[Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series written by Douglas Bushman.]
In the Old Covenant, God’s great lament is that His people are prone to spiritual amnesia. “My people have forgotten Me days without number.” (Jer. 2:32; see also Jer. 13:25; 18:15; Ez. 22:12; 23:35; Hos. 13:6). The sign of Israel’s forgetfulness is infidelity to the covenant. God’s analysis is that they disobey His commandments because they have forgotten the great works He performed in order to set them free from slavery in Egypt.
Such forgetfulness is astounding to consider. The ten plagues, the parting of the sea and swallowing up of Pharaoh’s army, the pillar of fire, manna, water from the rock, and the bronze serpent—how could such wonders fade from a people’s memory? How could they forget that were it not for God’s intervention, they would still be slaves?
It all began in the Garden of Eden and the drama of man’s capacity to forget God and the great works that demonstrate His love. The evil one knows that as long as Adam and Eve remember the works of God’s love—all of creation, making them in His image, providing for all their needs in the garden, the graces of original justice—they will quite naturally obey His commandment. The key to obedience is the conviction that the God Who gives the commandment is a God of love.
Knowing this, the evil one distracts Eve from recalling all the evidence of God’s love. He does not ask her about God, at least not directly. Rather, his question is designed to focus her attention on the content of what God commanded. He accomplishes this by exaggerating the commandment: Did God say that you are not to eat any fruit from any of the trees? That would appear to be a contradiction, an absurdity unworthy of God. Why make trees with enticing fruit in the first place, only to forbid their being eaten? Eve’s mind is attentive to this, and she corrects the serpent. Of course, God would not act irrationally so as to prohibit all of the fruit; just this one fruit is prohibited.
She should have said: By attributing to Him something that is unworthy of His love and wisdom, you are impugning the God Who has proved His love for us. Since this commandment comes from Him, I know it is holy and just and good. (see Rom. 7:12) But this was not her response. It is already too late. She has forgotten God and all of His works, and at this precise moment the off-limits fruit becomes alluring in a way it never could so long as she kept in mind the works of God that prove His love and wisdom.
The same dynamic of forgetting occurs in the sins of King David. For him, the forbidden fruit is another man’s wife. His intense desire for her makes him forget, precisely at this moment, what he should remember. He should remember all that God had done for him by calling him to be king and by giving him victory over his enemies. As if he were providing the necessary inoculation prior to David’s sins, the prophet Nathan had spelled out the Lord’s great works on behalf of the king. (II Sam 7:8–16) Very significantly, after his sins, Nathan repeats these benefactions (II Sam. 12:7–8) in order to set up the haunting question: “Why have you despised the word of the LORD?” (II Sam. 12:9) David should have remembered all that the Lord had done for him, but he did not. And the result is that he sinned.
David is like St. Peter, who could walk on water so long as he kept his eyes on the Lord, remembering His miracles and teachings. The moment he redirects his gaze, the moment he forgets the marvelous works of Jesus, he begins to sink. David, too, sank into sin because he failed to keep the eyes of his soul on the Lord by remembering all the Lord’s benefits. Perhaps the fruit of the great king’s conversion is the well-known verse: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” (Ps. 103:2) Truly, mature faith that does not fail to remember the Lord’s benefits is the key to victory over sin.
St. Thomas Aquinas confirms this biblical theology of forgetting that leads to sin when he teaches that every sin is accompanied by a certain kind of ignorance. He specifies that this ignorance is deliberate. That is to say that in every sin there is a decision not to attend to what one is both able to attend to and should attend to. In other words, the interior dynamic of sin entails a deliberate act of shutting out of one’s memory precisely the relevant truth that bears upon an action.
The examples of Eve and David, and St. Thomas’ analysis of the culpable forgetting that leads to sin, help us to see much we can learn by reflecting on the biblical theme of faith that remembers. The articles to follow in this series will build on this foundation by showing the wisdom of Moses about the necessity of remembering in faith, by showing that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the perfect model of the faith that remembers, and by reflecting on the significance of the Lord’s injunction to celebrate the Eucharist “in remembrance of Me.” (Lk. 22:19; I Cor. 11:24–25)
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L., is Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, where he holds the Blessed John Paul II the Great Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization.