How Reliable Is Your Memory? 3 Practical Lessons

Unlike God, we are finite and sinful.

And our limitations and sinfulness apply even to our memory, “the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary).

Lesson 1: Your memory might not be as accurate as you think.

See Oliver Sacks, “Speak, Memory,” The New York Review of Books (February 21, 2013).

This stands out:

Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain.

Last month I shared that article with a sharp biblical scholar in his mid-60s, and he replied, “Yes. I’ve had some similar experiences from my own ‘memories’ of events in my early childhood, ‘corrected’ by my older sibling.”

Understanding this can help you think more generously towards others. For example, they may simply be misremembering past events. Or you could be misremembering them yourself. Or some of both.

Lesson 2: Your memory tends to privilege you.

At least that’s our natural (sinful) bent. The way our minds store and remember information tends to give ourselves but not others the benefit of the doubt. That’s one reason that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13:4–7.

A forthcoming Themelios article by Eric Ortlund includes this footnote:

I found most striking the evidence assembled by Cordelia Fine in her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (New York: Norton, 2006), for the unreliability of the moral judgments we make about others and our tendency to privilege ourselves in such judgment.

Fine’s book is fascinating.

Lesson 3: Your memory may result in a relational impasse.

Some people reach a relational impasse because they remember the past differently.

See chapter 15 in Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008). Chapter 15 is titled, “What If Christians Cannot Agree?” Here’s how it begins:

In a perfect world, Christians would resolve all conflicts. If we all followed God’s Word completely, we would resolve our differences and move forward together.

The reality is, it does not always work that way. There are times when trying to achieve resolution seems to make matters worse. People remember what has already taken place differently. And they disagree about how to move forward. It is an impasse, a hopelessly complicated knot. Despite prayer, despite efforts, despite meeting after meeting, reconciliation seems impossible. . . .

This is not because there is any deficiency in God’s Word. It is because we are fallen people who do not always think alike. (pp. 179–80, emphasis added)

Brauns shares (and unpacks) six lessons we can learn from relational impasses (pp. 182–86):

  1. Accept it: impasses do happen.
  2. Fix your eyes on Jesus, and continue forward.
  3. Say less: without gossip, a quarrel dies down.
  4. Submit: respect God-ordained authority structures.
  5. Be hopeful and wait: time heals what reason and emotions cannot.
  6. Soften: there’ll always be something to admit.

Earlier in the book Brauns wisely warns against festering bitterness: “Fooling around with bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die” (p. 155).


  1. Kevin DeYoung, “Following Up on Forgiveness” (February 13, 2014). See also the older posts DeYoung links to at the beginning of the post.
  2. Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (New York: Penguin, 2011). I read this a year or so ago, but I’ve been thinking about it again ever since reading Jim Hamilton’s biblical-theological reflection on it and listening to his recent five-part series in which he creatively applies it.
  3. Vernon Edward Myers, “The Forgotten Doctrine of Divine Remembering: A Biblical Theology of God’s Remembering” (PhD diss., Bob Jones University, 2007).
  4. What Does It Mean to Love God with Your Mind? John Piper and Don Carson answer.
  5. George J. Zemek, “Aiming the Mind: A Key to Godly Living,” Grace Theological Journal 5 (1984): 205–27.
  6. Douglas J. Moo, “Putting the Renewed Mind to Work,” in Renewing Your Mind in a Secular World (ed. John D. Woodbridge; Chicago: Moody, 1985), 145–60.


  1. Patrick Schreiner says

    Interesting Andy. I wonder how this effects how you see the memory of those who wrote the Gospels? There is quite a bit going on with memory theory right now, some arguing it is generally reliable, others arguing it is completely unreliable. Probably the best way forward is acknowledging that our memory is flawed yet also reliable at the most broad level.

    • says

      Good question, Patrick. That issue doesn’t raise concerns for me about the entire truthfulness of the Gospels because I believe that God breathed out what the authors of the Gospels wrote. (See my basic understanding of inspiration and inerrancy here.)

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