. 

Find Someone Who Will Tell You the Truth.  We need people in our lives who have the courage and permission to point out when they see us drifting. I appreciate those dear people in my life who have permission to come up to me and say, “What in the world do you think you are doing?” Chuck Swindoll writes,

I have formed the habit of asking about accountability when stories of someone’s spiritual defection or moral fall comes to my attention. Without fail, I ask something like, “Was ______ accountable to anyone on a regular basis? Did he (or she) meet with one, two, or three folks for the purpose of giving and receiving counsel and prayer, and planning?”  Without exception — hear me, now — without exception, the answer has been the same: NO! There is no safe place to be in a world system like ours, where we can find immunity from the dangers of too much privacy.”  [Living Above the Level of Mediocrity p. 127]

We need people we can trust who can help us stay on course.  They should be people,

  • who are of the same gender as we are
  • who we can trust to keep confidences
  • who aren’t intimidated by us and will tell us the truth
  • who are devoted to Christ as we are
  • who are available
  • who are able to look at our life objectively (in other words they won’t always agree with you)

Having someone around who can “keep you honest” will also help you remember that you are privileged to be a child of God.  They will help you keep focused.

Pursue Growth.  Finally, we need to develop a hunger for God. We are to be content with what we have materially, but we should never be content with where we are spiritually. Our desire should always be to learn more about God; to experience more of His power in our life and to serve Him more fully.  The moment you feel that you have “arrived” spiritually you become a “clear shot” for the Devil’s arrows.  When you feel you are “strong enough” you begin standing in your strength rather than His . . .and that makes you vulnerable. 

Read widely, dig deep, keep learning. Refuse to measure yourself by how you compare to others. Make your standard of comparison Jesus, and you won’t have to worry about feeling you have arrived. 

As we get older we won’t remember everyone’s name.  In fact, we may forget lots of things. Some memory loss comes with the territory. But we must work hard at combating spiritual memory loss. There is too much at stake. But if you are ever struck down with an awful disease that eats away at your mind, leaving you helpless. Don’t fret, the disease may take from you some of the memory of God’s promises and work.  But rest assured, He never will forget us. 

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